When his cell phone began beeping loudly, Michael jerked awake in a panic and instinctively reached for his night stand, where his hand knocked over an empty water glass that teetered then fell softly to the carpet. Michael, on his stomach, pushed himself up and squinted around the room. The phone was beeping incessantly. He rolled off the bed, searched his desk and his bookcase. The phone was beeping so loudly and so constantly—there was no way his dad didn’t hear it—yet he didn’t see it at all. What time was it?
Finally, Michael woke up enough to figure out that it was coming from his jacket, which was folded in half and resting across the back of his desk chair. He fumbled with the jacket as the phone continued to beep, growing more frustrated because he couldn’t figure out where, exactly, the pocket was. Sam always hid a pocket exactly the size of Michael’s phone in all of his suits, so that he could discreetly carry his phone and not ruin the line of his silhouette. But now, half awake at who-knew-when (morning? evening?) Michael couldn’t find the little beeping pouch. Okay, if I’m wearing the jacket and it’s on my right, then when I’m holding it like this…
Finally, out of irritation, Michael just put the jacket on and pulled the phone out the very second it stopped beeping. Of course.
He had four text messages, all from Emily. It was 2:34…Michael squinted outside and saw that it was dark, and after some math, realized that it was 2:34 in the morning. The first message came in just a minute ago:
Are you cycle?
followed immediately by
Are you awake?
Michael sat down on the edge of his bed. When typing on a cell phone, the numbers 29253 defaulted to cycle instead of awake…he knew that much. But he had more important questions, like what day it was. The next message said:
Wanna go for a bike ride?
Michael shook his head hard and came completely awake: he’d fallen asleep reading, it was two-thirty on Friday morning, Emily was texting him to see if he wanted to go for a bike ride, he was only wearing one shoe.
I’m outside of your house.
Michael stood up quickly and looked down through his window. The thin metal fire escape and small patch of backyard was empty. Emily wasn’t there…she was at home, playing a joke on him for some reason. Out of instinct, Michael opened his bedroom door an inch and glanced across the hall. His father’s bedroom door was closed, but he couldn’t remember if it had been like that when he’d left for his date, so he could have been home or he could still be out. Michael closed his own door and switched on his overhead light.
Michael crossed back to his window, and was about to answer Emily’s weird text messages when she came spinning around the corner of his house, wearing a long white sundress that flapped behind her. She stood in the square of light his bedroom window threw on the grass below and smiled at him with an embarrassed little wave.
Emily opened her phone and Michael quickly turned his ringer off. A second later he got her text message:
I didn’t know which room was yours!
Michael held up a finger and moved away from the window, looking around for his other shoe. His phone flashed again and he glanced at it.
Oh my god, is that what you sleep in?
Outside, he heard the muffled sound of Emily beginning to climb his metal fire escape. The sound was unmistakable. Michael flew back to the window and held up both of his hands, then waved her back. You may have already suspected that Mr. Karlinoff might not be as strict as Michael has claimed, but even so, it wouldn’t be a good idea to get caught sneaking a girl into the house in the middle of the night.
He found his other loafer, but then changed his mind and quietly dug into the back of his closet and found his low-top Converses. He pulled them on, then slipped out of his jacket and shirt and into a faded blue T-shirt he grabbed at random.
Michael climbed out on his fire escape and put a finger up to his lips. Emily nodded, watching him lower the window to within an inch of being closed. Too late he realized that he should have turned the light off, in case his dad was home and went to the bathroom before dawn.
Michael knew from experience that the metal steps of the fire escape made too much noise in the dark quiet of the night. No matter how softly he tried to walk, the thin steps attached to the stone walls of his house reverberated even the slightest touch. In the handful of times he’d snuck out in the past, though, he’d come up with a system. Gesturing at Emily to hold on, he climbed over the railing and quietly lowered himself down until he dangled from the ledge. His feet were now only about three feet above the ground, and with a slight swing, he dropped softly to the grass. He stumbled backwards but caught himself.
“Show-off,” Emily whispered, the same thing Lillian had said the first time he’d done it.
Michael ignored her. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”
“Why?” Michael stuttered softly. “Because you show up in the middle of the night, scare me to death, make me sneak out my house…”
Emily gave him a lopsided smile. “I was bored. I thought you might want to hang out.”
“Hang…out. At three o’clock in the morning.”
“Yeah. Wanna go for a bike ride?”
Michael looked at her strangely, trying to decide what she was up to. “Where to?”
“I don’t know. Around.” When Michael didn’t respond to this, she added: “I’ll show you something cool…it’s just down the street.”
“But…it’s late. It’s dangerous.”
“It’s not that dangerous. Even criminals sleep, Michael. Besides, if any girls try to rape you, I’ll beat them up, I promise. Just say the word.”
Michael smiled in spite of himself. “You do have pepper spray…”
“So you’ll come?”
He ran his tongue back and forth behind his teeth. His legs were suddenly restless. “Yeah. Okay.”
Emily bounced up and down on her flats and cheered silently. “Yay! My bike’s around the corner. Well, I hope…I didn’t lock it up.”
“Good thing the criminals are asleep, huh?” Michael whispered.
Soon the two of them were riding down the middle of a deserted State Street that sighed and cooled in the dark. Emily was on her ancient heavy cruiser. It had been her father’s when he was in college fifty years before and he had kept it in perfect condition ever since. When Emily was seven or eight, her dad’s doctors told him that his morning five-mile jog was doing irreparable damage to his knees, so he began riding 25 miles along the Mississippi River levee six days a week on a futuristic fiberglass bicycle that weighed only a little more than a paperback. The cruiser had gotten handed down to Emily. Her Polaroid camera sat in the large basket on the front, just in case.
Michael rode the old ten-speed he’d found at a flea market before he’d started at Beaumonde. It was just a disposable Wal-Mart bike from the 80s (he’d probably replaced everything on it at least once) but he’d liked the curved handlebars, which you could no longer find once the mountain bike style became ubiquitous. The ten-speed made him feel like an over-articulate New Yorker from the 70s, riding his bike to the university, to the racquetball court, to the foreign film festival. Originally black with silver lightning bolts, he’d repainted it yellow and added grip tape made to look like light brown leather. He rode with the right leg of his cream trousers loosely folded up to his calf.
About four blocks ahead, a white Volkswagen pulled up to a red light, then slipped through it. The teenagers could faintly hear the sounds of music, muffled by windows and distance, fade away as the car disappeared down a side street. The city smelled of uncut grass and freon.
They rode mostly in silence. Sometimes, Emily would point something out—the shadow of a saint’s statue on the side of a Catholic school—but otherwise, Michael rode just slightly behind her without speaking, letting her guide the way. Emily seemed to know where they were going, and when she showed him something it was as though she’d known it was there all along and had remembered to share it with him.
Eventually, after riding towards the river for about two miles, Emily pulled ahead of him and turned left on Camp Street, a block before Magazine Street. They slowed down because the street was bumpier and dark, the dirty yellow streetlights obscured by the dense trees that grew in almost every front yard. They left the sleepy barks of a dozen dogs in their wake.
