When Rebecca Rivers lands the lead in her school’s production of The Crucible, she gets to change roles in real life, too. She casts off her old reputation, grows close with her four rowdy cast-mates, and kisses the extremely handsome Charlie Lamb onstage. Even Mr. McFadden, the play’s critical director, can find no fault with Rebecca.
Though “The Essential Five” vow never to date each other, Rebecca can’t help her feelings for Charlie, leaving her both conflicted and lovestruck. But the on and off-stage drama of the cast is eclipsed by a life-altering accusation that threatens to destroy everything…even if some of it is just make believe.
- Pages: 368 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Dial Books
- ISBN: 9780698185494
An Excerpt From
Like It Never Happened
It wasn’t like he begged me to sit shotgun in his ancient station wagon. Mr. McFadden only offered me a ride home because I happened to be backstage looking for a taxidermied puffin. Two weeks earlier, during curtain call for The Seagull, Mr. McFadden had placed the puffin in my arms instead of something normal, like roses. The whole audience had laughed. It was somehow funnier for being the wrong kind of bird.
Afterward I had been so excited for the cast party, I had forgotten to take it home. But now, on the last day of tenth grade, I wanted the puffin. As a souvenir.
Mr. McFadden was crouched behind his desk packing old props into boxes. He didn’t hear me push through the stage doors.
“Have you seen my puffin?” I asked.
Startled, he toppled backward, which was strangely satisfying to watch. Running his hands through his hair, he sighed. “I was about to toss it with the rest of this stuff nobody has any use for.” He set aside a broken typewriter and a tambourine and produced my puffin, half crushed.
“I have a use for it,” I said.
Mr. McFadden stared at me clutching the dead bird to my chest and shook his head, like he didn’t even want to know. He hoisted a box into his arms. “Help me carry these to the car and I’ll give you a ride.”
I hesitated. I was buzzing with that feeling you get exactly once per year, on the last day of school. In an hour I had to be home for my mother’s birthday dinner and I wanted to walk with my friends. We were going to get Slurpees for the first time since January, when Charlie had calculated that we had spent a collective $588 on them since the start of the school year. To combat our addiction, we had sworn off Slurpees until summer.
“Unless you have something else you have to do.” Mr. McFadden raised his eyebrows.
I opened my mouth to explain the situation, but stopped. Because wondering about Mr. McFadden’s personal life was one of our favorite group activities. The Essential Five might forgive me for missing Slurpee day, but they would never forgive me for missing the opportunity to see inside our director’s car. They would want to know everything—whether there was garbage on the floor, music on the stereo, evidence of a girlfriend or boyfriend. I zipped the puffin into my backpack, grabbed a box, and followed Mr. McFadden to the staff parking lot.
His car was faded red, except for one brown door, and probably older than I was. Maybe even older than my sister. Flattened Starbucks cups littered the floor, and one of those tree-shaped air fresheners hung from the mirror.
I buckled my seat belt and waited for the speakers to betray him. What if they played something awful, like Barbra Streisand, or Creed? Even more startling would be something truly good. In my sister’s old room I had recently discovered an acoustic Nirvana album and realized that Kurt Cobain was not just for boys with bad taste in T-shirts. If Mr. McFadden listened to something as hauntingly good as acoustic Nirvana, I wouldn’t even know what to think.
Only we weren’t moving. Mr. McFadden looked pained and on the cusp of confession. He stayed quiet so long, my pulse started to race.
Finally he said, “You have to lift your butt up.”
My cheeks promptly burst into flames. “What?”
My director took a deep breath. “When the car was designed in 1987, it came equipped with several innovative safety features, including the ignition’s refusal to turn when the passenger seat is occupied, but the seat belt unbuckled.”
“My seat belt is buckled,” I pointed out.
He nodded. “Sometime in the last twenty-five years, the car got confused, and now it only knows that you’re here. It can no longer sense that you are safely buckled.”
