Little Fires Everywhere (6 page)

As the deadline for early applications approached, Lexie had decided
to apply early to Yale. It had a good drama program, and Lexie had been the lead in the musical last year, even though she'd only been a junior. Despite her air of frivolity, she was near the top of her class—officially, Shaker did not rank its students, to reduce competitive feelings, but she knew she was somewhere in the top twenty. She was taking four AP classes and served as secretary of the French Club. “Don't let the shallowness fool you,” Moody had told Pearl. “You know why she watches TV all afternoon? Because she can finish her homework in half an hour before bed. Like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Lexie's got a good brain. She just doesn't always use it in real life.” Yale seemed a stretch but a distinctly possible one, her guidance counselor had said. “Plus,” Mrs. Lieberman had added, “they know kids from Shaker always go on to do well. They'll give you an edge.”

Lexie and Brian had been together since junior year, and she liked the idea of being just a train ride away. “We can visit each other all the time,” Lexie pointed out to him as she printed the Yale early application. “And we can even meet up in New York.” It was this last that finally swayed her: New York, which had exuded a glamorous pull on her imagination ever since she'd read
Eloise
as a child. She didn't want to go to school
in
New York; her guidance counselor had floated the idea of Columbia, but Lexie had heard the area was
sketchy.
Still, she liked the idea of being able to jaunt in for a day—a morning at the Met looking at art, maybe a splurge at Macy's or even a weekend away with Brian—and then zip away from the crowds and the grime and the noise.

Before any of that could happen, though, she had to write her essay. A good essay, Mrs. Lieberman had insisted, was what she needed to set herself apart from the pack.

“Listen to this dumbass question,” she groaned that afternoon in
Pearl's kitchen, fishing the printed-out application from her bag. “‘Rewrite a famous story from a different perspective. For example, retell
The Wizard of Oz
from the point of view of the Wicked Witch.' This is a college app, not creative writing. I'm taking AP English. At least ask me to write a real essay.”

“How about a fairy tale,” Moody suggested. He looked up from his notebook and the open algebra textbook before him. “‘Cinderella' from the point of view of the stepsisters. Maybe they weren't so wicked after all. Maybe she was actually a bitch to
them
.”

“‘Little Red Riding Hood' as told by the wolf,” Pearl suggested.

“Or ‘Rumpelstiltskin,'” Lexie mused. “I mean, that miller's daughter cheated him. He did all that spinning for her and she said she'd give him her baby and then she reneged on their deal. Maybe she's the villain here.” With one maroon fingernail she tapped the top of the Diet Coke she'd bought just after school, then popped the tab. “I mean, she shouldn't have agreed to give up her baby in the first place, if she didn't want to.”

“Well,” Mia put in suddenly. She turned around, the bowl of popcorn in her hands, and all three of them jumped, as if a piece of furniture had begun to speak. “Maybe she didn't know what she was giving up until afterward. Maybe once she saw the baby she changed her mind.” She set the bowl down in the center of the table. “Don't be too quick to judge, Lexie.”

Lexie looked chastened for an instant, then rolled her eyes. Moody darted a look at Pearl:
See how shallow?
But Pearl didn't notice. After Mia had gone back into the living room—embarrassed at her outburst—she turned to Lexie. “I could help you,” she said, quietly enough that she thought Mia could not hear. Then, a moment later, because this did not seem like enough, “I'm good at stories. I could even write it for you.”

“Really?” Lexie beamed. “Oh my god, Pearl, I'll owe you forever.” She threw her arms around Pearl. Across the table, Moody gave up on his homework and slammed his math book shut, and in the living room, Mia jammed her paintbrush into a jar of water, lips pursed, paint scrubbing from the bristles in a dirt-colored swirl.

6

P
earl, true to her word, handed Lexie a typed-up essay the next week—the story of the frog prince, from the point of view of the frog. Neither Mia, who did not want to admit she'd been eavesdropping, nor Moody, who did not want to be labeled a goody two-shoes, said a word about it. But both were growing increasingly uneasy.

