Page 30 of Shug

Elaine inspects the bottom of the nail polish bottle. “Disco Bubblegum.”

“So, Annemarie, who do you like?” Hadley says suddenly. She and Jo Jo are sitting in the bed across from Elaine and me.

I swallow. “No one.”

“That’s not what I heard,” she says, blowing on her nails.

I look at Elaine, who shrugs helplessly. “What did you hear?” I say. My heart is thudding loud as can be, and all I can think is, don’t say Mark. Don’t say Mark.

Hadley smiles. She is enjoying this moment, wielding this power over me. “I heard you like Jack Connelly. Is it true?”

Relief washes over me like a warm wave. “Ew. No way. I just tutor him in English.”

“I think he’s kind of cute,” Jo Jo says. Then she sees the look on Hadley’s face. “What? What’s wrong with him?”

“Are you kidding me?” Hadley shrieks. “He’s so immature. He’s like, total redneck trash. His dad’s a drunk, you know. And his mother works at a diner. … No offense, Annemarie.”

More than anything, I would like to throttle Hadley Smith. I would kick her butt clear across Clementon. I hate that girl something fierce.

The room has gone quiet, and everyone’s waiting for me to say something. I say, “I already told you I don’t like him.”

Hadley squints her eyes at me. “Well then, who do you like?”

Then the door flings open, and it’s Mairi with five cans of Budweiser. She sashays around the room, grinning widely and clutching the cans to her chest. Hadley squeals and claps her hands. “You’re so bad, Mair!”

Mairi does a little dance and puts the beers on the floor. She pops off the tab and says, “Cheers, y’all.”

I look at Elaine, but she just shrugs and smiles. She reaches for a can, opens it, and takes a swig. Elaine grimaces, but then she drinks more.

“All right!” Mairi cheers. They high-five, and Hadley frowns. She grabs a can and takes a long drink, throwing her head back. Coughing, she throws a can to Jo Jo. Jo Jo looks uncertain for a moment, then follows suit. Everyone’s laughing and drinking, and I just sit on Mairi’s bed, arms wrapped around my knees, trying to make myself invisible.

Then Mairi looks at me, her glossy lips curved in a smile. “Your turn, Annemarie.” It’s a direct challenge, and every one of us knows it.

The last thing I want to do is drink. I’ve tasted beer before. It was late at night. I was thirsty, and I thought it was flat ginger ale. It tasted like bad medicine. No way do I want to drink that stuff again. No way do I want to be like Mama.

Every other girl in the room is staring at me, including Elaine. “What’s the matter, sugar?” Mairi taunts. “Too chicken?”

Swallowing, I say, “No … I just don’t feel well today. It’d probably be better if I laid off alcohol.”

“Like you ever drink,” Hadley scoffs, waving her Pretty in Pink nails in the air.

“I do so drink. I just don’t feel like it tonight.”

Rolling her eyes, she says, “Sure.” She runs her hand through her streaky brown curls, searching for split ends. She won’t find any. Girls like Hadley don’t get split ends.

“Annemarie, you don’t have to drink if you don’t feel like it,” Elaine says. But her eyes are saying something else, and I can tell she wants me to. She wants me to be a part of the group almost as much as I want to be a part of it, and for some reason, this makes me mad. Why does she need this so bad? Why wasn’t it enough when it was just me and her?

Mairi puts her arm around me. Her buttery blond hair smells like apples and Dove soap. “Hadley, it’s okay if Annemarie doesn’t want to drink. She’s still too young.” She releases me and smiles knowingly at the other girls.

“It’s not that,” I protest.

“Then?” She holds the beer in front of me, arm outstretched. “Come on.”

Slowly I take the can from her. It is cold and sweaty. “Just a little sip then … Seriously guys, I don’t feel good.” Now I really do feel sick. The smell of the beer and the nail polish remover makes my stomach turn.

I put the top of the can to my lips and drink. It tastes bitter, and I feel hollow, like someone’s spooned my insides out like a gourd. I wish I could spit it back out, take that moment back, do it over.

Everyone claps, and Mairi turns her stereo on loud. It’s already forgotten. It never mattered in the first place. The girls start dancing around, and I sit on Mairi’s bed watching them. Not one of them understands. They have no idea.

That night Hadley and Mairi sleep in one of the twin beds, and Elaine and I sleep in the other. Jo Jo sleeps on the cot.

It takes me a long time to fall asleep, but I do.

I wake up the next morning to the smell of frying bacon and the sound of Mrs. Stevenson shrieking. She’s brought us a pitcher of orange juice, and she’s found the empty cans of Budweiser. We forgot to throw them away; they’re just lying there on the floor for all the world to see.

Everyone scrambles out of bed. “Mama, we were just playing around, we didn’t really drink any,” Mairi says.

“Don’t you lie to me, Mairi Leigh. And to think your father and I trusted you. We trusted you girls to conduct yourselves as ladies, even with us gone.” She shakes her head at us, and then her eyes land on me. Her thin lips tighten. “Girls, get dressed. I won’t be telling your parents about this. We’ll keep it our little secret, but this can never happen again, do you understand?”

Eyes lowered, we all murmur yes ma’am, we understand. Except for Elaine, who’s from the North and never says sir or ma’am to anybody. “You, miss, are coming with me.” She grabs Mairi’s arm and marches her out of the room.

The rest of us stare at one another helplessly. “You think she’ll tell our parents?” Jo Jo says, biting her lip. We sink back down onto the beds. Without Mairi, we don’t know what to do.

Hadley’s the first to recover. “No way. She cares too much about what the other country clubbers will think. She’d die if they found out.”

“Are you sure?” Jo Jo asks.

“Yes, I’m sure,” she snaps. “Now let’s just get dressed and get out of here.”

My mind is on that bacon. Mrs. Stevenson makes an incredible sleepover breakfast—bacon, sausage, eggs, pecan waffles. Restaurant-quality food. If I can smell bacon, she must have made all the other stuff too, Mairi’s diet be damned. My mouth waters and I say, “But what about breakfast?”