Those Were the Days
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To the girl in the pink pointe shoes
“Let me get this straight,” Claudia reasoned, sitting reluctantly in the passenger seat. “Wendy got to drive at sixteen. She got her own car at seventeen. And I’m not even allowed to drive myself to school?”
“You failed your driving test five times,” Mom said, hands at a perfect ten and two on the steering wheel. “You need more practice.”
“You don’t trust me.”
Mom’s eyes never left the road, like she was trying to prove her point. “I do trust you. I just want to protect you.”
Claudia rolled her eyes all the way to the window. [_The guilt trip. _]You can’t argue with a mom who wants to protect you. Especially when she means it.
“Good day at school?” Mom changed the subject, ever-so-cleverly.
Claudia slouched down into the leather. She didn’t feel like talking anymore. “It was okay.”
Mom let the silence rest between them for a minute or two. Claudia could practically feel the worry grinding its way through the gears of Mom’s brain.
She couldn’t take it anymore. “Have you heard from Wendy?”
“Yes, I did!” It never failed. Mom always lit up when she talked about Wendy. “She’s coming home Sunday. Dad and I are going up on Saturday to help her pack up the apartment. Want to come?”
As far as Claudia was concerned, Wendy was just an idea of a person, rather than an actual one. Wendy was a good sister, so that wasn’t the problem. It was the age difference that was the thing. Six years was practically an eon in sister years, and now that Wendy was graduated, grown-up and adulted, Claudia felt like DNA was the only thing they had in common these days.
“No thanks,” Claudia said. “I think I’m supposed to go to a party with Casey.”
“He’s coming for dinner tonight, right? I bought an extra steak.”
“Then he’s definitely coming.”
They were only a few minutes away from home now. Covington, the town built on acquaintances and Southern hospitality, pulsed against an amber-tinted sky as the sun dipped low.
And Claudia thought about Wendy, even though she never thought about Wendy. She wondered, [_Why would you ever come back? _]
The door cracked open at 5:50 p.m., followed by an overzealous, “Greetings, Lake family!”
“Dinner’s almost ready!” Mom called from the kitchen, the sound of pots and running faucet water as confirmation.
Claudia strolled down the stairs in an oversized sweatshirt, her hair swirled into a loose knot above her head. “Hey, weirdo.”
“You look ravishing,” Casey said, his eyes bulging. “You should totally go out with me.”
She wished he were joking. He wasn’t. “Siblings don’t date. Can’t date, in fact. The Man wins again.”
They walked into the living room together. Casey whispered, “Growing up in close proximity of each other does not make us siblings. And you will date me, by the end of this year, I’d bet.”
“You might as well fork over that money now,” Claudia said, one eyebrow raised, wishing he’d just give it up already.
Dad, in his fearless baby blue shirt, crossed into the room. “Case. You’re like a dog. Once you smell food, you coming running.”
“Mark,” Mom said, a warning.
Dad nodded to her. “I get it; I’ll cut it out.” Back to Casey, he said, “You ready for SAT’s? Or pre-SATs? Whatever the hell they are.”
“It’s a placement test, Dad,” Claudia corrected. “And yeah, Casey, [_are you ready?” _]
Casey was an okay student. Since kindergarten, he’d been the kid that everyone liked, the one with all the jokes. Without Claudia’s help, every assignment would go unfinished, every test taken without prep.
He needed her.
“I’m good,” Casey said, with his signature shoulder shrug. It looked like he was rolling a tennis ball down his arm.
“How about those practice tests? How’d you do?”
Dad, looking like he’d just walked into the wrong house by mistake, casually excused himself to “check on the grill.”
“Yes, Mom, I did my practice tests. I did okay. I mean, I won’t be curing cancer anytime soon, but I won’t be sweeping sidewalks for a living either.”
“Is that an actual job?”
“Sounds like something you can Google.”
Dad brought in the sizzling platter of steaks just as Mom set the last plate at the table. “Let’s eat!”
“What time are we heading up to Baton Rouge Saturday?” Dad asked, mid-bite. “I’ve got to stop by the hardware store first.”
“I was thinking around ten,” Mom said. “Wendy has tools there, so we should be good.”
“Tools, huh?” Casey chimed in. “I thought she got rid of Simon.”
It was supposed to be a joke.
No one laughed.
To be fair, Simon wasn’t a tool. He was just a generally sucky person most of the time.
But at the end, Wendy and Simon had seen pretty stable. Happy, even. Until they broke up a year ago.
“So what’s Wendy going to do now?” Claudia asked, changing the dead-as-nails subject. “Get a job? Travel? What’s the plan?”
“She’s job hunting,” Mom said. “Dad’s already got a few prospects lined up.”
“If it were me,” Casey said, “I’d backpack through Europe for a year or two. Cliff-dive off some cool mountain. Maybe skydive or something like that.”
“Yeah, that’s financially practical,” Claudia said.
“You can’t pencil your life into a planner,” Casey mocked.
“Then it’s a good thing I use pen.”
Dad gave a chin-nod of approval. “Good one.”
And Casey, blissfully clueless Casey, just gave her a big, we’re-going-to-date-and-marry-and-have-babies grin.
Saturday night, Mom texted: “About to grab dinner. Probably home around 11. How are you?”
Claudia stared at her face in the mirror. She had a small chicken pox scar just below her left eye that she used to color in with Mom’s eyeliner, so she could pretend to be Marilyn Monroe.
Tonight, she’d kept the makeup to a minimum, her hair falling in waves at her pointy shoulders.
Her mind was in knots.
While her body was heading for a party, her brain was lost in algebraic equations and Punnett squares.
