Editors' Pick

The Movie Version of Your Life

Quinn and her new gang, at the far end of the table from Danette, were flashing their pearly whites at each other during lunch period on Wednesday afternoon. Playing “Who-Would-Play-You-in-the-Movie-Version-of-Your-Life?”

Danette and Quinn used to while away the hours together playing this game, just the two of them. It was Danette’s invention and her absolute most favorite amusement. She watched Quinn smooth her hair behind her ears now, poised to dispense judicious verdicts. Danette hummed to herself, loudly; she doubted that any of Quinn’s friends had ever watched a picture that came out before the year 2000, and she couldn’t bear to hear their answers. Oh, Quinn, Quinn, how can you countenance them?

Quinn looked up, then over: surprised. As if she’d heard. But she always had been Danette’s best mind reader. Danette jiggled her knee against the bracing metal arm underneath the table, looked at Quinn, then looked away. Back to the crossword, sister, she told herself. She pinched the loose lead of her pencil to the puzzle page.

Then, just as the end-of-period bell sounded, Quinn materialized before her. Swinging her hula-girl hair over one shoulder, a silky black sheet. Her tray against her hip. She hesitated.

Yesterday, Quinn had done Danette a favor. A rather large one. That old Quinn benevolence, shining through. But maybe, just maybe, it was something more than that: could it be that Quinn had simply forgotten what larks they used to have together, back in the day? Well, now Quinn would begin to remember, wouldn’t she? After yesterday’s adventure.

“What happened to your hair?” Quinn asked. 60 per cent ice, 40 per cent wariness—Bergman in Notorious, maybe, in the secret-exchange-of-the-cellar-key scene. Danette’s newly short hair: a pale, cresting halo. It lent her the appearance of a puff pastry. Reapplying all that brown eyeliner after she cried this morning was probably a mistake; it made her look even doughier somehow.

Danette thought, momentarily, of telling Quinn the whole truth about what had transpired that morning with her mom. Her mother’s dragon-fire coffee breath in her face. And then: chop, chop—farewell, golden tresses.

“Mother Dear was inspired to get chummy with the scissors,” said Danette.

“I bet your mom was super angry about those old boxes you brought home. Was she? You know, you never told me what you plan to do with all that crap. Hello? Danette? Jeez. Never mind.”

“Mother may have been a little sore with me,” Danette said. “And what’s in the boxes isn’t crap.” Quinn’s gals passed behind her, rolling their eyes and giggling. Hurry up, Quinny, they called.

“I can tell you all about it, what I’m planning with those boxes of stuff, if you’re keen on finding out. Would you care to swing by my domicile after school gets out today?”

Quinn said nothing; just fluttered her eyelids closed, briefly. “I’m late to class. And so are you.” She shook her head—ever so slightly. She hadn’t refused, though. Danette decided to take that as a yes.

*

Danette’s mom was sore, all right, when she got home last night and saw the boxes that Danette (with Quinn’s assistance) had hauled back from Grandma and Grandpa’s shed. Yesterday, Tuesday, Danette’s mom had had to go to traffic court, which was all the way on the other side of the county. Danette had counted on her mom making the most of the excursion: checking the P.O. Box, probably, and hitting Walmart, and stopping somewhere for a milkshake, or maybe a beer or two, depending on who was around. Errands. Friends. Her mom still had a few.

Her mom came home around 8:30, after Danette had finished geometry homework and made herself some instant mac-n-cheese and watched about a third of Cheaper By the Dozen—awfully sappy, but entertaining, nonetheless—on a grainy old VHS tape, since the DVD player was still broken. Danette had left the boxes in her room exactly how she and Quinn placed them a few hours earlier. She hadn’t yet formulated a short-term plan for hiding them. And then, all of a sudden, there was her mom, plonking plastic bags from CVS onto the kitchen floor. Danette jumped off the couch, turned off the picture. (On the screen, Mrs. Gilbreth was packing herself off to the hospital to have Baby Number Twelve.)

“Almost forgot we needed TP and coffee,” her mom said. “Long day. Why are you just standing there like that? Put this away.”