When Moody arrived in the morning so they could walk to school together, Pearl would emerge from her room wearing one of Lexie's button-downs, or a spaghetti-strap tank, or dark red lipstick. “Lexie gave it to me,” she explained, half to her mother and half to Moody, both of whom were staring at her in dismay. “She said it was too dark for her, but that it looked good on me. Because my hair's darker.” Under the smudge of lipstick, her lips looked like a bruise, tender and raw.

“Wash that off,” Mia said, for the first time ever. But the next morning Pearl came out wearing one of Lexie's chokers, which looked like a gash of black lace around her neck.

“See you at dinner,” she said. “Lexie and I are going shopping after school.”

By late October, as one by one applications were sent in, a spirit of celebration set in among the seniors. Lexie's application had been
submitted, and she was in a benevolent mood. Her essay—thanks to Pearl—was good, her SAT scores were strong, her GPA was over 4.0 thanks to her AP classes, and she could already picture herself on Yale's campus. She felt she should reward Pearl in some way for her assistance and, after some thought, came up with the perfect idea: something she was sure Pearl would love, but would never get invited to on her own. “Stacie Perry's having a party this weekend,” she said. “Want to come?”

Pearl hesitated. She had heard about Stacie Perry's parties, and the chance to go to one was tantalizing. “I don't know if my mom will let me.”

“Come on, Pearl,” Trip said, leaning over the arm of the couch. “I'm going. I'm gonna need someone to dance with.” After that, Pearl needed no further persuasion.

At Shaker Heights High School, Stacie Perry's parties were things of legend. Mr. and Mrs. Perry had a big house and took frequent trips, and Stacie took full advantage. With the tension of early applications released, and weeks yet until finals, the seniors were ready for fun. All week the Halloween party was the hot topic of discussion: who was going, and who wasn't?

Moody and Izzy, of course, had not been invited; they knew Stacie Perry only by reputation, and the invite list had mostly been seniors. Pearl, despite Lexie's involvement, still knew almost no one besides the Richardsons, and Moody was often the only person she spoke with during school. Lexie and Serena Wong, though, had both been invited by Stacie herself, and thus had dispensation to bring a guest—even a sophomore that no one really knew.

“I thought we were going to rent
Carrie,
” Moody grumbled. “You said you'd never seen it.”

“Next weekend,” Pearl promised. “That's actually Halloween anyway. Unless you want to go trick-or-treating.”

“We're too old,” Moody said. Shaker Heights, as with everything, had regulations about trick-or-treating: sirens wailed at six and eight to mark the start and end, and although there were no official age restrictions, people tended to look askance at teens who showed up at their doors. The last time he had gone trick-or-treating, he'd been eleven, and he'd gone as an M&M.

For Stacie's party, though, a costume was de rigueur. Brian was not going—he had put off his early application to Princeton and, along with a handful of other procrastinators, was scrambling to finish by the deadline—so he did not factor into the calculations. “Let's be Charlie's Angels,” Lexie cried in a burst of inspiration, so she and Serena and Pearl donned bell-bottoms and polyester shirts and teased their hair as high as they could. Hairdos fully inflated, they posed, back-to-back, fingers pointed like guns, and surveyed themselves in the mirror in a haze of hairspray.

“Perfect,” Lexie said. “Blond, brunette, and black.” She aimed her finger at Pearl's nose. “You ready for this party, Pearl?”

The answer, of course, was no. It was the most surreal night Pearl had ever experienced. All evening, cars driven by skateboarders and animals and Freddy Kruegers pulled up to park at the edges of Stacie's huge lawn. At least four boys wore
Scream
masks; a couple donned football jerseys and helmets; a creative few wore long jackets and fedoras and sunglasses and feather boas. (“Pimps,” Lexie explained.) Most of the girls wore skimpy dresses and hats or animal ears, though one had transformed herself into Princess Leia; another, dressed as a fembot, hung on the arms of an Austin Powers. Stacie herself was dressed as an angel, in a silvery spaghetti-strapped minidress, glittery wings and fishnets, and a halo on a headband.