She needed to ace this test.
She texted Mom back: “Good. Waiting on Casey. Because I can’t be trusted behind the wheel.”
Mom didn’t answer.
Claudia was in the middle of changing her outfit for the twenty-eighth time when Casey knocked on the door.
“Coming!” she yelled as she settled on the striped top.
“Wow,” Casey said in the doorway, “You look—”
“Shut up already,” she said, pushing past him to jump in his obnoxiously tall truck.
Casey’s truck was an embarrassing display of clichés. On his dashboard, a Hawaiian hula girl swished her hips back and forth, while a pair of dice dangled from his rearview mirror. He used to have shaggy green seat covers until she threatened to slash his tires.
Yet another reason why Casey needed her.
“So whose party is this?”
“Trish? Todd? Taylor? I don’t know.”
She laughed. “I heard it was Tina’s.”
“Dear God, what is it with our generation’s parents’ “T-named” obsession. It’s an epidemic.”
“Hey,” he said, scowling at her. “Don’t you dare slip SAT prep words into our perfectly pleasant conversations. This is a pretentious-free truck.”
“You mean pretention-free.”
“I’ll make you a deal,” Casey said, ignoring her.
“No, thank you.”
“If you promise to relax tonight,” Casey continued, “then I will finish every last practice test in the book.”
“You’ll ace every last practice test.”
Casey smiled, his teeth a blinding white. “Deal.”
The party at Trish/Todd/Taylor/Tina’s house was a summer sweat-fest. Claudia and Casey had barely been there ten minutes when three girls jumped fully clothed into the tinted blue pool. Shirtless, doughy boys chugged their beers, pretending not to watch.
“Need a drink?” Casey asked her.
“Eh, I’m okay.”
She wasn’t a drinker. Beer tasted like processed pee, and that was all anyone could seem to get their underage hands on.
“Be right back,” Casey said, and dashed off to the makeshift bar.
With Casey—the ultimate party buffer—gone, Claudia was left alone. She was a party person, but only when she felt like it. And tonight, it was the last thing she felt like doing.
Claudia texted Ava: “Where are you?”
Ava answered: “Almost there. P.S. Go out with Casey.”
Claudia replied: “He told you to say that, didn’t he?”
Ava’s text chimed on her phone: “I admit nothing. BYE.”
Claudia thought back to the sixth grade back-to-school dance. At the time, Ava’d had a huge, die-if-I-can’t-have-him crush on Casey, who was nothing more than a potato that had sprouted arms and legs.
That was the year he’d finally talked to Claudia.
“It’s about time,” Claudia had said. “You’ve biked past my house every day since kindergarten.”
“Oh you noticed that, huh?” he’d stammered.
At the dance, the first slow song had trickled through the speakers, and the boys and girls fled to opposite sides of the room like scared mice.
He’d stood, knobby-kneed, lips quivering, in the middle of the dance floor. When he made his way across the room, she could practically feel the weight of his footsteps, like a giant.
“Will you dance with me?” he’d asked her.
All she could do was nod.
And Ava spent the next hour and a half locked in a utility closet crying to herself.
From then on, Claudia and Casey were best friends. The kind of friends that didn’t need invitations to hang out. The kind of friends that ate leftovers from each other’s fridges without asking.
Now, at a much different kind of party, Casey was all grown-up. He’d shot up freshman year, so tall that he could win every basketball game without trying. He was attractive, she had to admit. Bright eyes and sandy freckles. Glossy hair and a superhero chin.
But, he was still Casey.
“Look, they had wine!” he announced, presenting her with a plastic red cup.
“I don’t drink.”
“Okay, more for me.” He offered to take it back, but she declined.
Wine was okay.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
She sniffed the juice-called-wine. “I’ll try it. Thank you.”
Then she took a sip. It tasted like rubbing alcohol.
Claudia had no clue what time it was. She chatted with Trish—or was it Tina?—about the house’s renovations, and even got a tour of her dad’s wine cellar, where they drank the real stuff. Hundred dollar bottles drained into their stomachs, and everything felt lighter and cooler and better.
At some point or another, she found Ava, whose perfectly straight bangs defied humidity.
“Have you seen Drew?” she asked.
Drew was Ava’s boyfriend. Quiet and shy, he didn’t like parties all that much. But he always showed up, because Ava asked.
“No,” Claudia said. “I think I’m drunk.”
Then Ava, on a mission, darted away.
A little or a lot while later, Claudia found Casey by the pool.
“I had more wine,” she told him, then hiccupped.
His face broke out in a smile. When Casey smiled, it was automatic. He didn’t ease his way into it; it happened all at once.
“Are you drunk?”
Claudia squinted. “[_You’re _]drunk.”
“That would be a yes.”
“TrishTinaTodd gave me wine. ‘Spensive wine.”
Casey grinned more. “I’m going to take you home now.”
In the truck, Claudia rested her head against the window and closed her eyes. “My head’s spinning.”
“We’ll be home soon. I’ll get you water.”
“No,” she said, attempting to shake her head. “I’ll get water.”
“That’s right,” he said. “I forgot that you don’t need any help.”
Claudia hiccupped. “Nope. I help you. And me.”
They rode the rest of the way in silence. When Casey parked the car, he got out first to open the door for her.
“Pick your head up,” he said through the window. She did. With the door open, he didn’t go anywhere. “Claudia, will you go out with me?”
This was the first time he’d said it seriously. The first time he didn’t follow it up with a joke or say that he was kidding. The first time he said it for real, out loud.
Claudia blinked and said, “I think I’m gonna be sick.”
A minute later, in the bushes outside of her front door, she proved herself right.
