"You look like a boy," she said one day when we all went to the mall. "You could look really cute, if you tried. Why don't you wear some makeup or something?"
"I'm not allowed," Clarke told her, blowing her nose.
"Please," Sophie said. "It's not like your parents have to know. Just put it on when you leave, take it off before you go home."
But Clarke wasn't like that, and I knew it. She got along well with her mom and dad, and wouldn't lie to them. Sophie, however, wouldn't let up. If it wasn't Clarke's lack of makeup, it was her clothes, or her constant sneezing, or the fact that she had to be home a full hour before either of us, meaning that whatever we did as a group always had to be cut short in order to make sure she got in on time. If I'd been paying more attention, maybe I would have seen what was happening. As it was, though, I just attributed it to us all getting used to one another, and figured everything would work out eventually—at least until that night in early July.
It was a Saturday, and we were all spending the night at Clarke's. Her parents were out at some symphony concert, so we had the house to ourselves to make a frozen pizza and watch movies. Typical Saturday. We'd preheated the oven, and Clarke was seeing what was on pay-per-view when Sophie arrived, dressed in a denim miniskirt, a white tank top that showed off her tan, and white sandals with thick heels.
"Wow," I said as she came in, her heels clacking against the floor. "You look nice."
"Thanks," she replied, as I followed her into the kitchen.
"You're pretty dressed up for pizza," Clarke told her, then sneezed.
Sophie smiled. "This isn't for pizza," she said.
Clarke and I looked at each other. I said, "Then what is it for?"
"Boys," she said.
"Boys?" Clarke repeated.
"Yeah." Sophie hopped up on the counter, crossing her legs. "I met a couple of guys today, walking home from the pool. They said they'd be hanging out there tonight and we should come meet them."
"The pool is closed at night," Clarke told her, sliding the pizza onto a cookie sheet.
"So?" Sophie said. "Everyone goes up there. It's not a big deal."
I knew instantly Clarke was not going to go for this. First, because her parents would kill her if they found out. Second, because she always followed the rules, even the ones everyone else ignored, like taking a shower before getting in the pool and always getting out of the water the second the lifeguard announced adult swim. "I don't know," I said as I thought this. "We probably shouldn't."
"Oh, come on, Annabel," Sophie said. "Don't be a wuss. Besides, one of these guys was asking about you specifically. He'd seen us together and asked if you would be there."
"Me?" I said.
She nodded. "Yeah. And he's cute. His name's Chris Pen-something. Penner? Penning—"
"Pennington," I said. I could feel Clarke looking at me; she was the only one who knew how I felt about him, the crush I'd had forever. "Chris Pennington?"
"That's it," Sophie said, nodding. "You know him?"
I glanced at Clarke, who was now making a point of focusing on putting the pizza in the oven, adjusting it on the rack. "We know who he is," I said. "Right, Clarke?"
"He's so hot," Sophie said. "They said they'd be there around eight, and they'd have some beers."
"Beers?" I said.
"God, calm down," she said, laughing. "You don't have to drink if you don't want to."
Clarke shut the oven with a bang. "I can't go out," she said.
"Oh, you can too," Sophie said. "Your parents won't even know."
"I don't want to," Clarke finished. "I'm staying here."
I just looked at her, knowing I should say the same thing, but for some reason, the words just didn't come. Probably because all I could think about was Chris Pennington, who I'd watched at the pool a million afternoons, asking about me. "Well," I said, forcing myself to speak, "maybe—"
"Then me and Annabel will go," Sophie said, hopping off the counter. "No big deal. Right, Annabel?"
Now Clarke did look at me. She turned her head, and I felt those dark eyes watching me carefully. Suddenly I felt that imbalance, that unevenness of three, with me left to choose which way to go. On the one side was Clarke, my best friend, and our entire routine, everything we'd always done and known. On the other was not only Sophie and Chris Pennington but this whole other world, unchartered and open, at least for a little while, this one night. I wanted to go.
"Clarke," I said, taking a step toward her. "Let's just go for a little while, like, a half hour. Then we'll come back and eat the pizza and do the movie and all that. Okay?"
Clarke wasn't an emotional person. She was instead a born stoic, extremely logical, her entire approach to life one of figuring out problems, stating solutions, and moving on. But in that moment, as I said this, I saw something rare on her face: surprise, followed by hurt. It was so unexpected, though, and gone so quickly, that it was hard to know if I'd really seen it at all.
"No," she said. "I'm not going." And with that, she walked across the room to the couch, sitting down and picking up the remote. A second later, she was scrolling through channels, images and color flickering across the screen.
"All right then," Sophie said with a shrug. Then she turned to me. "Come on," she said.
She started toward the front door, and for a second, I just stood there. Everything about the Reynoldses' kitchen and this night was so familiar: the smell of pizza in the oven, the two-liter Coke on the countertop, Clarke in her spot on the couch, my spot open and waiting for me beside her. But then I looked down the hallway to Sophie, who was now standing in the open door. Behind her, it was just barely dark, the streetlights flickering on, and before I could change my mind, I walked toward her and stepped outside.
Even years later, I remembered that night so well. Like how it felt, after climbing through the hole in the pool fence, to walk across the dark parking lot, right up to Chris Pennington, who smiled at me and said my name aloud. And the way the beer he'd brought tasted as I took my first sip, fizzy and light in my mouth. Then later, after he walked me around the back of the pool, how it felt to kiss him, his lips warm against mine, my back pressed up against the cool of the wall behind me. Or hearing Sophie laughing in the distance, her voice carrying over the still water from wherever she was with his best friend, a guy named Bill who moved away at the end of that summer. All of these things register, but there is one image, one moment, that rises above them all. That was later, when I glanced over the pool fence to see someone standing across the street, under a streetlight. A small girl with dark hair, in shorts and no makeup, who could hear our voices but not see us.