It happened with alarming speed: Danette was stacking the fresh rolls of toilet paper in the cabinet when her mom came banging through the bathroom door, goddamit Danette-ing all the way. Hollering about rat-infested boxes, and how many times had she told Danette she didn’t want ANY OF THAT CRAP IN MY HOUSE and how did Danette get over to Grandma and Grandpa’s anyway, and she shouldn’t go over there by herself, and what the HELL was she thinking? Now they’d have to bring it all back. No, scratch that: Danette would have to figure out a way to get rid of this mess PRONTO, and the boxes better be gone from her room by the end of the day tomorrow, or else, and she didn’t care if Danette had to miss school to take care of it.

Danette just stood there, her hand halfway down a roll of flower-tattooed not-Charmin, blinking. Okay, sister, she told herself, you’ve got yourself in a jam alright, just keep your big yap shut for now. No way she was junking those boxes, full of Grandma and Grandpa’s collectibles. No way. Her whole future was in there. Or the beginning of her future. She’d think of something to get her mom off her case. “Stop yelling at me,” said Danette. “I’ll take care of it.”

They didn’t talk again until the morning, when Danette’s mom was waiting at the kitchen table. She glared at Danette over her mug of steaming Folgers.

“This house is too damn small,” said Danette’s mom. “I feel like I’m going crazy.”

Danette said nothing, shook a maple-raisin oatmeal packet from the box and set to work on her breakfast. Then her mom was beside her, clanking her mug down in the sink. She grabbed Danette by her shoulder—not hard, but it was a surprise—and balled a hunk of Danette’s long wavy hair with one hand, like she was weighing it. “Veronica Lake. That who you’re trying to channel, lately?” her mom said, and snorted. “Are you wearing eyeliner?”

Danette grinned. “Veronica Lake. That’s me,” she said. “Absolutely positively. Ha.”

Her mom shook her head. “Why do you have to take up so much space, Danette? So much goddamn space.” She pushed Danette’s hair behind her ears. “You need a haircut. I’ve been telling you that for weeks. For months. You said you’d deal with it, and you haven’t.” Danette stuffed her hands in her jeans. She saw now that she had put one of her socks on inside-out. “If you won’t do it, I will,” her mom said.

Too late to say: I didn’t know where to go to get it cut, or how to do it myself. There was no use protesting. Danette’s mom sat her down and chopped off all her hair to the ears and then sent her to the bathroom to wash away the tiny clipped wisps, while she swept hanks of sand-colored hair from the kitchen floor. Danette cried hard, howling and rattling like a poltergeist, once she had wiped the condensation from the bathroom mirror and really saw her hair. But she got herself spiffed up, more or less, in time to make the bus to school.

*

When was the last time—before yesterday, before the trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s for the boxes, for the stuff—they had had teamed up, Danette and Quinn, just the two of them? Eons ago, positively eons.

They had lived next door to each other until the summer after eighth grade. Well, almost next door. There was a largeish, vacant tract of land between their houses, gnarled with dandelions and thistles, where the street bent away from the creek and uphill. Quinn was at the top of the bend, Danette at the bottom. Danette’s basement (more a crawlspace, really) flooded reliably a couple of times a year; Quinn’s basement, never. But Quinn had moved to a different neighborhood just before high school started. Dogwood Estates. And even before the move, Quinn had gotten so tremendously busy, somehow. Too busy for boardgames or picture-watching or sleepovers at Quinn’s house or “Who-Would-Play-You-in-the-Movie-Version-of-Your-Life?”

Living basically-next-door had bound them together, way back when they were still in single digits—though if Quinn hadn’t knocked on Danette’s front door that time, the fall of fourth grade, and asked if Danette wanted to ride bikes, they might never had joined forces at all. Danette kept to herself. Plus, she always forgot she was expected to smile, being a girl, which made the other kids assume she loathed them (which she mostly did). But Quinn figured it all out awfully quickly. The way Danette was. It was true that patience was one of Quinn’s finest virtues. She was a real peach. And easy on the eyes: Danette had lately been surmising that grownup-Quinn would maybe have an Ava Gardner face—make that a half-Vietnamese Ava Gardner, to be fully accurate. With Susan Hayward poise. Not that she had told Quinn this. Not that she’d had the opportunity. Not yet. Anyway, they had had an extraordinary lot of fun together, back in the day.

And yesterday, with her mom away at traffic court and such all afternoon, Danette figured she’d have plenty of time to get out to Grandma and Grandpa’s and back—as long as Quinn agreed, right away, to help. Danette had ascertained which school bus would get her to Quinn’s neighborhood. Quinn didn’t stay after for anything on Tuesday afternoons, as far as Danette could tell, so she went straight to Quinn’s after school let out.