“Geez,” Casey said, as he helped her to her feet. “A simple ‘no’ would’ve been fine.”
[_So this must be a hangover. _]
Claudia only dared to open a single eye, which felt like trying to lift Mount Everest with just the muscles in her face. She couldn’t even find the energy to groan.
Then someone knocked on the door.
“Claud?” Wendy’s voice sounded like sunshine.
Claudia didn’t move or speak.
“Are you awake yet?”
Does it look like I’m awake? Claudia wanted to say. She hated when people asked questions with obvious answers.
“Mom’s got bacon downstairs,” Wendy whispered. “I mean, she’s got eggs and grits too, but we all know bacon is the most newsworthy breakfast item.”
She lingered just a beat longer, like she was expecting a response, before walking out the door and down the stairs.
Claudia could have died.
She could have died right then and it would all be her fault because of alcohol. In her bed, head submerged under her pillow, she vowed to herself that she wouldn’t be that stupid again.
She was going to be a dentist, for God’s sake.
She had plans.
Downstairs, Wendy was relaxing on the couch with a cup of coffee in her hands. She was pretty, as always. The kind of pretty that didn’t need to work very hard.
[Bitch, _]Claudia thought[. _]
“Morning,” she said.
Wendy said it back, crossing the room to hug Claudia.
Claudia hugged back, but she let Wendy do most of the work.
“How’s it going?” Wendy asked, keeping her voice down. “You got in pretty late last night, huh?”
So this was the part where Wendy tried to bond. This was that moment where she made an effort to say something that sounded like, “We’ve all been there. See? We’re the same.”
Claudia stopped that train of thought.
Wendy was just trying to be nice.
“Yeah,” Claudia said. “So where’s that bacon?”
“In the microwave,” Mom answered from the kitchen table. “I had to keep it away from Dad.”
“Thanks,” Claudia said.
She bit down on a piece of bacon, and looked at her family.
Strong, supportive Dad.
Cool, selfless Mom.
And a sister, biologically speaking.
“So Wend,” Claudia said, “how does it feel to be an adult? Do you have a 401k yet? Dark circles under your eyes?”
Wendy laughed. “Weird, no and I hope not. I’m a little nervous, but I’m excited to start figuring out my life plans.”
“Do you want to paint for a living?”
“Want to? Yes. Will I? Probably not.”
Dad looked up from his phone. “Hey, where’s your positive spirit? Your paintings could sell for a fortune some day.”
“That’s right,” Mom added. “Maybe one day, there will be a Wendy Lake original in The White House. Or the Pentagon, at least.”
“I doubt they house paintings in the Pentagon, Mom,” Wendy said.
“They could,” Mom said, then pointed at Dad’s phone. “Somebody look it up.”
Wendy sunk further down into the couch cushion. The Wendy that Claudia remembered would have been, as Dad had said, positive. That Wendy could do anything. She could stand shelter-less in a hurricane, naked and alone, and still manage to find a bright side.
“What are your plans for the day?” Mom asked the room as a whole.
“I think I’m going to work on those shelves for the office,” Dad said.
“I plan on doing virtually nothing today,” Claudia said. “And by virtually, I mean literally. You will find me in my bed watching TV.”
Mom laughed. “How about you, Wendy?”
“Me?” Wendy said, clearly zoned out. “I’ll probably just chill.”
“Chill?” Claudia prodded.
“Yeah,” Wendy said. “I’m a free girl, now. I need to take full advantage of my lack of responsibility.”
Dad gave her a nod of approval. “Trust me, that doesn’t last long. You go ahead and chill.”
The rest of the afternoon, Claudia studied. And watched TV. And napped a little.
Sometime in the evening, Claudia surfaced from her room with eyes half open. The living room felt like a coffin, the blinds shut so tight that not even the smallest sliver of light could enter. Curled on the couch, Wendy lay lifeless.
And Claudia suspected she’d been there all day long.
This was the night before the big placement test, and Claudia was prepared. Over-prepared, if that were possible. She’d put herself to bed at 7:00 p.m., and instructed her family to keep to hushed tones for the remainder of the evening.
Earlier, she’d texted Casey: “How’d those practice tests go?”
He’d said: “Aced them all. Thanks, Coach.”
She knew he was lying. But still, she felt better that he’d tried.
She could rest easier now.
Claudia jumped at the sound of her phone violently vibrating on her side table, which sounded like a plane at liftoff.
“I’m outside.” Ava’s voice slashed into her ear.
“Get in the car, punk.”
She knew she shouldn’t.
Outside, the stars were bright enough to cast the surroundings into gray silhouettes, like the world had turned to ash. Ava’s car, a brand new, black Range Rover, hovered in the shadows.
Before Claudia could even click her seatbelt into place, Ava took off down the street.
“What the hell?” Claudia asked. “It’s like three in the morning.”
“It’s not like three in the morning; it [_is _]three in the morning.”
Claudia checked the clock. Yep. “Awesome. Care to catch me up to speed?”
Ava drove with pinched eyes that never swayed from the road. Claudia had never seen her look so intense. It was frightening.
“Backseat,” Ava grunted.
And forgot to breathe a little.
In the back of Ava’s car, it looked like an entire zoo had escaped. A very particular kind of zoo. Piled all the way to the ceiling were dozens upon dozens of flamboyantly pink, plastic lawn flamingos.
So many questions.
So hard to pick one.
“Where did you get all of these?” Claudia started.
Ava’s line of vision didn’t falter. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Are we about to bludgeon a fleet of gnomes to death? Is this the strangest dream I’ve ever had?”