They crossed Nashville Avenue, then eventually Jefferson Avenue. At Jefferson, an oversized pick-up truck idled in front of a closed coffeehouse a block away, as a thick man in gloves filled a paper box with the next day’s Times-Picayunes. Emily waved at the man, and he saw her and nodded deeply.
“Did you know him?” Michael asked.
“What? No, just being polite.” They had moved a few blocks past Jefferson and Emily looked behind her at the street sign. “It’s right up here.”
A few streets later, Emily slowed down and eventually came to a stop on a corner. Michael’s brakes squeaked as he pulled up beside her and a cat the color of cinnamon, sleeping curled up in an empty planter, glared at him in distaste, then disappeared behind the shotgun house.
Emily pointed up at the crooked street sign. They were on the corner of Camp and Bellecastle Street. “It only runs for a few blocks,” she whispered. “It crosses Magazine but doesn’t make it up to St. Charles.”
“Was it named after your family?”
“I’m not sure. I asked my grandfather about it once, but forty minutes later we were still talking about the Bellecastles of 18th century England and I stopped paying attention. But there have been Bellecastles here for two hundred years, so I guess so.”
Michael smiled, still looking up at the bent street sign. “That’s really cool, having something that ties you to the city like this.”
“There’s no Karlinoff Expressway in Macedonia?”
“No, not that I know of.” He laughed. “ ‘Sorry I’m late. There was a wreck on the Karlinoff and traffic was backed up.’”
“Heh. I’ll tell you something dumb. There’s a Hammarskjöld Plaza in New York, and back when-“
“Wait, really? After your dad?”
“No, no. After Dag Hammarskjöld…he used to run the United Nations before we were born. No relation to my dad. Apparently it’s a common name in Sweden, I think? Anyway, when I was at the boarding school, if I’d get homesick I’d sneak away from class and go eat lunch there. You know, because it reminded me of my dad.” Emily opened up her Polaroid and turned the flash on. “Here, I want to take your picture.”
Michael, by now, was used to Emily’s Polaroid camera and her impromptu photoshoots, but there was something he’d always been curious about. He’d never asked it, though, because he felt he needed to keep her at arm’s length. But this night was different, and so much had changed in their lives that he found him asking the question before he even knew he was speaking. “Why don’t you just get a digital camera?”
Emily looked at the glowing red light on top of the camera. “Oh, I have one. I use it for school projects and stuff like that. But it can take, like, a billion pictures and…I don’t know, I just like how limited these Polaroids are. I only have ten pictures I can take, so I end up appreciating each one a lot more, you know?” She brought the camera up to her face and looked through the viewfinder. “Don’t smile.”
Michael didn’t smile. The flash of the camera popped, and the picture whirred out of the bottom, the image still swaddled in gray.
“What color was the flash?”
“I don’t know, white?”
“Good. If you’d said orange, it meant you’d closed your eyes and seen the flash through your eyelids. Pretty clever, huh?” Emily blew on the picture once and put it in her basket, followed by her camera.
Inside a house, a small dog began jumping at the glass of a front door, barking at the sound of the two of them. They pushed off, Emily leading them up Bellecastle, then another street, towards St. Charles Avenue.
“It’s like when we were little kids and we only had two or three CDs,” she said as they peddled slowly through the quiet streets. “No matter what they were, we listened to them over and over again, because they were all we had. Now we’re grown up and we have hundreds of albums on our computers—and I’m not complaining—but we never really listen to the music the way we used to when we only had two choices.”
They had reached St. Charles, and Emily steered them to the right, towards downtown. She reached into the basket and handed Michael his now-developed picture. In it, he stared quizzically out at the viewer, one eyebrow cocked. The Bellecastle street sign had caught the flash and was shining above his head.
St. Charles is a major street in uptown New Orleans, and even at 3:30 on a Friday morning there were cars occasionally moving past the two cyclists. Just past Napoleon Avenue, there was a closed bar where a bouncer with a towel tucked into his jeans and a slight limp stacked up the patio chairs stranded on the sidewalk. He paused for a second, bent to pick up an empty plastic cup, and watched them as they rode past.
The closer they got to downtown, the less residential the avenue became. Large, carefully maintained mansions gave way to apartment buildings, which in turn became hotels and convenience stores. Michael was surprised at how much was going on, even in the dead of the night. Doormen swept already-spotless sidewalks as taxis pulled up to or away from the cab stands in front of the hotels. A police car without its headlights on idled in the parking lot of a 24-hour drugstore. The driver of a large refrigerated truck unloaded his cargo into the back of an expensive restaurant as a security guard watched.
As if reading his mind, Emily looked over her shoulder and called out, “I don’t want to sound too, you know, precious, but I love being out this time of night. There are so many things you miss if you’re asleep. The night is like the desert…most people think it’s just totally empty, but secretly it’s alive.”
They were passed slowly by a deserted city bus lumbering towards Canal Street. Emily pointed at the large advertisement on the side, a huge photo of David Sebastian’s father holding a check. His trademark fedora was set at an angle. Injured in an automobile accident? I’ll make the insurance companies PAY. The two of them had seen some variation of this ad for as long as they could remember, but seeing it tonight seemed important somehow.
Michael wondered if his own father had discovered that he’d snuck out yet. He hadn’t gotten caught the other handful of times he’d done it, but he’d prepared in advance for those. If his father had caught him, he surely would have called him by now, but then Michael remembered that his phone was still on his desk. There was no way to know if he was in trouble or not. Well, he did tell me to go out and have fun tonight…
They passed Lee Circle—“In the center of New Orleans is a statue in honor of a failed revolutionary,” Andre once pointed out—and even the gas stations seemed to be closed. They were in the foothills of the Central Business District, just before the skyscrapers that made up the modest skyline of the city. Michael had to be careful, now, because the streetcar ran right on the street, and his bike’s narrow tires would fit inside the embedded tracks.
Regardless of the time, both of them were sweating in the humidity of the June night. Occasionally, one of Michael’s curls would grow heavy and eventually release a drop of sweat before bouncing softly back up. He wished he’d worn a jacket…it would have made him warmer, but it would have hid the large wet smear on the back of his T-shirt. Emily, in the sundress, had more skin exposed to the air, but her arms and chest were shiny with perspiration. She seemed almost lacquered.
They paused at a stoplight for no other reason than it was red…though Poydras Street is wide, it was empty enough at that time of night to cross against the light. Emily pointed up over their heads at a skyscraper.
“See how every light is off, except for that one line?” A single band of light circled the building, about three-quarters from the top. It seemed as though every light on a certain floor was on. “That’s the cleaning crew. They start at the bottom and clean each floor, then turn out the lights and move up another level.” The streetlight turned green and Emily pushed off slowly. “I wonder if you could tell what time it is just by looking at where the lights are…?”
Just a few blocks later they were at Canal Street, the wide avenue that separated uptown from downtown, where all the numbers started and all the street names changed. It was also the beginning of the French Quarter, but the two of them stayed on the uptown side of the six-lane street, not crossing over into the Quarter.
