The bus rumbled down the road. Lief bounced unwillingly in her seat, holding her books close to her. Laurie looked out the window.
“I hate the bus,” Lief said.
Laurie scratched at the window latch with her thumbnail. “Next year we can ride our bikes,” she replied.
The bus went over a bump and Lief was lifted from her seat.
“My folks’ll never let me ride my bike,” she said.
Laurie sighed. “The junior high is closer, though.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Lief squeezed her books tighter.
Some girls in the back were singing now. Lief scowled.
Laurie turned to her. “They let your brother, right?”
“It’s different,” Lief replied. “He’s a boy. They treat boys different.”
The bus stopped short and Lief slid forward and banged her knee against the back of the seat.
“I’m going to have to take the stupid bus next year,” she said.
A boy came down the aisle and brushed against Lief with his duffle bag.
“Your brother’s so cute,” Laurie said.
Lief watched the duffle bag boy get off the bus.
“Shut up,” she said. “Don’t be gross.”
The boy waved back to the bus. “Who’s he waving to?” Laurie asked. She was watching, too.
“Maybe his friends?”
Laurie shook her head. “Tony doesn’t have any friends on this bus,” she explained. “Maybe he’s just waving to the bus.”
Lief was jolted as the bus shuddered back into motion.
“Who would wave to a bus?” she asked.
She climbed the stairs two at a time. There were faces in the knotty old wood of the wall. She held onto the banister and her arm strained with each step she skipped.
Kitty cried from the rafters. He huddled close in, like a hen, and cried out to her again and again.
“Kitty,” she said, pausing near the top of the stairs. “You’re going to fall and hurt yourself.”
Kitty turned his head from side to side. Lief looked over the staircase down to the living room.
“Come here,” she beckoned, reaching our her arms. “You keep climbing up here and then don’t know how to get down.”
Kitty tried to turn around, but seemed to realize the rafter beam was too narrow and scurried back. He cried out again.
“Kitty,” Lief commanded.
“Let him fall,” Norrin said. “It’s the only way he’ll learn.”
Lief looked up as if expecting to see her brother, but the top of the stairs was empty. She climbed to the top and pushed the door to his bedroom open slowly.
“Norm?” she said.
He sat as his desk, faced away from her.
He’ll come down on his own,” he said, without turning around.
Lief stayed in the doorway. She could see he was drawing.
“Where’s Mom?” Lief asked.
She could see him scribbling furiously. “I think she’s working a double today.”
Lief folded her arms. “It’s my birthday, though,” she said.
Norrin shrugged. “Nuns gotta eat,” he told her.
“Laurie’s coming over,” Lief said. “She’s just going home to get changed.”
Norrin put his pen down. “You guys aren’t going to be hanging around here all afternoon, are you?”
Lief shook her head, even though Norrin wasn’t looking at her. “We’re going to the pond.”
Norrin started drawing again. “It’ll be dark soon,” he told her.
Lief sat on his bed. “What are you drawing?” she asked.
He didn’t look up. “Spider-man vs. Darth Vader,” he explained.
“They can’t fight,” Lief protested.
“They’re both Marvel,” he replied.
She shook her head. “Darth Vader’s from the future.”
“He’s from the past,” he said. “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”
“I don’t think you can do that,” she replied. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Norrin turned to her. His eye was black and swollen. “It’s just a story,” he said. “It doesn’t have to make sense.”
“What happened?” she asked him.
“Nothing,” he said, turning back to his drawing. “Just some assholes.”
“Was it Tim Berry?” she asked. “Did you hit him back?”
Norrin was shading in Vader’s helmet. “No.”
He didn’t say anything.
“I’ll kill him,” Lief said.
“No you won’t,” he told her. “You’re in sixth grade. You’re a girl. He’d kill you.”
Lief crossed her arms again. “I’d hit him good first, though.”
“Forget about it,” he said.
Lief stood up. Laurie would be here soon. “Why didn’t you hit him back?”
Norrin stopped shading but held on to his pen. “That’s not the kind of people we are,” he told her.
She looked out the window onto the street.
“I’ve got to go get changed,” she said.
She went next door to her room. She changed into her jeans and sweatshirt, put on her nastiest pair of sneakers. She looked out the window. The Tot Finder sticker was peeling at the edge, so she smoothed it out with her palm. She looked at the backwards silhouette of the fireman for a minute.