Ava turned into Magnolia Estates, a popular neighborhood in the middle of Covington. They spent most of their weekends here, jumping from house party to house party.
But why tonight?
Why the flamingos?
And suddenly, it all made sense.
“Oh, Ava. You and Drew broke up?”
Ava flinched, but only for a moment. “Technically, he broke up with me. Technically, he wants to date other people. Technically, he already started.”
Claudia couldn’t believe it. That didn’t sound like Drew at all. Sweet, wordless Drew? That couldn’t be right. “What? Who?”
“Trish. What kind of name is Trish, anyway? Tricia, yes. Patricia, absolutely. Trish doesn’t even have the decency to possess multiple syllables.”
“So the flamingos—”
“Are justice, my friend. You do the crime, you face a flock of bright pink, adultery flamingos on your front lawn. There are twenty-five for Trish and forty for Drew.”
Claudia knew she should be sleeping.
But she couldn’t say that to Ava.
“Very logical. Absolutely fair,” she said instead. “Who am I to argue with a future lawyer?”
Finally, Ava smiled. “It’s great to have you on my team.”
Ava and Claudia were girls-turned-bandits. Ava had criminal activity down to a science.
“I’ve mapped out the area,” she said, parking a few streets away from Drew’s house. “We’ll cut through the woods there, then slip into his front yard. Watch out for streetlights. We gotta get forty flamingos set up in twenty minutes. Got it?”
Claudia yawned. “Got it.”
“Look alive, Lake.”
Then Ava darted out into the night like a cat on the prowl with two bags full of flamingos slung over her shoulder. Claudia kicked up her heels and jogged over the concrete.
All of the people in all of the houses slept clueless in their beds.
Claudia, suddenly proud and assured, liked that she had a secret. Vengeance. Justice. Whatever you wanted to call it.
“This way,” Ava hissed.
They ducked in a shrub behind a fence.
The lights at Drew’s house were off. Tucked away, he and his family didn’t have a worry in the world. Sure, they had an alarm, but did they actually have any use for it?
“You take that side,” Ava instructed. “I’ll take this one. Meet you in the middle.”
Claudia nodded. “Are you sure about this?”
“Absolutely. It’s just a prank. It’s not like you’re going to get a detention or something.”
“Not about this,” Claudia said, setting her bags down. “I’m talking about you and Drew.”
“He cheated on me,” she said, defensively. Even in the dark, Claudia could see Ava’s face go red. “Wait, you’re not defending him, are you?”
“No. Hell no.”
“Good. Let’s get this over with.”
Standing at the opposite end of the lawn, Ava gave her a nod, and Claudia began pulling flamingos neck-first out of the garbage bags.
They were easy to set up.
One, two, twenty.
Until their mission was completed and the lawn was an explosion of pink.
“Finishing touch?” Ava asked, reaching for a poster stuffed in the last garbage bag.
Claudia grabbed it.
In dripping, blood red letters it read, “YOU’VE BEEN FLOCKED.”
“Wow. You don’t play around,” Claudia whispered.
Ava took the poster, pausing for just a beat.
Then she drove the spikes into the ground.
This was goodbye.
“Let’s get out of here.”
As they ran away from the scene of the crime, Claudia knew they’d made the right decision.
Love always hurt.
People always failed.
Claudia’s phone was ringing.
She slapped her hand against the dresser and dragged it into the bed with her.
She thought about answering it. She really did. But then, she was exhausted. And still sleeping.
She really didn’t want to talk to him.
He’d left message after message.
“Hey Claudia, I think I did really well on the placement test! Are you shocked? Do you need to lie down? Anyway, text me. I’m going to grab a celebratory burger.”
“Hey Claudia, haven’t heard from you in a couple days. I have a few theories, if you’re interested. CIA, China, espionage. Anyway, text me. I’ll be playing video games until forever.”
“Hey Claudia, I’m officially starting to worry. Are you alive? SOS? Anyway, text me. I’ll be here.”
She couldn’t make herself answer.
And now it was Saturday, and they hadn’t talked all week.
After the night with the flamingos, Claudia couldn’t pull her mind away from Drew and Ava, Wendy and Simon, her and… no.
Claudia refused to be another casualty to teenage romance.
When she finally drudged out of bed, Wendy was the only one in the house, wrapped up in her usual blanket with her face in a book.
“Hey,” Claudia said.
Wendy looked back to her. “Good morning.”
Claudia reached in the microwave. No bacon.
“Where are Mom and Dad?”
“They went to go get paint for the shelves. Do you need food? I already ate breakfast, but if you wanted to get lunch…”
Alone time with Wendy.
At least it would give her an excuse to avoid Casey.
“Yeah, sure,” Claudia said. “I’ll just go change quick.”
She texted Casey: “Sorry. Hanging with Wendy today. Talk soon.”
“Meatball sub?” Wendy asked Claudia.
She nodded. “Yeah. You remember?”
“Of course,” Wendy said. She looked surprised and just the slightest bit hurt. “I’m your sister.”
“Yes, I realize that.”
Wendy scanned the menu. “I think I’ll get a club.”
“I thought you didn’t like mayonnaise.”
Wendy smiled. “Good memory. It’s like we’re related or something.”
The waiter came and went, and then it was just the two of them, sitting in not-so-awkward silence.
“When do you find out about the PSAT?” Wendy asked.
It had gone okay. Good, but not great. Part of Claudia wished she hadn’t gone with Ava that night. The more important part of her realized that it was just a test. There would be plenty more of those.
“In December,” Claudia said. “I’m not too worried about it.”
“Good. Where’s Casey today? He could’ve come along,” Wendy said.
“I don’t know,” Claudia said curtly. “I don’t stalk the guy.”
