“Look at her! She’s trying to be Magenta. Last week, she was Janet.”
“You just don’t do that. You don’t switch characters,” Leta agreed. “God, she is such a fake.”
“The fakiest of the fake,” Agnes said, and she slipped her arm through Leta’s in solidarity.
Leta and Agnes had been best friends since third grade when they’d both been hall monitors and discovered a mutual love of horse models. But now, Leta and Agnes were fourteen and in the second half of eighth grade, and that demanded certain concessions. A deal was made, terms agreed upon and sealed with a vow said over the Ouija board: By summer, they would give up TeenBeat magazine and start reading Cosmopolitan, which they had only glimpsed in the drugstore. They would buy at least one pair of cool jeans from the mall. And before the school year was out, Leta and Agnes would each have their first kiss.
Leta hoped hers would be with Tom Van Dyke, who worked behind the concession stand. Tom was a high school junior and beautiful, with shaggy brown hair and heavy-lidded brown eyes, which reminded Leta of Tim Curry, who played Frank-N-Furter. Tom drove a red Camaro and played drums in marching band. Often, when she had been banished to the bench during gym class—Toni Benson deliberately hit her in dodgeball and Coach Perry did nothing about it—Leta consoled herself by imagining she was Tom’s girlfriend. In these fantasies, Leta cheered him on during halftime concerts as he marched across the field in measured beats, taking his place as part of a perfect formation—a sunburst, a castle, or the Crocker High School mustang, which was their mascot. Sometimes she closed her eyes and imagined Tom kissing her in the rain over at the Frankenstein Place, and she was as beautiful as Susan Sarandon, who played Janet.
“Is he here? I don’t see him,” Leta said as she and Agnes pushed past the pimply-faced door guardian who asked for tickets and checked IDs, turning away anyone who wasn’t seventeen. Leta and Agnes had been granted a pass from the theater manager who used to go to A.A. meetings with Agnes’s mom.
“He’s behind the counter, same as always. Get to it,” Agnes answered, and Leta felt her heartbeat quicken.
Tom’s hair shone in the glow of the popcorn machine. “Can I get you something?” he asked.
“Can I have a Sprite, please?” Leta felt she should say something more, to keep the conversation flowing like she’d read in a TeenBeat article, “Snag Your Crush!” “I really want a Coke but I have an ulcer? And my doctor said I can’t drink Coke anymore because it gives me a stomachache?”
Tom jiggled the cup under the stream of pale, foaming soda. “Bummer.”
“It’s the same with popcorn, bad for my ulcer,” Leta continued. “I had to have a barium swallow. They call it a ‘delicious strawberry milkshake’ but it’s like drinking strawberry-flavored chalk. I almost barfed it back up.”
“Hey, Tom, I can cover for you if you want time with your girlfriend,” the other guy at the counter snickered, and Leta’s face went lava-red.
“Shut up, Marco. That’ll be a dollar twenty-five,” Tom said.
Quickly, Leta dropped her change on the counter. Agnes pushed her toward Theater 2. “Smooth move, Ex-lax. At this rate, you’ll never get kissed. Come on. I don’t wanna get stuck in the back with the virgins.”
Leta and Agnes settled into their seats, third row center. When the lights dimmed and the familiar red lips and white teeth glowed on the screen, the audience erupted into cheers, and Leta felt that surge of excitement in her belly, the thrill of sitting in the dark with strangers sharing an experience that made them all seem like friends. She and Agnes sang along to every lyric. They threw toast and shouted comebacks. But once Columbia was on-screen, Leta was alert, her feet miming the steps below her seat, her hands making small motions on her lap. Only once did she look away, her eye drawn by a flash of gold on the front row. There sat Jennifer Pomhultz wearing her sister’s gold-sequined baton twirler’s outfit with fringe at the shoulders. So Jennifer hadn’t come as Magenta at all but as Columbia, and Leta felt a surge of panic mixed with hatred as Jennifer also imitated Columbia’s moves. Leta elbowed Agnes and pointed.
Agnes’s mouth hung open in disbelief. “That bitch!”
Someone on their row—a virgin—made the mistake of starting up the battery-powered carving knife way too early. Its electric growl disturbed the mood, and the audience pounced with a chorus of shushing.
After the movie, Leta and Agnes waited out front for Mr. Tatum to come pick them up. It was brisk in the parking lot—the flatlands of Texas could be surprisingly cold in winter. Leta crossed her arms to stay warm and brooded over Jennifer Pomhultz. “I can’t believe her. She can have anyone else, but Columbia’s mine.”
Agnes waved it away. “Don’t worry about it. By next week, she’ll be Riff Raff.”