I stared at him, wishing I could take this sort of thing in stride. “You’ve had the same car for twenty-five years?”
“It was my mother’s car first.”
I remained planted to the seat until he released a small sigh. “Everyone has to do it,” he said.
As our director, Mr. McFadden was so sarcastic and short-tempered, he was like a character himself—one that happened to dominate every rehearsal of every play. But right now, he was approximately as awkward as any of my friends.
I lifted my butt off the seat. Mr. McFadden started the engine and threw the car into gear. “I would get it fixed,” he said, turning onto Hawthorne Boulevard, “but my mechanic said it would cost more than the car is worth. You can sit down now.”
We drove ten blocks in silence. No music played, which was disappointing. I searched for something to say, but my brain was now incapable of processing anything besides You have to lift your butt up.
“So,” he said, eventually, “are you excited to attend the Shining Stars Summer Camp for Performing Arts?”
I groaned. In February, Mr. McFadden had convinced me and Charlie to apply for jobs at a theater camp in eastern Oregon. It had seemed reasonable at the time—like a good, wholesome commitment on behalf of our future selves. But now that we were our future selves, I wished we could stay in the city with the rest of the Essential Five. As long as we were all together, it was easier to ignore the way my heart hammered every time Charlie came near me.
“I’m kind of nervous,” I admitted.
“It will look good on your résumé,” he said for the millionth time.
“Uh-huh. Special skills: changing sheets on bunk beds, late-night kitchen raids. Broadway will be so impressed.”
He rolled his eyes. “I meant for college.”
“Maybe I don’t want to go to college.” In my head, my mother gasped, causing me to remember her birthday. We were stopped at a red light. A sign in a convenience store window said FRESH-CUT FLOWERS.
“You can let me off here,” I said abruptly.
“Do you live here?” asked Mr. McFadden.
“No, but I want to buy some flowers.”
“Oh.” He shrugged and slid into a parking space. “I don’t mind waiting.”
The store sold mostly instant noodles and cat litter, but by the cash register sat a bucket of fresh lavender. I grabbed a fistful. The flowers were cheap and ordinary, but I thought my mom might appreciate the gesture. She was a big fan of gestures.
The second I got back into the car, the smell of the lavender was very strong and I was suddenly self-conscious, like I was the thing that smelled.
“It’s my mother’s birthday,” I explained.
“How old is she?” asked Mr. McFadden.
“Fifty-six,” I said.
He looked surprised. “Really? Mine too.”
“How old are you?” The question just kind of slipped out. Maybe because I was practically high on last-day-of-school euphoria.
Mr. McFadden’s shoulders stiffened. I remembered that he was my teacher. “Sorry,” I said. “Pretend I didn’t ask that.”
I didn’t much care, anyway. He looked about thirty, but I’m bad with age.
At Bickford Park Alternative School, you weren’t allowed to go out for the plays until you were in tenth grade. The rumor was that Mr. McFadden decided instantly if he liked you or not. He would cast his favorites in every show until graduation. But if you messed up, that was it. You could still join debate team, or choir, or the international club—which was actually just a bunch of kids who liked pad Thai a lot. Honestly, if you couldn’t be a thespian, you were better off joining nothing at all.
We had become the Essential Five in September that year, when we had auditioned for The Crucible. Mr. McFadden hadn’t let us audition with material from the actual play. Having to pick our own monologues had made the whole process especially terrifying. Tim Li had gone first and read the chapter from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in which Margaret finally gets her period. Of course it worked. It always works when boys do things like that.
Next had been Tess Dunham, pretending very hard not to know me, even though we had spent the first half of the summer together. She delivered one of the Vagina Monologues, which is the kind of thing you can maybe expect to get away with at Bickford Park if you ask permission. Tess did not ask permission. Watching her pretend to have an orgasm onstage was like watching a car crash. I wanted to look away but I couldn’t and I kept thinking, I hope that never happens to me. Mr. McFadden gave her a standing ovation before he sent her to Principal Gladstone’s office.