“Okay then,” Wendy said, and took a sip of her water.
“I haven’t seen you painting much,” Claudia said, looking for a change in subject. “Taking a break or something?”
Wendy shifted in her seat, straightening her back and rolling her shoulders forward. “Yeah, I guess. I haven’t really felt inspired by anything.”
“You could paint me,” Claudia teased. “I’m really photogenic.”
“Then maybe I should just take your picture,” Wendy muttered quietly.
Claudia realized she’d found Wendy’s pressure point.
For whatever reason, all she wanted to do was keep pressing it.
“I mean,” Claudia continued, “do you need inspiration to paint? To me, it seems like you just sit down and start, then see where that winds up. You’re not exactly the planning type.”
Wendy’s face went white.
Claudia had struck the wrong nerve.
“I’ll… I’ll be right back,” Wendy said, and headed in the direction of the bathroom.
This was a Simon thing.
You’re not exactly the planning type.
That was an unintentionally insensitive thing to say, she realized now.
For the greater part of Claudia’s life, Wendy had been with Simon. In her mind, they’d always been the perfect couple in love. The kind you root for at the end of the movie. The kind with odds to beat.
And then, just like that, just like always, they weren’t together anymore.
So Claudia learned.
Don’t fall in love in high school.
Don’t fall in love with your best friend.
Don’t fall in love. At all.[_ _]
After a ridiculously quiet lunch, Wendy and Claudia went walking around the city.
It was a city in name only. If Covington was a city, Las Vegas was a country. If Covington was a city, New York was a continent.
“It feels smaller,” Wendy said. “I mean, it’s always been small, but it never felt this small.”
“Trust me,” Claudia said. “It’s never changed. And never will.”
“That’s not true. They just added another Wal-Mart.”
Claudia forced a smile back. “Watch out, world.”
Wendy and Claudia turned onto Tyler Street. The hazard lights of a moving van blinked in their faces, as a crew of men worked in the open trunk. In their hands, they carried large, rectangular packages.
“Do you know what this is?” Wendy asked.
“Oh yeah,” Claudia said. “They’re opening up a new art gallery. Some Northern girl owns it. It’s supposed to be really nice. They’re having an opening and everything.”
Claudia watched as Wendy’s face went through the motions of appearing disinterested. Then she simply said, “Cool.”
As they walked away, Claudia pretended to ignore Wendy turning back for one final look.
The noise came from downstairs.
No, not a noise.
An ear-splitting, girl group battle cry.
Claudia lifted her head and knew: Vivian and Reese were here. She sprung out of bed and shuffled down the stairs.
“Holy hair,” Claudia said.
Reese turned. Sprawled out across the counter, she looked like a starfish washed up on the shore, and the tips of her naturally dark hair were dyed a fluorescent pink.
“It was a graduation present,” Reese announced, flipping her hair across her back, “to myself.”
“Naturally,” Claudia said.
The sight of Wendy and her friends gathered around the kitchen island reminded Claudia of a postcard. Not the old black and white kind, but the vibrant mementos that you tuck into photo album sleeves.
Petite, graceful Vivian perched on a barstool.
Crazy, spontaneous Reese on her culinary throne.
And Wendy, sweet but strong Wendy, looking happier than she
had in weeks.
“How are you, Claudia?” Vivian asked. “You’re so grown-up
looking. It’s kind of creepy.”
Claudia laughed. “Currently? I’m bored. What are y’all doing here? I mean, not that I don’t want you here, you know, it’s just not typical.”
“We came to pay a visit to our dearly departed College Wendy,” Reese said, in a dramatic monologue fashion. “She was too young.”
Wendy rolled her eyes. “Hey, I’m the one that wanted to go out. You losers chose to drive here instead.”
Vivian stared down at her phone, texting. “I had to get out of there. Owen’s driving me crazy.”
“Because he has a tiny penis?” Reese said blandly.
“Hey,” Wendy snapped, motioning her head toward Claudia.
Claudia leaned over the counter by Reese’s head. “I know what a penis is, Wendy.”
“Yeah, but still.”
“Censorship,” Reese said, pointing at Wendy. “This is a free country. How dare you censor me?”
Wendy just shook her head.
“Owen’s penis is perfectly average, thank you,” Vivian said.
Reese, whose mouth was filled with water, didn’t even try to keep it in. Out of her big mouth, a surge of water charged, soaking the counter.
“Lovely,” Wendy said, handing her a towel.
“Perfectly average,” Reese echoed. “Can I get that in writing? No, seriously. I need to milk this comment for the rest of my days. I may get a billboard of his face made. It’ll say, ‘Owen Landry, PERFECTLY AVERAGE PENIS.’ God, this is gold.”
“Can we please stop talking about penises?” Wendy insisted.
Claudia couldn’t stop laughing. She liked this. The girl group dynamic had never been a big priority in her life. Most days, Casey was the only friend she needed. But when Wendy and her friends came around, she couldn’t help but feel the sisterly love.
“Let’s make waffles,” Reese said suddenly, slipping off the counter toward the cabinet. “Hmm. Y’all are out of syrup.”
“We could run to the grocery,” Claudia said, slowly inching her hand toward Wendy’s keys.
“Umm, no ma’am,” Wendy said, grabbing the keys herself. “I’ll drive.”
“Oh come on, let her drive,” Reese said. “It’s two seconds away. What’s it gonna hurt?”
“The car. The cat. Us.” Wendy said. “Trust me, it’s all been done before.”
Vivian wrapped her arm around Claudia’s shoulder. “Aww, it can’t be that bad.”
