First published March 2020 in Murder-A-Go-Go’s, edited by Holly West (Down & Out Books)
Our Lips Are Sealed
by Lori Rader-Day
When the credits for the movie the girls weren’t supposed to be watching started to roll, Colbie went to check that her mother was asleep, stamping down on the hand of her sister, Alexa, on the way out. Alexa sat up and sniffled into her fist, but kept silent with effort. Jane and Patricia picked white flecks of popcorn out of the kernels left at the bottom of the bowl on the floor. Nori slipped into the bathroom with her pajamas balled up in her fist.
Jane watched her go. “I usually sleep naked.”
“Bullshit,” Patricia said. Jane was older, by almost a full year, already thirteen. But Patricia was taller. If she needed to, she would hold Jane down and force her to say she was a liar.
Colbie returned to the doorway with a six-pack of soda cradled in her arms. “Well, my mom’s either dead or she took one of her pills. Where’s Nori?”
“In there,” Jane said. She picked at the chipped blue nail polish on her big toe, leaving a patch of paint on the pink carpet of Colbie’s room. “Why didn’t you invite boys over? I went to a boy-girl sleepover when I was at my old school—”
Patricia snorted. “For church? That doesn’t count.”
“Let’s do something else,” Colbie said.
“Not a lock-in, bitch,” Jane said. “A sleepover. With boys.”
Patricia rolled her eyes at Colbie. Everything seemed to have already happened to Jane, but out of sight, at her old school, in her old town. She sometimes wanted to ask Jane why she didn’t just go back, if everything was so good there. She was sure Jane would say she couldn’t because she was a kid. Which, for once, would be the truth. They were all stuck where they were, being who they happened to be. Patricia turned to Colbie. “What should we do?”
Nori opened the bathroom door an inch. “You guys?”
“Did you get your period finally?” Jane said. She had the deck of cards Colbie had stolen from her older brother’s room earlier and was setting out a game of solitaire. Jane wanted to sneak down the hall later and see if Colbie’s brother was back yet. He was fifteen, and that was just about right, although it would be better if he could drive.
Alexa scooted across the floor, drawn toward the stacks of cards. She was only eight and had been allowed to stay up with them—as opposed to being shoved into Colbie’s closet and tormented in the dark—if she promised not to speak. She hunched over the cards like a rabbit.
Jane snapped the last card into place and glanced up. “Sorry, kid,” she said. “It’s an alone game.”
Nori came out of the bathroom with her head down. She wore a long, shiny red nightgown, the neck too wide for her narrow shoulders. It slipped down on one side. “Hot stuff—” Jane started to say.
“What the hell is that on your face?” Colbie said.
Nori drew her chin up. Her head had grown a silver wire halo. The metal circled her face across her mouth and hooked to a black band that ran under her ears and around the back of her head. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, her words garbled and juicy with spit.
She looked like a horse trying to chew its bit, Colbie decided. Patricia felt sorry for her and wondered if Nori couldn’t have, just this once, gone to bed without it. Jane thought: Freak.
Nori, when she had studied herself in Colbie’s bathroom mirror, thought of Saturn’s rings. When she took it off before going to sleep, she would have a dent in her long, black hair where the band had been. She took a wet breath. “It’s just headgear.”
“Headgear,” Jane said. “Head. Gear.” She twisted her mouth and looked around knowingly.
Jane would not let them forget she was older. Early birthday, she said. Held back, Patricia said. That year was like an arm held out. She took the same classes at school, walked home with them after, liked the same boys, and shared her bounty of lip gloss. But she had a way of turning everything anyone said into something sexy.
Not sexy, Nori wanted to clarify. Sex-y. Not enticing and romantic like the movies Nori liked, where the man and woman came toward each other and the screen blurred or misted or the camera turned delicately away. Not like that at all.
More like sex was a pudgy animal with slick skin that the rest of them didn’t want to talk about and hadn’t ever seen, not even in books. Like Jane could reach into her pocket and plunk one of the rare beasts down on the table when the rest of them weren’t even talking about animals. She wielded a familiarity with the subject that made the rest of them blink.
Colbie tended to play along, except when Alexa, who was a blabber-baby, was around. Patricia would squint hard at Jane, wanting to say You don’t know anything—but didn’t, because she didn’t know enough herself, to know what Jane did or didn’t know.