All the houses in Dogwood Estates looked similarly gargantuan, and it had been a couple of years since Danette had been there, but she remembered vaguely which street Quinn lived on. And there—hi-de-ho!—was Quinn’s blue Honda Fit, out front of 1427 Azalea Lane.

It was Quinn herself who emerged behind the fancy beveled glass. She peeked around the door like some kind of phantasm had come calling.

“Danette?”

“I hopped Bus 624. A piece of cake, sister. No one stopped me.”

Quinn opened the door wider. She blinked at Danette for a second.

“I’m not sixteen yet, is the situation,” Danette said.

“I… know that, I guess? Um. What?” You could hardly blame her for being confused.

“And I don’t have a car, of course. I need a favor from you, see. You don’t owe me a blessed thing—but if you could do me this one favor, I would appreciate it greatly. Extravagantly.”

“Do you… want to come inside the house? It’s kind of cold.”

Danette shook her head no. She pointed to Quinn’s car. “Can we just get in? I’ll enlighten you presently.”

They got in the car. Quinn cranked the heat and turned down the jittery, autotuned song that blasted at them from the radio.

“I have to go to my grandparents’ old place.”

Quinn sat still, with her hands on the wheel, gazing blankly out the windshield. “Your grandparents.”

“Only it’s not their house anymore. I don’t know if you know, but they died about a year-and-a-half-ago. First Grandpa and then Grandma, not long after.” Domino-style: Grandpa knocked sideways by lymphoma, Grandma just sort of losing her will to stay upright and contained. She went to bed and, three weeks later, she was dead. “They expired romantically. From a certain angle.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” A pause, in which Quinn ran a hand through her hair, replaced her fleecy magenta stocking cap, and then, finally, looked at Danette again. She seemed to be arranging her words carefully in her head. Tentative hands in her lap. Joan Fontaine, Rebecca, maybe. “Your Grandma was an amazing baker. I still remember those thumbprint cookies.” (For as long as Danette could recall, Grandma Elvie had packed up a tin of her Christmas-cookie cornucopia for Danette, for over winter break; Danette had always shared with Quinn. Peanut-butter domes, each with a fat chocolate swell in the middle; pecan sandies; oatmeal-raisin-coconut—Grandpa T’s favorite, and so Danette’s, too.)

“They were divine, all right,” Danette agreed.

In all those years that they were bike-riding pals, fairy-house-building pals, listen-to-Danette-rattle-off-Old-Hollywood-factoids pals, Quinn had never been over to Grandpa T and Grandma Elvie’s—except the one time. That one time, only. To help Danette with her interview for the eighth-grade family history project. It had been eons since Danette had thought about that day. That visit, with Quinn. Positively eons.

Quinn still hadn’t shifted out of Park. “So… who lives at the house now? Why do you need to go over there?”

“No one’s at the house now. My mom was renting it out, for a while. But it’s empty.”

“I’m having trouble following.”

Danette unzipped her coat. She scrunched her nose, warding off impatience. Don’t mess this up, sister, who else is going to drive you over there? “It’s not the house I need to get into,” she said carefully. “I know you were only there that one time,” she cleared her throat, tweaked a hangnail, “but do you remember all the stuff my grandparents had? All those… collectibles?”

Collectibles was maybe not the appropriate word; collections, definitely. From Grandpa T and Grandma Elvie’s decades of yard-sale and flea-market combing. It drove Danette’s mom batty. If it was old and cheap and readily categorizable, it was fit for Grandma and Grandpa’s collections. Tea pots, hot-water heaters, World-War II memorabilia, candy dishes, fishing gear, Christmas ornaments, arrowheads: you name it. Their house—a not-large, mildew-smelling modular—stuffed with the spoils of their scavengings, from long before Danette was sentient. Grandpa had covered the walls with home-crafted shelves for the accumulations. He built a shed, and filled it, and then built another one. Danette’s mom had dumped a lot of stuff after they died, but one of the sheds was still full of Grandma and Grandpa’s lifework.