They were just across from the beginning of Bourbon Street. Fifty yards away, across the thin traffic of Canal, tourists bubbled up out of the Quarter. They wore feather boas and held frozen daiquiris. There was a lot of hooting involved.
Michael was distracted. They were on the sidewalk in front of Underhill Men’s Haberdashery, and he was anxious to move on. Emily didn’t appear to notice. She watched the out-of-towners trickle up onto Canal Street with a small smile.
A police car drove by them slowly, and the young black officer in the passenger side glanced over at them as he passed. Michael focused on looking like he belonged there, one foot on a bike pedal in case they had to scatter home. Emily, though, grinned at the policeman and even waved the fingers of one hand without taking it off of the handlebars. He smiled back, oddly enthusiastic, and nodded deeply at her twice. The car didn’t even slow down.
“Do you know him?” Michael asked.
“Why do you think I know everyone all of a sudden?” Emily looked over, then glanced past his shoulder and seemed to see Underhill for the first time. “Oh, look at the new summer suits…Alexander will be so jealous.”
“We should go.” A few tourists had made it halfway across Canal and were headed more or less towards them.
“Did I tell you about trying to find those baby blue socks for David? Everyone else treated me like I was crazy, but when I called Underhill they were like ‘What shade? We have baby blue, cerulean, (I don’t know) azure…’”
“Can we get out of here, already? There are adults all over the place.”
But Emily didn’t move, and Michael felt her gaze on the side of his face. He didn’t dare look over at her. He clenched and unclenched his hands on the handlebars of his bicycle.
“Why don’t you ever go to Underhill, Michael? They have really great stuff.” Michael heard Emily laugh, but she still stared curiously at the side of his face. “It’s weird, I don’t think you’ve even mentioned the store once since I’ve known you…”
Michael pushed off on his bike, swerving around her. “Let’s go,” he whispered.
They headed back uptown, riding down Magazine now because Michael had the idea that he’d drop Emily off at her house in the Garden District before continuing on alone. Michael rode steadily, not necessarily fast but determined to get both of them home quickly. This had been a terrible idea.
The bright lights of the business district faded out as they rode farther uptown, replaced by occasional streetlights that seizured yellow every few minutes. “Michael…” Emily called out behind him, and he looked back to see her almost two blocks behind him. He must have been riding faster than he’d meant to.
He slowed down and waited as she caught up with him. They were in front of a day laborer service, homeless men already piled up around the doorway, when she pulled up beside him.
“Would you slow up? My bike is heavier than yours.”
“What’s gotten into you? One second everything is cool, and…oh!” There was the sound of fabric tearing. Emily had stepped on her long white dress while trying to pedal and part of the hem had torn open, so that there was a large mouth towards the bottom. “Damn it, this is one of Alexander’s favorite dresses.”
They coasted to a stop underneath the massive Mississippi River bridge. Hundreds of feet above their heads traffic could be heard distantly humming past. Emily reached down and picked up the loose band of fabric, then let it go. The tear in the dress draped open, somehow vulgar, even though all that could be seen was the swell of Emily’s calf.
Michael put his bike down on the concrete and squatted by her feet. He looked at the tear from both sides, clearing away a few minuscule scraps of thread. “This isn’t that bad. The cotton isn’t torn, just the stitching. A needle and thread is all you need.”
As he said this, he straightened up a little and slid his wallet out from his back pocket. He fished into a small compartment and found two safety pins, one threaded into the other. Separating them, Michael asked Emily to pull her dress taut, and he pinned the fabric back into place. It wasn’t a perfect repair, but it kept the tear from getting worse.
“Thank you, Michael,” Emily said, genuinely touched, and he felt the end of his fingers tingle softly. “Do you carry safety pins around to rescue women in the middle of the night?”
Michael got back on his bike. “I just have them if I lose a button, or if it’s windy and I don’t have a tie clasp. Mostly, though…uh, you know when you have a white pocket square folded all crisp with only a little line showing above the pocket? That’s called a banker’s straight edge, and unless you’re Alexander you pretty much need to use a safety pin to keep it straight.”
“Your secret’s safe with me.”
Michael reached into her basket and lifted up her Polaroid. Emily showed him how to turn everything on, and he leaned over the side of his bike and took a picture of his repair. He handed her the picture and the camera, and she smiled at him but didn’t say anything.
They rode beside each other slowly now, the two of them talking softly. Emily told him about Robert’s visit earlier that day. The night sky was still pinkish-gray, hazily reflecting the city’s lights. The sun wouldn’t rise for a few hours yet, but a few birds were already singing out in the distance.
Soon they were at the corner of Magazine and First, a few blocks from Emily’s house. Michael slowed down, but Emily kept moving and had to double back. “What’s up?”
“This is your turn, right?”
“I’m having a really good time…I thought we could stop at that all-night coffeehouse by Ninth and get something to drink.”
Michael shifted his feet on the pedals. Emily had kept riding, circling him in the street. “But won’t you get in trouble if your parents catch you sneaking out of the house?”
“I didn’t sneak out. I left a note.”
Michael had to laugh. “You left a note? Like ‘4 am, went for a bike ride, be home soon.’”
“Yeah, pretty much. They trust me. Besides, when my mom was my age she was living in Majorca with an Italian who made slasher films. Or maybe it was in Italy with a Majorcan. No, that doesn’t really make any sense. So…coffee?”
Asterisk (or, as the sign simply said: *) was one of only two 24-hour coffeehouses uptown, and the only one on Magazine Street. The employees of * had come up with names for the three distinct phases of business they had each day: Morning Rush, when commuters ran in on the way to work; Study Hall, when med students and college kids spent their evenings hiding behind laptops and headphones; and Graveyard, when young adults who claimed to be antisocial and maladjusted and unique hung out all night in large boisterous groups in which everyone looked exactly the same.
But four in the morning was at the tail-end of Graveyard—even vampires have to sleep—and when Michael and Emily came into the gratefully air-conditioned coffeehouse, there were only two other people there. They sat looking down at a chessboard, both wearing complicated black outfits that made them seem like medieval monks. One was skinny, with curly black hair and a carefully sculpted goatee. His eyebrows swept up towards his forehead, as though he teased them upwards. He sat with one leg pulled up to his chest.
The other was squat, with a shaved head and wire-frame glasses. He had a goatee, too, but his showed that he was a redhead before he’d shaved his head. When Michael and Emily entered, he stood up slowly, still looking down at the board. He was wearing a black T-shirt tucked into black cargo pants, with a large metal necklace dangling around his neck. He carefully slid his rook one space diagonally, and smiled up at Emily.
“Why hello, Miss Emily,” he said, with a gruff yet surprisingly kind voice. “What are you doing here this time of night?”
“Hey, Dickie…I could ask you the same. Where’s Sissy?”
Dickie walked behind the bar, wiping his hand on a towel. “I’m covering her shift. One of her nephews has a birthday tomorrow and she’s taking him to the zoo. Or at least, that’s the story she told me.”
Michael glanced over at the chess board, distracted. Rooks don’t move diagonally. The board was laid out curiously, too: one side was missing a king, and all the pieces were on the black squares. He realized that they were actually playing checkers, just using chess pieces.