When Jane got going, Nori always grew pink, trying not to cry, and Colbie had to assure her that it probably wasn’t like that really. Probably.
Now Patricia rolled her eyes. “I know what we could do,” she said. Nori looked at her gratefully. “We could call people.”
“Mom says you’re not supposed to use it—” Alexa clamped her hands over her own mouth. Slap, slap.
Colbie jumped off the bed and leaned down, pointing a finger at the tip of her sister’s nose. “Too late, punk. You’re not supposed to use your mouth. You get one more chance or I swear I’ll lock you in. And if you tell Mom, oh, I don’t even want to tell you what’s going to happen.”
Alexa whimpered. She put a thumb in her mouth, quickly remembered where she was, and popped it out. Alexa was often left with Colbie while their mom worked. Colbie had the hardest pinch in the world, because she worked on her grip for softball. She was the pitcher. “I won’t tell,” Alexa whispered.
“One more chance to keep your big fat Trapper Keeper closed.” Colbie leaned over her sister until she nodded and hung her head, her long brown hair curtaining over her face. Colbie glared at her and then out at her friends. She hadn’t wanted to call people and use all the minutes on her new phone, but now they would have to. “Who should we call first?”
She pulled her pink-covered phone from her backpack, and they all gathered around on her bed. Patricia patted the velvety pink bedspread. When they stayed in Colbie’s room, Patricia pretended that they were all rich ladies having tea in an all-pink hotel ballroom or kid-witches who lived in a house made of cotton candy. Colbie’s bedroom looked like a picture from a teen magazine because her dad, who lived hundreds of miles away in another state, sent her gifts all the time. Anything she or Alexa wanted, they got. Patricia lived two doors down, but her room was small and still had the basketball decals left over from the kid who’d lived there before they’d moved in. Patricia was tall but that didn’t mean she liked sports. Colbie liked sports, and Colbie had pink carpeting. Patricia looked down at where Alexa sat cross-legged on the pink floor. There was nothing pink left in the world they didn’t have.
Colbie dialed the local Pizza Plaza and had two large-with-onions-and-garlic pies delivered to their math teacher, whose breath was so bad that Nori, who wasn’t good at math, wouldn’t raise her hand to ask a question, so that he wouldn’t leaned over her desk to help her.
“Does he chew on his own shit every morning?” Patricia asked.
Jane laughed. “I bet he eats someone else’s shit.”
Colbie laughed uneasily, glancing in Alexa’s direction. How much could they get away with before Alexa got nervous and ran to tell their mom? She couldn’t be sure. And also, did people actually—Was that a thing?
They called the local paper and ordered a classified ad to sell their principal’s car. Jane used her most adult voice to leave the message. “Low miles. Must sell. Best offer accepted.”
When she hung up, Patricia said, “You know they won’t print that unless we pay for it.”
“Whatever,” Jane said. She still thought it was funny. “I should have said ‘Blow job free with purchase.’”
Nori swallowed hard and looked at the clock. At her house, her little brother was just being put to bed, and her parents would sometimes let her sit up and watch the news. The news made her mother shake her head and say, “Nori, you must grow up and make the world a better place. You and all your friends.” Nori wanted to make movies like the boy-girl ones she liked. But she thought maybe she’d be a journalist instead, someone who took a handheld video camera into a war zone and documented the terrible things that could be fixed. Her mother would be so happy. She didn’t see how Jane was ever going to make the world a better place. Mostly, she just made it gross. Thanks to Jane, whenever Nori saw her parents touch now, her stomach hurt a little, knowing what they must do to each other when they closed their bedroom door.
Nori yearned for her own bed, with the teddy bear sheets. Her real pajamas were yellow with rabbits. She’d swiped the nightgown that kept slipping down her chest from the back of her mom’s closet, but she wished for the bunnies. They were soft, and broken in, and still too big for her.
Jane handed the phone to Patricia. “Your turn.”
“Call LeeAnn Becker,” Colbie said.
Patricia and Nori glanced at one another. LeeAnn had once been Colbie’s friend, but now they didn’t speak. Colbie wore the hurt of LeeAnn ditching her like a badge on her chest, or a war wound. “I don’t know her number,” Patricia said.
