“Yeah,” Leta admitted.
“Why don’t you come sit with us? We’ll save you a seat,” Miss Shelton said.
“Who is that?” It was Tom. He was talking to her. Tom. Talking. To her.
“She’s my teacher, um, a friend,” Leta answered.
“Huh,” Tom said, watching Miss Shelton head for Theater 2. He turned back to Leta with a smile. “Sprite, right?”
“Yeah.” Leta grinned. He knew her drink!
“Maybe later I’ll come find you guys. Save me a seat.”
“Sure,” Leta said, and it was like she’d swallowed the sun.
This was only the second time Miss Shelton and her friends had seen the movie, and Leta enjoyed playing Rocky Horror tour guide, showing them when to throw things, prompting them on comebacks. She didn’t even care that Jennifer stood up in front of her seat to dance. Miss Shelton laughed at all the right parts and even some that Leta didn’t understand. When Leta sang along to “Sweet Transvestite,” Miss Shelton high-fived her, and Leta couldn’t wait to tell Agnes about it. Maybe Agnes would be jealous of her new friendship with Miss Shelton, who was super pretty and cool and in college.
Toward the end of the movie, during the floor show, Tom slid in next to Leta, taking the empty seat she’d dutifully saved for him with her jacket.
“Are those guys in makeup?” Tom whispered, and Leta felt it deep in her belly.
“Yeah,” she whispered back, relishing the nearness of his perfect ear.
“Huh. This is a weird movie, man.”
Leta stared at him. “You mean you’ve never seen it before?”
“Huh-uh. Not my thing.”
“Oh, my god, it’s like the best movie ever. Nothing’s as good as Rocky,” Leta said.
“I know one or two things,” Tom said and winked. “You want anything from the concession stand?”
Leta shook her head, and Tom reached in front of her to tap Miss Shelton on the arm. “You want anything? Coffee, tea, me?”
Miss Shelton laughed, and a woman with crimped hair and a maid’s outfit shushed them. Tom made a face, and even though Leta didn’t want the lady to be mad at her, she giggled anyway.
When the movie had ended, and they were huddled in the harsh glare of the theater lobby, Miss Shelton put her arm around Leta. “That beat hell out of Texas history, huh?”
“Yeah,” Leta said, but her eyes were on Tom.
“I gotta close down the place,” he said. “But, hey, let’s do the Time Warp again.”
“Sure. Okay.” Leta was still grinning. “See you next Friday for sure!”
“Yeah. See you then. You, too,” Tom said to Miss Shelton.
At the Popcorn on Wednesday, Cawley and Leta put the finishing touches on the set for Our Town. In the week since their kiss, Leta had managed to avoid him—taking a different hallway to classes, carrying all her books so as to skip her locker, ducking into the girls’ bathroom when necessary. But now they were at the Popcorn together, and Leta was determined to keep things strictly professional.
“Could you hand me those?” Leta pointed to a wad of tissue-paper flowers the size of a tricycle.
“Jennifer Pomhultz told Scotty West’s brother that she’s going to dance with the regulars at Rocky Horror this weekend,” Cawley said, holding the flowers in place.
“So? We gotta show up and take her down.” We. He was already making them into a couple. “I’ve got it all figured out. My grandmother can drive me over around nine o’clock, and drop us off at the Pizza Hut. Then we could just walk over to the Cineplex from there later.”
“They’re pretty strict about IDs,” Leta said, letting the staple gun rip.
“But they let you in. Just tell ’em I’m your cousin or something. Your kissing cousin,” he joked.
Leta’s face went hot. It had been a mistake to kiss Cawley. She couldn’t be seen with him, not now that she had a shot with Tom. “Actually, I-I may not be able to go this weekend. I think my dad is coming. And, you know, we’re doing, like, family stuff.”
“Yeah, but the show’s not till midnight.”
“But Jennifer Pomhultz is trying to take your spot as Columbia! You have to go!”
“You’re not the boss of me, Cawley!”
Leta’s finger slipped on the staple gun, nearly catching Cawley’s thumb, and Leta thought of the gun going off, the bullet shattering her brother’s temple.
“Stupid!” she hissed, and she wasn’t sure who or what she meant by it.
That night, Leta’s dad called. His flat tones echoed over the phone, all the way from Connecticut, which sounded like a state you had to put together yourself from a kit. “Hey, kiddo, how’s eighth grade treating you?”