But Leta did worry. That’s why she had an ulcer. Even now, her stomach burned with acid, and she wished she’d brought her Maalox along.
“Hey, aren’t you Diana’s sister, Agnes?” A guy with dark hair and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt walked up to them, tossing his cigarette in the parking lot on the way. Leta recognized him from her brother’s high school yearbook. His name was Roger, and he raced motocross. “I’m Roger. I’ve seen you around.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen you, too.” Agnes said it really cool, but she was smiling in a way Leta had never seen her smile before.
Mr. Tatum was late as usual, and for a half hour they stood around talking and trying to stay warm. Roger made fun of Agnes but it was really a compliment, and when Agnes fake-punched his arm, Leta could see she wasn’t insulted at all; she was thrilled. At last, Leta saw Mr. Tatum’s old white Buick edging into the lot from College Drive. Mrs. Tatum had taken their new car when she left to “find herself” on an ashram last year, leaving Agnes and her sister Diana in the lurch with a dad who was no more than a shadow in their house.
“Your dad’s here,” Leta warned, and Agnes moved away from Roger.
“So, you wanna go see a movie tomorrow or something?” Roger asked Agnes.
Mr. Tatum drove up and honked the horn. He sat in the driver’s seat staring straight ahead. Agnes jotted her phone number on the back of an old napkin and offered it to Roger with a smile that gave Leta an uneasy feeling in her stomach, like the climb on a roller coaster when you’ve glimpsed the first steep drop but there’s nothing to do but hold on till the end.
Two weeks later, on a Saturday, Leta spent the night at Agnes’s house. Aggie’s grandmother had suffered a fall, and her dad was in Kansas arguing with the siblings about what should be done. This left Agnes’s older sister, Diana, on duty, but she’d gone off with her friends. In exchange for the girls’ silence, she’d promised them one monumental favor, no questions asked, to be collected at a future date.
Leta and Agnes enjoyed having the house to themselves. They pretended they were stewardesses sharing an apartment in New York City, where they entertained rock stars and heads of state. Leta said her name was Astrid Van Der Waal, and she was also a Swedish princess. Agnes called herself Agatha Frank-N-Furter until Leta objected, so she changed it to just Agatha, like Cher, and said she was a spy. When they tired of that game, they cooked Tuna Helper in a small black pan, adding in canned corn because it was a vegetable. They scooped it all up with Doritos and washed it down with lemonade concocted from water and neon-pink powder in a jar. They’d lost count on the spoonfuls and the lemonade was puckery tart. It left a coating on Leta’s tongue that made everything taste slightly off.
“You know what you say to corn?” Leta said, giggling.
“See you later!” Leta laughed so hard some of her Tuna Helper fell out of her mouth. When Agnes didn’t laugh, Leta explained, “See you later? Because corn comes out in your poop?”
Agnes rolled her eyes. “You probably shouldn’t say that around guys. They’ll think you’re gross.”
Leta felt confused. They always laughed at poop jokes. Always.
“Guess what?” Agnes said. “Roger invited me to a party.”
Leta took a bite of Tuna Helper. It still tasted like lemonade powder. “When is it?”
“Friday night.” Agnes did not look at Leta when she said this.
“But that’s Rocky Horror night.”
“Yeah, sorry. I’m not gonna be able to go this weekend.”
“But we always go to Rocky Horror on Fridays. And Jennifer’s still dressing as Columbia. I need you as my wingman. You have to come.”
Agnes glared. “Oh, Leta, grow up.”
They spent the rest of the night not speaking. As she lay in her sleeping bag, her mind going over and over the conversation like a rosary, Leta noticed that Agnes’s horse models weren’t on her shelves anymore. Instead there was a dried-out rose in a vase and a new poster of some motocross champ she’d never heard of. When Leta’s mom came for her on Sunday morning, Leta packed her stuff and ran out to the car without even saying good-bye.
THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES
“Who in here has heard of the band Steely Dan?”
Leta’s student teacher, Miss Shelton, looked out hopefully at the class. She had on her flared jeans, feather earrings, and kimono top. Her long blond hair hung down straight as a sheet of ice, and her magnificent boobs were pushed into a canyon of cleavage that had every boy in class sitting at attention.
Tracy Thomas raised her hand. “Will this be on the test, Miss Shelton?”
“No, Tracy,” she said with a wink.
Miss Shelton had tried to get everyone to call her Amy on the first day, but their teacher, Mrs. Johnston, had looked up from her Texas history essays wearing an expression like she’d just swallowed an egg. “I think Miss Shelton will be best,” she said with a smile. But today, Mrs. Johnston was out doing teacher in-service, and Miss Shelton was holding up an album cover that had a photo of a red-and-white ribbon streaking down the middle, like the remnant of a torn American flag.