“I do, dumbass,” Colbie said, and grabbed the phone. She still had the notebooks she and LeeAnn had passed back and forth all through elementary school. LeeAnn had always signed off as her Best Friend Forever, but that wasn’t what had happened when they’d started junior high last month.
Nori didn’t like to see Colbie’s face when LeeAnn walked by in the hall and wouldn’t look at them. “She’s at that dumb cheerleading camp, isn’t she?” she offered.
They tried the number but no one answered.
“I know,” Colbie said. “Call Caleb McCormick.” Colbie, Jane, and Nori laughed.
Alexa giggled nervously, looking from one girl to the other. She wanted to ask who he was, but it wasn’t worth a pinch or the closet.
“Shut up,” Patricia said, her breath choked. She let the phone drop to the bedspread.
Alexa bounced up and down. “Caleb and Patricia, sitting in a tree—” She closed her mouth tightly and cowered, waiting for her sister to come pull her hair.
Colbie smiled. “I’m going to give you that one for free. K-I-S-S—”
“Shut the hell up, I said.” Patricia sat up on her heels, her hands flexing at her sides.
“Easy, girl,” Jane said. She wanted to ask if Colbie’s brother had a cell phone. They could call him wherever he was and see which friends he had with him. Maybe they’d come back and hang out. Jane looked around at the other girls. Colbie was flexing her hand, open, close, open, close, an exercise for her pitching hand. Colbie didn’t yet shave her legs. None of the girls did but her. Their legs, sticking out from their shorts and pajama bottoms and Nori’s slutty nightgown, were covered in fine dark hair that reminded Jane of a sleek little animal she’d seen in the pet store. Patricia, who was taller than everyone else in their grade and most of the high school boys, too, wore the same pair of dingy jeans almost every day. She studied too much and read books about geeky crap like science and weather. Nori, with that ridiculous thing on her head. No, the boys would not be coming over to hang out with them. Jane studied the purple tips of her fingers. “Let’s call Paul Szirnek.”
Patricia scooted the phone toward her. “You.”
Jane took the phone and started dialing.
Patricia looked at Colbie and shifted to sit with her back against the cool pink wall. Jane knew Paul Szirnek’s phone number, for one. And, second, she had no problem dialing it. Even though Paul Szirnek was the cutest boy in their grade and had a girlfriend in the grade above them—which had never been done in the history of seventh grade, as far as Patricia knew. He might as well be dating a teacher. Michelle Landry’s father owned the company that built all their houses and half of the town. Michelle Landry, whose hair and teeth were perfect. Michelle Landry, whose boobs had already come in. “What about Michelle Landry?” Patricia said, her voice nearly a whisper.
“Wouldn’t she be at cheerleading camp, too?” Jane said.
Jane let the phone ring. She wasn’t sure what she would say if he picked up, but it was too late to put the phone down and plan it out now. The others were watching her, Nori biting her pinkie nail.
Back at her old school, Jane had had only one good friend, a girl the other girls there hadn’t liked. She was OK, Jane still thought. She told good stories and had let Jane have the better deal when they used to trade stickers. Her family had a pool, and they spent every warm afternoon in the water, even though Jane knew her friend must pee in the pool because she never got out. Jane wondered, now that she had moved away, whether that girl had anyone at all to talk to. Here, though, she had three best friends. Well, two best friends plus Nori, who was like a pet. And then Alexa, who was more like a stray. No one had a pool, but when she said something, she could tell they were listening. All four of them.
She let the phone purr three times and was about to call it off when someone picked up and said, “Hello?” It was a male voice, an adult’s.
Jane swallowed hard and tried. “C-Could I speak to Paul, please?”
“You’ve got the wrong number.”
“Oh.” She glanced around at the other girls.
Colbie, leaning her elbows on her knees, mouthed, “What?”
“Well, who’s this, then?” Jane said.
“Wrong number,” Colbie said. She slid off the bed and grabbed a brush off her dresser. Her hair was short, but she still brushed it in long strokes. Her dad’s girlfriend had taken her to get it all cut off just before school started. She had also taken her shopping for her first bra. Her mother had gone crazy when they’d come back from Dad’s. Colbie paused in her brushing, catching herself just before disaster, wiping her nose and checking out her friends in the mirror.