“Okay,” Leta said.
“How’s Agnes? Is she behaving?”
“I guess. You know Aggie.”
Her dad laughed. “Well, Stevie sounds good.” There was a pause. “Your mom getting on okay?”
Leta flicked a glance toward her mother, who was stirring anger into the pot of noodles on the stove. “Yeah.”
“Good, good. Good.”
Leta wanted to ask her dad when he was coming home. She wanted to know if he missed them, or if they were faint as the ghostly images on a negative. She wanted something she couldn’t name and she hoped he’d know what it was.
“Well, take care of yourself, kiddo. Lemme have another crack at your mom, there, okay?”
“Sure.” Leta handed off the receiver, ducking under the cord.
Her mother’s voice dropped to a wounded whisper. “I just don’t think I can do this anymore, Dean, I really don’t.”
When her mother had gone to sleep, Leta took the picture of Columbia she’d torn from a movie magazine and taped it to her bathroom mirror. From under the sink, she took out a box of red dye, coating her head and setting the egg timer for thirty minutes. Once she’d washed it out, she chopped at her lank strands, going shorter and shorter until her hair was just below her ears. It didn’t hang exactly even, but it wasn’t too bad. The dye was darker than she’d imagined—a deep auburn. It made her eyes greener and her skin more sallow. But most importantly, it made her seem older. Leta pulled on her winter cap so that her mother wouldn’t see the new hair before Rocky Horror. After tomorrow, it didn’t matter if she was grounded.
In the hushed dark of the kitchen, Leta swilled antacid straight from the bottle, wiping the gluey liquid from her mouth with the back of her hand. She tested the locks and checked the thermostat before opening the door to Stevie’s room a crack. He was sleeping. In the corner, the TV was all static, and the screen was as white as the surface of the moon.
For the first time in nearly two months, Agnes and Leta were together on a Friday night, but they wouldn’t be together for long.
“You little shits better not get into trouble,” Diana said. “If I get grounded because of you, you’re both dead.”
“If I get in trouble, you get in bigger trouble,” Agnes said.
“Don’t make me kill you,” Diana said. She flipped them the bird before driving off.
The girls waited in the parking lot. From here, they could see the cars cruising the strip, making the endless loop from the Pizza Hut at the south end to the Sonic at the north.
Agnes ruffled Leta’s short red bob. “Your hair looks amazing.”
“Thanks. You look pretty. You’ve got protection, right?”
Leta and Agnes had seen films in their sex ed class about how easy it was to get pregnant, even if it was your first time. To Leta, watching the films seemed like trying to imagine living in a foreign country.
Agnes unzipped the pocket inside her purse to show Leta the small foil pouch. “All taken care of.”
A minute later, Roger rode up on his motorcycle. He nodded to Leta. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Leta answered. That was usually the extent of their conversations.
Agnes got on the back of the bike and put her arms around his waist. She rested her head against his back. It was funny how some people just seemed to fit.
“Don’t let Jennifer Pomhultz take your spot!” Agnes shouted. “And good luck with you-know-who!”
For a few minutes after Agnes left, Leta sat on the car hood, searching for Tom’s Camaro.
“Hey, I thought you couldn’t make it tonight!” Cawley called, startling her.
“I…it was sort of last minute,” Leta stammered.
“Cool! We can sit together.” Cawley slid in next to her on the car hood and put his arm around her shoulders.
“Um, I’m sort of meeting some friends here.”
“Okay, so we can all sit together.” He nuzzled her neck, and Leta flinched. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m just not—people might see us, you know?” Leta said, swallowing hard.
“What, are you embarrassed to be seen with me or something?” Cawley asked.
“I didn’t say that!”
“So what is it?” Cawley looked her in the eyes then, and she knew he wouldn’t go until she gave him the truth.
“I’m waiting for a guy,” Leta said at last.
Cawley shoved his hands in his pockets. “You could’ve just told me you didn’t want me to come.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t want you to come, I just…” She stopped and pressed the backs of her hands to her eyes. She was making a mess of things. Why was it that the one person she wasn’t sure about was the only person who was sure about her? “I just wanted to go out with somebody else, okay? I’m allowed to do that, aren’t I? I mean, it’s still a free country and everything.”
“Yeah. Free country.” Cawley slid off the car hood and walked away from her, toward College Drive.