Claudia cringed. “Well…”
“Well, five failed driver’s tests say otherwise,” Wendy said, flipping the keys around their ring.
She didn’t look decided, though. If she’d made up her mind, she’d be halfway to the car already.
“Come on, Wendy,” Claudia tested.
“Yeah, come on, Wendy!” Reese sang.
Wendy pursed her lips, blew them out and then threw the keys at Claudia. “Please don’t kill my car.”
Claudia smiled. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
There was something exhilarating about driving in a car with Wendy and her friends.
Maybe it was the music, loud and carefree, pumping lyrics like “let’s run away” and “today’s all we’ve got” through the speakers.
Maybe it was the air whipping through the car, rushing through the open windows.
Or maybe it was the company.
Maybe it was everything.
Reese sang with full-force in the backseat, her head halfway out the window. Vivian laughed until her cheeks went pink. And Wendy? Wendy looked like she didn’t care about anything in the world.
She was enjoying every last second of this.
“What’s the real reason you aren’t painting?” Claudia asked, low enough so that only Wendy could hear.
Wendy glanced over, her eyes like big, green marbles. “What do you mean?”
“You’re not painting. It’s not because you’re taking a break. It’s not because of inspiration. It’s because of Simon, isn’t it?”
This she said a bit too loudly.
“You’re not painting?” Vivian asked.
“No, she’s not,” Claudia said.
Big, blue tears welled up in Wendy’s eyes. She wiped them away before they could touch her cheek.
“What’s going on?” Reese piped up, cluing into the conversation.
Vivian’s eyes met Claudia’s in the mirror. “You know that you can always talk to us, right, Wend? If you’re sad. If you’re lonely. If you need us to beat someone up.”
Reese smashed her fist into her hand. “Just say the word.”
“Can we please just… not talk about this?” Wendy asked.
Vivian leaned forward and placed a hand on Wendy’s shoulder. “Okay. We can do that. Right, Claudia?”
It wasn’t okay.
She was about to say so when she remembered something very important.
How happy Wendy had been just two minutes earlier.
So reluctantly, Claudia faked a smile and said, “okay,” before turning the music up and pretending that everything was exactly the way it should be.
Claudia had been expecting the knock on the door.
It was officially Sunday. Officially a whole week since she’d had an actual conversation with Casey.
She sighed. Threw her shoulders back. Opened the door.
When she saw him standing there, she instantly missed him. Days upon days of avoiding this very moment all fell like an iron on her skin. It hurt like hell.
As it turned out, she was the one who needed [_him. _]
“Hey, Casey, what’s up?”
She’d expected him to look worse. Dark circles under his eyes. Broody puppy dog eyes. But it was much worse than that. Casey didn’t look upset at all. Instead, he looked [_concerned. _]
“Are you okay?” he asked her. Calm. Collected. “I haven’t heard from you in a few days. Just wanted to check in.”
She felt sick to her stomach. “Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I’ve been, uh, spending time with Wendy.”
“Okay,” he said, shuffling his feet. “Can I say something?”
He took a breath, standing straight and tall. “I’m not going to ask you out anymore. I want you to know that the message was received, loud and clear. I thought… I mean, I knew you might take some convincing.”
Standing there, awkward and uncomfortable, he reminded her so much of the pudgy boy who’d asked her to dance, years ago. It broke her heart a little.
“But I realize now I was pushing too hard,” he continued. “You’re my best friend. And I wouldn’t risk that for the world. So… yeah. That’s what I wanted to say.”
She hadn’t expected him to give up.
She had mentally prepared herself to tell him no again, but now, she felt weird.
He must have noticed because he asked, “Claudia?”
Still, she didn’t answer.
Love always hurt.
Do not fall in love. At all.
She thought about Wendy. If Wendy could do it all over again, she probably would. She would experience every up and down, over and over, until her heart rubbed raw.
Because that’s who Wendy was.
Claudia didn’t know if Wendy was better for it, but for a split second, she was willing to try too.
“Ask me again,” Claudia whispered.
Casey peered up at her from beneath his thick eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
Louder this time, Claudia said, “Ask me again, Casey.”
“Okay,” he said, looking confused. “Will you go out with me?”
“Just one date,” she said, holding her index finger up to his face.
He smiled. “Okay, then. Just one date. It will be so non-date-ish that you won’t even realize you’re dating me at all.”
“Deal,” she said. “Shake on it?”
“So…” She took a deep breath.
Did she ask him to come in for dinner?
Should she make a joke now?
What was the protocol for dating your best friend?
“I’ll pick you up tomorrow night,” he said. “Wear something comfortable. So no heels or whatever.”
“That’s very specific, but okay,” she agreed.
And then he left.
Claudia climbed the stairs toward Wendy’s room, every step more nervous than the last. She wanted to tell Wendy everything. She wasn’t even sure why.
But when Claudia reached Wendy’s open door, she paused.
At her desk, Wendy hovered over a blank white page. Brush in the paint. Tears down her face.
Wendy let each and every drop fall onto the page.
Through her heavy breath, she took the paint and swirled it in her own tears.
A true watercolor.
And Claudia couldn’t look away.
[_Just one date. _]
Claudia had never been on a real date before, unless you counted dances, which of course, she didn’t. Guy who started fights. Guy who wore a blue suit. Guy who talked way too much about his ex. If these were dates, she wanted nothing to do with them.
This would [_most certainly _]be a date.
