The sublime, ephemeral and transcendent are natural and inevitable interpretations of the trite, melodramatic and clichéd, when uttered by someone with whom you wish to have sex.

-Conversations with Lauren
by Dina Gallagher

i. friends and other people you can’t trust

Kelly McDonald was waifish of figure, kaleidoscopic of passions, unflaggingly frenetic and incessantly bubbling with disarmingly ingenuous, spokesmodel-caliber cheerfulness – in other words, an external validation junkie with a side order of amphetamines.

Her big thing was to be forever smitten with some obscure new foo-foo pursuit: Modern daguerreotype, ballet, French poetry, viola de gamba, fugue structure, Cherokee Nation language and myth, an arguably overliteral reading of Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and attendant clandestine rendezvous with back-alley chemists – whatever the moment’s obsession, Kelly reverse-engineered the keys to virtuosity’s chastity belt, surrendered her heart unreservedly for a few breathless months, then crept out the back window and onto her next affection, leaving a trail of tears as audacious and consequence-damning as my pathetic attempt to jury-rig a fugue-structure Cherokee Nation joke.

We didn’t realize how Kelly balanced and maintained our social ecosystem until she had left us; she had always rather invisibly assumed the mantle of one of those dangerous predators who checks the ascendance of some seemingly-innocuous but incalculably malevolent competitor. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Like that guy from Rebel Without a Cause Mom swears was a big hunk but I think looks like a girl, Kelly’s fire burned too hot to burn long. She went out like a supernova in one last hurrah this town will never forget, crashing and burning like the demented metaphor teenagers imagine is transcendence. So chuck whatever trash you were reading, unplug the phone and curl up in your comfiest jammies; this will singe your fingers and probably do things to your frontal lobe that will make your neurologist shudder in terror.

Our riveting, four-hanky epic begins innocently enough in the diner on Interstate 51. I don’t know that it has a name; the word "diner" appears in fading, unenthusiastic lettering above the door, uncluttered with any hint as to the existence of a proprietor. Even the anonymous, gray-skinned waitresses seem unable to pin down one or another among them as being "in charge," let alone vested with any sort of ownership.

Please don’t think I’m being catty with that remark about the gray skin, by the way; I’m catty so often and with such devastating effect that I couldn’t bear confusion as to when I’m due a saucer of milk and when I’m merely in flagrant violation of my creative writing teacher’s "no exposition" rule. Diner 51 has the magical property of drawing color from anything that passes through its doors, from the skin of waitresses to Beth’s over-enthusiastic choice in wardrobe colors to Lauren’s allegedly natural honey-colored hair. When especially pressed for diversion we’ll import a cheap, wildly-colored something merely to expose it to Diner 51’s mystical glamour, Sailor Moon lunchbox sapping to film noir. The four of us are absolutely convinced of the supernatural properties of the place, and I’ve no doubt Andrea is in the midst of an enthusiastic letter-writing campaign to have it profiled on one of those televised parades of the bizarre and pathetic she so enjoys.

Kelly had reputedly passed great swathes of time in the diner before doing the big daisy push, imbuing the colorless eatery with an ineffable gallows atmosphere and distinguishing it forever from the antiseptic sameness of the rest of Buffalo Creek. Given a sufficiently dim light squalor can be confused with romance, so or perhaps in any case we darkened a particular booth more evenings than not, drinking what arguably is at least an attempt at coffee and pastiching pop culture fragments into desperate little bon mots at the expense of others.

Diner 51 was our Algonquin, our Camelot. The sort of place where Andrea seems perfectly at home and even vaguely intriguing, smoking pack after pack of clove cigarettes. A place where a woman with an eyepatch and a French émigré’s arrogant disinterest in picking up even the rudiments of English seems not at all out-of-place, wearing a yellowish-grayish sort of miniskirt that would do her figure no justice, had she one, and serving the coffee-like substance touched upon briefly above. A place where a roguish cross-country trucker with muscles like rippling bronze and a pirate’s smile might find himself helplessly smitten with a pretty, green-eyeshadowed young local girl – a girl obviously destined for more than a forgotten backwater like Buffalo Creek could ever hope to offer.

At least that’s Andrea’s theory. I personally think the green eye shadow makes her look cheap.

We had just endured another wildly uninteresting spate of high school, that being our junior year, and were discussing the upcoming beer and vomit extravaganza that unfailingly signals the beginning of summer vacation, when Andrea divulged that she had a lid of blunt she had been saving for just such an occasion.

When I say "blunt," of course I mean the stuff that my parents would call "pot" – an antiquated term no one my age would be caught dead dusting off in polite company. Our generation may have the epic lack of imagination making necessary the appropriation of our parent’s childhood, but at least we have the decency to be subversive about it. "Grunge" is nothing like "Acid Rock," "House Music" bears no relation to "Disco," and by God "blunt" isn’t marijuana. If you want a nice fat dime bag of not-marijuana, Andrea’s your girl.

"Candyman been in town?" Lauren asked, her nonchalance honed with the sort of precision usually reserved for first-chair orchestral violinists. A master of prop minimalism, she stirred her coffee in fainéant circles with – and I’m not kidding, here – an actual silver spoon she carried around in her purse at all times. Lauren has domesticated irony like Tarzan making a pet of those implausibly huge jungle cats he’s always running into. It languors misleadingly at her feet, liable at the slightest provocation to snap its pathetically flimsy silver chain and explode into fur and claws. This is handy for keeping her vassals at a respectful emotional distance, which we only tolerate because she’s an unwaveringly beneficent King of the Concrete Jungle. Except when she’s not.

Just as an aside, I’ve always felt that every halfway decent simile is a frustrated dime novel. I try to do my part by coaxing literary technology towards the inevitable three-act metaphor, complete with thematic cohesion, a fully-realized ensemble cast and smoking allowed in the lobby during intermissions.

Insert wistful sigh here.

