“That was delicious, Mom.” Penelope pushes her chair away from the dinner table.
“Thank you, dear.” Her mother sits across the table from her. It’s just the two of them tonight. Ash is at Brooke’s and her father is working out of town for a couple days. “Do you have plans for this evening?”
“Nope. Do you want to watch a movie or something?”
“I can’t. I have book club tonight.” Her mother wipes the corner of her mouth with a napkin. “Can you clear the table for me?”
“Sure.” Penelope starts gathering the silverware. “Maybe I’ll call Row and see if she wants to come over. How late will you be?”
“A couple of hours. I should be home a little after 9.” Her mother heads out of the room to get ready.
Penelope dials Rowena’s number, jams the phone between her ear and shoulder, and starts stacking dishes.
“’Allo, ‘allo.” Rowena answers over the sound of background music.
“Hey, what ya doing?” Penelope pulls open the dishwasher and starts loading the supper dishes.
“Just finishing up that writing assignment for Social. Then I am planless and sad.”
“Wanna come over? Ash gave me some treats this morning.”
“Excellent.” Rowena elongates the word. “Want me to pick up snacks on the way.”
“If you want some, sure. You know I don’t eat candy.”
“I say it again. You are a weirdo. I’ll see you in fifteen.”
“See ya soon, lovely.” Shoving her phone in her pocket, Penelope flips the dishwasher door shut with her foot before heading into the living room. Picking up her backpack, she sinks onto the couch and pulls out her math books, knowing it won’t take long. Math is the only subject she doesn’t struggle with. She’s just putting her books away when she sees a car pulling up in front of the house. Rowena climbs out of the white Bug, a convenience store bag hanging from one hand. Her long blond hair catches in the wind and blows around her head. The late day sun glints off the yellow strands.
Rowena lets herself in the front door just as Penelope’s mom is putting on her shoes.
“Hello, Rowena” She smiles at her daughter’s oldest friend.
“Hey, Debbie. Off to book club?”
“Why yes! How did you know?”
Rowena taps the book tucked under Mrs. Chisholm’s arm. “What are you reading?”
“The Italian. It’s an old gothic novel.”
“I read it over the summer. I loved that book. How did you like it?” She reaches into her bag, pulling out a couple pieces of saltwater taffy. Handing one over, she pops a red and white striped one into her mouth.
“It was different than I expected. It took me a while to get used to the style, but once…”
“I hate to interrupt, but aren’t you supposed to be going to book club, not having it in the foyer?” Penelope chuckles, leaning over the railing at the top of the stairs.
“Right. Right. Have a nice evening, girls.” Mrs. Chisholm smiles as she backs out the door.
“Bye, Mom.” Penelope flips the lock on the door after her mother leaves and heads downstairs with Rowena.
“Parents love you, Row.”
“It’s all about getting them to think you’re a good kid.” Rowena raises her eyebrows as she skips down the last few stairs.
“Yeah, cause you’re soooo well behaved.” Penelope rolls her eyes as they enter her bedroom.
“Redirection is key. Get them to focus on the stuff they can relate to and they’ll ignore the stuff they can’t. Now where are my treats?” Rowena smiles, digging a lighter out of her pocket and throwing the bag of candy onto the bed. Penelope opens the drawer of her jewellery box and pulls out one of the joints. The two girls head out the patio doors in the family room, Rowena expertly lighting the thin paper and inhaling deeply before passing it to Penelope.
Lounging in the chairs under the overhang, they pass back and forth as they watch the sky change from blue to purple to pink to red. The glow over the trees behind the house is one of Penelope’s favourite things about her home. She used to sit out here with Ash all the time, especially after their parents separated. He would comfort her through nights of crying. She would listen to him talk for hours about how hard it was going to be to get used to it. But then their mom and dad got back together and everything changed.
Penelope had been so happy. She’d hated having them apart. Hated sitting at the dinner table with their father, their mother’s chair empty. Hated going to visit their mother on the other side of town, sitting around a foreign table, trying to pretend they weren’t all miserable. She knew that there had been screw-ups, especially on her father’s part, but she didn’t think this was something she could get past. The announcement that everything was going back to normal, that they could pretend the last year hadn’t happened, was one of the best days of Penelope’s life.
Ash had reacted differently. He had finally come to accept that they were better apart than they were together. Seeing them back together was harder for him to accept than seeing them apart. Whenever she would ask him to explain it, they would end up fighting. So eventually, she had stopped asking and he had stopped talking. He would get agitated and angry and would disappear for hours at a time, she didn’t know where he went, but when he would come back, he would be back to the same old Ash. While part of her wished he would talk to her about whatever was bothering him, another part was glad that he was dealing with it some other way. She hated listening to him say that things would be better if their parents weren’t together.
Taking one last deep inhale, Penelope chokes on the smoke flooding her lungs. Coughing spasmodically, she doubles over in her chair, head between her legs. Finally she sits up, reaching for the bottle of water sitting on the table beside her.
