“I know,” I said, and we sat down together on the stoop. I looked at Scarlett, her face flushed, fingers spread across the skin of her belly, and I wanted to tell her what I’d decided. But it wasn’t the time, so just I put my hand over hers, feeling the kicks, and held on.
My mother spent the whole day of New Year’s Eve madly cleaning the house for her annual New Year’s Anniversary Party. She was so distracted it wasn’t until late afternoon, as I lifted my legs so she could get to a patch of floor by the TV, that she concerned herself with me.
“So what are your plans tonight?” she asked, spraying a fog of Pledge on the coffee table and then attacking it with a dustcloth. “You and Scarlett going to watch the ball drop in Times Square?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “We haven’t decided.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking,” she said, working her way over to the mantel, and then around the Christmas tree, which regardless of my father’s loudest grumbling was still standing, dropping what seemed like mountains of needles anytime anyone passed it. “Why not just stay here and help me out? I sure could use it.”
“Yeah, right,” I said. I honestly thought she was joking. I mean, it was New Year’s Eve, for God’s sake. I watched her as she sanitized the bookcase.
“The Vaughns will be here, and you can keep an eye on Clara for us, and you and Scarlett always like helping out at the party—”
“Wait a second,” I said, but she kept moving, dusting knickknacks like her life depended on it. “I have plans tonight.”
“Well, you don’t sound like you do,” she said in a clipped voice, lifting up the Grand Canyon picture and dabbing at it with the cloth, then setting it back on the mantel. “It sounds like you and Scarlett don’t even know what you’re doing. So I just thought it would be better—”
“No,” I said, and then suddenly realized I sounded more forceful than I should, more desperate, as I felt the net start to close around me. “I can’t.”
I half expected her to spin around, rag in hand, point at me and say, You’re going to sleep with him tonight! proving she had somehow managed to read my mind, and once again making my choice for me before I had a chance to think for myself.
“I just think you and Scarlett can watch TV and hang out over here as easily as you can over there, Halley. And I would feel better knowing where you were.”
“It’s New Year’s Eve,” I said. “I’m sixteen. You can’t make me stay home.”
“Oh, Halley,” she said, sighing. “Stop being so dramatic.”
“Why are you doing this?” I said. “You can’t just come in here at five o’clock and forbid me to go out. It’s not fair.”
She turned to look at me, the dust rag loose in her hand. “Okay,” she said finally, really watching me for the smallest flicker of wavering strength on my part. “You can go to Scarlett’s. But know that I am trusting you, Halley. Don’t make me regret it.”
And suddenly, it was so hard to keep looking at her. After all these months of negotiating and bartering, putting up strong-holds and retreating, she’d used her last weapon: trust.
“Okay,” I said, and I fought that sudden pull from all those days at the Grand Canyon and before. When she was my friend, my best friend. “You can trust me.”
“Okay,” she said quietly, still watching me, and I let her break her gaze first.
As I got dressed to go out that night I stood in front of the mirror, carefully studying my face. I blocked out the things around my reflection, the ribbons from gymnastics, honor-roll certificates, pictures of me and Scarlett, markers of the important moments in my life. I rubbed my thumb over the smooth silver of the ring Macon had given me. This time, I had only myself and what I would remember, so I concentrated, taking a picture I could keep always.
I stopped at Scarlett’s house on the way to Spruce Street, where Macon was picking me up. This was one of the first New Year’s Eve we hadn’t spent together; I’d made my decision, but for some reason I still felt guilty about it.
“Take these,” Scarlett said to me when I came in, stuffing something into my hand. Marion came around the corner, smoking, her hair in curlers, just as I dropped a condom right on the floor by her foot. She didn’t see it and kept going, stepping over the half-assembled stroller—none of us could understand the directions—and I snatched it up, my heart racing.
“Um, I don’t think I’ll need this many,” I said. She’d given me at least ten, in blue wrappers. They looked like the mints hotels give you on your pillow. I could see Cameron sitting at the kitchen table. He was cutting up a roll of refrigerated cookie dough into little triangles and squares. Scarlett had been scarfing cookies like crazy lately; usually she didn’t even wait until the dough was cooked, just eating it by the handful out of the wrapper.
“Just take them,” Scarlett said. “Better to be safe than sorry.” One of my mother’s favorite sayings.
She was looking at me as we stood there in the kitchen, as if there was something she wanted to say but couldn’t. I pulled out a chair, sat down, and said, “Okay, spit it out. What’s the problem?”
“No problem,” she said, spinning the lazy Susan. Cameron was watching us nervously; he’d recently branched into wearing at least one thing that wasn’t black—Scarlett’s idea—and had on a blue shirt that made him look very sudden and bright. “I’m just—I’m just worried about you.”
“I don’t know. Because I know what you’re doing, and I know you think it’s right, but—”
“Please don’t do this,” I said to her quickly. “Not now.”
“I’m not doing anything,” she said. “I just want you to be careful.” Cameron got up from the table and scuttled off toward the stove, his hands full of dough. He was blushing.
“You said you’d support me,” I said. “You said I’d know when it was right.” First my mother, now this, thrown across my path to keep me from moving ahead.
She looked at me. “Does he love you, Halley?”
“Scarlett, come on.”
“Does he?” she said.
“Of course he does.” I looked at my ring. The more times I said it, the more I was starting to believe it.