By the time Lexie and Serena and Pearl arrived at nine thirty,
everyone was already drunk. The air was thick with sweat and the sharp sour smell of beer, and couples dry humped in darkened corners. The kitchen floor was sticky with spilled drinks, and some girl was lying flat on her back on the table among the half-empty liquor bottles, smoking a joint and giggling as a boy licked rum from her navel. Lexie and Serena poured themselves drinks and wriggled into the makeshift dance floor in the living room. Pearl, left alone, stood in the corner of the kitchen, nursing a red Solo cup full of Stoli and Coke and looking for Trip.

Half an hour later, she caught a glimpse of him, out on the patio, dressed as a devil in a red blazer from the thrift store and a pair of devil horns. “I didn't think he even knew Stacie,” she shouted into Serena's ear when Serena came back to refill her drink. Serena shrugged. “Stacie said she saw him with his shirt off after soccer practice one day and thought he was
fine.
She said—and I quote—he was the bomb diggity.” She took a swig and giggled. Her face, Pearl noticed, was flushed. “Don't tell Lexie, okay? She'd barf.” She headed back toward the living room, wobbling slightly on her wedge heels, and through the sliding-glass door Pearl watched Trip poke a redheaded girl between the shoulder blades with his plastic pitchfork. She fluffed her hair and made a plan. In a little while Trip's cup would be empty. He would come inside and he would see her.
What's up, Pearl,
he would say. And then she would say something clever to him. She tried to think of something. What would Lexie say to a boy she liked?

But as she racked her brain for something sultry and witty, she noticed that Trip had disappeared from the patio. Had he come inside, or had he left already? She wriggled her way into the living room, cup held aloft, but it was impossible to see anyone. Puff Daddy and Mase poured from the stereo, the bass thumping so loud she could feel it in her throat, then faded back to make way for Notorious B.I.G. The only light came from a
few candles, and all she could make out were silhouettes writhing and grinding in decidedly unchaste ways. She wormed her way out into the backyard, where a knot of boys were chugging beer and arguing about the football team's chances of the playoffs. “If we beat Ignatius,” one of them shouted, “and U.S. beats Mentor—”

Lexie, meanwhile, was having a momentous night. She loved dancing; she and Serena and their friends went downtown any time clubs had a teen night—or any time they thought their fake IDs, identifying them as college juniors, would get them past a bouncer. Once they'd snuck into a rave in a disused warehouse down in the Flats and danced until three, glow necklaces ringing their wrists and their throats. They often danced together, with the ease of two girls who had known each other for more than half their lives, hip to hip or pelvis to pelvis, Lexie backing up to twitch her rear against Serena. Tonight they were dancing together when Lexie felt someone press up against her from behind. It was Brian, and Serena gave her a knowing smirk before turning away.

“You're not even in costume,” Lexie protested, smacking him on the shoulder.

“I am in costume,” Brian insisted. “I'm a guy who just mailed his application to Princeton.” He wrapped his arms around her waist and put his mouth to her neck.

Half an hour later, the dancing and the liquor and the sweet, heady rush of being eighteen had filled them both with a feverish flush. In the time they'd been dating, they'd done some stuff, as Lexie had coyly put it to Serena, but
it
, the big
it,
had sat between them for a while, like a deep pool of water in which they only dipped their toes. Now, pressed against Brian, mellowed by rum and Coke, music pounding through both their bodies like a shared heartbeat, she was filled with the sudden longing to plunge into that pool and dive straight to the bottom. When she had been
younger and less experienced, Lexie had had visions about her first time. She'd planned it out: candles, flowers, Boyz II Men on the CD player. At the very least, a bedroom and a bed. Not the backseat of a car, the way some of her friends had; definitely not in the stairwell of the high school, as rumor had it Kendra Solomon had. But now she found that she didn't care about that anymore. “Want to go for a drive?” she asked. Both of them knew what she was suggesting.

Without speaking, they hurried out to the curb, where Lexie's car was waiting.