So anyway, Andrea shifted uncomfortably in her seat and began concocting a fabulous lie about raiding her father’s stash, complete with hilarious and credible imitations of her father, his boyfriend, their smarmy dealer and a Scarlett O’Hara-cized version of herself, clinging to Daddy’s leg screaming that her potential boyfriend’s crappy photocopied zine was a work of genius and she needed some opium to maneuver him into the sack. To which we all giggled, even knowing full well who she pictured off-camera as the leading man.

This is an interesting trick Andrea’s developed over time: even an imbecile can tell when she’s lying, so rather than risk having her lies sifted from her truths, Andrea has taken to lying about absolutely everything whether she needs to or not.

Lauren has a theory that one can tell how important Andrea’s secrets are by how much fidgeting she does during the construction of her little sagas. According to this hypothesis, one may simply count the number of times Andrea’s butt passes from the left side of her chair to the right. The gist of all this is that while Andrea was waving her hands around and fabricating this rather elaborate tale of her father the clinging-rather-pathetically-to-a-youth-mispent-in-the-first-place hipster, the rest of us were all counting the number of times her butt moved.

Seven.

Which is a record, by the way. Andrea’s previous butt-lugging record was six, the time she scratched Lauren’s Jag and invented the story of the police officer, the Pez dispenser, and the roguish cross-country trucker with muscles like rippling bronze. And if there is something more terrifying and prone to cause one to lie than scratching Lauren’s Jag, I feel quite safe in asserting that neither Beth nor I could imagine what it might be.

Lauren was about to say something which would cut Andrea to shreds and force her to blubber the truth about the origins of her new-found drug stash when the waitress with the patch came by to refresh our coffee.

"Et eff eskule," she murmured, with no intonation of any type to help one discern whether she was asking if we were out of school, or bragging that she was out of school, or perhaps making a wry observation about school itself. She was severely constrained by her F.A.I.O. – Foreign Accent of Indeterminate Origin – so communication was largely restricted to pointing and grunting.

"That’s right," said Lauren helpfully. Patch’s infinitely recursive facial tissue defied several laws of physics by wrinkling up still further as she squinted appraisingly at Lauren. A cold, slow minute passed before Patch grunted dismissively and trudged off to whatever mysterious duties occupied her in the kitchen.

Andrea laughed nervously, mistakenly thinking Patch had gotten the better of Lauren (at least, Lauren’s wilting gaze gave one the impression that Andrea was mistaken). The uncharitable might describe Andrea’s laugh as horse-like. Oh, Hell, let’s not mince words: Andrea was more or less Mr. Ed in excessively trendy running pants, and only our fear of legal repercussions kept us from selling her for glue.

"So what do you say, guys?" Andrea absent-mindedly scribbled 100th Monkey Phenomenon on her placemat with an eyebrow pencil. "Brooke is throwing the first party of the summer tomorrow night. Shall we show up blunted?"

"Sounds like the same old thing we always do," Beth answered with poorly-feigned indifference. "But I guess if you guys wanna go." She used purple ink to write Scopes Monkey Trial, all loops and a heart above the i.

Andrea smiled. "Lauren?"

Lauren shot me her "shall we?" look, which I answered with the barest hint of a nod. Satisfied, she turned to Andrea with an affectation of supreme boredom and said "I wouldn’t miss it," as though agreeing only through the severest sense of duty. She jotted out An Infinite Number of Monkeys Typing Hamlet with a quill pen, her cursive formal and crisp even in milk.

I was mortified to realize I’d left the house without a writing implement, improvised with the squeezable mustard. Chimpan A to Chimpan Z, I laboriously indited, from The Simpsons Musical Version of Planet of the Apes. This unfortunately required most of the table.

Patch reappeared with that-which-might-be-coffee and a handful of those little pink packets of low-cal artificial sweetener, which she placed pointedly near Beth. She slowly appraised the condiment carnage we had wreaked on her otherwise merely dingy booth: mustard, chewing gum and heavily-scribbled sticky-notes cluttered the thing from one end to the other. Heavy seconds dragged by as she plumbed deep into our eyes in that way peculiar to adults, as though hoping to make sense of whatever kamikaze motivation induces the lot of us to collectively stuff the world in a handbasket and embark for hell. Then she cleared her throat and surprised us.

"Sea Monkeys."

As the reader is no doubt from somewhere other than Buffalo Creek (seeing as this is neither a sports biography nor a treasury of weight-loss tips) she doubtless requires a brief, explanatory interlude in re exactly what went on below the placid surface of our little conversation. Allow me to elucidate:

Item 1: Beth pretended to only grudgingly agree to attend the party. Yeah, like Beth has any prayer in a million years of finding anything to do on a Saturday night without us.

Item 2: Lauren said "I wouldn’t miss it," as if in quotation marks. Lauren tends to say exactly what she’s thinking, but in an ironic tone of voice suggesting she doesn’t really mean it. This double feint lets her get away with all kinds of tricky shit, which she can later deny if things backfire.

Item 3: Andrea has had a stash for weeks and just mentioned it today? As if!! "The Candyman" is her terminally gross cousin Harvey, who always tries to paw us when we get desperate enough to buy a few joints from him. I don’t want to think about what Andrea went through to get a whole bag, especially since she’s gone to the trouble to concoct a seven-butt lie about it.

Item 4: Lauren was the most popular girl in school, so consequently everyone hated her guts (especially her best friends). If Andrea was offering a cut of her god-knows-what-she-went-through-to-get-it stash to Lauren, she must have had a major secret agenda.

But what, you ask?

Fortunately, I happened to know that (a) Lauren’s tragically personality-challenged younger brother Corey was scheduled to return to us the following morning from his semester abroad, (b) Andrea has had a crush on him since fifth grade, (c) He has a thing for (c, i) pot and (c, ii) girls with big tits, and (d) Andrea recently returned from a "vacation" in Europe spilling out of her C cup and claiming she was a late bloomer. (Presumably you can see this coming – Delphic Oracles don’t even bother with this stuff.)