“Ya all right?” Rowena smiles languidly, her eyes red rimmed.
“There’s always one that does me in.”
“I’ll never understand why you do this shit.” Row chuckles, “You’re like the healthiest person I know, and then there’s this.” She holds the remainder between her fingers before tamping it out on the stones of the patio.
“It’s because it makes it okay to gorge myself on candy. I hope you brought enough.” Standing, they head back into the house.
“I always do, don’t I?” Rowena dumps the bag onto Penelope’s bed, revealing an assortment of miniature chocolate bars, taffy, gummies, and chips.
“A little bit of everything. Goody!” Penelope rubs her palms together before throwing herself onto the bed and pulling a long gummy snake from a bag.
“How hot is Mr. Staal?” Rowena falls back onto the bed, staring at the ceiling while unwrapping a Three Musketeers bar.
“Gil is hot. Like tamale hot. “
“Gil, hey?” Turning her head towards her friend, she sees Penelope’s distant look. “Bitch, what are you not telling me?” Flipping over onto her stomach, Row jams her hands under her chin, waiting impatiently.
“Nothing.” Penelope looks intently at the pile of candy in front of her before selecting another snake.
“Bullshit. You so can’t lie to me, P.” Slipping in the nickname that’s Penelope only lets her use when they’re stoned.
“God damn it, Row, how the hell do you always know?” scooting over on her bed, Penelope pulls her legs up underneath her.
“You’re a crappy liar.” Rowena’s smile brightens her face as her eyes narrow heavily. “Now come on, spill it.” Pulling her long hair forward, Rowena starts separating it into sections, twisting it into braids.
“So, I carpooled with Ash today, forgetting it was newspaper day.” She rips the gummy snake apart.
“So far, this story is lacking some hutzpah.”
Penelope flips her middle finger towards her friend. “Do you want to hear the juicy details?”
“Ooooo, juicy details. I like juicy details.” Row jumps into a sitting position. “Go on. Go on.”
“So, I had to walk home and it started raining. So, I’m just to the point where I’m soaked, like to the bone. So, this car pulls up beside me. So, I try to keep walking, but they keep following me. So, it’s freaking me out a bit. So, I start to speed up and then I hear my name. So,…”
“Stop saying so!” Rowena interrupts loudly. Penelope pauses, reviews her story quickly in her head. In unison, both girls erupt in laughter. After a few solid minutes of laughing, Rowena finally forces herself to stop. “Okay, okay. Ouch. Must stop laughing… Why are we laughing again?” Which causes more laughter. It’s several more minutes before they’re able to compose themselves again.
“Alright, back to the story. So…” Penelope giggles, but restrains herself. “The guy in the car is Mr. Staal and he offers to drive me home.”
“No way.” Rowena’s hands clasp in her lap, leaning towards her friend anxiously.
“Yup. I get in the car and since I’m so cold and helpless, he buys me a tea latte.” Penelope grabs the bag of chips from the bed and moves back against her headboard. “And then he takes me down to the back lot to talk.”
“Serious?” Eyes widening, Rowena reaches over to grab a candy frog from the tub on the bed. “No one goes there to talk.”
“Seriously! We’re sitting their talking, and he’s telling me about university and stuff, and suddenly we’re kissing!” Penelope bounces with glee.
“No way! Who kissed who? He kissed you? You kissed him? You were in the car? Did you do anything else? I must have details.”
“I’m getting there. Hang on.” Happiness spreads across Penelope’s face. “I don’t know who kissed who. It just kind of happened. And then suddenly I was in his lap, and we were so close to taking it further. I know he wanted to, but then he got all freaked out.”
“What! Why?” Rowena jumps off the bed, pulling Penelope with her, “Never mind the why, that’s obvious. Teacher. Student. Taboo. Taboo. Taboo. But, you’re totally going to do it with a teacher. A really, really hot teacher.”
“I know.” Hugging and jumping around the room excitedly, neither of them hears the door open.
“Lightweights” Ash leans against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest, smirking.
“Ah!” Both girls scream in surprise.
“Hey, Ash.” Row waves, flopping back onto the bed.
“Row.” He nods hello. “Throw me some candy.” She reaches over and tosses him a couple candy bars.
“What’s up, bro?” Penelope sinks down onto the floor beside the bed.
“Brooke and I broke up.” Ash jams the chocolate in his mouth.
“Shitty!” Rowena gets up from the bed, walking towards her best friend’s twin brother, and pats him on the arm. “Are you alright?”
“I don’t know.” He looks at the ground.
“It’s about time.” Penelope mumbles around a mouth full of chips.
“What?” Ash’s face clears.
“You heard me.” Penelope pushes herself off the floor, a trail of chip crumbs falling from her shirt.
“Yeah. I’d like you to repeat it so I can make sure you’re actually a heinous bitch.”
“Look closely,” Penelope points to her mouth, then enunciates slowly, “It’s about time.”
