“You asked,” I said cheerfully.
“I did,” he agreed, as we got in line. “Your turn.”
“Right.” I thought for a second. “What do you worry about most?”
As always, he paused, considering this. From vomit to deep introspection: this was how Truth worked. You either went with it, or you didn’t. “Bert,” he said flatly, after a second.
“Bert,” I repeated.
He nodded. “I just feel responsible for him, you know? I mean, it’s a big brother thing. But also with my mom gone. . . . She never said so but I know she was counting on me to take care of him. And he’s so . . .”
“So what?” I asked as the cashier scanned the towels.
He shrugged. “So . . . Bert. You know? He’s intense. Takes everything really seriously, like with all his Armageddon stuff. A lot of people his age, you know, they just don’t get him. Everything he feels, he feels strongly. Too strongly, sometimes. I think he freaks people out.”
“He’s not that bad,” I said, as he handed the cashier a twenty and got change. “He’s just . . .” And now I was at a loss, unable to find the right word.
“Bert,” he finished for me.
And so it went. Question by question, answer by answer. Everyone else thought we were weird, but I was starting to wonder how I’d ever gotten to know anyone any other way. If anything, the game made you realize how little you knew about people. After only a few weeks, I knew what Wes worried about, what embarrassed him most, his greatest disappointment. I couldn’t be sure of any of these things when it came to my mother, or Caroline, or Jason, and knew they’d be equally stymied if asked about me.
“I just think it’s weird,” Kristy said to me after walking up on us a couple of times, only to catch the tail end of Wes detailing some seventh-grade trauma or me explaining why I thought my neck was strange-looking. “I mean, Truth or Dare, that I understand. But this is just talking.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Anyone can do a dare.”
“I don’t know about that,” she said darkly. “Everyone knew if you were smart, you always picked Truth over Dare. That way you could at least lie, if you had to.”
I just looked at her.
“What?” she said. She rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t lie to you. I’m talking about cutthroat slumber party ethics. Nobody tells the truth all the time.”
“You do in this game,” I said.
“Maybe you do. But how do you know he is?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. “I just do.”
And I did. It was why I liked being with Wes so much, that summer. He was the one person I could count on, unequivocally, to say exactly what he meant, no hedging around. He had no idea, I was sure, how much I appreciated it.
I turned around, and there was Bert, standing at the top of his driveway in an undershirt and a pair of dress pants. There was a piece of tissue stuck to his chin and another on his temple, both clearly shaving injuries, and he looked desperate. “Can you come here for a second?”
“Sure,” I said, starting across the road. When I got within a few feet of him, I could smell his cologne. One step closer, and every step after that, it was all I could smell, which was saying something, considering I’d spent the last hour helping Delia peel garlic to make hummus and was pretty fragrant myself. “What’s going on?”
He turned around and started down the driveway toward his house, walking at such a fast, frenzied pace that I found myself struggling to keep up with him. “I have an important engagement,” he said over his shoulder, “and Kristy was supposed to help me get ready. She promised. But she and Monica had to take Stella to deliver bouquets, and she’s not back yet.”
“Engagement?” I asked.
“It’s my Armageddon club social. A big deal.” He looked at me pointedly, as if to emphasize this. “It only happens once a year.”
“Right,” I said. As we walked up the steps to his front door, I watched as one of the pieces of tissue dislodged from his face, taking flight over his head and disappearing somewhere behind us. On the bright side, at least with us moving, I couldn’t smell the cologne. As much.
I’d never been inside Wes and Bert’s house before. From the road, all you could see was that it was wood, cozy and cabinlike, but I was surprised, as I followed Bert in, by how open and bright it was. The living room was big, with beams across the ceiling and skylights, the furniture modern and comfortable looking. The kitchen ran against the back wall, and there were plants all along the counter, many of them leaning toward one large window above the sink. Also there was art everywhere: abstract paintings on the walls, several ceramic pieces, and two of Wes’s smaller sculptures on display on either side of the fireplace. I’d expected it to look, well, like two teenaged guys lived there, with pizza boxes piled up on the counter and half-filled glasses cluttering every surface, but it was surprisingly neat.
“What’s at issue here,” Bert said as we headed down the hallway, passing a closed door and another bedroom along the way, “is dots or stripes. What do you think?”
He pushed open the door to his bedroom, going inside, but once I hit the threshold I just stood there, staring. Not at the two button-up shirts he was now holding out to me, but at the huge poster behind him, which took up the entire wall. It said, simply, ATTENTION:ARMAGEDDON and featured a graphic image of a blue earth being shattered to bits. The rest of the room was decorated the same way, with posters proclaiming THE END IS NEARER THAN YOU THINK and one that said simply MEGA TSUNAMI: ONE WAVE, TOTAL ANNIHILATION. The remaining wall space was taken up by shelves, all of which were packed with books featuring similar titles.
“Stripes,” Bert said, shaking one shirt at me, “or dots. Stripes or dots. Which one?”
“Well,” I said, still totally distracted, “I think—”
Just then the door behind me opened, and Wes emerged from the bathroom, hair wet, rubbing his face with a towel. He had on jeans and no shirt, which, frankly, was almost as distracting as the mega-tsunami. Or even more so. He started to wave hello to me, then stopped. And sniffed. Twice.
“Bert,” he said, wincing, “what did I tell you about cologne?”
“I’m hardly wearing any,” Bert said, as Wes put a hand over his nose, disputing this. He held up the shirts again, clearly willing to take all opinions. “Wes, which should I wear? First impressions are important, you know.”