Patricia had slumped lower against the wall, reading one of Colbie’s magazines. Nori lay stretched out on the bed behind Jane and picked at a loose thread on the bedspread.
Jane stuck her tongue out at Alexa, the only one paying any attention.
The man on the phone said, “This is who you called instead of Paul, kid. What do you want?”
“Kid, huh? Well, that’s really flattering,” Jane said.
Patricia sat up. Jane had switched on her classified-ad buying voice.
Colbie brought her brush over to the bed and sat on the edge.
“Oh, yeah? Why is that?” The guy sounded annoyed, like Jane had interrupted his dinner. It was late. She tried to picture him on the other side of the line sitting in a big recliner with his feet propped up, a plate of microwaved awfulness resting on his belly. The phone would have greasy fingerprints on it when he put it down.
“Well,” Jane said. “Because I sure don’t feel like a kid anymore. You know just how to make a woman feel good about herself.”
Nori curled up into a ball and wrapped her arms around her knees. She looked just like a pill bug after you poked it with a stick, Patricia thought.
“Sure,” the guy said. “You’re welcome, lady. Sorry there’s no Paul here.”
“Wait,” Jane said. “What’s your name?”
She hadn’t used the right voice. Patricia was smirking at her, dragging a finger across her throat. In the quiet on the other side of the line, Jane heard the guy’s hesitation, pictured him considering his dinner getting cold. Come on, mister, she thought. You won’t be sorry.
“That’s a nice name. Mine is Jane.”
Colbie hit Jane on the leg with the back of her hairbrush. “Don’t use your real name, you idiot.”
“What was that?” Jim asked.
Jane flicked Colbie on the leg. “My daughter. She’s being a pain in the ass.” She glared at Colbie, then resettled herself, cross-legged, on the bed. “She has some friends over tonight, so I’m just chilling out.”
“Huh,” Jim said. “Yeah?”
“I’m really glad I dialed the wrong number, Jim. I don’t even like that Paul I was trying to get.”
“Oh, yeah?” Jim cleared his throat. “He a douchebag or something?”
“Jim, you nailed it. He is a douchebag.”
Patricia slid to the bed as though she’d been shot and covered her face with her hands.
“You banging that cat Paul?” the guy said.
Jane’s breath caught in her throat. Her mother talked to her girlfriends this way, and sometimes forgot who she was talking to and said to Jane, “I was so interesting until I finally screwed him—and then, poof, gone. You know?” And Jane kind of did know, because she’d been watching her mother date scummy guys for so long, listening to her mother on the phone with her sister in California. Listening to her when she went into her standard line. “This time,” she always said, “I swear, this time is the last time.”
Jane glanced up, saw all the girls waiting for her to say something.
“Yeah, Jim. That’s exactly what the problem is. I was so interesting until I screwed him—and then, poof, gone.”
Nori yipped into the pink bedspread.
“Maybe you’re just too much woman for a shit like Paul,” Jim said.
“That is the sad truth. I need a little more—man to my man, if you know what I mean.”
Nori leapt from the bed and padded to the bathroom. She closed the door and sat on the toilet in the dark. They were going to get into trouble. If Jane would ever hang up Colbie’s phone, she’d swipe it and call for her dad to pick her up. He would, too. It didn’t matter how late it was. She could say that her stomach hurt, and he would come rescue her. Or she could say that the other girls were making fun of her headgear and he’d drive even faster. If she said the other girls were talking to men on the phone about sex, she could count on her mother showing up and knocking down the door to Colbie’s mother’s room with her small slippered feet.
Back on the bed, Jane rolled her eyes at the closed bathroom door. To the man on the other end of the line, she said, “Just not enough dick. You know what I mean?”
Jim laughed. “Uh, well, no. But yeah. I do. You need someone with a lot more balls.”
“You got ’em?”
Jim cleared his throat again. “Oh, baby girl,” he said, lowering his voice. “I got ’em.”
Jane thought about that for a second. Did “baby girl” mean that he knew how young she was? Or was it a kind of sexy baby language code? “Are you alone, Jim?”
“Uh. My roommate is in the other room,” he said.
He meant wife. Jane was certain. “Sleeping?”
“That’s good.” Jane lay back on the spot Nori had left and stared at the ceiling. She heard a rustle through the phone. “Are you getting comfortable, Jim?”