Danette had the key to the shed’s lock in her front jeans pocket. Because how were you supposed to know if they were collectibles or not, and how much they were worth, if you hadn’t gone through everything, sorted and catalogued and ruminated on the situation? Her mom didn’t want to hear about it. Didn’t want it colonizing their flood-prone brick ranch—it’s small enough in here already, forgodsake, her mom said. What Danette’s mom wanted, as far as Danette could establish, was new renters and their regular monthly rent check. She would happily bonfire the damn shed, she had told Danette, if it wasn’t a fire hazard—the last thing she needed was for Grandma and Grandpa’s place to burn to cinder and ashes. House rent and her disability check (she developed typing-induced carpal tunnel at her last job, as a secretary in an insurance firm) were pretty much the whole show, at the moment. And her occasional sales from the Alloria Pure Beauty product line. It didn’t leave much room for contemplating new directions.

But Danette had ideas. A plethora of them.

So what, if her mom didn’t think the collections were worth the gas money they’d use up, taking it all to Goodwill? Her mom was wrong. There was money in it. Danette was sure of it.

And Danette would take the dough, and she would open a savings account; and then, after she turned sixteen, she’d find some kind of part-time job, and add the takings to the nest egg. So if she played her cards right, she’d have enough loot for New York. For when she was enrolled in film school. Assuming she’d get into film school. And assuming she’d get a scholarship. And that her mom would let her go. Or, alternatively: enough loot for Los Angeles. Who cares what Danette would do, once she got there? The Hollywood sign! The Walk of Fame! She had two and a half years of high school left: oodles of time for strategizing. The first step was getting into that shed. And getting her grandparents’ collections out of there.

“Think of this as a search-and-rescue mission,” Danette told Quinn. “The adventure of a lifetime. Or of the week.” She winked. Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges.” She thought that, didn’t say it.

Quinn laughed a little bit, almost a hiccup. “Fine. You’ll have to remind me how to get there,” she said. “I’ve just been that once.” Eye-rolly, but game: a hint of Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday.

*

The spindly pines, stippled with copper-colored rot, clustered along the road at the turnoff to Danette’s grandparents’ place; Duck Inn, they had called it. The house—short side to the front, screened porch toward the homemade pond—squatted on a slight hillock.

Quinn parked out back, by the shed, and Danette hopped out. “Danette,” Quinn said, leaning against the closed car door, “hold on. Is your mom okay with this?”

A little tardy with that question, sister. Danette rolled the ball of her sneakered foot against a chunk of gravel. “She doesn’t know.”

“On purpose, I suppose?” Quinn hugged her arms over her puffy vest. “Is that why you needed me to drive? Because she didn’t want to take you out here herself?”  Quinn seemed awfully hot under the collar, all of a sudden. She stood there hugging herself, her mouth scrunched up, her eyes narrowed.

Danette shrugged. “I assume she wouldn’t care to chauffeur me. She thinks the collection is junk.”

“Well, is it? What are you going to do with it all?”

Danette didn’t answer; she wasn’t prepared, yet, for Quinn’s feedback. She fished the tiny jagged key out of her pocket and, with cold fingers, undid the lock.

She couldn’t push the door all the way in; teetering boxes were stacked to the ceiling. Labeled in Grandpa T’s trademark, wavy scrawl. He had lost half of his right thumb in a circular saw accident, amateur woodworking—it hadn’t interfered with his job delivering mail, before he retired, or with anything else, really, including writing on boxes. He had been proud of his thumb nub, in fact, and how well he managed with it. A sign of his bottomless vim.

Together she and Quinn pulled down boxes and dragged them out of the shed, arrayed them in rows so Danette could see what was what. She made a chart in her head, the left column listing most-likely-to-be-valuable; the right column, that which would be doomed to eternity in the shed. Then they lifted the keeper boxes one by one, filling the trunk and stacking them—though the boxes didn’t stack, as much as collapse into each other—in the back seat.

Quinn was a shadow behind the wheel when Danette turned from the lock. She ran her finger down the cold metal ridge of the key, took a big sniff of Duck Inn winter air. She couldn’t make herself move.

“What is it?” Quinn had gotten out of the car again; she gripped the open car door with gloved hands. “Are you okay?”

Danette couldn’t quite look Quinn in the eyes. She scowled at her own shoes.

“Do you… want to look around or something? Before we go?” Quinn was a good detective, when it came to Danette’s innermost yearnings. Danette’s mom could read her mind, too, but she used the superpower preventatively—to cut things off before Danette so much as broached a subject. Her mom: the Patron Saint of Surly. Don’t even contemplate it, D.