She went back into the hallway. Kitty was no longer on the rafter. Lief looked over the railing and saw him cleaning himself on the coffee table.
Lief reentered Norrin’s room. “Kitty got down,” she told him.
Norrin wasn’t drawing anymore. “He always does.”
Lief stood beside him. “Yeah. But how?”
Norrin shrugged. “He got down,” he answered. “He was up there. Now he’s down. You can figure out what happened in between.”
Lief looked again through his window. She could see Laurie coming down the street. She touched the windowpane.
“How come you don’t have one of those stickers in your window?” she asked.
“The fireman one,” she explained. “It tells them there’s a kid in the room.”
Norrin rested his head on his fist. “I guess I’m not a kid anymore,” he replied.
There was a knock at the door.
“Laurie’s here,” Lief said.
The trail was covered with leaves, gray and brittle, that crackled beneath their feet.
“I heard your brother got beat up,” Laurie said.
The light was pale and barely made it through the trees. Lief kept looking up.
“Where’d you hear that?” she asked.
They continued to walk, Lief kicking small stones she found.
“‘My brother said that your brother’,” she said finally.
Laurie looked over. “What?”
“I just hate stuff like that,” Lief replied. “Rumor stuff.”
“He saw it,” Laurie explained.
Lief jammed her hands into her pockets. “How come he didn’t help him?” she asked.
“It was a fight,” Laurie explained.
“Tim Berry’s an asshole,” Lief said. “Why is he such an asshole?”
“When I have kids, I’m going to teach them to not be assholes,” Lief continued. “I’m going to teach them not to punch people who didn’t do anything.”
They walked a little further until they reached the edge of the pond. They sat down on the bench and looked out across the frozen water.
“This isn’t as much fun in the winter,” Laurie complained.
“It’s our secret place,” Lief said.
Laurie shook her head. “People come here to make out all the time,” she replied. “They, like, do it and stuff.”
Lief stuck her tongue out. “Gross.”
Laurie took out a piece of gum. “No adults really come out here, I guess.” She put the gum in her mouth.
Lief looked across the pond. “What’s on the other side, do you think?” she asked. “I think they have a bench over there.”
Laurie squinted. “I can’t see anything.”
Lief shaded her eyes with her hand, even though it wasn’t that bright. “We should go to the other side someday.”
Laurie snapped her gum. “You have to walk all way round the pond to get there,” she said. “It’s a long way.”
Lief lowered her hand slowly. “We could do it,” she said. “We should do it during April vacation.”
They sat in silence.
“I’d do it with your brother,” Laurie said.
Lief snarled. “Gross. Don’t be gross.”
“I’d make out with him for sure,” she said.
Lief stood up. “He wouldn’t make out with you,” she protested.
Lief turned away, and stared across the pond.
“Why not?” Laurie repeated.
Lief sat back down. “He just wouldn’t,” she said.
“He’s only two grades ahead of us,” Laurie replied. “We’ll be in junior high next year.”
There was a little wind, and the trees moved a little. Lief felt a chill.
“We should come here for my birthday every year,” Lief said after the silence. “Let’s swear on it.”
They locked pinkie fingers.
“I’ve got to go soon.” Laurie said.
Lief turned to her. “It’s not even dark yet,” she said.
Laurie stood up. “I know, but I’ve got to go to that vigil tonight,” she explained. “My mom’s making me go.”
Lief remained seated on the bench. “What’s a vigil?” she asked.
Laurie took her gum out and stuck it under the bench. “It’s for the hostages,” she said. “We’re praying that that Ayatollah guy lets them go.”
“I thought you were going to stay over and watch TV and stuff with us,” Lief said. “The Hulk’s on.”
Laurie shrugged. “My mom’s making us go,” she said. “I need to go pray for them.”
They started to walk back. It was getting darker.
“Laurie, what kind of person am I?” Lief asked.
Laurie was someplace else. “What?”
“What kind of person do you think I am?” she repeated.
Laurie shrugged. “Good, I guess,” she answered. “Why? What kind of person do you think you are?”
Lief kicked a small stone from the path. “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s just something my brother said.”
Something rattled through the trees. Lief looked up to see what it was.
“Did you know Sharona’s a real person?” Laurie asked. “From the song?”
Lief lowered her head from the trees. “Really?”
Laurie nodded. “I heard it on the radio,” she said. “Can you believe there’s really somebody named Sharona?”