Item 5: Remember that little glance Lauren gave me, as if asking my permission? The word I use for that in my ongoing internal dialogue is shadowbet – the cornerstone of our relationship. I had tacitly agreed that Lauren could smoke Andrea’s pot without fear of Andrea sinking her claws into Corey.

For the next 24 hours, Lauren would do absolutely everything I told her to do, instantly and without question. When I won, when the party ended with Corey off swimming in his own vomit and Andrea upstairs crying over their star-crossed love, Lauren would look up at me from under that two hundred dollar haircut and grace me with the rarest and most precious thing in Buffalo Creek – a smile of respect and affection.

And if I lost, people will be able to stop wondering why Little Miss Perfect wastes her time with a clunky nobody from the wrong side of the tracks. Because I’d have forfeited the right to be her best friend.

Lauren is one amazingly tricky bitch.

"I suppose you’re going off God-knows-where with your friends tonight./?" My mother cannily intoned most of her wittier banter somewhere between the declarative and interrogative, forcing the hypothetical listener who cared what the hell she was talking about to draw their own conclusions.

That’s just the kind of thing that’ll confuse you about omniscient patriarchal deities, by the way: despite his apparent surprise at the whole city-wide Sodom and Gomorra fiasco, this "God" character seemed singularly well-informed about the slightest move of a sorry little nobody like myself. I was always going God-knows-where, a place I was certain to insert God-knows-what-kitchen-appliance up God-knows-what-orifice while strung out on God-knows-what-household-cleaner. I try to encourage her speculations along these lines, since the possibility of her developing an imagination is (however unlikely) frankly her best chance of ever mustering a thought independant of her church group.

It was the night of the party, and my mother had just come home from her job as a line cook at Lauren’s country club, looking resplendent in her taupe polyester uniform as she wedged her way into our trailerhome with all the lithe grace of a Disney heroine – not. "Gracie," tastefully embroidered over the left breast pocket in huge fluorescent orange, lent her outfit just that perfect touch that said "lower middle class."

"I hear you got straight A’s again this year," she said slowly, her eyes possessed of that dull gleam Neanderthal parents in caveman movies evince upon discovering that not only have their offspring leapfrogged a few decades of evolution by discovering fire, but, to judge by their leg-hair situation, they’ve also invented the Epilady. Reluctant to deliver unadulterated that which might be perceived as a compliment, and with a keen and constant eye on my religious upbringing, Gracie did manage to tack on "God knows how" as an afterthought.

Like all dutiful media-sponge Americans, my parents viewed my ability to correctly string sentences together with uneasy suspicion. This was a particular shame, as I arguably had no other merits. I returned the favor by holding their "honest working folk" pose in open contempt.

My father possessed a special fondness for accusing me of trying to get "smart" with him. To hear him tell it, this was the most heinous crime a young person could commit, and obviously branded me as a much greater caution than the Eddings kid, who was once caught vivisecting a live cat using razor blades, forceps, and a Pez dispenser (we never found out what he had intended to do with the Pez dispenser).

Once when I was fifteen, I riposted Dad’s standard "Don’t you be gettin’ smart with me, now" with the simple imbrocatta: "Now?" Without exhuming the incident in its blood-caked entirety, suffice to say this didn’t go over well.

At least there had been a precedent; older brother Alec exhibited similar rogue genes in slicing through his SAT’s like an overused metaphor through butter, before finally betraying me and absconding to Silicon Valley. His expression of knowing empathy as we hugged our good-byes was distilled poetry, and his whispered "illegitamus non corundum" was infinitely precious. It flawlessly embodied the spirit of our relationship: literate, hermetic, reassuringly you-and-me-against-the-world and wincingly pretentious.

Dad had made endlessly clear his dissatisfaction with Alec for not embodying the working class hero romanticized in Irish drinking lore, grumbling vague allusions in re what was done with intellectuals and pansies in "the good old days" before boozing himself into a nightly stupor. Gracie, by contrast, dimly recognized having produced a male offspring as her sole claim to societal validation, and so cut Alec something of a break.

Thus on my shoulders alone was balanced the weighty onus of emotional scapegoatery for a woman whose chief occupation (her smart uniform notwithstanding) was locating someone other than herself to blame for her family restaurant going out of business ten years previous, and her life generally turning out to be less scintillating than the women’s magazines of the late ‘60s had led her to anticipate. For some reason she had never grown out of her girlhood obsession with all things Paul McCartney, to which I attribute both the staggeringly unsavvy restaurant name ("Gracie’s Beatle Burgers") and her reluctance to cut my hair in any style other than "moptop." (This in itself led to my special distinction in elementary school, engendering as it did the innovative playground taunt, "Your mother dresses you funny, and we also suspect she’s behind that dumb haircut.")

Following the script we both knew by heart, Gracie lumbered into my room and exuded false matronliness without actually demanding my attention. I pretended oblivion, kept my nose buried in my book. Douglas Hofstadter was right in the middle of a particularly moving explanation of self-referencing loops, alluding to the works of J.S. Bach, Escher, and the great mathematician Gödel, using a conversation between characters first explored by Lewis Carol.

"If it’s learning you’re so keen on," Gracie slid one finger over the top of my book, pulled it down to corner my gaze, "there’s a slide show down at the Catholic Youth Center on how God put them dinosaur bones in the ground to trick all those know-it-all scientists. Apparently that funny foreign guy you like figures heavily into it./?" Gracie tirelessly experimented with various amateur brainwashing techniques, peppering my bedroom door with little post-it note messages such as "Thou Shalt Not Steal," which she scribbled with golf pencils obtained through her DIY employee compensation package (i.e., stealing).

I squinted at her, grudgingly intrigued. Funny foreign guy? "Gregor Mendel?"