“Who’s your friend?” Dickie asked her.
“This is Michael. We’re taking a bike ride together.”
“Nice to meet you, Michael.” Dickie had intricate silver rings on each finger, even his thumb, and when he shook Michael’s hand he held on to it, saying to Emily, “It’s a good thing Sissy is off, huh?” The two of them laughed and Dickie let go of Michael’s hand.
Emily tried to order a lime Italian soda, but Dickie reached behind the counter and brought up a large glass bottle of Coca-Cola imported from Mexico. He pointed to the ingredients list on the back and told them how in Mexico soft drinks are still made with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, which made for a richer, smoother soda. They bought two bottles.
Michael started to sit down near Dickie and his checkers opponent, but Emily ignored him and walked back out front, sitting at one of the outside tables. Michael followed her.
“This way we can talk in private,” she said, pouring the cola over her glass of ice.
“Talk about what?”
She shrugged. “Anything at all. Wanna get a paper? We could do the crossword. The Friday crossword is super-hard.”
“Yeah, okay. I don’t have any quarters, though.”
Emily dug through her purse. “I only have two.”
“Yeah, that’s how much a paper is.”
She looked up at him. “Really? Fifty cents? That seems cheap.”
“How much do you think a paper costs?”
“I don’t know. Two bucks?”
Michael went over to the paper box and put in the two quarters. The Friday paper hadn’t been delivered yet, so he took the last remaining Thursday paper out of the rack. When he came back to the table, Emily was excitedly pointing at his soda bottle.
“Try it…Dickie was right, it’s way better.”
“You know, I was going to say: you really do know everyone.”
Emily rolled her eyes. “He works at a coffeeshop within walking distance of my house. It’s not exactly a miracle.”
The Thursday puzzle was tough, but with both of them working on it, they made it through in about thirty minutes. The hardest part was sharing the one ink pen Emily had found in her purse, and dealing with the slight breeze caused by the occasional passing car. Michael eventually weighted the paper down with his keyring.
When they’d filled out as much of the puzzle as they could, there were five empty squares they couldn’t figure out. They stared at the clues for a few more minutes, but it was no good…they’d never get the last five letters. Finally, Emily took the paper and filled in their initials—ESB, MK—in each of the squares, and that was that.
While the two of them had worked the puzzle, a subtle, almost undetectable, change had taken place, nudging the city past Very Late Night and into Very Early Morning. It was still totally dark, and would be for more than an hour, but there was more movement on the street. A garbage truck had passed by without stopping, the Friday papers were delivered, and janitors, breakfast cooks, and pastry chefs drove by, still half-asleep. A bus slid past, holding three women in hospital scrubs. Inside *, the skinny checkers player read a thick paperback covered in a handmade book cover while Dickie restocked the shelves behind the counter. Graveyard was over, Morning Rush would begin soon.
Michael drew thicker squares around each of the initials, highlighting their signatures. Then Emily centered the puzzle on the table, lay the ball-point pen across the top, and took a picture of the tableau. She was killing time, she knew, because she was scared to bring up what she really wanted to talk about. Neither of them spoke—Michael finished his Mexican Coca-Cola—and the solid gray of the Polaroid developed into a smeared and blurry grid, impossible to recognize.
“Michael…do you like me?”
He shrugged. “You’re okay for a girl.”
“No, I’m serious now. Do you like me at all?”
Michael looked up at her, and she smiled a little and looked away. “Yeah, of course I do. You’re my best friend’s girlfriend. And, uh, my girlfriend’s best friend.”
“Well, I like you. And I want to hang out with you this summer. I mean really hang out, not just talk about it and then never call each other. Robert apologized to me about the other night, but I think he was right: you and I aren’t really part of The Gang, and I feel like we owe it to each other to hang out. Wait, that sounds lame…mostly I want to be friends with you because when you’re not totally cold to me you’re actually pretty fun to be around. But also…I don’t know, I feel like we owe it to the twins to stick together.”
Michael nodded. “Yeah, totally,” he said, but he was already thinking of excuses he could make. Maybe he’d have to go back to Macedonia again.
“Good. But Michael…” Emily put her hand over his, running her fingertips over the knuckles and gently encircling his wrist. He looked down at her hand, surprised. Emily chewed her lip for a second, then blurted it out before she had a chance to lose her courage: “…is there something you need to tell me?”
Michael looked up at her sharply, and she could feel his arm tense up and quickly relax before he answered. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Emily looked down at the table, then back up into his eyes. She concentrated on appearing as harmless as possible. Michael felt his heart beating in his toes and his vision became spiky on the edges. “Michael, this isn’t some big dramatic deal. But I want to spend time with you this summer, and I can’t do that if you’re not honest with me.”
Michael’s arm jumped under Emily’s hand as he tried to pull it back, but she was faster, holding on tightly around the wrist. “What are you talking about?” he managed to get out in a strangled voice. “Let go of me.”
“Michael, calm down.” Emily looked around, but there was no one to hear him. “It’s okay.”
He tugged harder on his arm, but Emily held on tight. He probably could have pulled free if he’d really tried, but that would have meant pulling her out of her chair and possibly across the sidewalk. “No, it’s fine. I’m cool. I’ll go home, I won’t bother you again. And I’ll transfer back to my old school. So it’ll be over, okay? You win.”
Emily tried to put his arm back on the table, to calm him down, but she wasn’t quite strong enough. “Michael, please, it’s not about winning. Stop freaking out. Besides, you can’t go home…I, uh, I stole your keys a few minutes ago and hid them in my purse.”
Michael’s eyes flashed up at her. Calm down, he told himself, and she’ll let you leave. Then walk away forever. “Okay. Fine. Fine! I’ll just walk home, I don’t care. God…! I always knew it would be you.” He swallowed heavily and repeated the words, this time sadder and softer. “I always knew it would be you.”
Michael covered his face with his free hand and kept it there. He didn’t say anything else, and after a while Emily slowly let go of his other hand. Michael left it where it was. She reached into her purse and put his keyring on the table, but Michael didn’t move, except to rub his temples.
“It’s okay, Michael. You don’t have to say anything. You can go home if you want.”
Michael didn’t speak, but he didn’t get up and leave, either. Slowly he brought his other hand up to his face and continued rubbing his forehead. Emily didn’t think he was crying, just hiding. A bird landed on the table next to them, pecked at a muffin crumb, then fled back into the dark.
“Michael, I’m sorry…I didn’t realize how important this was to you. I’ve known for so long-” here Michael sucked in his breath quickly, as though in pain “-and I guess I thought you always saw it as a game, and we could talk about it like…I don’t know, like two con men…no, I mean, like two magicians who are in on a trick together.”
Michael sighed and pulled his hair back from his face. He looked up at her slowly, shell-shocked, almost but not quite meeting her eyes before drifting back down at the table. He reached out and nudged his keys with his finger.
Emily had expected a lot of emotions on his face, from anger to panic to arrogance to relief, but she hadn’t expected what she actually saw. Michael, who was always so confident and aloof, looked at her with a face full of exhaustion and sorrow. He was beaten, he was broken, he was done.