I knew she would get in. I was trying not to think about it.
Up next were Liane Gallagher and Charlie Lamb. Like Tess and me, they had a history, only everybody knew about theirs. They had been best friends since they were little kids. Together they performed a scene between Ophelia and Hamlet. At practically six feet tall, with curly hair and a nose ring, Liane was Ophelia. She had clearly considered what it would feel like if your boyfriend went crazy and demanded you get yourself to a nunnery. Charlie, who was so attractive he almost wasn’t, made an appealing Hamlet. It was hard to ignore his perfect bottom lip quivering as he threatened to give Liane a plague for her dowry. When they finished the scene, Mr. McFadden said, “Classic. Ambitious. You’re both in.”
I was so nervous I felt like I had just stepped out of a cold shower. I tended to keep a low profile at Bickford Park on account of some unflattering rumors that had flared up in seventh grade and still hadn’t been completely extinguished. As I took the stage I braced myself for whispers or a single anonymous catcall. For once, only the lights buzzed.
I performed the part from Breakfast at Tiffany’s in which Holly Golightly explains why she doesn’t have any furniture. In a way, it was a risky choice. Stage directors have a tendency to roll their eyes at the entire film industry. But I knew I made a good Holly Golightly—almost as good as Audrey Hepburn, if nowhere near as gorgeous. And onstage my nervousness vanished completely. I was fifteen in September and I had already been in twenty-three plays and one commercial. There was no way Mr. McFadden was going to deny me a part in The Crucible.
In the final minutes of class the next day, the secretary’s voice had come crackling over the intercom. “The cast list for the fall play is now posted on the bulletin board outside the auditorium.”
Charlie was in my class and he didn’t wait for the bell to ring before scraping his chair across the floor and racing out of the room. Our teacher feigned an exasperated sigh, but also bit down a smile. Teachers loved Charlie. Teachers did not particularly love me, but I wasn’t about to stay behind. Cramming my books into my bag, I chased after him.
“Yes!” Outside the auditorium doors, Charlie clasped his hands above his head. “Fuck yes!”
Looking over Charlie’s shoulder at the cast list, I followed the dotted line from Rebecca Rivers to Abigail Williams. I felt a smile stretch across my face. Mr. McFadden had given me the female lead.
Liane came running so fast she had to grab Charlie’s arm as she skidded to a stop. She peered at the list as if it required some kind of translation. “Shit,” she said finally. “I wanted to be Abigail.”
By now the bell was ringing and Tess Dunham, moving like a newborn calf in her platform flip-flops, was shouting, “Am I in?”
My eyes flew to the list and located her name, just as Charlie shouted confirmation.
The bell stopped ringing and Tim joined our huddle. He performed an awkward victory dance, moving his hips a lot and his feet not at all. Other kids approached the list, nodded or sighed before drifting away. Charlie, Tim, Tess, Liane, and me had landed the five best parts in The Crucible.
None of us were total strangers to one another, but now we formed a cautious circle, acknowledging that we had devoted the next few months of our lives to the same cause.
“Great audition,” said Tim to me, with a crackle of nerves. “I mean, you were really good.”
Liane raised her eyebrows and Charlie crashed his hip against hers. “Why so pissed?” he asked.
“I’ve already memorized half of Abigail’s lines,” Liane admitted. She wore lace gloves with the fingers cut off. Heavy black curls framed her face and fell to her shoulders. She was the kind of person you wanted to stare at.
Charlie responded with a sly smile. “Well, Rebecca’s had more experience than you.”
I forced myself to keep a straight face. I did, as a matter of fact, have more experience than all of them. But Charlie wasn’t talking about my twenty-three plays; he was talking about my one commercial.
Tim took the bait. “I see a donkey!” He tilted his face toward the ceiling, pretending to be watching clouds.