If Claudia were honest with herself, she’d admit that she’d always known Casey was a little bit in love with her. Okay. A [_lot _]in love with her. But the fact became unavoidable that summer, when he’d spelled it out in plain English:
[_Dear Claudia, _]
[_I hope this letter finds you well, in the last ten seconds since I saw you. I have five things to tell you. Take notes. _]
[_1. That time that I told you I hate you? Well, I don’t. _]
[_2. Sometimes you’re the only person I want to hang out with. _]
[_3. And that’s probably because I like you. In every way. _]
[_4. You should go out with me. _]
Your best friend,
She still had that note. Somewhere.
Skirts draped over her chair. Hangers piled up on her dresser. She had ten minutes until Casey showed up at her door, expecting a datable girl. And Claudia didn’t even have her makeup done.
Someone knocked on the door.
“What?” Claudia barked.
“Oh, sorry!” Wendy said.
Claudia knocked over her makeup bag and muttered, “Shit.”
“Just come in.”
Wendy stepped into the room and folded her arms together. “I thought my room was bad.”
“Can you do my eyeliner?” Claudia asked, handing Wendy the tube of black liquid.
Wendy lifted Claudia’s face toward the light and brushed the loose strands from her sister’s face. Claudia closed her eyes. Something about letting Wendy help calmed her just slightly.
“Where you headed?” Wendy asked.
Claudia filled her lungs with air. “A date. With Casey.”
“Casey?” Wendy asked. She didn’t sound surprised, exactly. Impressed, more like. “That should be fun.”
“It’s just one date. He’s my friend. It’s stupid, if you think about it.”
“Open,” Wendy instructed.
When Claudia stretched her eyelids, she found Wendy with a smile plastered onto her lips. And Wendy said, “It’s not stupid at all.”
“Can I ask you something?” Claudia closed her eyes again.
Wendy dipped the brush onto Claudia’s eyelid. “Of course.”
“Why are you sad?”
Wendy paused for a moment, and then said, “I don’t like endings. I’ve had too many of those lately.”
Claudia swallowed. “But endings always bring beginnings… right?”
“That sounds like something I would say.”
Another knock on the door. This time, from downstairs.
Claudia opened her eyes.
Shook the nerves out of her fingers.
“Pink top. Jeans. Wedges,” Wendy said. “And remember. Have fun.”
[_Just one date. _]
This was what dating Casey looked like: a newly washed truck, unnaturally tamed hair on a very combed head, a playlist she’d never heard before, and mini golf.
Even the hula girl had dressed up for the occasion, covering up with a tiny shirt. As Casey said, “She wanted to be respectful.”
“Mini golf?” Claudia asked him, as he held the door open for her. She wished he wouldn’t do that.
It was Monday, so Pete’s Place was practically empty. There was a fairytale-theme to the holes. One where you’d try to putt the ball down Rapunzel’s winding hair. One where you’d try to maneuver around three, abnormally large blind mice.
It was old and somewhat dirty, but nostalgic, too.
“Remember?” Casey asked, selecting the blue club. “This is the first place we ever got to go together. Alone, at least.”
She did. Mom used to drop them here in the summer, when she’d make her way to spin class. Pete had even kept a special scoreboard, just for them.
“When’s the last time we came here?” Claudia asked, lugging the pink club over her shoulder.
“Two summers ago. You wore that sundress with the flowers on it and you fell into the Mermaid Lagoon.”
“How could I forget?”
“God knows I couldn’t.” At the first hole, Cinderella’s glass slipper, Casey waved his hand over the green. “You first.”
It didn’t feel like a date. It felt like every other time they hung out. Her teasing him. Him firing back insults.
But then she’d catch him looking at her, just a tad bit differently, like he needed permission, and she blushed without even thinking about it.
“Well, looks like I’ve still got it,” Claudia said, adding up the final points. “Allow me to take my victory lap.”
As she pumped her fists in the air, Casey said, “And modest too? You’re like the holy grail of girlfriends.”
Claudia got goose bumps. “I assume you mean girl space bar friend.”
Casey’s face went stoic. “No. I mean girl [_as little space as possible _]friend.”
Claudia leaned forward, rubbing her knees. She didn’t want anything to change. She liked them like this. She liked knowing she’d always have him here, in the place with a life-size Pinocchio whale and the cow jumping over the moon.
He was standing over her now, tall and lanky. “Claudia?”
“Yeah?” she asked, wanting to stay near the ground, trying not to look directly at him.
“I think I’m sort of in love with you.”
She pretended to tie her shoes, which had no laces. She pretended today was really yesterday. She pretended that she didn’t feel those things, too.
“Okay,” he said, his word lingering over her silence. “Just one date, right? And we can go ahead and pretend like it never happened.”
Like Wendy pretended she was okay.
Like Casey had pretended he didn’t love her all this time.
She didn’t want change, but she didn’t want to live like that, either.
“Wait,” she said, standing up.
Casey met her eyes, his hands tucked into his pockets. “Yeah?”
“Take me on another date.”
He furrowed his eyebrows. “Another date?”
“Yes,” she said. “Let’s go on a second date. Right now.”
And when she grabbed his hand, it felt warm. Then, she pulled him forward into the night.
Claudia parked Casey’s car into the gas station parking lot.
“Wait here,” she said, a big smile smacked on her face.
Casey laughed. “I’m not sure I have much of a choice.”
“You don’t,” she said, and slammed the door.
Inside the gas station, Claudia browsed the candy aisle. She grabbed three bags of orange circus peanut marshmallows and headed for the register.
“You ready?” she asked Casey, sliding into the driver’s seat.
“More than you know.”
As Claudia drove, Casey stayed quiet. She thought about how shy he’d once been. How much he’d changed since the boy who used to bike by her house.
As she drove toward their destination, she knew that wherever their lives were headed now, it was someplace good.