Quinn sighed, short and hard. “Fine, Danette. Hurry up. I don’t have that long before I have to be back. And I don’t like being out here, honestly.”

Danette nodded, eyes still groundward.

“I’m going to walk around the pond,” Quinn said. “Meet back here in ten, okay?”

Danette worked her way around the outside of the house. It wasn’t a big house, so there weren’t that many windows. A good thing the previous renters had stolen the drapes and blinds; Danette could look right in.

She used the vantage point to reconstruct the rooms from memory. There was the hall bathroom. (Was she imagining the faint, fuzzy profile of the turquoise toilet cover?) There was the guest bedroom where she sometimes slept—napping, when she was little, and staying the night after a late picture, when she was older. Her mom was always happy to be rid of her. Grandpa T would have merrily watched movies all night with Danette—and a few times, they did exactly that. He was the only one who knew as much about old pictures as Danette did. He’d quiz her over milk and oatmeal-raisin-coconut cookies: plots, directors, actors and actresses, year of production, Oscar wins. Their repertoire was mostly black-and-whites: heists and screwballs. Those glorious old-timey Hollywood accents. But she’d watch anything with him—Grandpa T was the bee’s knees. She wondered how many times she had slept over at the house in her entire life. Just as she was beginning to attempt a tally, she heard Quinn call her name. Come to think of it, she had maybe been hearing Quinn call her name for a while.

Danette scooted around to the porch-side of the house.

“What were you doing?” Quinn’s voice was pinched and pointy.

“Just letting my peepers roam,” said Danette. “Memory lane and all that. Apologies for losing track of time.”

Quinn craned her neck to see around Danette, seeming to want to get a glimpse of the old porch, the front door. Then she shook her head, rubbed her hand over her face, like she was wiping dirt away.

“Say, sister, do you want to gawp in the windows too?” Danette asked.

“No,” said Quinn. “I don’t.” Very decisive. “I need to head home.”

“It was big of you to bring me all the way out here. To help with the boxes. I want to express my”—Danette grasped for a heroic expression— “supreme gratitude. For assisting me today.” She coughed into the swirl of her clenched hand. Something about being at Duck Inn, at her dead grandparents’ empty house, must have scrambled her brain. Because, in one big rush, like when you let go of a balloon and it goes zipping around the room, she actually said this out loud: “You’re the nicest person I’ve ever known. That’s one-hundred-percent fact. The nicest person. Except for my grandfather.”

Danette looked at her feet. She could sense that Quinn’s mouth had dropped open. An appropriately cinematic response. Though it was possible Danette was only imagining it: how Quinn should look, after Danette had run her yap like that.

For a second, Quinn said nothing at all. Maybe she hadn’t heard?

“Danette. Danette. First of all,” Quinn said, “I didn’t have anything else to do this afternoon, anyway. I wish I had, honestly. And second of all—look at me!”

Danette fought back the impulse to stuff her fingers in her ears. Quinn had started out quiet, but now she was talking way louder than she needed too, Danette was right there across from her, even if she wasn’t lifting her eyes. Quinn paused, kicked at the dirt once. “Stop saying how effing nice I am. You don’t need to act like I’m some kind of saint.”

I’m not acting, thought Danette. It takes a saint, to be chums with the likes of me.

“I’m sorry, I guess, we couldn’t figure out a way to stay friends. That I couldn’t. I always tried to give you the benefit of the doubt. I never minded how—different—you are. It’s just…” Her voice drifted off then, like someone had turned down Danette’s ear-volume, which was usually jacked up to the absolute maximum.

Maybe it was Danette’s turn to try out telepathy, for once. To dive into Quinn’s deepest meditations. She felt, suddenly, that she could do it. Yes. She took a breath.

“Is this about what my grandpa said to you, that time you visited here?” She took a peek at Quinn’s expression. “That was eons ago.”

Quinn bunched up her mouth, but she didn’t say anything right away, just stared at Danette, blinking fast, before Danette looked away again. Then she pushed past Danette, huffing up the gravel drive. “Let’s go. I’ve got to get home. And we have to stop at your house first and clear all this crap out of my car.”

“It’s not crap,” Danette called, to Quinn’s back. Quinn was striding to her car, arms pumping. Pure Katharine Hepburn. She turned the ignition as Danette plopped down in the passenger seat. But then Quinn just sat there with her hands in her lap, facing forward. Her jaw looked very square.