“I see an ice-cream cone,” Liane deadpanned.
In that extra-high pitch boys use to imitate girls, Charlie delivered my infamous line: “I see overcast skies with a forty percent chance of precipitation!”
In the commercial, the camera then cut to a promotional shot of Sondra Wilson, Portland’s favorite source for around-the-clock weather updates. Sondra looked approximately like I might look in thirty years, with the blessings of the Botox gods.
I splayed one hand across my face. Through the cracks between my fingers I could see Tess smiling vaguely. Months earlier she had mocked me mercilessly for that commercial, which had a tendency to appear between late-night TV programs.
“Tim’s right, though.” Charlie elbowed me. “You are really good. Even in that commercial it was clear you had talent.”
I couldn’t tell if he was being at all sincere.
“What?” Charlie smirked. “You don’t believe me?”
“Is that what you want to do?” interrupted Liane. “Commercials?”
“No,” I said slowly. “I did that because my dad’s friend owns the station. I want to do stage.”
Liane nodded kind of wistfully. “Me too.”
“Rebecca has the perfect stage name,” said Tim. He tested it out, bellowing, “The Crucible . . . starring Rebecca Rivers!”
“Look,” said Liane, suddenly all business, “The Crucible is pretty intense. If we want this to be good, we’re going to have to schedule extra rehearsal time.”
Given that Mr. McFadden had already scheduled rehearsals from three to six, Monday through Friday, this seemed excessive.
“We can start by running lines at lunch,” Liane continued.
“You mean like every day?” Tess frowned.
“Fine by me,” said Tim. “I’m not exactly the BMOC.” He rocked on the heels of his waterproof sandals.
“What?” Tess tilted her head.
“Big Man on Campus,” Tim clarified. “It’s not me. At this school, I am mostly reviled.”
“That’s because you wore the same pair of pants every day last year,” said Charlie.
“It was a social experiment,” said Tim.
“Yeah?” asked Charlie, intrigued. “What were you able to conclude?”
Tim paused, deep in thought. “That people don’t socialize with you when you don’t change your pants.”
“Groundbreaking,” said Liane. “So are we doing this?”
Charlie was quick to say, “Absolutely.” He was no stranger to overachieving. Everyone knew he wanted to go to Harvard and then law school.
Tim stuck two thumbs in the air. Tess heaved a sigh, but mumbled her consent. Her gaze fell to the floor as everyone waited for my decision.
Technically, I didn’t have anything better to do with my lunch periods. Since the first day of school, I had been eating with a group of kids I had known since junior high. My makeshift friends were nice, and had never mocked me for my misspent ten seconds of fame on the local news. They were also kind of hopelessly dull. But that wasn’t really why I agreed.
The moment I looked Liane Gallagher in the eye and confirmed, “I’m in,” her expression had relaxed into a look of respect. Instantly I wanted to agree with her on a hundred more things.
That was why.
The lavender didn’t exactly have the effect I was hoping for. When I entered the kitchen holding the flowers by their stems, my mother looked at me like I was a cat with a mouse between my teeth. Granted, she often looked at me that way.
“Happy birthday,” I said.
She resumed spraying the counter with disinfectant. “Did you pick those from Mrs. Almeida’s yard?” she asked.
Mrs. Almeida was our ninety-year-old neighbor whose front yard sprouted weeds and stone cherubs in equal measure. I avoided her at all costs, partially because she was always wearing a nightie, and partially because she terrified me.
“No.” I blocked my nose to avoid breathing the air, humid with Lysol. “The guy at the Lucky Stars Mart might have, though.”
Mom blinked at me. She didn’t know the convenience stores by name. When she needed groceries, she drove to the Whole Foods downtown.
Suddenly it dawned on her that I was trying to be nice. Flashing me a sterile smile, she grabbed a vase from the top shelf. “Put them on the table,” she said. “Your father insists on grilling chicken.”
