“I’ll see you at the Popcorn,” Leta added. It was a stupid thing to say. In response, Cawley kicked a trash can hard and it spun, nearly toppling over.
“Dammit, Janet,” Leta said to no one but the cars.
In the litter-strewn field behind the Cineplex, Leta finally found Tom in a tight huddle of older kids. She approached the pack cautiously, trying not to attract too much attention, waiting for them to notice her. When no one did, she cleared her throat.
Tom’s head popped up. He squinted at her.
“It’s me, Leta,” she said, patting at her new hair.
“Oh. Right. Hey, Lisa,” Tom said.
“Leta,” she corrected softly.
“Wanna party? Hey, make room for Lisa,” Tom instructed and Leta was ushered into the fold. A joint came her way, and she passed it to the pimply ticket-taking guy on her left.
“I can’t. I have an ulcer,” she offered by way of explanation.
“Don’t old men get that?” he asked, taking a hit.
“Some people just produce more stomach acid?” Leta said and immediately wished she hadn’t. “Anyway, it’s okay. I took my medicine.”
“How come you’re all dressed up like that?” one of the girls asked.
“For the movie. I’m Columbia.”
One of the guys snickered. “You’re Columbian? Can we smoke you?”
They all laughed then, and Leta didn’t understand why, but she wished Agnes were here and they were sitting in the warm movie theater throwing toast and singing like before.
Leta turned to see Miss Shelton wobbling over on platform sandals. Her boobs quivered like unset gelatin. Everyone stared.
“Hi, Miss Shel—Amy.”
Miss Shelton gave Leta a little hug, like an older sister, and Leta was overcome by happiness. It would be okay. Everything would be okay. “I didn’t know you liked to party.”
“There’s a lot people don’t know about me,” Leta said, hoping it made her sound mysterious, a spy working undercover whom everyone took to be a dork but whose hands were actually lethal weapons.
“That was the last joint, but if you want to get high, I’ve got some primo weed in my car,” Tom said.
Miss Shelton grinned. “Let’s go.”
She hooked her arm through Leta’s and they followed Tom through the parking lot, over potholes and broken stubs of concrete barriers meant to keep the cars from banging into one another. Leta stole a glance behind her. A clump of fans stood behind the rope, and Leta had a fleeting wish to be with them.
Tom’s car smelled of cigarette smoke and new leather. Leta climbed behind the seat into the back while Miss Shelton and Tom sat in the front.
“Got this from a friend who was in Mexico,” Tom said, licking the rolling paper and forming a tight white missile of weed. Leta’s stomach fluttered. She didn’t want Tom to think she was uncool, but she didn’t want to get high, either.
“Ulcer,” she mumbled apologetically, and Tom handed off to Miss Shelton who took a hit and held it for a long time.
“You go to Texas Community?” he asked her.
“Umm,” Miss Shelton choked out. “Poly sci.”
The joint went back and forth a few times, and Leta’s head felt balloon-light from the secondhand smoke.
“Nice car,” Miss Shelton said, exhaling smoke.
“Yeah? Thanks.” Tom’s eyes were glassy; his smile seemed liquid. “You like Ozzy?” He popped Blizzard of Oz into the Camaro’s stereo. “Crazy Train” filled the car.
“Bose speakers,” Tom shouted over the searing guitar licks. “Just put ’em in yesterday.”
Leta glanced nervously at the line forming for Rocky Horror. It snaked into the parking lot. “We should probably get in line.”
“Nah, it’s cool. I’ll just sneak us in the back way,” Tom said, his fingers lost in their air-drumming reverie, his eyes still on Miss Shelton.
Just then, Leta caught sight of Jennifer, who had added a bowler hat to her ensemble. “Are you sure we can get seats? That line looks pretty long and they’re letting people in….”
“It’s just a stupid movie. You’ve seen it a million times, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, it’s just…” Leta stopped. How could she explain that it was more than a movie to her? It was her home—the one consistent thing in her life. It didn’t matter how many times she’d seen it, she still got that funny feeling by the end that she’d been somewhere, that she had somewhere to go still.
Miss Shelton sat up and turned around in the front seat. “You know what that movie’s about, don’t you?”
Leta nodded. “Um, it’s about this couple who gets lost and they find this castle inhabited by aliens, and it’s a takeoff on all those 1950s horror/sci-fi movies where…”
“Sex,” Miss Shelton interrupted. “It’s about sex.”
“All right!” Tom gave a laugh and a high five to Miss Shelton.