What had Grandpa T said, exactly, the afternoon they visited him and Grandma Elvie here? The girls had thought it would be fun: Danette accompanying Quinn to interview her pastor at Mt. Bethel Baptist; Quinn escorting Danette to interview her Grandpa T at home. Danette lifted an imaginary finger and poked at the memory gingerly. It was more than two years ago, but Danette had an ace memory: there was Danette on the nubby plaid couch, with Quinn next to her; Grandpa T in the recliner. He wouldn’t look at Quinn straight on, the afternoon they came to do the interview. Asked questions of Quinn in third person, like she couldn’t hear, or couldn’t speak, or both.

“Where’s she from, anyhow?” said Grandpa T. “Just look at all that hula-girl hair.” Chuckle-chuckle. “She Hawaiian or something?” So Danette had had to explain: Quinn’s mom’s family, brought over from Vietnam through church sponsorship, back in the seventies; Quinn born and raised right here, just like Quinn’s dad. Just like Danette. Like all of them. But it’s like he wasn’t listening.

“I might be trailer trash,” he said. “But at least I don’t come from jungle people. Eating dogs. Sleeping in trees.” He said some other things, too, before Danette got him talking about his life, which was the point of the visit anyway. Grandpa T, who had always been reliably opposite-of-cruel, so unlike her mom. Grandpa T, who could barely bring himself to kill a spider. You couldn’t say he was nice exactly—the word didn’t suit him—but he didn’t fight with anyone. And even if he never gave Danette a hug, or anybody else for that matter as far as she could tell, you could see he was glad to have you around.

It didn’t make any sense at all. Grandpa T was smart, he had read every encyclopedia around, he had fought in a war, he knew firsthand Vietnamese people didn’t live like monkeys. And him laughing the whole time, like he was watching His Girl Friday, like they were all watching it with him and would burst into howling hilarity together any second. Danette remembered how he tapped the Dictaphone every so often, jauntily, with his stump-thumb, as he spoke.

Quinn said nothing, the entire visit, after the first hellos. She had sat motionless beside Danette for the whole interview. Danette imagined, listening to the tape afterwards, that you could hear ice in the silences around the words. Creeping into the crevices. Yes, Danette remembered now—she remembered absolutely, positively everything about that afternoon. Grandpa T and his big flapping mouth. Oh, Grandpa.

“He wasn’t like that around anyone else. Just you. I swear.”

“Why are you telling me that? Are you saying it’s my fault?” Quinn reversed the car to the side, lurched forward, backed up again, turned down the driveway and toward the road.

It’s not. Not your fault. Danette hardly thought the words loud enough, in her own head, to match the volume of Quinn’s right blinker ticking on and off. They didn’t say a word to each other the whole rest of the drive to Danette’s.

The old neighborhood. Danette’s house at the bottom of the hill glowed like an infection, its bricks yellowish-red in the dying winter daylight. No car in the driveway; Danette’s mom had not yet returned from her day’s excursion.

Quinn helped Danette carry the collections into Danette’s room, without speaking, and crowded the boxes along the far wall. Danette offered Quinn a Coke, but Quinn shook her head no. She hadn’t taken off her stocking cap or her vest or even her gloves.

Outside again, Danette closed the front door behind them, and they looked at Quinn’s car for a minute, like it was a grazing cow.

“So that’s it? That’s all you’ve got to say to me?”

Danette felt muddy-headed. Must be the cold. “I’ll have my personal assistant pen you a thank-you note.” Danette tried again, in case that sounded rude. She didn’t mean to sound rude. “I really appreciate it, Quinn. It was… swell of you, is all. To help me out like this.”

“Swell of me. Swell. Right. Can you knock it off, for once? Can’t you see I’m being serious? Why don’t you ask me how that felt? How terrible that felt to sit there for an hour. Those things your grandfather said about me. About my family. With me right there, the whole effing time. And you never said a thing to stop him. Danette. Can’t you do me the courtesy of looking at me, even?”

Great Caesar’s Ghost—it sounded like Quinn was about to cry. Danette couldn’t manage to lift her eyes from their death-lock on Quinn’s shoulder, to observe. It was so quiet she could hear Quinn swallow. She almost offered Quinn a glass of water instead of a Coke, but she figured it wouldn’t help. She wondered where her mom might be, and when she would come home. She wondered if she should try to hide the boxes somehow (how?). How peeved could her mom possibly get, about a bunch of old boxes?