“It’s not like that,” she whispered. “It’s okay. Will you say something? You’re freaking me out. Please?” This wasn’t how she wanted it to go at all. She thought it would a formality, just both of them acknowledging what they’d always known. She thought he’d be relieved to have someone he could talk to about it. Emily felt tears seeping up from her eyes; Michael wasn’t crying—he seemed beyond that—but now she was. “Damn it,” she whispered.
Michael looked up at her and, without thinking, reached in his back pocket and pulled out his handkerchief. Emily took it with a teary smile and dried her eyes. She ran her thumb lightly over the damp monogram…MK, because Michael had explained once that Macedonians don’t use middle names. But who knew if that was even true?
“The twins promised me they would never tell,” Michael finally said.
Emily was shocked. “They never did. Even when we were alone, even after he knew that I knew the truth, Alexander never let on. The few times I brought it up, he acted like I was reciting Jabberwocky. Like what I was saying was total nonsense. I mean, to the end, Michael, neither of them said anything.” Emily folded and refolded the handkerchief. “I thought you always knew: it was Josephine.”
“Josephine?” Michael said it as though he were trying to place the name. “Josephine knew all along.”
“Michael, before the twins. I don’t think she did it on purpose. But her mom’s the headmistress, she was bound to find out at some point. It was probably innocent at first, Dr. Hayes probably just said something over dinner about the new boy in school whose dad is a tailor. But then after she knew, she had to watch you, well, lie to everyone, and she came to me about it. She was sick about it, Michael, she didn’t know what to do.”
“When was this?”
“Right after you joined The Gang. Josephine came over to my house the night of the Halloween party. She wasn’t in costume, said she wasn’t going. I thought it was just Josephine being Josephine, but eventually I got the reason out of her. This was when you were being introduced to the rest of the school, and she thought you were getting away with something. She’d tried to tell the twins, but for some reason it didn’t work out, and so she came to tell me. She was trying to protect the Budds, and the rest of us.”
Michael blinked hard at his fingers, spread out on the table as though he’d just counted to ten. “And after she told you she told everyone else.”
“No, I don’t think so. (You really don’t know any of this?) I…I’m not sure she even told the twins, actually. All she said about that was that it ‘backfired.’ But I don’t think she told anyone else in The Gang about you. I mean, I think everyone knows that you have, um, things going on…but I don’t think anyone suspects the truth. Don’t get mad, but I think that’s why they’ve never become super-close to you…there was always a part missing.”
“I guess.” He closed his hands, then folded one over then other. He swallowed, and finally looked up at her. “Are you mad at me?”
“Michael, no, this was never about that. It’s just…tonight and the other night in the car was so nice, and I felt like I was getting to see the real you, and I liked it. I just knew I couldn’t be around you if we didn’t talk about this at least a little. But I’m not angry at you, not really.”
Emily shrugged. “I’ve known for almost two years. I had my chance to be mad at you, remember…? I didn’t talk to you for almost two months, Halloween to Christmas. Finally I just more or less got over it.”
Michael nodded slowly. “More or less.”
“People don’t like to be lied to, Michael. But I swear I didn’t know it was going to be like this. I never meant to attack you or whatever. I didn’t even plan to do this tonight…this wasn’t a set-up. I just wanted to take a bike ride. I’ve been really lonely and tonight I was having a really good time with you, then we were in front of Underhill and I thought we should clear the air so I teased you a little bit. I thought you would just be like, ‘Oh, you know, too? Ha ha.’”
He shook his head, and a lock of his hair landed on his eyelashes. Michael brushed it away. “No,” he whispered. “Oh god, no. Never like that.”
“I know, now. I mean, I hadn’t really thought about this, but I’m sorta relieved you weren’t casual about it. I guess things would be different, actually, if you had laughed it off.”
Pinching the bridge of his nose, and then placing a thumb and finger on his closed eyes, Michael opened his mouth. But he didn’t speak for a few minutes, then finally he lowered his hand. “I don’t know how to start.”
“It’s okay.” Emily put her hand over his and squeezed. “You don’t have to.”
Michael sighed and looked past the veranda’s high ceiling at the darkness above. The dark crust of the night sky was crumbling away, leaving a deep blue glowing underneath. It was quiet for a long time before he finally said “I have to be home before the sun rises.”
“Because of your dad?”
“Partially, yeah. But also because…I don’t know why, I just feel like this—all of this—belongs to the night. And yes, I know how that makes me sound.”
Emily smiled at him. “Let’s go. I’ll ride back with you.”
“You don’t have to.” He stood up and tossed the melted ice from his glass into the street, then couldn’t remember why he felt like he had to do this.
Emily stood up, too. “Michael, I made a solemn promise that I’d protect you from rapists, and I intend to live up to it.” She caught Dickie’s eye through the window and waved goodbye. She pointed at the empty bottles, her eyebrows raised, and he shook his head happily. No need to bring them inside. Emily bounced up and down, excitedly rubbing her belly and she could hear his laughter through the glass.
On the ride home, they talked easier than they ever had before. There was nothing explicitly different between them, but there had been a small shift—like cracking your neck after an uncomfortable nap—that seemed to change everything.
They both pedaled quickly through the streets, passing sleepy dog-walkers and iPodded joggers. (They kept an eye open for Josephine, but they didn’t see her.) The two of them dodged the wrong way down empty one-way streets and weaved back and forth around each other. They were racing against the sun, trying to get back to Michael’s house before it peeked over the edge of the downtown skyscrapers and found them wandering the streets.
“I never really liked the idea of sunrises,” Michael said over his shoulder. Emily had been riding a little behind him, but on the sidewalk, and at the end of the block she dropped down to the street and pulled up beside him.
“What could that possibly mean?”
Michael crinkled his nose. “Well, think about it. We’re standing on the Earth while it spins us forward towards the sun, head over heels, at ten thousand miles an hour. It’s freaky. Sunsets are no better, falling backwards like that.”
Emily swerved around a pothole. “Is it really ten thousand?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
By the time they arrived at Michael’s house, almost half the sky was the color of a legal pad and already radiating warmth, but the itself sun hadn’t quite slipped above the skyline. Michael put a finger up to his lips as they locked their bikes up.
“What time is it?” he whispered.
Emily reached into her purse and looked at her cell phone. “6:17.”
Mr. Karlinoff was an early riser, often at work by seven-thirty. He was usually awake by now, and the first thing he usually did in the morning was open the curtains in his bedroom. The curtains were closed. His dad was either sleeping in or hadn’t come home last night.
Michael crept up the fire escape slowly, skipping two steps at a time to minimize noise. He tried not to make too much of a racket, but it was unavoidable and he was probably louder than if he’d just run up the metal steps.
He climbed into his bedroom window and paused, listening to the house. Nothing. He slipped on his jacket. He had the vague idea that if his dad had heard him come in, he could pretend that he’d just gotten home from entertaining young ladies at a hotel piano bar. Not that this was any better than having snuck out in the middle of the night, but he didn’t have time to consider that. He hadn’t missed any calls, and when he stuck his head out into the hallway, the house was still dark.