"No, Chuck somebody. Said we’re related to monkeys./?"

Reluctantly, I lowered the book into my lap. Gracie had an uncanny knack for stirring up my curiosity just barely enough to overcome my desire to be left alone without quite being interesting. "Charles Darwin?"

[little snap] "That’s him. Apparently he was a very confused old geezer. There’ll also be a bake sale – you could make those special brownies you’re so good at./?"

Gracie had caught me making pot brownies once, but apparently had absolutely no previous experience with my "secret ingredient." Now she asked me to make them at least once a month, grudgingly mumbled something about "hidden culinary talent."

"When’s Jack coming home?" I asked, pulling on a mass of shredded gray material that may have once been a sneaker.

"Your father won’t be home till late. He’s working second shift for a few weeks, while Tom’s on vacation./?"

Working second shift on a regular basis was my father’s own special way of embracing the blue-collar lifestyle. That and bowling.

Gracie surveyed my room in a long, slow sweep, like a searchlight hunting for Miami drug dealers. More or less half of the special-order books from the local library spent their time in Buffalo Creek on my floor, wedged between CDs, laundry, and stuff for which I’ve forgotten the original use. Chaos, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Beggars in Spain. A few copies of Scientific American, which I admit I find mostly confusing (but how else could I pepper classroom discussions with words like "asymptote" and "heuristic"?).

"The Youth Center is also sponsoring a foreign exchange program for Catholic students./? It wouldn’t kill you to have a little religious influence around here, you know./? You might think about us hosting someone./?"

"Oooh... no can do, Gracie. I’m chewing gum at the moment and, you know: employing motor skills and thinking something over at the same time? I’d be running a serious risk of ‘getting smart.’

"Besides, don’t I remember you saying you were ten points away from winning Most Fawningly Sycophantic Brainwashee at your parish? I’d hate to subject some poor Indonesian kid to our glorious trailer park for eight months just so you could win the complimentary Our Father of Covert Bribery flatware set."

Gracie frowned, sighed in that exquisitely sublime way parents have, and flopped down onto the bed like Atlas on a lunch break. Long experience had taught me the mother-to-daughter-heart-to-heart leitmotif, and my blood ran cold.

"Dina, your father and I have always done the best we-"

Two demure, ladylike automotive throat-clearing noises issued from outside – let’s call them "beeps," for the sake of technical scrupulousness. Gracie and I glanced out at Lauren’s white jag, waved. "Oops." I tried to affect sheepishness. "There’s my ride."

Gracie stood up, handing me the backpack I carried everywhere in lieu of a purse. "Honey, I just want you to remember that all Lauren Bancroft’s money does is insulate her from the Real World, and she’s got a big surprise coming to her when she discovers that she can’t have everything she wants./?"

"Well, thank you for deigning to fill me in on the secrets of the universe, but I’m just on my way out the door," I mumbled at that particular decibel level midway between "soft enough for Gracie to pretend not to hear" and "loud enough that Gracie can eavesdrop from several rooms away."

I might have escaped with my life at that point, but the shadowbet had put me in a funky mood, coming so soon after the incident with the hamster and the spackling gun. Perversely, I spun on my heel and launched into one of my signature politically maladroit mini-catharses: "Anyway, which Real World is that, Gracie? Getting up at five a.m. every morning to make minimum wage? Staying with a man you don’t love because it’s too much trouble to leave, and you just don’t care that much anymore?"

Gracie’s eyes were as wide as saucers, and her skin went so white I could see the miniature trellis of blue veins under her forehead. "Don’t you talk to me that way, Young Lady!! Your Father and I..." She couldn’t even finish her sentence before going all squishy: "Your Father and I are just trying to raise you the best we know how." There was definite blubbering in the cards if I didn’t wheedle my way outside quickly.

"I have to go," I said stupidly, pulling the backpack over one shoulder. "I have to go, Mom."

I didn’t turn around to see her crying as I walked out. Before completely escaping earshot I heard her repeating the word as though she’d never heard it before.

"Mom./?"

"How’s Gracie?" Lauren was magically able to show every one of her perfect teeth without wrinkling at the corners of her eyes. She had read about this finishing-school trick years ago, trained ruthlessly until she could mimic it to perfection. The thing is, it only looks sincere in magazines. "Please, Lauren, I’d like the genuineness to be a little better-imitated when you ask about the family, okay?" Lauren blinked once, then smiled as mortals smile. I caught myself shuddering – the degree of precision Lauren had over every muscle in her body was a bit too reminiscent of the psycho nuns in that space opera Andrea was always begging us to read.

"Things a little tense at the Gallagher household?" Lauren asked sympathetically, pulling the Jag gracefully out of the trailer park and into traffic. She automatically assumed any criticism directed at her was the result of some personal problem on the part of the critic. Or at least she pretended to. It kept her detractors on the defensive.

"By the way, I absolutely adore your jacket. Real leather?"

"Yeah, birthday present from Alec." I wore my best poker face, but Klaxons were going off in my head. "Adore" is one of Lauren’s especially foreboding code-words. It means, "How dare you have something nice which I do not have!!" I didn’t know how, but by the end of the evening Lauren would be wearing the jacket.

Lauren slipped in a cassette of Japanese pop music, sang along with perfect inflections designed to show off that she had somehow been learning the language, probably from her well-traveled father. Defiantly drawing out the time allotted to me before I was forced to admit I was impressed, I looked out at the side mirror and vainly tried to smile without wrinkling at the eyes.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering why I hang out with Lauren at all, if she’s such a world-class bitch? Gentle reader, this surely ranks among the greatest mysteries of all time. Right up there with "If one hand clapped in the forest, and no one was there to hear it, would it make a good koan?"