“That happened eons ago, sister,” said Danette, stuffing her hands into her jeans pockets. Still not looking up. “Positively eons.”

Quinn pushed all her breath out in one hard puff. “Goodbye, Danette. Good luck with all this.” She waved her hand toward the house. “I hope your mom doesn’t flip out and kill you.”

And then she was gone, nothing but a pair of taillights winding up the hill and out of sight.

*

Late Wednesday afternoon: Danette in her bedroom with her door closed, sitting on her bed with its ratty old blue-and-yellow quilt. She was mighty pleased, recalling the post-lunch rendezvous with Quinn earlier that day. Well, it wasn’t a rendezvous, precisely—an unplanned encounter, more like. But Quinn had come over to Danette at the end of lunch period of her own volition. Had followed up about the boxes, to hear about Danette’s mom reaction to their escapade. Quinn had even asked what happened to her hair. Quinn might have, could have said no—no way, no how!—when Danette extended the invitation to come over after school today. Kind Quinn! Gentle Quinn! Lovely Quinn! Sure, Quinn had been awfully steamed-up yesterday, before she headed home. But Quinn understood Danette so perfectly; she always had. She understood. Soon they’d be a duo again, just like before.

Danette propelled herself from her bed in one jaunty spring and stood before the fortress of boxes along her bedroom wall. She lay a hand on the top box of the left-most stack, the one labeled Life Magz, 1957-1973; her fingers glowed there in a wedge of amber sunlight that had crept in through the blinds. She rubbed at the dust and grit beneath her thumb. Then she stole out to the kitchen—though there was no reason to tiptoe, was there? her mom wasn’t home yet—and rooted around in the junk drawer, for the scissors. (So dull, these cruddy old scissors, that they nibbled and tore rather than sliced, when cutting paper. These scissors in her mother’s trembling hand this morning. Danette brushed her dusty palm over her lopped hair, remembering.)

The kitchen clock read 5:17; plenty of time, still, if Quinn came soon, before she’d need to head back home for dinner with her family.

Danette closed herself into her room again, ripped scissors through the thick beige tape that sealed the top box of the left-most stack. Warm dust rose, invisible, into the air, mingling with the cloying scent of mold: a plume of molecular decay itched at the inside of her nose.

The magazines were all out of order, chronologically. But the covers were clean, and the magazines held their pages. The first several were from 1962. Not her preferred era, not at all, but she was keen to eyeball the covers, just the same. A trio of wacky Lucille Balls, for January; Elizabeth Taylor, for April, dripping gold as Cleopatra; Natalie Wood on a boat, for June—splashed with sun, crowned with an artfully windblown spray of black bangs.

Danette startled. She felt it before she could give it words: ice and fire tingling from her scalp and down her spine. That’s her. That’s her. The actress who would play Quinn in the movie version of her life. Were Natalie Wood alive, of course. And younger: the Natalie of Rebel Without A Cause. Danette hugged herself for joy, jumped up and down. She hooted. She hollered hot damn! out loud. She never had been able to come up with a satisfactory answer to the question, for all the times she and Quinn had played their game. And here it was, the answer. Waiting for her in a box: Natalie Wood as Quinn. Waiting for her, all this time.

A message from the universe: she’ll come! She’s coming now. Soon they’d be comparing strategies for making a pile of dough from the collectibles. An offer: help me sell this, Quinn, and we’ll split the proceeds fifty-fifty. We’ll go to Hollywood—together. (Look, Mom, look who’s here! It’s Quinn. She’s back. You bet your bottom dollar, we’ve got a plan for all this stuff.)

Danette sat again, box spring wheezing beneath her. Waiting. She could be awfully patient, certainly she could. She angled her head toward the closed door of her bedroom. Both ears tuned to the max, to capture the frequency of tire on gravel.

She lay the June 1962 issue on her lap and gazed upon it. What a mug on her! she thought, dizzy now with the scent of the magazine’s gentle putrefaction. There she was: windblown Natalie, smiling, her eyes lifted beyond the shimmering water, above and beyond Danette, toward the summer sky. Luminous Natalie, giddy with the wonder of it all. Danette brought the pages to her face and inhaled deeply.

 

Join the conversation