Patricia uncovered her eyes and glanced nervously at Colbie, who shrugged.
Colbie picked up the pillow from her bed and sat her back against the headboard. She wanted Jane to get off her phone before her mother woke up and figured out what was going on, or before Alexa turned on them. The feeling that either of these things might happen any minute made her stomach feel tight. But Colbie also wanted to see what would happen next. Jane was joking, wasn’t she?
She reached out to snag the phone away.
Patricia grabbed her arm. “Not yet,” she said, leaning into Colbie’s ear. “Don’t you want to see her crash and burn?”
But she had pictured the man with his hand down his pants and the feel of Patricia’s hand on her arm reminded her of the movie she’d watched on cable the other night. Her mother on a date. Her brother at a basketball game. Colbie had fixed the clocks to an hour later and put Alexa to bed. The movie was rated way above what she was allowed to watch—much worse than what she and her friends had just watched. In the other movie: all the skin, and some of the skin belonged to two women. Words she had known, even used without thinking what they really meant, started to have a tacky, sticky feel to them. She’d gone to bed before her mother came home. She’d had hard dreams all night and woke up with her sheets twisted twice around her legs, like a vine.
She shook Patricia’s hand off her arm and sat back.
Jane turned her head toward them and winked. In her ear, Jim said, “I’m pretty comfortable. You going to talk to me for a while, sugar?”
“As long as you want.”
“Won’t need long, you keep talking like that. You said your daughter was there?”
“She’s in with her friends.”
“Huh. How many girls you got over there, then?”
“My daughter and three of her friends.” Jane glanced at the closed bathroom door. That freak Nori was in there with the lights off. “Just mama and the girls tonight.” She blew a silent kiss at Colbie and Patricia.
“That’s nice. Tell me about them.”
Jane turned away from her friends. “The girls?”
“Yeah. How old are they?”
“They’re twelve.” Jane swallowed, and her mouth felt mucky and her spit thick, as though she’d had a big piece of candy in there all day, the same piece, melting too slowly.
Colbie and Patricia looked at each other. Patricia stretched her long legs out and nudged her Jane with her foot. Jane brushed her away.
“That’s just about perfect,” Jim said.
“Oh, yeah. Talk to me about that…twelve. Thirteen would be better.”
Colbie leaned toward Jane. “Tell him we’re over here making out,” she whispered. For a moment, she didn’t care if her mother walked in. “Naked. Tell him we’re all naked.”
Patricia glanced between them. Colbie had a look on her face she’d never seen before. Like she was hungry, and Jane was ordering more pizzas, only good ones and for them instead of Mr. Sellers. She pushed past Colbie, slid off the bed, and went to the bathroom door. She pressed her face to the slim opening. “Nori?” she said. “Are you OK?”
Back on the bed, Jane sat up and hunched over the phone. “What’s better about thirteen?”
“A little more in the right places, usually,” the man said. “What were you like at thirteen, Jane?”
Jane wasn’t sure if she’d been using her grown-up voice or not. She tried to think of what her mother would say. What was Jane like at thirteen? Too mouthy. Too opinionated. Too much for her own good. That’s what her mother had said to Jane’s aunt. Too much.
“Too much for my own good,” Jane said, her voice was as thin as a guitar string.
“Thirteen is something else,” Jim said. “Your daughter turns thirteen soon, the three of us should meet up. I’d have enough for the both—”
“Hey,” Jane said.
Patricia glanced over her shoulder. Jane had given up the honey voice. This was the voice that had got her sent to the office for talking back to Ms. Devereux in Phys Ed the week before.
Colbie lay down on the bed and tapped Jane’s knee. “Hey, tell him we’re Frenching each other.”
Down on the floor, Alexa put her thumb in her mouth.
Jane pulled at the neck of her t-shirt, hot. She felt like she did when she listened to her mom talk about a jerk-face date from the night before, like she might let her mom go to bed and then look the guy up, get to his front door, and start swinging.
“Actually,” the guy on the phone said. Jane startled that he was still there. “Twelve is pretty nice.” He lowered his voice. “Maybe I could come over and help you babysit tonight—”
Patricia opened the bathroom door and went in. It was dark. “I can’t see you,” she said.
Nori sniffed. “I want to go home.”
