The girls around her were snickering. It was Jessica’s turn and now they all knew she had a crush on Brent, the dumbest boy in their class. It was embarrassing, but it was the right kind of embarrassment. Jessica blushed lightly but she looked beautiful in her blushing and the six girls all bent closer, now part of her secret.
“Ew! Brent? Why? He’s, like, so dumb,” Amber said. The girls laughed and laughed and their hands each dipped into the popcorn bowl one after another.
Shelley heard a noise in the kitchen and saw Jessica’s mom leaned back, swigging from something that looked like a liquor bottle. The light was blue in there, too bright and weird and removed to be fully real. She stood lit up like an x-ray, distant from the girls in their drab and darkened living room.
“Well, it’s my turn now,” Jessica said. She started looking from girl to girl, each of them bent forward around the table. Jessica’s mom padded past them and up the stairs, unnoticed. “Amber. Truth or dare.”
Amber grinned devilishly, raised her eyebrows twice, and said, “Dare.”
Oooooo, crowed the girls. On TV Freddie Kreuger crawled through somebody’s dreams and Shelley prayed her heart would slow down in case one of them heard it.
Jessica bent forward till her face was almost kissing distance from Amber’s. “You have to…” and here she paused, maybe for effect or maybe to stall for time. She smiled then, clearly satisfied with what she was about to say. “Lick the entire toilet seat!”
Ewwww, groaned the girls. “Oh my god!” Amber cried. But Shelley was relieved. Maybe Amber would refuse and then they could all do something else.
“You’re sick,” Amber spat but she got up off the floor anyway and started marching toward the bathroom. The girls formed a pod behind her, giggling and trampling the carpet. There was a sound upstairs of another television through a door and then the six of them were crowded into the hallway bathroom. There were seashells everywhere. Seashell soap, seashell framed ocean scenes, a seashell-plastered toilet paper cover.
Amber kneeled down among the pinks and blues and lifted the fur-covered lid. “I can’t believe you’re making me do this.”
“Do it! Do it! Do it!” the girls chanted.
“Ugh, god, gross!” she said before bending her tongue toward the seat. Slowly she started to circle the porcelain, all the girls screaming. Shelley’s heart fought in her like a dying animal as Amber’s head whipped back, her hair flying. She looked right into her eyes, the obvious next victim.
“God, that was disgusting,” she said as she stood up, forcing them apart until she was through the door. Now out in the living room, she started guzzling a Coke.
“Butt breath!” Jessica teased.
“Shut up,” Amber said between sips. “Also, my turn.”
They all piled in around her and she began smiling impishly at each of them in turn. Finally she swiveled her head in Shelley’s direction, the only girl who hadn’t taken a turn yet. “Shelley. Truth or dare.”
Shelley’s blood left her face but she mimicked the cocky looks the girls had already mastered and said, “Truth.”
Amber smirked and began to pace in a circle around Shelley. “Let’s see. What truth should this shy little baby here tell us? Biggest crush? First kiss?” Shelley had a crush on Amber. Shelley had never been kissed. She tried to stare straight ahead as Amber looped around and around and around her and she wished she were a good liar, like the rest.
“I’ve got it.” Amber said. “What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done?”
Shelley felt herself go sweaty and at the same moment realized she’d never done anything dangerous in her life. She’d eaten some Mentos and Diet Coke in the third grade knowing she was going to explode. Of course, she threw up before it happened. As she glanced past their heads, she began to hear some chuckles and her cheeks grew warm.
“Oh, come on, Shelley, you must’ve done something,” sniped Jessica.
Without thinking, Shelley said, “Yeah, a cigarette.” All the girls laughed.
“What do you mean, a cigarette? Like, you smoked one cigarette and that was dangerous? You’ve ‘done’ a cigarette? Oh my god, what a dork,” Amber said. All of them were cackling now.
“No, I mean, I swallowed a cigarette.”
Amber’s laugh started to slow. “What? What do you mean, you swallowed a cigarette?”
“Yeah, like, one on fire. A burning one.”
The girls all quieted down and looked at her. “You swallowed a burning cigarette,” Amber said.
“Um, yeah, what of it.”
Amber frowned. “Why would you even do that?”
“I dunno. It was a dare. But like, your stomach acid puts it out so like, it’s not a big deal if you do it right. Like sword swallowing.”
Oh god why, Shelley thought. She looked around the room and wondered if they believed it. There was screaming coming from the television and she felt like she might vomit. Over Amber’s shoulder, Jessica was scowling.
“Prove it,” Jessica said.
“I said prove it. Go sneak one of my mom’s cigarettes and do it.”
Shelley swallowed and shook her head lightly.
“What? You a chicken? You a liar?”