I knew it wasn’t really the chicken my mother opposed—just the idea that old age was something to celebrate. In the dining room, I centered my pathetic FRESH CUT FLOWERS on the table, already set with crystal water glasses and cloth napkins. My mother would most likely decide she was allergic to lavender. Cheap things always made her break out in hives: bar soap, Hondas, et cetera.
Through the window I could see my father half shrouded in grill smoke and smiling to himself. He was wearing his KISS THE COOK apron, which my sister had given him at some point in the late nineties.
For the record, I didn’t hate my parents or anything, but they were exhausting.
While we ate, Dad tried to compensate for Mom’s misery by looking extra-happy as he chewed. I didn’t even attempt to play along. Last year, when she turned fifty-five, I had made the mistake of listing the movie theaters and fast-food establishments where she could officially claim a senior citizen discount. It was supposed to be funny—because of how obviously she did not require a twenty-five-cent hash brown from McDonald’s—but actually it caused her to burst into tears. Now I knew better.
The phone rang and Mom almost knocked over her chair trying to answer it in time. Dad lowered his chin and just barely shook his head.
“Only a telemarketer,” Mom chirped, sitting back down.
My sister, Mary, lived in California and had a poor memory—at least when it came to important dates, phone numbers, and having once been born to a set of parents. Mary had been gone for most of my life, but my mother had never stopped anticipating her return.
“I don’t see why they always have to bother us at dinner,” said Dad, like he would have welcomed the interruption at breakfast. Briefly, my father’s eyes met mine. My gaze promptly fell to the lavender leaning in all directions against the lip of the vase.
After dinner my mother served slices of gluten-free cake and Dad and I sang “Happy Birthday to You” terribly. Dad was tone-deaf. I could actually sing, but nobody performs an earnest version of “Happy Birthday” without feeling like an idiot.
My mother chewed her cake and stared glumly into the backyard, where leftover smoke distorted the view beyond the grill. With a sigh, my father let his face relax into its normal, comforting pile of wrinkles.
“How did you get home?” he asked me. Lately he had been asking all sorts of questions out of the blue. It made him seem very old. “Did you take the bus?”
My father’s white eyebrows were raised in anticipation, his fork paused in midair. I sensed that telling the truth would result in more questions. Even though it hadn’t felt at all wrong or daring, there was a big difference between getting into Mr. McFadden’s car and telling my father about it.
“Yes,” I lied. “I took the bus.”
For long stretches of the school year, I had managed to forget that there was anything weird between me and Tess. Eventually some comment of hers would remind me of phase one of our friendship, and how badly it had gone, and I would feel overwhelmed by guilt. The rest of the Essential Five had no idea that Tess and I had ever spoken prior to auditions for The Crucible.
In truth, we had met at the end of ninth grade in health class. We had been watching an ancient film in which Richard Gere suffers from bipolar disorder. We were supposed to be keeping track of his highs and lows—like when he rides his motorcycle at top speed with his silver hair flying everywhere, versus when he says things like “I . . . I can’t stop the sadness.”
From across the aisle, Tess passed me a note: Was it good?
I looked at her warily. Normally when near-strangers passed me notes, they said something dirty.
To clarify, Tess pointed at my binder. Beneath the plastic I kept a playbill from Grey Gardens, which my parents had taken me to see at The Armory for my fifteenth birthday and which I absolutely loved. Eagerly, I scribbled: It was amazing!
And there, in the flickering light of Richard Gere’s breakdown, our friendship commenced.
One thing Tess and I had in common, apart from our enthusiasm for theater, was a certain kind of reputation. Mine had been cemented in middle school, after an embarrassing incident that, to my peers, had counted as evidence of my sluthood. Tess’s fame for sex was self-inflicted. She used the word semen more often than most people said water or ChapStick.