By the time Lexie and Brian had gone, Pearl was back in her corner of the kitchen, waiting for Trip to reappear. But he didn't, not by ten thirty, not by eleven. With each hour that passed, and each bottle that emptied, things got louder and looser. At just past midnight Stacie Perry herself, trying to pour a glass of water, vomited into the Brita pitcher, and Pearl decided it was time to head home. But there was no sign of Lexie, even when she fought her way through the pulsating mass of bodies in the living room. Peeking outside, she couldn't tell whether Lexie's Explorer was still parked in the uneven row of cars.

“Have you seen Lexie?” she asked anyone who seemed remotely sober. “Or Serena?” Most people stared at her as if trying to place her. “Lexie?” they said. “Oh, Lexie Richardson? You came with her?” At last one girl, splayed in the lap of a football player in the big armchair, said, “I think she took off with her boyfriend. Isn't that right, Kev?” In response Kev put his meaty hands to her face and pulled her mouth toward his, and Pearl turned away.

She wasn't entirely sure where she was, and the vodka blurred the already sketchy map of Shaker in her mind. Could she walk home from here? How long would it take? What street did Stacie even live on? For a minute Pearl allowed herself to fantasize. Maybe Trip would come through
the sliding-glass door, a crisp waft of cool air following him into the kitchen.
You need
a ride home?
he'd say.

But of course this didn't happen, and at last, Pearl snuck the cordless phone from the kitchen counter, ducked outside by the garage, where it was quieter, and called Moody.

Twenty minutes later a car pulled up in front of Stacie's house. The passenger window rolled down, and from her perch on the front steps, Pearl saw Moody's scowling face.

“Get in” was all he said.

The inside of the car was all buttery leather, soft as skin under her thighs.

“Whose car is this?” she asked stupidly, as they pulled away from the curb.

“My mom's,” Moody said. “And before you ask, she's asleep, so let's not waste time here.”

“But you don't have a license yet.”

“Being allowed to do something and knowing how to do it are not the same thing.” Moody wheeled the car around the corner and turned onto Shaker Boulevard. “So how drunk are you?”

“I had one drink. I'm not drunk.” Even as she said this, Pearl wasn't sure it was true—there had been a lot of vodka in that cup. Her head spun and she closed her eyes. “I just didn't know how to get home.”

“Trip's car was still there, you know. We passed it on the way out. Why didn't you ask him?”

“I couldn't find him. I couldn't find anyone.”

“Probably upstairs with some girl.”

They rode in silence for a while, those words churning in Pearl's mind:
upstairs with some girl.
She tried to picture it, what happened up in those darkened rooms, imagined Trip's body against hers, and a hot flush crept
over her. According to the clock on the dashboard, it was nearly one o'clock.

“You see now,” Moody said. “What they're like.” As they approached Mia and Pearl's block, he clicked the lights off and pulled up to the curb. “Your mom is going to be pissed.”

“I told her I was going out with Lexie and she said I could stay out until twelve. I'm only a little late.” Pearl glanced up at the lighted kitchen window. “Do I stink?”

Moody leaned in close. “You smell a little like smoke. But not like booze. Here.” He pulled a pack of Trident from his pocket.

The Halloween party would, by all accounts, last until three fifteen
A.M.,
and end with a number of kids passed out on the Perrys' Oriental living room carpet. Lexie would creep home at two thirty, Trip at three, and the next day they would still be asleep past noon. Later Lexie would apologize to Pearl in a whispered confession: she and Brian had been thinking about it for a while and tonight seemed like the night and—she didn't know, she just wanted to tell someone, she hadn't even told Serena yet, did she look any different? She
would
look different, to Pearl—thinner, sharper, her hair pulled back in a drooping ponytail, traces of mascara and glitter still streaked at the corners of her eyes; she could see in the faint crease just between Lexie's eyebrows what she would look like twenty years from now: something like her mother. From then on, it would seem to Pearl that everything Lexie did was tinged with sex, a kind of knowingness in her laugh and her sideways glances, in the casual way she touched everyone, on the shoulder, on the hand, on the knee. It loosened you, she would think; it lightened you. “And how about you?” Lexie would say at last, squeezing Pearl's arm. “You found your way home okay? Did you have fun?” And Pearl, with the caution of the recently singed, would simply nod.

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