Michael took off the jacket and climbed out the window. He slipped back down the fire escape and took Emily by the hand, pulling her up to his room. “Michael…” she whispered, but didn’t resist. Neither of them had talked about her coming up to his room, but it was assumed without being spoken.
She was the first person in The Gang, other than Lillian, to see Michael’s room. It didn’t look anything at all like what she thought it would…it was just a teenage boy’s bedroom. Cleaner than most, and with more books, but mostly the same. In Emily’s imagination it had been spare, like a Renaissance artist’s studio, with every surface covered in papers and low-burning candles. Shades of red and brown, a seamstress dummy in the corner. She hadn’t even realized how ridiculous that was until she was actually up in his small room, with a made-but-rumpled bed and a plastic cup full of ball-point pens. The sight of a GameBoy Advance scandalized her more than anything else that had happened that night.
She bent over on her side and looked at a couple of books on his desk—Modern Romany In Eastern Europe; Bury Me Standing—but a large row of Big Chief notebooks caught her eye. She ran her fingertips over the red and white covers of the composition books. “Proper,” she said.
Michael was on one knee in his closet, pulling an old doctor’s bag from a small shelf in the back. “What is?”
Emily showed him one. “Are these your diaries?”
“Not really.” He chuckled. “Well, maybe…take a look.”
The first page of the notebook had a carefully drawn illustration of an extra-wide necktie. After staring at it for a few seconds, though, Emily realized that it was actually a pattern, a tie unsewn and laid flat.
Most of the other pages will filled with short handwritten entries, some of them in complete sentences, some of them in a quick shorthand:
Don’t have cashmere dry cleaned. Wash on the delicate cycle with cold water. Lay it flat to dry.
TO DO: Light blue shirt, chocolate tie. Not BLUE, of course…teal, almost. Mint?
Always walk on the outside of the sidewalk, with her on the inside. Let her walk first across a restaurant. BUT: get in a taxi before she does…esp if she’s wearing a skirt.
Gingham dress shirt:
• Summer only
• Wear it with a khaki suit. (Not linen, of course.)
• Wear a tie so you don’t look like an ass.
• Solid colored ties: brown, navy, or gray. Black?
TO DO: Research one button suits. (Maybe Sam knows something about these?) You’ll never have to worry about which button to button.
If you wear a coat over a layered outfit, it must be longer than the jacket underneath. Maybe a trench or a mackintosh?
TO DO: Buy a Proper umbrella. A print, but nothing too loud. Curved handle a must.
If your pocket square is bright, your tie should be plain. And the tie pattern should always be bolder than that of the shirt. (Duh!)
Emily flipped through the notebook, then two more. All of them were filled with the same sort of thing. “This is very James Gatz.”
Michael was poking around in a dresser drawer, glancing back and forth at Emily’s legs. “Yeah, that’s where I got the idea, actually. Heh.” He pulled out three spools of white thread.
“You should totally type these up. You could sell them at school for hundreds.”
“Yeah. Michael Karlinoff’s Guide To Looking Halfway Decent.” He held each of the three spools of thread up to Emily’s dress. Though they seemed completely identical to Emily, Michael immediately set one of them aside, then peered at the remaining two spools carefully. He covered one with his free hand, then the other, and finally decided on the second. “Better make that The Darling Budds’ Guide…they have a stronger brand presence.”
“What does this mean?” She held up the inside cover of one of the notebooks. Written sideways in magic marker were the words Ostentatious Plainness, and below it were a few symbols in Vietnamese.
Michael put the other two spools of thread back in his drawer and sat on the edge of the bed. Placing the doctor’s bag on his lap, he pulled out a small cardboard envelope that had slots for various sizes of needles. “Oh, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about. It’s another way of saying Proper, I guess: plain, but in a flashy way.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s like that notebook you’re holding, or anything else. If I’d just bought a bunch of spiral-bound notebooks at Rite Aid for 99 cents, they would have been way too plain. But if I’d gotten some leather-bound journal with marbled paper, it would have been pretentious and boring.” He squinted quickly at the needle and effortlessly threaded it. “But those classic old-school Big Chief notebooks—or maybe a little Moleskine, though those are fairly played out—they’re just about perfect. Uh, not to brag.”
“No, you’re right. Ostentatious plainness…I like it. What’s the Vietnamese?”
Michael kneeled by her feet and pulled her flats off before she realized what he was doing. “Stand up on the chair.”
“Stand up in the chair so I can see your dress better.”
Emily tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and laughed once, nervously, then stepped up on the folding chair in front of Michael’s desk. She bounced up and down on the balls of her feet until he put his hand over her toes and she stopped. He carefully removed the safety pins.
“The Vietnamese was this fortune cookie I got when my dad and Lillian and I went over to August Moon one night. It said Everything should be made as simple as possible…but not simpler.” He leaned over and dug in his doctor’s bag, pulling out a jeweler’s loupe that he placed on his left eye. “I thought that pretty well summed up what I was trying to say, so I had Litta’Bit translate it for me one night when she was over at Alexander’s. We’d been drinking Manhattans and I had this totally retarded idea that I’d get it tattooed on one of my forearms. Not that tattoos are ever Proper, so it would have defeated the purpose.”
Michael squinted through the loupe and, pulling the dress tight with one hand, began to stitch the long hem back onto the bottom of the dress. Suddenly, though, he paused and waited, listening. He pulled the loupe from his eye and placed it silently on the desk.
“What is it?” Emily asked, but Michael placed a finger to his lips. The front door of the apartment had opened softly, and someone was tiptoeing up the steps. Michael stood up and turned out the light. He stood by the door, but didn’t open it.
Slowly, one step at a time, footsteps came down the hall, before finally pausing in front of the bedroom door for a few seconds. Emily, still standing on the chair, looked at Michael and at the door. Michael knew that it was his dad sneaking back into the house, but a wild quick thought hit him: are we being robbed?
Finally, after pausing in front of the door for what felt like minutes but was probably only fifteen seconds, the man on the other side of the bedroom door turned and moved back down the hallway. He coughed slightly once, and Michael knew it was his dad.
Emily felt vulnerable up on the chair, looking down on Michael as he gravely concentrated on listening to the door, but she didn’t dare get down while he was holding up a warning finger towards her.
In the hallway, Michael heard his father go into his bedroom and begin noisily changing clothes. He would be changing out of his jacket and shoes, both of which were too casual for work. His clients expected him to be overdressed at all times. Michael listened to him pull on a new jacket and then sit on the bed as he swapped out his shoes. His office at Underhill had a full bathroom, and he would probably shower and shave there. He also had plenty of clothes there, of course, so Michael wasn’t sure why he’d even come home.
Finally, as though he’d just woken up, Mr. Karlinoff stuck his head out into the doorway and yelled down at his son. Michael heard “Son! Are you up? Are you awake yet?” but to Emily, who’d never heard him speak before, it sounded like “Zun! Ar yoo ap? Ar yoo uh-vlake yat?”
Emily covered her mouth and silently giggled. Michael turned to her and widened his eyes. “What?” he mouthed. Emily replied by flapping her arms, then covering her nose with the inside of one elbow. “What!?”