Let’s explore this fascinating question in detail:

First of all, Buffalo Creek, Wisconsin is a small town. You may think I mean "small" in the sense that puppies or gumballs are "small." No, I mean "small" in the sense that nanotechnology is "small." In the sense that theoretical sub-atomic particles are "small." Finally and mostly, I mean "small" in the sense that the I.Q. of the average Buffalo Creek High School student is "small."

There were only three teenagers within thirty miles who spent junior high in the "gifted student" program: Lauren, Kelly and me.

When Kelly died, Lauren and I went through some sort of bizarre, unholy bonding process, not unlike mentally deranged Vietnam vets who experienced gunfire in the same trench, waist-deep in human skulls with leeches clinging to their every open sore. Well, maybe I’m getting just a tad overly-colorful here, but we hugged and cried real tears at the funeral, vowed to be friends forever.

In a way, Lauren was the neediest person in Buffalo Creek. She absolutely needed the best grades, the most attention, the highest SAT scores. And it wasn’t enough that her teachers and fellow students worshipped her, because they could never really appreciate her, not fully. She needed someone close enough to her level to understand exactly how sharp she was. Needed it in the clingy, desperate way babies need food.

That was my job.

That was how I qualified for best friend status for the girl voted Most Popular, Most Athletic, Best Dressed, and Most Likely To Rule the World, despite my white trash background, golf-pencil figure and decided absence of taste in the fashion department.

And for all our enmity, we have our moments. Once we listened through Ani DiFranco’s Out of Range CD, Lauren with her head in my lap after letting me brush her hair. As it ended Lauren wiped tears from her eyes and looked up at me. "Growing up, I hope she had just one person she could feel rapport with. So she wasn’t alone." With the audacity of old friendship, I kissed her forehead. I’ll always remember the sensation of that moment brush-firing through my neurons, deeper and brighter than the time she tricked me into painting a picket fence, just to discover whether Mark Twain was still relevant for Young People Today.

Lauren is the best friend I’ve ever had. It’s too bad we hate each other’s guts.

Brooke met us at the door in a trademark off-the-nipple gown, high heels and what the locals refer to as "big-ass hair." She kissed us both lightly on each cheek as we entered, her latest European affectation. Brooke’s communication was restricted to four major categories, (A) cute-boy-targeted giggling, pouting and preening, (B), non-cute-boy disdain, (C) palpable (but deniable) wave of malevolence for potential competitors, and (D) man-catching tips for everyone else, including any boy who has never made a pass at her and is therefore categorically homosexual. Lauren was handed a white wine and fierce category C, I got off with some thinly-veiled propaganda on the advantages of underwire garments and a cherry spritzer.

I’m a big fan of Brooke’s parties mostly because she’s richer and better-looking, objectively, than Lauren. But not quite as powerful. It supports Lauren’s argument that physical beauty, like her brother’s stupid nunchucks, is only dangerous in the hands of people who have a clue what they’re doing.

Speaking of Lauren’s lamprey-like younger brother, Corey swarmed up out of nowhere the moment we walked in, eager to show off the pathetic high school French he had picked up in his semester abroad. "Bon soir, Mesdemoiselles," he effused, bowing affectedly. I say "affectedly," but really you’re going to have to take it as given that my every image of Corey includes the word "affected." Because calling Corey Bancroft affected is like calling the ocean damp. Corey is affected to such a mind-splunching degree that one has the sense he is constantly starring in a made-for-television movie about his own life, in which he inexpertly plays himself. He carries around a blank hardcover book at all times, in which he jots his every passing thought as a personal favor to future historians.

Lauren hadn’t seen her brother for the entire six months he had been away, and he had come directly from the airport to Brooke’s party. So of course the two had to cross swords of disinterest.

"Corey," Lauren smiled faintly. "How was Paris?"

"Oh, you know," Corey managed, eyes already drifting towards the ballroom, "Mes copains de classe francais m’ont dit que les nanas seraient vraiment impressionnees si je recitais ca en rentrant." He took an effete sip from his beer. "Je l’ai appris par coeur et n’ai pas la moindre idee que je suis en train de faire l’imbecile."

Lauren raised both eyebrows and tilted her head just slightly to the left – a recent addition to our private kinetic lexicon indicating that something mockworthy had just transpired, the details of which she would fill in later.

Corey was slowly grasping that his painfully teenagerish, please-pay-attention-to-me-not-that-I-care schtick was mysteriously not working, and I felt it wise to throw him a concessionary "Watcha been up to, Corey?"

Instantly his head spun towards mine with the air of a mousetrap snapping shut, and too late I realized my mistake. Paying attention to Corey Bancroft is like feeding a stray dog – he’ll follow you around for the rest of your life.

"Actually, I rather think I’ve found my calling, now that you come to ask." During our acquaintance, Corey had found his calling no less than seventeen times. Beat poet, mime, performance artist, screenwriter, director of musical comedies – if it had to do with wearing lots of black sweaters, drinking espresso, and smoking faggy French cigarettes, chances were excellent Corey had embraced it with his heart and soul for at least a week.

Lauren conjured a smile that was at once condescending and sisterly, if there’s a difference. "And what is Daddy’s money to buy you this time, Corey? A saxophone? Ballet slippers? The complete works of Shelley?"

"That’s what it all comes down to with you, isn’t it Lauren? Money!! You always imagine I’m chipping away at the Bancroft fortune!!"

"Oh, my apologies. You don’t need any money, then?"

"Well, I didn’t say that. The point is, I’ve found my raison d’être."

Lauren turned towards me, looking confused. "He found his raisins?"

"I’ve never heard a guy call them raisins before." I frowned with concern. "Maybe it’s a size thing."

"Laugh all you want, foul harpies, but we’ll see who’s laughing once I’ve mass-produced this!!" Corey produced a saddle-stitched, black and white magazine and waved it under our noses as if he were Hardy, showing off his recently-completed manuscript for Tess of the D’Ubervilles. (In other words, with an utter lack of comprehension that it was crap.)