Naturally, it was tiring to always be hearing about the older guys Tess found loitering outside the clubs on Burnside, or the favors she granted her lab partner “just because.” But her whorish tendencies could also be fun, like when we stayed up watching Talk Sex with Sue Johanson, a shockingly old lady who spent her hour of airtime arranging mannequins into undignified positions. I had never laughed that hard, about that kind of thing, with anyone. After enduring years of false accusations about the status of my virginity, Tess made me feel practically immune to embarrassment—like sex, in the end, was only a joke.
Our first friendship had lasted from the beginning of last June through the end of July, when her family invited me to spend a week at their house in Seaside. Afterward, I had spent the remainder of the summer trying to forget what had happened there.
The obvious thing would have been for Tess and me to never speak again, but then school started and we both got into The Crucible. I wasn’t about to give up my part. So when Tess had pretended to meet me for the first time, I had just played along.
In September, Mr. McFadden had been prone to watching us rehearse with a half-dreamy, half-drunk look on his face. He always sat in the second row with his feet on the chair in front of him. Once, overcome with enthusiasm, he shouted, “Who are you people? Why aren’t you hiding in closets weeping to The Smiths like the rest of your miserable peers?”
Broken-character grins stretched across our faces. Even though I had never really heard The Smiths, I screamed in response, “I danced for the devil!” Which happened to be my line, but which happened to feel like the truth.
Halfway through November, things changed. It had been raining for weeks and the whole auditorium smelled like a wet dog. Mr. McFadden frowned in the middle of act two. His face stayed that way through Charlie’s recitation of the first nine commandments—then he rose from his seat before Liane could deliver the tenth: adultery.
Onstage, Liane and Charlie both froze. Mr. McFadden’s tone was awful, like somebody’s mother attempting to mask rage with a pet name.
“You are single-handedly rendering this production of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece a farcical nightmare.”
Liane, who was generally very stoic, panicked and turned to her costar. Charlie just nodded in agreement with Mr. McFadden. He had a tendency to suck up to teachers in a way that would have been completely intolerable, if he hadn’t been so damn good-looking.
Liane squeaked an apology, which wasn’t like her, and I winced at the sound. Backstage she tried to shrug it off, but she was clearly close to tears. She was a fantastic actress and there was likely nothing farcical about her performance. Mr. McFadden was probably just suffering from some adult problem, like divorce or migraines.
Before I could offer any comfort, Tess was taking Liane’s face in her hands, saying, “Don’t let that asshole piss on your fire. You are a beautiful actress and he is a bitter old homo with a two-year degree from Spokane’s Premiere School of the Arts.”
For the record: Mr. McFadden was not that old, not unhandsome, not necessarily gay.
Later that week, he requested Tim do something about his voice “crackling like a pubescent campfire.” Tim’s lips disappeared. Deep creases appeared between his eyebrows, but he bravely finished the scene. A number of uneventful rehearsals followed before Mr. McFadden cupped his hands around his mouth—this time to yell at Charlie.
“Charles Lamb! Can you loosen up? Your shoulders are as stiff as a homophobic gym teacher’s.”
Color spread from Charlie’s cheeks to the tips of his ears. He looked like somebody experiencing humiliation for the very first time.
So many days would pass between attacks that we would wonder if we had finally won our director’s approval. Of course, like any seasoned predator, that’s when Mr. McFadden would strike. He described Tess’s stage presence as “Courtney Love, the later years.” When Liane had a cold he told her to sit out until she “ceased to sound like a chain-smoking receptionist.” To Charlie he said more than once, “This is not an episode of Seventh Heaven!” which none of us had even seen on account of this being the twenty-first century.
In response, we developed a ritual of consoling whomever Mr. McFadden had victimized that day. We assured Tim that the cracks in his voice were barely noticeable. We fed Liane cherry-flavored lozenges and herbal tea. Charlie declared that Courtney Love was a “hot mess,” and Tess returned the favor by calling Charlie “the Ryan Gosling of the thespian troupe.”
