The cake in front of Marnie has a single fat candle shaped like a number one. The frosting is tufted and gone hard at the edges, and Marnie’s knocking off sprinkles one by one with a single tine of a plastic fork. It’s still a better cake than any I’ve seen in sixteen birthdays. Balloons hover at Marnie’s bare feet. Party hats wait on each paper plate.
We don’t wear the hats. We wear masks, bought at Wilson’s Party Emporium yesterday afternoon. Mine’s a tiger, empty-eyed on the table. Marnie’s is a crow or a raven, some bad black bird, and she won’t take it off.
Marnie wears a roll of duct tape like a bangle around her skinny wrist. Earlier we tore it up and smoothed it over everyone’s lips. With her other hand, Marnie spins the gun. Earlier we took turns brandishing it. There aren’t any bullets inside—the barrel was enough.
Everyone else is downstairs now in the refurbished basement, kneeling politely on the newly installed carpet with their hands taped together. We confiscated all the cell phones, arranged them on the counter. Occasionally they buzz and chirp.
The kids we left alone. We’re not monsters, or at least I’m not.
Marnie jabs her plastic fork at the cake. Underneath the icing, the cake is rainbows. I watched Mom dye the batter and pour concentric circles into the pan that morning. She worked so carefully, as if Jeremy would give a shit what kind of cake he had on his first birthday. She saw me watching and even murmured, “Just think, Rosa, someday you’ll be baking your baby’s first birthday cake.” I think I gave her my deadest stare, but I can’t remember.
My brother Jeremy is downstairs, too. We put on Thomas the Tank Engine for him.
Marnie’s not eating the cake. Marnie doesn’t actually ever eat, something I realize when she pulls the mask up and off her face. I’ve seen Marnie’s mouth do so many things. I’ve felt her lips, her tongue and her teeth, but I’ve never seen her open her jaw to take a bite of something that wasn’t me.
She sighs and asks, “What now?”
As if I knew. As if I could ever know.
I worked at the Blockbuster in Wicker Park.
Mom said I needed a job. She said I needed to some “real-world” experience, but really she just wanted me out of the house, and I didn’t blame her. I snoozed through school and didn’t come home until long after dinner—vegetarian, since Gerald didn’t eat meat. My stepdad Gerald was a dipshit who wore turtlenecks in all seasons, and I dreamt of taking a pair of garden shears and guillotining them all. I almost did the night Mom announced I’d have a new little brother soon, over spaghetti with no meatballs. She asked me what I thought of the name Jeremy. I said it sounded like a great name for a future pedophile. Mom sent me to my room.
Blockbuster was easy enough. Mostly I watched coming attraction trailers and ate expired Raisinettes. The polo shirt rode up too high and made my neck itch, but I looked hot in it. Guys were always rack-checking me, lingering a little too long on the ticket stub embroidered right smack dab on my tit.
Most customers prowled the shelves or toured the perimeter where we kept all the newest releases. Marnie didn’t. She walked in and beelined straight for the counter to ask if we had a copy of Suspiria. I hated her instantly.
I pretended to check the inventory, checking out Marnie over the computer monitor. She was thin and pale, her hair brown. Her sleeves overtook her wrists. I knew we didn’t have Suspiria, not that I knew anything about the movie—I just knew every video box in the entire store.
“We don’t have it,” I said. “Sorry.”
She rolled her eyes. “No Argento at all?”
“What about Romero?”
I didn’t know who she meant. “No,” I said. “Sorry.”
She left. She meant the store, the company, the plural you, what would have been y’all if I’d been back home in Dallas. I knew that, but the word banged around in my head for weeks.
Marnie takes her shirt off in the backseat of the Mercedes. The seats are smooth and leather, the blizzard in full force around us. The Blockbuster closed a month ago. I gave Marnie a box of DVDs, mostly shitty rom-coms no one else wanted. She asked what she was supposed to do with them. I said she’d figure something out.