“That’s awful,” Lief said. “Does she know?”
“Know what?” Laurie asked.
Maybe nothing was in the trees. “That’s she’s in a song,” Lief told her.
Dad was outside the house when Lief returned.
“I was just going to come looking for you,” Dad said.
Lief nuzzled her head against his chest. “I was just out at the pond,” she explained.
“Norm told me,” Dad said. He kissed the top of her head. “Happy birthday, sweetie.”
“What time is Mom coming home?” she asked.
Dad shrugged. “She’s supposed to get out of work at eight,” he said. “After that.”
Lief sighed. “Laurie was supposed to come over, but she can’t because she’s got to go pray for those hostage guys.”
“That’s nice of them,” Dad said.
Lief sighed. “Praying’s stupid.”
Dad knocked lightly on her head. “Not if you think there’s somebody listening.”
“Norm was in a fight,” she told him.
Dad nodded. “We talked about that,” he said. “He’s alright.”
“I told him I would kill the guy for him,” Lief explained.
Dad’s laugh was smoky and brown. “I bet you would.”
“Don’t laugh,” Lief said. “I would. I really would.”
Dad gave her a squeeze. “Norm’s alright. Don’t worry.”
Lief released herself from his arms. “I would, though,” she told him.
Kitty was curled up on the stairs sleeping. Lief tiptoed past him, and went into her room.
She lay on her bed for a long while until it was dark outside truly and for real. She flipped her lamp on and rifled through her 45s. She stared at the Knack cover. She slid off the bed and brought the record into Norrin’s room.
“Do you think this girl’s Sharona?” she asked.
Norrin was still sitting at his desk. He wasn’t drawing anymore.
“What?” he asked, turning around.
Lief held up the 45. “Is this Sharona?”
Norrin looked at the girl on the cover. “Who else would it be?” he asked.
Lief flipped it over and looked at it herself. “I thought it was an actress or model pretending to be Sharona,” she told him.
Norrin shrugged. “Probably,” he said. “Do you think it matters?”
Lief dropped the sleeve to her side. “It should,” she said. “I think it should.”
He shook his head. “You get hung up on the weirdest things,” he said.
“Laurie likes you,” Lief told him.
Norrin looked down. “Yeah, I know.”
“She’s my best friend,” Lief said.
Lief stood back in the doorway. “Do you like her?”
“No,” he said.
“Good,” Lief replied.
They stayed there, in silence. A car passed by outside.
“If I was there, I would’ve hit Tim Berry. If I was there.”
Norrin looked at her. She was tearing up.
“I’d punch him in his big stupid shitty nose,” she said.
Norrin touched his eye softly, but still flinched. “He would’ve hurt you,” he said. “He’s the kind of asshole who would hit a girl.”
Lief wiped a tear from her face. Her back was shuddering.
“I don’t care,” she said. “Let him. I’d still do it.”
Norrin stood up. “Don’t cry, Lief,” he said. “It’s your birthday. Why don’t you just go back to your room? I’ll be fine.”
She took a deep breath to calm herself. “Are you going watch Hulk with me?” she asked.
Norrin nodded. “Of course I will,” he said. “I’ll come get you before eight. I just want to be alone for a little while.”
Lief shook her head. “Okay.” She took another deep breath.
She closed her bedroom door and sat down on the bed. She kept taking deep breaths until she calmed down. A car approached, two headlights from the distance. She watched it, but it continued on by, going someplace else.
She sat by the window for a long time, watching her reflection from the lamp in the windowpane. Every car had somewhere else to go. The edges of the Tot Finder sticker were peeling again. She tried to flatten it again with her palm, but the top kept peeling. She stuck her thumbnail underneath it and began to pick at it. With each pick another small piece peeled away from the window. She heard her door open.
“Dad got pizza,” Norrin said.
“No Mom?” she asked.
“I guess not,” he answered. “What are you doing?”
She quickly tried to flatten the sticker back, but the parts that had peeled off no longer wanted to stick to the window.
“I hate that I’m the only one who has a Tot Finder stick in my window,” she said. “I’m not a baby.”
Norrin walked toward the window and pressed his palm against it and slowly dragged it down. It stuck.
“That’s so the firemen know who to rescue first,” he explained. “You’re not a baby.”
She turned and saw both their reflections in the windowpane.
“You’re the first one they should save,” he told her.