I told myself they weren’t flirting so much as licking each other’s wounds.
“You guys ever notice the way Mr. McFadden looks at Rebecca when she’s onstage?” Charlie posed this question on the school steps, after our first dress rehearsal for The Crucible. It was early December and the night air was all mist.
Tim clasped his hands and blinked rapidly, like a love-struck cartoon.
“You are weirdly exempt from Mr. McFadden’s wrath,” said Liane.
“That’s not true,” I protested. “The other day he told me I sound like a chimp when I sneeze.”
“Yeah, when you sneeze,” said Tess, “not when you act.”
“How do you know it was a real sneeze?” I argued lamely. “Maybe it was a performed sneeze.”
Charlie’s laugh always made him sound older, and always made me want to attach my mouth to his. “Face it, Rivers.” Charlie grinned at me. “You’re Mr. McFadden’s leading lady. You can do no wrong.”
“Don’t worry.” Tim patted my shoulder blade. “We can forgive your raw talent.”
Charlie stooped to whisper in my ear, “Tim speaks for himself.”
Hopefully the color had faded from my cheeks by the time we stepped into the fluorescently lit 24-Hour Hotcake and Steak House. We stood in line to order milk shakes and hotcakes—plus steak for Tim, who claimed a gluten allergy—then squeezed into the coveted half-circle booth. Liane went to the jukebox for the purpose of changing Hoobastank to David Bowie. Some bearded men in construction hats stared at her butt, causing Charlie’s eyebrows to furrow protectively.
I tried not to feel so jealous.
After devouring our food, we were all kind of sleepy. Tess leaned on Tim’s shoulder. Liane took long, noisy slurps of her milk shake.
“Rebecca,” said Charlie.
“Yeah?” We were sitting on opposite ends of the curved wooden bench.
“Why did you start acting?”
Tim grabbed the saltshaker and held it to my lips like a microphone. I pushed it away and groaned. “Why did you start acting?”
“College applications,” said Charlie. “I have to have diverse interests.”
Liane rolled her eyes. “There’s no time for diverse interests.”
“Wrong,” he said. “Tomorrow I’m volunteering at the homeless shelter on Burnside. Monday at lunch I’m welcoming the latest additions to the German Language Honor Society.”
“Impressive,” said Liane.
“Schönen dank.” Charlie licked syrup off his lip. “Rebecca?” he pried.
“It’s embarrassing,” I said.
“Why?” His stare was relentless.
I sighed. “So when I was little I was really shy. Like, I wouldn’t talk to anyone except my sister.”
“I didn’t know you had a sister.” Liane sounded almost offended.
“She’s ten years older than me,” I explained. “She lives in California and never comes home. But when I was a kid she was practically my whole world. I didn’t really have any friends.”
Charlie took this information in stride. The rest of them were slumped in a hotcake-induced stupor.
“Anyway,” I continued, “when my sister was in tenth grade, she was in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Cleveland High. They needed a few younger kids to play fairies, and my parents forced me to do it. I think they thought it would help me to, like, break out of my shell.”
“And?” Charlie asked.
I returned his stare. “I loved every minute of it.”
His eyes went all crinkly. “Of course you did.”
Liane was studying Charlie very intensely. “That’s bullshit about your college applications,” she announced. Her tone, as usual, was hard to read.
“Oh?” said Charlie.
To the rest of us, Liane explained, “When Charlie and I were little, we lived in the same apartment complex, and I used to write plays.”
“Really?” I asked. “What about?”
Liane waved her hand. “Dumb stuff. The Oregon trail, Christmas miracles. But I used to hold auditions for the neighborhood kids, and since Charlie was my best friend—”
“Was your best friend?” Charlie interrupted.
Liane ignored him. “He took his auditions extra-seriously. He didn’t want anyone to accuse me of nepotism.”
Embarrassingly, I had never actually had a best friend. Theater had taught me to love an audience—but ending up alone with another person could still make me nervous.