“He sounds like Dracula!” she whispered, then bit down on her lip.
By this point, Mr. Karlinoff was halfway down the hallway. “Zun? My-gl?” Michael quickly locked his bedroom door barely a second before his father jiggled the handle.
“Dad, don’t come in! I’m…I’m busy!” he yelped, then winced at Emily. Great…now instead of thinking he had a cute girl in his room, his dad thought he was spending the morning beating off.
“Oh…okay,” his dad mumbled, sounding a lot less like Dracula this time. “Sorry.”
Michael shook his head sadly and laughed silently in spite of himself. His father moved away from the door and walked back towards the kitchen, where he opened and closed the fridge quickly.
“Michael,” he called, and I’ll spare you the dialect from here on out, “I’m going to the shop early. Lots of work to do. No time for breakfast, even…ha ha! You are awake? Good. I will…I will see you at lunch.” They heard him move to the head of the stairs and pause. “Okay, then. Yes. Goodbye.”
The front door closed behind his father, but Michael still shushed Emily. He crept over to his window and watched his father get into the Toyota Camry from the night before. His date was wearing large oversized sunglasses. She smiled at Mr. Karlinoff as he got in and he touched the tip of her nose with his finger.
“You know what’s funny?” Michael said out loud as the car pulled away. “He didn’t want me to know that he spent the night with someone. So he had her drive him all the way up here just to sneak in and pretend to wake up, then make a big deal about leaving for the day.” He said it with a smile, but Emily heard the sadness in his voice.
“He sounds adorable.”
Michael came back over and knelt before her. Picking up the needle that was dangling from the end of the thread attached to her dress, he continued sewing. He left the loupe on the desk. They were both quiet for a few minutes, then finally Michael spoke. “He’s not rich, Emily. He’s not an importer or anything like that…he’s just a tailor.”
“Michael, I know, it’s okay. You don’t have to say anything.”
Michael didn’t look up at her. “I want to tell you. I want to say the words to you. Listen: We came to the States when I was two…I don’t remember any of it. His family was rich in Macedonia, but that’s not exactly the same as being rich in America, okay?”
“Okay,” Emily whispered. Michael’s voice was slow and thick and deliberate, and she wanted to touch him on the arm or the hand as he talked, but she was stuck on the chair.
“His family owned a store in Skopje, the capitol, and people flew in from the rest of Europe to have suits made for them. They were famous for their neckties, which they’d ship all over the world. My father and his brothers were trained to take over the business, but he wanted to be a musician. He’d stay up all night in the cafes and bars, playing music, then show up at work the next morning. But when I came along, he knew that he had to take care of me. He found a way to bring us to America, and he came over here and got a job at Underhill and he put away his music, just like that…we have a piano and he almost never plays it.”
Michael pulled the needle free and examined his work, lining up the rest of the tear with the dress. He looked at the dress for a long time, and Emily heard him breath, heavy and ragged. “Honey, sweetie, please…you’re breaking my heart,” she whispered. Michael took the needle and poked her in the thigh. She yelped in surprise but not in pain…at the last second he’d turned the needle around and jabbed her with the dull end.
“I went to public school, and everything you’ve heard about public school in New Orleans is pretty dead-on. I wasn’t the only white kid, but I was the only white kid who spoke English. My dad explained it to me: we had money for private school or college, but not both.
“I didn’t have tutors, like I claimed…except I guess I did, my dad and this other tailor named Sam were always giving me books and quizzing me on them. Every night I had school-work and then I had home-work, you know? Oh, and my dad bartered lessons for me…he can play any instrument by ear, but he wanted me to really know the fundamentals, so he’d make a new suit every year for a German transplant in exchange for a year of piano lessons.
“In, like, seventh grade, my dad bought this house—we live up here and rent out the bottom—and then he got a loan to buy out the lawyers who owned Underhill. The store hasn’t been owned by an actual Underhill since the 60s, by the way. So we just had no money, even though ironically I guess we were richer, or at least owned more.
“Middle school was rough. But middle school is rough for everyone, right? I was at P.S. 38, Fitz Johnson Middle School. My teachers didn’t know what to do with me. Not because they were concerned I’d get lost in the shuffle, but because they were as dumb as any of the students and intimidated by me even though I tried to just stay out of their way. I guess things might have been different if there had been some sort of hard-working young teacher who took me under his wing, like in the movies, but no. They were just counting the days until their pension started.
“Anyway, the kids were way worse. Fitz Johnson is on Claiborne, and all the other students came from that side of Claiborne, and I was the only one who came from this side. Everyone else down here goes to private school. So at Fitz Johnson there was already this idea that I was some rich white kid slumming it in their school. And then…it didn’t make any sense to spend money on clothes when my dad was a tailor, so I’d wear clothes from Underhill, these fitted trousers and custom-made shirts. That was pretty much a recipe for disaster, right there.
“By the way, I don’t think any of this was because I was white…well, not most of it, anyway. I think if I’d been this nattily-dressed black kid from the good side of the tracks, it probably would have been ten times worse.
“By the end of ninth grade I was miserable. Sam, my dad’s right hand man, even offered to mortgage his house to send me to a private high school. So my dad and I had a talk. He said I could use my college fund to go to a private high school, in the hopes that if I did really well there I could get a full ride to college. It was a gamble, though, you know? So I told him I’d only do it if he taught me how to be a tailor like him. That way, if I disappointed him in school at least I’d be able to take over his business one day. That lead to an authentic Macedonian evening of tears and chest beating and bear hugs.
“So I applied to the big schools and I got into all of them. Beaumonde offered me a half-scholarship, but even with that help…oh my god, the tuition. My dad…my dad’s Eastern European, right? So after I made up my mind to go to Beaumonde he went to the bank then drove over to the school with a briefcase full of $100 bills, my full tuition for four years, and put it right on Dr. Hayes’ desk.
“So over summer things had totally changed. I went from being the ‘richest’ kid in school to being the poorest. I mean, not that I was poor—my dad does own a successful luxury clothing store—but compared to all that old money at school…yeah. And suddenly my clothes weren’t exactly the liability they’d been at Fitz Johnson.
“But, Emily, I need you to understand this. Remember how when we were little kids and we got lost at the grocery store, when our parents finally found us they weren’t overjoyed…they were mad?” Michael stopped sewing for a second. “Wait, never mind, that’s a terrible analogy. But when I arrived at Beaumonde I was angry, and I think in sort of the same way. Here was a school full of kids that had everything just given to them, and they couldn’t give a damn. When I met with the principal of The Parvenu School, he warned me that Beaumonde was an excellent school that didn’t demand excellence from its students. And that seemed true.
“What I’m saying is, I didn’t see you—well, not you, I mean the other students—as my saviors. I saw you as my enemy. It wasn’t about finally meeting people who were like me. It was about revenge.
“So when I came to school I kept everyone at arm’s length. I wanted to get everything I could out of the school—I wanted to demand excellence—and then get out of there. I didn’t want to have anything to do with any of you. I would be polite and I would be invisible.