“Come in!” Miss Shelton shouted. It was a line Leta never really got in the movie and she didn’t get it now, but it made her uncomfortable. She wanted out of the Camaro. She wanted to be standing in that line ahead of Jennifer Pomhultz, Agnes by her side singing out loud. She wanted to find Cawley wherever he was and say she was sorry.
“I’m just gonna go get in line,” Leta said.
“Suit yourself.” Tom opened the door, and Leta stumbled into the parking lot. In her fishnets, gold jacket, and new short hair, she felt suddenly exposed, as if people could see all the way through to her soul. Behind her, Tom gunned the Camaro’s motor and drove off with Miss Shelton, leaving her alone.
The movie was already starting when Leta sneaked in. She’d missed making a big entrance with her new hair and outfit. The place was packed, and Leta had to take a seat on the far left, stumbling over annoyed people on her way in. For the first time in months, Leta didn’t sing along. Instead, she watched the audience illuminated by the bright of the movie screen, their worshipful faces washed in a flickering blue, the light as inconstant as everything else. They sang, laughed, and spat back lines on cue. When the “The Time Warp” began, Leta was too tired to get up. Instead, Jennifer Pomhultz went onstage. The crowd urged her on, and by the end, she owned the part of Columbia. Jennifer took a little bow to wild applause while Leta sat numbly, her hands tucked under her sweaty thighs, feeling the fishnets bite into the skin of her palms.
When Frank-N-Furter sang about going home, a small spot of pain flared behind Leta’s ribs. Sitting here with everyone singing the same words, she suddenly felt lost and small, like an alien whose spaceship had crashed on a foreign planet where there were three moons and nothing in the sky looked right to her. The film ground to a halt, freezing on an image of Frank-N-Furter tossing playing cards so that the cards hung in the air. The audience booed and hissed as the lights came up and a manager walked to the front.
“Leta Miller? Is there a Leta Miller here?”
Leta raised her hand shyly.
“You have a phone call. Follow me, please. Sorry, folks. We’ll get the show going again in a minute.”
Leta’s cheeks burned as she moved up the aisles, past the annoyed audience members. Behind her, the lights dimmed and the movie started up sluggishly.
In the manager’s office, she took the call. “Hello?”
“Leta?” Her mother’s voice sounded small and desperate. “I’m at the hospital. With Stevie.”
“Is he okay?”
“I can’t leave. I called Mrs. Jaworski. She’s coming to pick you up. Wait out front.” And she hung up.
Mrs. Jaworski showed up in her Impala, her hair still in rollers, and they drove in silence to the hospital. It had rained, and the asphalt shone under the street lights.
Leta stared out at the road and felt her heart beating faster. Was Stevie dead? She allowed herself to imagine that moment: Her father coming home, neighbors and church members bringing by casseroles, her friends consoling her, Cawley forgiving her. Maybe then her mother could stop feeling so angry and pay attention to Leta again.
Mrs. Jaworski pulled the Impala up to the bright white lights of the hospital’s front entrance. She kept the engine running.
“Thanks,” Leta said.
Mrs. Jaworski patted her leg, and when Leta looked at her face, she could see that the old woman had taken the time to put on her orange lipstick. It lit up the dark like a flare. “I have a brother, lives in Alaska. A real pain in the ass. Family. They’re nothing but trouble.”
Leta nodded numbly and went in. On the way to the ICU, Leta caught a glimpse of her face in the mirror by the nurse’s station. She didn’t recognize anything about herself and it was startling. Quickly, she put her hat on, tucking the ends of her new hairdo underneath, but it didn’t help.
Her mother sat in the waiting room on an orange vinyl chair whose stuffing was popping out at the seams. She held fast to a white Styrofoam cup. In the corner above their heads, a TV was on but the sound was off.
Leta slid as quietly as possible into the seat beside her mother. “What happened?”
Her mother’s voice was flat. “He had a seizure. I found him on the floor, coughing up blood.”
“Is he gonna be okay?”
“It was a bad one. But he’s stable now. He’s stable.”
“So he’s gonna be fine,” Leta said, and she found that she was relieved after all. “Did you call Daddy?”
Her mother nodded. “He was going to fly home from Hartford, but I told him it was okay. We’re okay.”
We’re not okay, Leta wanted to scream. “You should have let him come.”
Her mother waved it away like she did most of what Leta had to say. “He’s working on that big account. And besides, the flights are so expensive.”
Her dad should be here. More than anything, she wanted him to be here. She wanted them to sit at the kitchen table and admit that everything had changed and none of them could stop change from happening; change was no one’s fault. They’d all been so careful, but Leta was tired now and she wanted to come off watch. She removed her cap, and her mother paled.