Rowena slowly picks up her purse from its place on the floor and slips out the bedroom door unnoticed. The twins face off in the middle of the room. Each with their arms crossed over their chests.
“What the hell is your problem, P?”
“You know how I feel about her, Ash.”
“But I don’t understand why. What the hell could possibly trump how upset I am? That you would take joy in my pain.” His voice slowly rises with his temper.
“It’s not really any of your business.” Her tone follows his.
“Like hell it isn’t. Your attitude is starting to make me wish you weren’t my sister.”
“Yeah, well your stupidity was starting to make me feel the same way.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? What am I being stupid about?”
“Don’t you know why Mom and Dad split?”
“Because they were having marital difficulties and weren’t mature enough to try to work it out before they called it quits. Because they’re ridiculous and lame.” He rages.
“Because dad was cheating on her with Brooke’s mom!” Penelope shouts at him, releasing the secret she’s been keeping for too long. “And Brooke knew about it. She just turned a blind eye while our family was falling apart.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Sinking to the floor, the anger rushes out of Ash as quickly as it had appeared. Penelope sits beside him, reaches above her head to grab some candy and places it between them. “Why would you even think that?”
“I was over at Rowena’s house one night, you know she lives across the street from Brooke, and as I was leaving, I thought I saw Dad’s car pull into their driveway. So I waited, even though I knew I was going to miss my bus, and there he was, walking up their sidewalk. Brooke opened the door for him and gave him this giant hug before he went into their house.”
“That’s all you saw? That doesn’t prove anything.” Ash attempts to rationalize.
“Ash, come on.” Penelope raises her eyebrows, “I asked Dad about it after he and Mom separated. Mom knew that he was cheating, just not with who, that’s why she never had a problem with Brooke.”
“But Dad was never around when he knew she was going to be here, and he disappeared when she showed up unexpectedly.” Nodding to himself, “But, if Brooke knew, why didn’t she ever say anything?”
“Do you want me to answer that?”
“Alright, fine, so you know, Dad knows, and Mom and I are in the dark. But seriously, you can forgive the two of them for splitting up and getting back together and dragging us through the mud. Forgive them for the shit ass example they’ve set for us about how to deal with a relationship? You can forgive Dad for cheating on Mom. You can forgive Mom for accepting it. But you can’t forgive Brooke for knowing about it?”
“There’s more.” Penelope’s voice is quiet. Her gaze falls to floor. She begins pulling at her sock.
“What else?” Reaching over, he touches his sister’s hand. “P? Come on.”
She takes a deep breath. “Do you remember last year when you were involved in that journalism seminar thing?”
“Of course. It’s basically the best thing I’ve ever done.”
“And you were travelling a lot.”
“You’re not wrong.”
“Brooke cheated on you every time you were out of the town.” She mumbles so quickly that Ash almost doesn’t catch it.
“She cheated on you all the time. Everyone knew. She turned you into a laughing stock.”
“Everyone knew?” Ash pauses for a moment, trying to understand. “Why wouldn’t anyone have told me? Emmette would have told me.”
“I don’t know how many of the guys knew, other than the ones she was screwing around with.” Penelope’s voice takes on an edge, but she curbs it at the expression on her brother’s face. “But people knew. I did my best to keep it under wraps. But trust me, my hatred is justified.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” His eyes flick accusingly towards his sister.
“Do you remember how you reacted when I told you about the first time she did it?”
“Well, I was annoyed.”
“Annoyed?” Penelope chuckles and hands him a gummy frog. “You told me I was a nosey bitch and that I should keep my nose out of business that wasn’t mine. Then you didn’t speak to me for a week. A solid week. Do you know what that felt like? Why would I put myself through that again?”
“I needed to… I don’t know. I just… I never thought that that was what you were keeping from me.”
“Well, you got back together with her after the first time, so I figured it would just be more of the same.”
“I didn’t break up with her the first time. We talked about it and worked through it. You know how I feel about people that break up and get back together all the damn time.”
“So, if I had told you, you would have what? Worked it out again?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. I can’t say now.”
“Are you getting back together this time?”
“No. She called me and we talked. I told her I would think about it, but after what you’ve just told me, it just confirms what I already knew. You break up with someone, it’s because part of you knows you’re not meant to be with them.”
“A good relationship fights from time to time, Ash. It’s not always perfect.”
“I’m aware of that, P, but there’s a difference between fighting and breaking up.”
“We’ve had this argument before.”
“And I really don’t feel like having it again. And if I’m being perfect honest, I’ve known for a while that I don’t love her the way I used to.” Ash pushes himself up off the floor. “I need some time. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
Penelope remains on the floor, watching her brother walk out of the room, closing the door behind him. Weary from the fight, and the after effects of her evening with Rowena, she pulls herself up onto her bed, lying sideways beside the remainder of the pile of candy, and closes her eyes. The sound of music blaring from her brother’s room filters through her closed door. Before long, she sinks into sleep.