Lauren frowned appraisingly. "Scented toilet paper?"

"It’s a zine, you philistines!! My zine, and possibly the single greatest threat to the establishment of all time."

Lauren raised one eyebrow contemptuously, "And Daddy’s paying for it?" (Corey nods enthusiastically) "Of course, you realize that Daddy is the establishment?"

"It’s called Philosopher’s Stone," Corey wisely ducked topics as he handed his little opus to me. "Get it?"

"Get what?"

"Alchemists had a myth, about a stone from which you could make a compound which would extend life indefinitely."

"Go on."

"It was called the philosopher’s stone."

"Yes?"

"And, well...they were all decried as idiots."

"And they were idiots. There’s no such thing as a philosopher’s stone."

Corey turned a funny shade of purple. "Well...now there is!!"

This wasn’t the first time Corey had mistaken an allusion for a double entendre. And I had to admit, although Corey was only slightly brighter than certain species of goldfish, I found him ever-so-vaguely intriguing. After all, Buffalo Creek was chock full of non-clever persons with a tenuous system of ethics cobbled together from revenge fantasy action-adventure movies. But how many of them could regurgitate the Generation Whatever pop-media tsunami at the rate of several thousand pages per semester?

In fact, I could only think of one other person in Buffalo Creek who just as consistently made uninventive, banal decisions, and just as consistently managed to imagine they were somehow ingenious.

It was while considering this other person that I noticed Corey had eyeliner on, pointed it out to him.

"Oh, that," Corey said, laughing in a way which was disturbingly horse-like (although I hadn’t yet put my finger on why that would be disturbing). "I was wondering when someone would notice. I’m a Goth now. It’s all the rage on the Champs d’Elysée!!"

Lauren eyed me sideways. "A Goth, you say?"

"C’est moi!! It’s absolutely the latest – you wear black all the time, lots of medieval jewelry, and of course the eyeliner. Actually, it reminds me of that girl you always used to hang out with...what was her name? Andi? Amanda?"

"Andrea." I swallowed hard.

"Andrea, that’s it. I wonder if she’s here, I’d love to find out where she got that great slipcase collection of the Vampire Chronicles..." Corey’s voice was absorbed by the maelstrom as he wandered off into the thick of partying teenagers. I made a weak attempt to evaporate into the crowd with him, but Lauren intercepted me with customary adroitness.

"He’s a Goth now," she said menacingly.

"So he’s a Goth," I pretended calm. "There was no way we could know. I’ll take care of it."

Lauren made a little noise of dissent before sweeping off into the party. Somehow my palms had become clammy. I leaned against the wall and let out a long, slow breath.

As keen as I was to find Andrea, chancing upon Beth posing in front of a full-length mirror was an opportunity for self-validation-through-the-invalidation-of-others my vampiric ego simply couldn’t pass up.

Beth had "accidentally" stumbled across Mrs. Van Heusen’s lavishly overpriced selection of cocktail gowns, and was holding them up to herself with the same glazed expression I thought she reserved solely for her beloved Barbie Town House, which I’ll bet a million dollars she still plays with.

Though the ego-that-must-be-fed smelled blood, I made a concerted attempt at caution. Because while Beth is generally acknowledged as Least Likely to Become a Rocket Scientist from among the Gifted and Talented set and an easy target, she also mysteriously gets into these moods where she’s unduly good-natured and impossible to insult, evading my snideness like a Shaolin swatting aside those pointy little tin frisbees Corey believes are secretly hidden in his backback. My frustration over the lack of a stationary target gets me more and more steamed, which reminds me that I’m belittling others to compensate for my own lack of self-confidence, which makes me feel all the shittier, which makes me all the crueler, which Beth continues to exhibit a Superman-like invulnerability to.

Pre-empting with Kryptonite just saves time.

Beth turned to me, smiling beatifically with a dress in each arm. "Dina, which of Mrs. Van Heusen’s things do you think would flatter me most?"

"Her liposuction gold card with no pre-set spending limit."

I figured giggle or pout, but instead Beth gently lowered the dresses to the bed, took a moment to smooth them out, then blasted twin columns of searing plasma through my skull, using the Atomic Vision she had picked up in Giant-Sized Beth #431, Curse of The Ferret-Men from Exceedingly Far Away.

Okay that was a metaphor, but barely. It was several heartbeats before Beth’s pancreas resumed insulin overproduction sufficient to her to return to her smiley, bovine, maternal self.

"Dina, I can only imagine the callouses you need to build, flitting through Lauren’s umbra without being swallowed up. But if your only protection from Lauren is to become Lauren, what’s left of Dina?"

Cold, ghostly fingers closed around my throat.

"So in the words of Nietzsche, ‘Battle not with monsters lest you become a monster also’?"

"No. In the words of Beth Newgarden, these little blurs have a way of resolving into lines. And by the time that day comes, you’d better have decided if you want to be an original Dina or an off-the-rack Lauren."

By the time I met up with Lauren again there was cartoon smoke spewing from my ears. I realized this left me particularly vulnerable to manipulation, and pulled on a saccharine face for a few valiant seconds before Lauren said something disparaging to the effect that she can’t stand phonies, which made it clear she was on to me. Then she did her smile-except-at-the-eyes thing.

We finally found Andrea out on the porch. She was, unbelievably, sitting in Corey’s lap and hand-feeding him "magic" brownies. Lauren and I spotted them at the same moment. Our reactions were a bit different – she let out a demure little yelp indicating impeccable good breeding. I, by contrast, clutched at my heart and approximated the sound of a duck being strangled to death on Thanksgiving morning, because not only did you lose the ax, but all the Turkeys had died of malaria. (Metaphors are a big part of my plan to sweep the literary world off its feet and into the trash. But I digress.)