We took the discs out of their cases and threw them off an overpass into oncoming traffic. Later we went to the library, checked out oversized books of maps, medieval art and horse photography, anything that belonged on a coffee table instead of a shelf. We ripped the pages free, balled them into meteors and catapulted them into the lake. We’d checked them all out on someone else’s card. When I asked whose it was, Marnie said “Not ours” and slid another heavyweight book under the red laser of the self check-out.
We shoplifted from every other 7-11 we passed, mostly candy bars and magazines filled with girls who were prettier than us. We’d page through them together, pointing at the models and telling lies. She’s sleeping with her brother. She was kidnapped, and now she has to be bound and gagged to get off. She wants to fuck a Little League team.
Mom fattened day by day. Gerald rarely spoke to me, other than to ask if I was excited about going back to Texas in the fall. He wanted me gone, and we both knew it.
I told Marnie everything.
“I hate Gerald,” I said. “I want to kill him.”
Then Marnie kissed me. She shimmied free of her jeans in the snowed-in Mercedes and I scooted out of mine. We fumbled until the windows fogged. I didn’t know what I was doing, but Marnie did. It didn’t end so much as stopped, and then Marnie got dressed and drove me home.
Mom didn’t know the Blockbuster closed, and I didn’t tell her. When I was supposed to be working, I was out with Marnie. What we were doing wasn’t sex as I’d read about it, but it was something close to it, maybe better than. I didn’t know. Where or when didn’t matter—museum bathrooms, playground tunnels. We didn’t hardly touch otherwise, walking side by side down the awful Magnificent Mile like any other girls out shopping, a regular pair of besties.
Jeremy arrived, squalling and pink. The lake thawed and everything dripped with snowmelt. I cut class daily, forging signatures on false doctors’ notes and meeting Marnie on street corners. Hours later she’d deliver me home and I’d watch the Mercedes’ tail lights recede into the dark.
It was late spring and after midnight. I chugged milk from the carton in the glow of the fridge’s interior. I didn’t hear Gerald come in.
“You little bitch,” he said. He was in his bathrobe and slippers, shapeless as baked potatoes.
“You think we don’t know, but I know.” He took a step forward. “I’m not stupid. I don’t know where you go, or what you do.” He took another step. “But if it’s anything like I suspect...” Our toes touched, his stupid potato shoes and my white-toed sneakers. He bent, his mouthwash hot on my face. “You keep it out of my house. You keep it away from my family.”
I tilted the milk over his feet. The puddle splattered white across the floor as he stood there, fuming. When the gallon was empty, I set it on the counter and left.
I only came home to sleep. Jeremy started talking, then toddling. When she wasn’t with me, I dreamt of Marnie and her boyish hips, her lean arms. Her easy little tits and her thick lower lip.
In June we got the call: an accident at the rig in Texas. Dad was stove up—he wouldn’t die, but there was no way I could live with him in the fall. I’d stay in Chicago.
Bile reared in my throat. Gerald and Mom talked behind closed doors, murmuring. I heard enough: juvie, arrest, her own good.
It was Marnie’s idea to buy the gun.
In the cake in front of Marnie there is one fat candle. She’s ransacked the cake, mauled its insides to a bright mess. She spins the gun. She asks me, “What now?”
My dad recovered from the accident, but not from the tumors that found his lungs and settled into his brain. The funeral was small.
Jeremy starts high school next week. He’s all sports and girls, a runner and a rower. I enlisted and did a few tours. I dated a few men, all nice enough, but nothing worth maintaining. I didn’t tell them about Marnie. I haven’t told anyone about Marnie.
She vanished a week after Jeremy’s birthday party. I tried to find her, but the Mercedes turned up missing its tires a mile north of the state line. I looked her up in the phonebook, but the number led nowhere. Her address was a condemned house, half-collapsed.
I think I see her in missing child posters or in crowds on train platforms. I think I see her across the intersection, holding a sign that finally tells the truth: SCHIZOPHRENIC, HOMELESS, PLEASE HELP. I think I see her, but I know I don’t.
I live in Wisconsin now. Mom calls every week and chatters at me. She’s forgiven me, though Gerald never will. Mom tells me about Jeremy’s latest accolade, the great rigatoni recipe she found. She tells me that she loves me, then tells me to be good.