“Aw,” said Tim. “You guys go so far back, you’re practically related.”
Charlie took a long drink of water. Liane appeared to be waiting for a cramp to pass.
Finally, Liane asked, “Tim, why did you start acting?” She was sitting perfectly straight in the wooden booth. Her flat-ironed hair was beginning to protest, curling near her temples. I was jealous of the bangles on her wrists and the metal rings on her fingers. I could never pull off stuff like that.
“Well!” said Tim brightly. “Last year in English, Ms. Kramer told me I have the best reading voice she has ever heard.” He paused to let us grasp the magnitude of this compliment. “She made me read aloud from The Odyssey for like three days straight, then told me I probably have the stamina to record audiobooks if I want. Sounds awesome, right? I thought theater would be good practice.”
“Awesome,” Liane confirmed.
When it was Tess’s turn to answer the question, she drawled, “I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but I really enjoy being looked at.”
I laughed with everybody else, because there was something about Tess and her deliberate sexiness that still appealed to me.
Then Charlie said, “Attention whore.”
And Tess said, “I’m not the only whore among us.”
She waggled her eyebrows at me. Of the five of us, only Tess ever joked about my old reputation, and I never knew how to react.
Charlie stood up from the table, tapping a fresh pack of American Spirits against his palm. “Anyone want a smoke?” he asked, nodding toward the parking lot.
Tess and Tim shook their heads. Biting her thumbnail, Liane stared at the syrup congealing on her plate.
“Rivers?” Charlie raised his eyebrows at me. Trying not to appear too eager, I followed him outside.
A cigarette was the last thing I wanted after so much food, but I took one anyway. At first we smoked in silence, exhaling toward Powell Boulevard. Charlie had that boyish, self-sufficient way of standing that made me feel unnecessary—until his lips curled into a smile.
“So if your parents hadn’t forced you onstage, would you have discovered theater on your own?”
“Yes,” I said immediately, no doubt in my mind. “Maybe it would have taken a couple more years, but yes. I love it more than anything.”
Charlie stuck out his jaw and blew smoke at the sky. “I wish I felt that way.”
“But you like acting,” I said, as if to convince him. He gave me a funny look. “I mean, you don’t really do it just for your college applications, do you?” I made myself look him in the eye.
A grin stretched across Charlie’s face. He ground the remainder of his cigarette against the diner’s brick exterior. “No, Rivers. Not just for my college applications.”
I blushed, acknowledging what he meant—or what I thought he meant. Charlie was already holding open the door, letting damp air invade the hotcake house.
“Ready?” He cocked his head. I dropped my cigarette and followed him back to the half-circle booth, where our friends were inventing details about our director’s personal life.
“Probably he lives in a fancy Pearl District condo,” Tim speculated. “With a French bulldog named, like, Nicholas.”
Charlie and I slid into place, eager to harp on a favorite subject.
I guess we were all fairly obsessed with Mr. McFadden, maybe because we knew nothing about him, while he knew practically everything about us. Backstage we never censored ourselves like we would have for a regular teacher. Our director was privy to Tess’s sex obsession, to Charlie’s constant bragging, and to Tim’s tendency to sing in a high falsetto whenever he was bored. But Mr. McFadden never joined in, never offered any commentary of his own.
It hardly seemed fair of him, to hide so much.
Two nights later we opened The Crucible and it was almost flawless. An eleventh grader missed a cue, but Liane improvised such a smooth save, the audience probably didn’t even notice. Backstage after curtain call we fell into a tangle of limbs. Liane said, “You were perfect,” and pressed her lips against my cheek.
Charlie had his arms around my waist. I leaned back against him so I could look into Liane’s eyes. “So were you,” I said, stunned that I was even friends with such a beautiful person.
Breaking from the mob, Tim lifted Tess off the ground and spun her in a circle. Liane kicked off her colonial boots and threw one at Charlie, who caught it against his chest.