"Dina, hi." Andrea smiled up at us with the biggest shit-eating grin you’ve ever seen in your life, even if your life has been the endless parade of shit-eating grins mine has, what with being Lauren’s best friend. I was half-tempted to let Andrea get away with it, just to watch someone take something from Lauren for once. But no, the repercussions would be apocalyptic.

"Hi, Andrea. I see you’ve met Corey."

"Oh, yeah, I kind of vaguely remember him from last year," Andrea smiled down at her victim as though admiring an especially sparkly piece of costume jewelry. "Of course I had no idea he was into Goth." She threw Lauren a death glare and less-than-subtly shifted her already brazenly splayed figure, thereby "accidentally" bringing her surgically enhanced Boy Enticements into soft physical contact with Corey’s cheek. Said confections were candy-coated with Andrea’s trademark kinderwhore getup: a raver halfshirt she personally emblazoned with a Hello-Kitty-like cartoon of her teddybear, Fluffy. Say what you will about the pedophilia-encouraging ramifications of combining "I’m a little girl" with "I’m sexually available" in a single outfit – it works. Corey’s pupils strained the very limits of dilation as HTBD (Horny Teenage Boy Dementia) flipped the main control switch in his brain off for the evening.

Andrea purred.

"Everyone thinks the four of us are the big clique, you know? Dina, Lauren, Beth and I. But Dina and Lauren are the real inner circle." Andrea turned to Corey, straightened his collar. "Ever since Kelly died, those two are inseparable. Beth and I try, of course, but we’ll just never measure up to the great Kelly."

"Isn’t that right, Lauren?" Andrea’s eyes were red like cherries. There was a half-empty beer bottle in her hand, several empties littering the floor.

"Of course not, Andrea. I love you like a sister," Lauren said evenly. Oddly, I didn’t get the "warm fuzzies" from her tone of voice. More the "cold pricklies." Kind of the "cold pricklies which are so prickly that there’s a good chance they might prickle your eyes out," actually. Several other party-goers smelled blood and began casually darting over.

"Love you like a sister..." Andrea mumbled with decreasing clarity, turning back to Corey. Suddenly, like a great jungle cat emerging from the underbrush in one terrifying leap, realizing it was tipsy and staggering around a bit before getting it together to pounce on an opossum which was wounded beyond escape in the first place, Andrea launched into a clumsy, full-on liplock. She drunkenly choreographed the event to ensure us a front-row gander at her soft, little-girl tongue.

Lauren’s fingers dug into my elbow as she dragged me towards the kitchen.

She pushed me into the seat by the window. I expected yelling. I expected explosions. But her voice was soft and quick and carried only two words.

"Fix it."

Just then Mary-Lou Henninger wandered in, lilting like a Spanish Galleon after six months at sea and smelling like the crew. "Hey, you guys...I am sooooo drunk....I can’t remember who I am?" Mary-Lou ended every sentence in a question mark; I’d never bothered to figure out if this was to seek affirmation, avoid responsibility, or both. The rumor was that Mary-Lou had engaged in physical relations with every guy on the football team, and the meta-rumor was that she had started the first rumor herself.

Just for an instant, Lauren lost her composure. "The grown-ups are busy, Mary-Lou. Run along."

"No," I said, and Lauren’s eyes went feral for a split-second at my defiance.

I patted the seat beside me. "Mary-Lou, come sit over here and we’ll see if we can’t straighten you out."

Then I leaned into Lauren and whispered, "I want Corey in the bathroom in five minutes. Can you do that?"

Lauren nodded, grateful to be given an errand.

"Wait!!" I grabbed her as she had grabbed me, dragged her towards the plate of brownies. "Where does Brooke’s mother keep the medication?"

Lauren pulled open a drawer, sending dozens of little prescription bottles spilling out onto the floor.

"Oh, hey, no more pills, man, okay?" Mary-Lou’s head lolled back and forth like a marionette’s. "Really, I am just so freaking high already?"

I grabbed a bottle of sleeping pills, mashed a handful of them together between two spoons. Then I opened up a brownie and brushed the white powder inside it.

"This one is for Andrea," I said, placing the brownie back on its plate. "Have you got that? And that other thing...," I glanced at Mary-Lou, "...that other thing, in five minutes."

Lauren looked out at the porch, back to me. "It’s freezing out there." I tossed her my jacket. Lauren would stop to put on a sweater during Ragnarok, I thought at the time. It was only much later, in the 20-20 vision of hindsight, that I pieced together my bamboozlement.

"Dina?" Mary-Lou had managed to make it all the way from her chair to the other end of the kitchen, where she threw an arm around me to avoid collapsing entirely. "Why does everyone treat me like the class slut?"

"Because you are the class slut."

"Oh, that’s right?" Mary-Lou giggled as I inexpertly threw her over one shoulder. "I knew there had to be a reason?"

It was no small thing getting a drunk, stoned cheerleader all the way from the kitchen to the master bathroom in Brooke’s excessively Byzantine "look how rich we are" mansion. Mary-Lou was more or less genetically destined to become the grossly overweight mother of a half-dozen welfare kids – you could already detect a hint of plumpness in her cheeks, poised to sweep over her body like a glacier. Luckily at this point she was still a faded beauty in waiting, or I never would have negotiated her all the way upstairs.

Once inside, I dropped Mary-Lou onto the toilet unceremoniously and started running the hot water. "What you need," I told her in my most motherly voice, "is a nice hot bath."

"Dina, that sounds so great? You are like the best friend ever?" Mary-Lou made an attempt at trying to get out of her dress, but despite a zipper chosen specifically for easy access it was more than she could manage. I averted my eyes and gave one good tug, and Mary-Lou was ready for the tub.

"I am soooo drunk?" she felt compelled to reiterate. I told her not to worry, as I was going to get some black coffee.

"Okay, but Dina, don’t forget about locking the door, okay?" Mary-Lou was still vaguely lucid, but fading fast.

"I won’t forget," I answered. Then, just as I flipped the light switch off, I was overcome by bullshit teenage melodrama and whispered, "Forgive me."