Shelley was a chicken and a liar. “No.”
“Well, do it then.”
Shelley’s blood turned to ice.
“Yeah, okay, fine, I will. So, like, where are her cigarettes, anyway?”
“Up in her room. Just go in there. She’s probably half drunk and won’t care.” Jessica looked off up the stairs. “But don’t be too obvious about it, obviously.”
“Fine, I will,” Shelley said. “Watch me.”
Oooooo, said the girls, squealing.
Shelley started plodding up the stairs, her feet mashing into a carpet that felt more like matted hair than anything else. The hidden TV was getting louder and louder as she went, some laugh track going off behind a closed door.
She paused outside of where the sound was coming from. There was a chip in the wood showing some sort of fiberboard poking through the white paint. She pushed the spot lightly with her fingers and the door moved open a few inches, no door handle required.
Inside she could see it was dark, like the hallway, but blue light danced along the walls. She tried to discreetly angle her head to see further into the room and caught Jessica’s mom sitting on a bed at the far end. There was the same liquor bottle she’d seen earlier propped up on her thigh and her eyes were gazing lazily at the television set against the wall. She didn’t seem to notice the movement of the door at all.
Nudging the gap a little wider, heart thudding, Shelley peeked around the room looking for a shape that could be cigarettes. It didn’t take long to spot an ashtray full of stubs on some sort of tray table not too far from the door. It was just far enough away, though, that she’d have to go in to get them.
The girls stood in a clump at the bottom of the stairs and she heard Jessica hiss, “Hurry up!”
She dropped down to a crawl and her hands felt slick along the carpet. She would go in as low as possible, she thought, get to the tray and then get out. But what then? She used her head to wedge the door open further and listened for noises from the bed. Nothing. Wedging the door further still, her shoulders were suddenly through and she started inching along the floor.
Now that she was in here, she noticed a smell like an old chicken sandwich. Mayonnaise and meat. She looked up and saw Jessica’s mom’s feet wiggling to some unheard tune off the end of the bed. She was nearly there.
Suddenly the woman coughed and Shelley’s head jerked upward, knocking the tray to the ground. The cigarette butts flew like a firework across the room and the ashtray landed with a solid thunk onto the carpet, the tray clattering down behind it.
“Goddammit!” Jessica’s mom said and she saw a pair of legs suddenly standing above her, the knees worn and ashy, like lizard skin. Downstairs she heard the girls scampering away from the staircase.
“What the hell! What is this!”
“Uh… nothing,” Shelley said.
“Nothing! Nothing!” the woman was saying. “You can’t fool me. Not you.”
Shelley sat up, her eyes watering. Jessica’s mom looked like a mean drunk and she was weaving a little one way and then the other, her words tumbling together. Her own mom was probably at home making brownies and wondering what her daughter was doing with her new friends.
Shelley climbed to her feet and realized this woman was shorter than her, even though she hadn’t finished growing yet. Makeup trailed beneath the woman’s eyes in great blue smears.
“I just, it was… it was a dare,” Shelley said.
“Dare to do what?”
Jessica’s mom reached out and pushed her shoulder backward with a light tap. The tears were coming down Shelley’s cheeks now.
“Like, a truth or dare dare. You know. For fun. Sorry.”
“Sorry? You’re sorry?” Jessica’s mom was reeling a little and spun around like she was commenting to someone behind her. “She’s sorry. Hear that? Ha!”
“But I am sorry.”
“Sorries are worth a pile of shit,” the woman said to no one and then she started moving toward the bed, suddenly uninterested. Her feet pushed the cigarette butts further into the carpet as she went and then she was back in her usual spot, watching television. Shelley was trembling all over and tried to listen for the sounds of the girls downstairs. There was nothing, only silence.
Quietly she dropped to her knees again and plucked the dead end of a Parliament into her palm, crawling backwards. When she reached the hall, she pulled the door closed with her fingertips and sat there trying to breathe, rubbing the tears from her cheeks. Then she closed her eyes, sighed, and when she felt like she could handle it, started slowly moving down the stairs while she listened for anything familiar.
Eventually she found them in the basement on a series of long couches. They were all watching some show about celebrities and all of them were quiet. None of them even looked at her when she came in.
“I got it. I got the cigarette,” she said. “I don’t have a lighter though.”
She took it and put it on her tongue, sticking it out so they all could see, but none of them even turned to look. It tasted like a funeral. Like licking a square of asphalt. She held her hands out and waited.
Finally Jessica stood up, walked over to her, and plucked the butt from her tongue. She looked more like her mother now, but hollowed out, and the girls were staring diligently ahead as if they were mannequins.
“God, don’t be such a nerd, butt breath,” she said softly. “Don’t you know these things give you cancer?”