They could see the New Orleans skyline in lights across Lake Pontchartrain, and the cars moved like comets down the Causeway. Claudia led them to the seawall, where she dangled her feet over the dark water.
“Okay,” Casey said. “Why are we here?”
“First,” Claudia said, dropping the bags of peanuts between them, “ta-da!”
“Oh my God,” he said. “When’s the last time we had these?”
“Probably the last time we played mini golf.”
He ripped open the first bag with his teeth. “This is perfect.”
“Best second date ever?”
Casey smiled, warm, like butter melting. “Best second date ever. So why the lakefront?”
“Remember Simon?” she asked.
Casey nodded. “How could I forget?”
“Okay, well my mom told me this story about them once. Wendy and Simon started out as friends, but they both secretly liked each other. The first time they were alone, they spent the day in the woods, and they found a pond and a boat to row.”
“Wendy said that was the first time she knew she and Simon would be together. So, I just thought. Maybe the lake can be our pond.”
Claudia watched Casey’s face go from confusion to excitement, and finally, to nervousness. His hair had fallen out of its gel, and it brushed loosely over his eyebrows. In the moonlight, he looked like the perfect combination of boy and friend.
“Claudia,” he said, leaning into her with new conviction, “don’t freak out, but I’m going to kiss you now.”
Claudia sucked in a breath. And Casey kissed her.
When Casey’s lips first met hers, he kept them still, like he was letting her get used to the idea. Then, they started to move, and she was kissing him back. It didn’t feel weird.
Kissing Casey felt light, like breathing, like magic spilling out into her soul. And Claudia knew that she liked him as a boy [_as little space as possible _]friend.
“This is weird,” Claudia said, “but in a completely awesome way.”
“I realize this isn’t the ideal moment to gloat, but I’d like to point out the fact that I [_told you _]that you would date me by the end of this year.”
He smiled goofily, like he’d stuffed a whole bunch of grapes in his mouth. Claudia traced the curve of his bottom lip. She could touch him like that now. She [_liked _]that she could.
And then, she had a strange feeling. While one part of her wanted to stay here the rest of the night, another part, lesser but just as significant, wished she could talk to Wendy. It was all clicking into place.
The image of Wendy crying, literally making art out of her pain, was burned in her brain.
She had more questions.
And maybe, more answers, too.
If this night were even a small indication of what Wendy and Simon had, no wonder Wendy wasn’t Wendy. Years upon years of this just gone into thin air.
Claudia kissed Casey again, just because she could. “I need you to take me home.”
“Is something wrong? Clock strike midnight? Time to turn back into the untouchable best friend?”
“No,” Claudia said, laughing. “There’s just something I need to do.”
Upstairs, Claudia could hear Wendy crying again. And she didn’t even bother to knock.
The light slipped into the bedroom, and Wendy’s head lifted from the pillow. “Claudia?”
“Get up,” Claudia said, walking over and yanking the covers off of her sister. “You’re going to finish this painting.”
Claudia grabbed the paints and the paper, before leading Wendy out of her room and down the stairs. She flipped on the porch lights, then looked at Wendy.
“No,” Wendy said. “I can’t go out there.”
Claudia ignored her and opened the front door.
On their front porch, an old wooden swing hung untouched. It had been years since anyone had actually used it.
This swing belonged to Simon and Wendy.
Looking at it now, Claudia could imagine every detail of them together. How happy they looked sitting here. How she’d peek out the window and squeal when she saw them kiss.
“Sit down,” Claudia instructed, placing Wendy on the swing.
At first, Wendy sat straight and awkward. She shut her eyes tight. And then, she gradually leaned back into the familiar grooves of the swing’s panel. Claudia could see her feeling the past, like an old friend, like a splinter in her skin.
“You’re going to paint here,” Claudia said, sitting in the armchair beside it, “and I’m going to sit here, until you finish. It doesn’t have to be good. You just have to finish it.”
Wendy picked up the brush. “I don’t want to start over again.”
Claudia sat down and put her hand on Wendy’s knee. “I know that it’s scary. And I know your heart’s crushed up like tiny pieces of gravel. But you’re stronger than this, and you know it.”
Wendy sighed. Lifted the brush. Dipped it in the water.
“You can do this,” Claudia said. “I know you can.”
Wendy carefully set the brush into the blue paint before smearing it across the page.
“Okay,” Wendy said, taking a deep breath.
“Okay,” Claudia said.
For a long time, Claudia watched Wendy paint. Water, here. Paint, there. Her eyes fought to stay open, but gravity took hold.
She woke to the feel of a hand on her shoulder.
“Claudia?” Wendy whispered.
“Hmm?” Claudia stretched.
“I finished it.”
Claudia opened her eyes. In her sister’s hands, the blank page had bloomed with color. Greens over blues under grays. The painting was familiar, a scene she’d seen before.
And a boy.
“It’s perfect,” Claudia said.
“Not yet,” Wendy told her. “But it will be one day.”
One day, Wendy would tell her story. The full, honest story. And Claudia would be the first in line to hear it.
But for now, with Casey at her side, Claudia couldn’t wait to write her own.
Copyright © 2015 by Jenny Bravo.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
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These Are the Moments/ Jenny Bravo. -- 1st ed.
Don't fall in love in high school. Don't fall in love with your best friend. Don't fall in love. At all. When Claudia Lake's sister Wendy moves back home, everything changes. The boy next door wants to be more than just friends. Her best friend nurses a broken heart with revenge. When it comes to love, Claudia has learned that it's better to be safe than sorry... or has she? Those Were the Days is a free prequel to These Are the Moments that explores what it means to be in love in high school, what it means to fall in love and how to survive broken hearts.