"Forgive you?" I heard Mary-Lou say behind me. "You’re my, like, best friend?"

The door closed behind me without a sound, just in time for me to meet Corey coming up the stairs.

"Corey!!" I realized that my voice was much too loud, lowered it a few decibels. "I guess you need to use the, uh...the old bathroom, huh?"

"Dina, yeah. Strangest thing. I was just getting to know Andrea, you know, when Lauren comes up and starts reminiscing about our family trip to Niagara Falls. All of a sudden, I realized I had to..." Corey broke off his riveting soliloquy in order to pantomime the difficult control of an enormous fire hose, which I assumed represented his "primary thinking unit."

"Woosh!!" he intoned with conviction.

"Yeah, woosh!!" I did the no-eye-wrinkle smile. Corey continued on, oblivious. He found the bathroom, and I heard the flimsy lock engaging before he flipped on the light switch. There was a little shriek, just the tiniest noise.

And then silence.

I found Lauren sitting beside the gently-snoring Andrea, stroking her face as a mother strokes the face of her baby. Andrea was covered in brownie crumbs.

"Lauren." My voice was an alien, controlled tenor. "Can I speak with you outside, please?"

Like most nouveau riche that came into money during the ‘70s, the Van Heusens were perhaps a bit overly given to glass architecture. Thick, soundproof plates of it honeycombed the walls of the house, conspiring with the darkness to lend my conversation with Lauren a silent-film backdrop of giggling party-goers to whom we remained invisible.

I told Lauren what had happened. She moved to bequeath a congratulatory hug. That was her highest accolade, something she reserved only for me and only when I fulfilled a shadowbet. Her eyes grew wide when I pushed her away.

"I don’t like myself too much right now, Lauren."

I braced myself to receive her anger, but Lauren surprised me by putting a warm hand on my arm, speaking in her maddeningly placid voice.

"What’s wrong, Honey?"

Don’t get me started about how much I hate that voice; if you’ve ever seen doe-eyed newlyweds cooing over each other, you know the one I mean. It’s like we’re a goddamn couple and I’m what Alec half-enviously calls "pussywhipped."

I blame my parents, of course. If they hadn’t deprived me of affection I wouldn’t be so easily manipulated by the slightest pretense of it. Usually I hear the hint of warmth in Lauren’s tone, and I just cave. But usually I haven’t just gift-wrapped a naked girl for Lauren’s brother.

"What’s wrong is what we did to those people, without them even knowing. It’s...it’s not right, Lauren. It’s evil."

Lauren smiled winningly. "Evil? Dina, point out to me the unhappy party, and I’ll apologize. Andrea is asleep with a big smile on her face, confident that for once she’s the candyman. You and I have reinforced our own opinions about how clever we are. And Corey and Mary-Lou both have someone to fuck for the summer."

I’d never heard Lauren swear before, and for the first time I understood why. The word had so much more weight, soiling her usually pristine lips. A beat or two passed before I could muster a response. "It isn’t right to make people jump through hoops just to prove how smart we are, Lauren. It isn’t right to treat people like that."

"Dina, who do you think runs the world? Do you think it’s all Brookes and Andreas and Coreys? In the real world, those are the people running cash registers."

Lauren looked back at the party, still taking place beyond the plate glass window. She paused as a virtuoso musician pauses, gathering a profound significance around her like the Shroud of Turin.

"You can’t save them. But you sure as hell better sharpen your claws on them, if you want to save yourself."

"Sharpen your...? How can you say that, Lauren? How can you even think that, unless you hate them?"

Lauren met my eyes, cocking her head slightly to one side but otherwise expressionless. Then, slowly, she blew a bubble gum bubble and let it snap in the air between us. This was Lauren’s special "Bathos Brand" of magical bubblegum, incidentally, which only appeared in her mouth when she had occasion to ironically juxtapose Shirley Temple innocence against Marquis de Sade depravity.

Something tasted sour. I betrayed my tomboy facade by only sort of contemptuously spitting on Brooke’s expensive, perfectly smooth driveway. The saliva did eventually meander down to the asphalt.

"I can’t do that," I said, my voice cracking. "I can’t hurt people like that."

Lauren laughed hollow. "Is that what you think, that I’m hurting them? Dina, most people are grateful to be manipulated. To be absolved of responsibility for their own happiness. Tell people how to live their pathetic lives with sufficient authority, and they’ll lick your feet."

I felt something giving way inside my head, like ice cracking. "You’re wrong, Lauren. You’re wrong."

Lauren leaned back against a tree, regarded me with affectionate pity. "Don’t you understand, Dina? If I wanted, I could talk the entire senior class into wearing signs reading, ‘I’m an idiot.’ And they’d love me for it."

"I could stop you."

Lauren shook her head sadly, as if she didn’t want to believe what she said. As if she were burdened with some terrible knowledge. "No you couldn’t, Dina. No one could stop me."

"You do that, Lauren, despite my best efforts to prevent it, and I will kiss your ass in front of the whole school."

Lauren laughed, stopped. "You’re serious."

"Dead serious. You convince all forty-three seniors to wear your pin or whatever on the first day of school, and I pucker up like Mary-Lou Henninger negotiating an F up to a D."

"Little girl, you’ve got a bet."

"And if I stop you?"

"Name it."

I paused, long enough to consider but not enough to process the shock of an actual, explicitly-acknowledged bet with Lauren.

"If I can stop you, if even a single senior doesn’t wear your pin..." I was careful with my words, "Then you let Andrea have Corey. Accept?"

"So your reward for proving that I can’t manipulate people is permission to manipulate people?"

"Accept or not?"

Lauren extended one perfectly-manicured hand, like a moray eel striking in slow motion. "Accept."

As we shook hands, I shivered. Lauren was wearing my jacket.



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After Kelly ©1995 by Kristen Brennan