Patricia thought of the pink phone, the pink room, the pink bed like a tongue. She had a weird feeling, like she’d been shot through with an arrow. An arrow set on fire. She wanted to run, just run from the room, the house, down the block, past her house. The world wasn’t big enough for how far she wanted to go, how fast she wanted to move. It was a crime. It had to be. But it wasn’t the man on the phone who had broken the rules. Jane had done this. Jane was the criminal. No. They all were.
“I’m never speaking to them again,” Nori said. She held a long piece of toilet paper crumpled in her hand. Her face felt stuffed. The band on her headgear made her scalp itch. “Did you hear what Colbie said?”
In the dark, Patricia nodded. She used to think that Jane had something wrong with her, but now she wondered if they all didn’t have the same piece missing. Jane might have been first, but they were all broken now. But it didn’t feel like being broken. Patricia could still feel the burn from the flaming arrow, and it didn’t feel that bad. She thought of Caleb McCormick and how he sometimes tapped on her notebook when he walked by in pre-algebra. What did it all mean? If she couldn’t ask Jane and Colbie, she had no one to ask. She wondered what the other girls were saying to the guy now. She turned back to the door and pressed her ear against it. Only by stilling her breath could she hear anything.
“Hey,” she said. “You were listening, weren’t you?”
Nori sniffled. “No, I wasn’t.”
“Yes, you were. Whatever. What does it matter? I was in the same room listening. It doesn’t—”
“I just want to go home,” Nori said, her voice quivering.
It doesn’t make us bad people, she’d been trying to say. “You’re such a baby.”
“I am not!”
Patricia opened the door an inch. “Alexa is out there and she’s not crying. She’s eight.”
“Well, she doesn’t understand.”
“Oh, what do you understand, if you’re so smart?”
Nori squeezed the toilet paper in her fist. She didn’t want to say that Jane’s sex-y stuff reminded her of the magazines in her dad’s toolbox, the ones that made her head heavy and buzzy. She didn’t want to say that when she had looked at them, women splayed and open and twisted, she had an awful feeling in her heart that she would never make the world a better place. The world would never be a better place for her, for her friends, and she hardly knew why.
“That’s what I thought,” Patricia said. She pulled back the door and the light from Colbie’s room shone on Nori’s headgear. Nori was sitting cross-legged on the toilet seat, the silky nightgown dropped to expose her neck, her shoulder, and a tiny pink nipple.
Nori gasped and yanked the gown into place.
“What?” Colbie called from the other room.
Patricia opened the door further. Nori unfolded herself from the toilet. The two of them left the bathroom, silent. Patricia squished the plush pink carpet between her toes. She was afraid this might be the last time Colbie’s room felt like a room she’d want to live in.
On the bed, the phone lay discarded among ripples in the pink bedcovers.
“What happened with—you know. The guy?” Patricia pulled the length of her ponytail around and put the tip in her mouth.
Everyone looked at Jane. She sat with her arms around her knees, staring at the phone.
Jane shook her head. She wanted to go home. At her house, her mother would be home from her date. She would clack back and forth in the kitchen in her high heels, fuming over something the man had said or done or not said or not done. Jane would nod and agree. Terrible. Awful. “We can’t tell anyone about this,” she said.
Colbie sat on the edge of the bed with her arms folded. “She wouldn’t tell him what I said.”
“Our lips are sealed,” Patricia said. “But what did he say?”
“Nothing,” Jane said. She stared at her toes and picked at the flaking blue polish.
Nori looked from one girl to the next, at Alexa on the floor, who had curled up with her thumb in her mouth and gone to sleep. If not for Alexa there, she might have thought someone had broken in. Something was gone. Something had been stolen. If a man had come in and made them all feel this way, they would tell. They would open their mouths and scream.
She saw the future clearly, as though she’d made the movie of their lives and she’d skipped to a better scene. Next week, next month. How long would it take? Jane sneaking behind the lockers with a boy from the next grade. Colbie, jostling along the hall with the softball team. Patricia and the honors club with their books held to their chests. She, Nori, her heavy pack pulling her backward, alone. They would meet in the halls of school, and each would turn a different way. Like a dance. The camera would see the very moment when they all agreed that it hadn’t been forever, after all. When they all agreed to say nothing, be nothing, let the world rush over them. The camera, if this were the movie of their lives, would turn delicately away.