“I wanted to blend in and be forgotten. Emily, listen…” He looked up at her for the first time since he’d started talking, squatting on the floor at her feet. “I’m not trying to justify what I did, or make it sound like I had no other choice. But for whatever reason I felt like telling a lie was the easiest solution. It’s like…” Michael squeezed his eyes shut, and Emily tried to put her hand on his head, but could only reach far enough for the top of his hair to brush against her fingertips. She wasn’t sure if he even felt it. “It’s like I have something inside of me that won’t let me tell the truth even if there’s nothing to gain from lying. Do you understand? I fight it every day, and usually I lose.”
Michael opened his eyes and smiled at Emily’s hand. He reached over to the desk and picked up the jeweler’s loupe. “Look, I got this loupe out, and it’s helpful, but I didn’t really need it. I was just trying to impress you. Another lie.
“So, anyway, I had this idea that if I lied once, about who I was and where I came from, then I wouldn’t have to repeat it ever again. That it would just be accepted as the truth and people would leave me alone. So I dropped hints about being rich, about having private tutors. I said that my dad was super-strict because then I wouldn’t have to hang out with anyone after school, since I had a job at Underhill and no money.
“But obviously you don’t just lie once. You have to lie a hundred times, and before you know it the lying comes easier and easier. I even wrote down answers to questions I knew I was going to get, got the wording right. And it was starting to work, it seemed. I was just boring enough that people had already started to forget about me when the twins became obsessed. Suddenly the entire school followed me around like paparazzi.
“I guess you know more about this period than I do…all I know is that over Fall Break sophomore year I was working at Underhill when the twins came in, looking great and having fun, laughing and admiring my clothes, and they took me out to lunch. I tried to wriggle out of it, but Sam was there and I knew he’d tell my dad about how I was making friends at school or whatever, so we walked across the street to the Palace Café, where these two 14-year-olds had reservations.
“We ate lunch and over desert they made their offer. Now that I know that Josephine knew all along, I guess what happened is that she went to them and told them what I’d been telling the school and how it wasn’t true. I don’t know, I’m just guessing. Anyway, they made a deal with me over lunch. Either I joined The Gang, or one day everyone would know exactly who I really was.”
Michael had all but finished the sewing. He grabbed the loupe now and, without putting it in his eye, inspected his work. “Wait. That makes it sound like it was ruthless. It wasn’t. They were very charming, very friendly. I never felt pressured or anything. They weren’t threatening me, they just told me flat-out, and with affection, that I wasn’t good enough to do it on my own. I was going to need their help, and they were offering it to me. Protection. They were giving me what I wanted, but in a way that had never occurred to me. I wanted to be left alone, and they were offering to make me untouchable.
“I mean, I don’t feel like I was tricked by the twins or whatever. I sorta started dating Lillian that day, but it wasn’t like they traded her to me. We hung out and I genuinely liked her and her brother, and in a lot of ways that afternoon helped clear up a lot of issues I had about transferring to Beaumonde. Things were going to be okay. All my earlier objections to being friends with them just started to seem ridiculous. The way they talked about their Gang, too, it seemed like a good way to hide from the rest of the school. And, well…they could protect me. I hate to say it, but it’s true.
“And that was it. They invited me to movie night and I was introduced to you guys and the rest is history. I didn’t even have to lie any more, not about that…they did it for me. And the lie became my life, and the closer I got to all of you—yes, even you—the more desperate I got to live up to it.
“I guess that’s everything.”
Michael reached into his doctor’s bag and pulled out a small pair of scissors, severing the thread and laying the needle on the desk. He offered his hand to Emily, who stepped down to the floor and then sat in the chair. She didn’t know what to say, or if she was even supposed to say anything, so she looked at her dress instead.
“Wow, this is really good. It looks brand new.”
Michael sat back on the floor, crossing his legs. “It would have looked better if I could have used our machine. But then you would have had to take it off, and you running around my house in your underwear is the last thing I need.”
Emily dropped her dress and smiled. “That’s always so nice to hear.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Outside it was fully day. The sun, bright and warm, threw crisp elongated shadows against the far wall as it rose. A car drove by and beeped once, and someone walking by yelled a hello.
Emily reached forward and put her hand on the side of Michael’s face. He closed his eyes and she ran her fingers back into his hair. “Thank you,” she said softly.
“It took two seconds,” he whispered. “It was nothing.”
“You know what I meant.” She felt Michael relax under her hand, and she ran her thumb across the side of his face. She asked herself: Is this something I’d do to a friend? Is this something I’d want Alexander to do with a girl? She decided it was time to go home.
Her jerked quickly, as though he’d been having the same thoughts as her. “I don’t know how much sleep I’m going to get.”
“What time do you have to be at work?”
Michael stretched without getting up. “Nine. But I have to leave here around eight to wait for the bus. My alarm’s already set for seven-thirty.”
Emily snuck a glance at her cell phone and frowned. “Well, you can lie down for a little while, anyway.”
Now that Michael had decided to go to bed, he seemed to focus completely on it. As though telling her his story had drained the last of his energy. He crawled up and over the foot of the bed, losing his shoes in the journey. Emily moved ahead of him, getting the doctor’s bag and spools of thread out of his way. He left room on the bed for her, but she didn’t know if that was an accident or not.
“Thank you for taking me on a bike ride tonight,” he mumbled. “This was a good idea.”
“I had a good time, too.” She thought about sitting down on the bed next to him, but instead just leaned over him. “Close your eyes,” she said, though they were already closed. “Relax. I’m going to count to three. When I get to three you will fall into a deep trance.”
Michael smiled with his eyes kept closed. “Don’t make me act like a chicken or anything.”
“And when you awake…you will remember none of this. One.” She ruffled his hair and moved back from the foot of his bed. He seemed to already be dozing off…this game always worked with Alexander, too. Boys sure were good at falling asleep. “Two.” She put her shoes on and then slid the window open and began to step through, pausing halfway between his room and the summer morning. “And three.”
Michael dimly heard the last number, and he barely registered the sounds of Emily going down the fire escape, and then he let go and drifted down into sleep.
Seven minutes later, his alarm went off and he stumbled off to the shower.
• • •
When Emily got home at eight am, she parked her bike in front of the cottage so her mom would see it and know she was back safely. The note was missing from her front door, and when she keyed in, yawning massively, she found it folded up and slipped under her door. Her mom had written something on the back, using her weird conception of how to communicate with a teenager:
Out at 2, not back by 7!? Pretty impressive, girlie. You just better be out there partying, not hanging out at that coffeehouse reading some dumb book. Don’t lie to me, I’ll totally know! LOL
Be home / awake by noon. Grandma wants to get into “flipping” real estate, and we’ve been drafted as her assistants today. Bummer, dude.
Email Clyde when you get home. You know how he worries.
Emily collapsed on her bed and, opening the MacBook on the night stand, sent her dad the shortest email possible.
She closed the laptop and told herself to get up and change out of her dress or at least take it off, but she knew in her heart there was no way that would happen.
“One,” she said out loud.
“Three.” She waited for sleep to overtake her, but it didn’t work quite as well on her. Instead, she curled up around a pillow and ran her fingers along the stitches Michael had repaired earlier.