I’m clearing my browser history. It’s not like anyone saw, but I still feel like someone’s watching me. Like maybe Mom has one of those computer programs they use at school to make sure you aren’t cheating – that’s what scares me the most, I think. I got my laptop from my parents. It’s mine now, but it used to be Grandpa’s before he died. I wonder if he had any programs like that. I can’t ask him because he’s dead so I’ll probably never know. Everything is really all Grandpa’s fault anyway, and even though he’s dead and Mom told me not to talk bad about dead guys, I’m still kinda mad at him.

I can’t stop thinking about the girl in the picture, and how she was making the face you make when they tell you to smile for a photo but you don’t really want to. It was the only picture on Grandpa’s computer I didn’t recognize. At a glance she looks younger than Mom, but I zoomed in and she had a ton of makeup covering the little wrinkles on her face. She was dangling a bra above her head, too. It looked like the one Mom bought me last week, just with more bows.

I’m mad at the girl in the picture, too. I hope someone steals her bra because Mom says they’re expensive and she shouldn’t have been swinging it around like that anyway.

Recently visited
How to Know if You Are Gay (With Pictures) – wikiHow
how to tell if you’re gay quiz – Google Search
how to tell if you’re gay – Google Search
Eucestoda – Wikipedia
tapeworms – Google Search

I can say the g word – gay, like Mom’s brother who I’m not allowed to see but he sends me birthday cards anyway. It’s the other one – the “l” one – that gives me trouble. Mom says it with the worst look on her face, like when she found a nest of cockroaches behind the refrigerator. She says it about girls with tattoos and girls who cut their hair like boys, which I wanted to try too until Mom said the l word. She stretches out the s like an angry snake.

Lessssssbian.

I’m pretending to do science homework when Dad walks in. The searches about the “l” word are gone – instead, I’m reading about tapeworms, which are a billion times more interesting than what we’re actually learning in class, even if the pictures make me nauseous.

“You’ve got mail, kiddo,” Dad says. I look away from the tapeworm pictures.

“From who?”

“From Susan Matlick. Think it’s an invitation. I didn’t know kids your age still sent these by mail.” Dad smiles and hands me a pink envelope with a heart on it. It reminds me of bikini girl’s bra.

I try to open it neatly, but the envelope is torn up when I get to what’s inside. It’s one of those party invitations with glitter and balloons on it, but the font’s all fancy because Susan Matlick is rich and it will probably be a fancy party. I squint to read the curvy letters.

You are cordially invited to a party at the home of Susan Matlick in celebration of her
12th birthday.
Place: 47 Worthington Drive
Time: November 26th 7:00 PM – November 27th 9:00 AM
Please bring pajamas and a sleeping bag! We hope to see you there!

I’ve only talked to Susan Matlick once in my whole life, even though we’ve been in the same class since kindergarten. I told her we had the same birthday. She said she knew that already and went to play with Heaven Miller.

“Do you want to go, Jen?” Dad asks me from behind my shoulder. “That’s your birthday, too. I thought you wanted Chinese food.”

I turn over the shiny invitation in my hand. “Not really,” I say. “I wanna go to Ichiban
instead.”

Dad smiles. “Think about it, alright?”

“Sure.”

It’s 11 o’clock by the time I go to sleep, because I’m thinking about Susan Matlick and the “l” word. I think about how Susan Matlick has hair the same color as her skin, warm and brown, which reminds me of the beach. I think about how she always sits at the front of the class and raises her hand even when she doesn’t know the answer. She never tucks her shirt in, and she sounds like a dog when she laughs – short, loud barks. I don’t remember when I learned so much about Susan Matlick. I don’t know why I did.

“You’re kinda late,” Susan Matlick says. She’s wearing makeup, sparkly makeup around her eyes, and red lipstick that’s too neat for her to have put on by herself.

“Sorry.”

“That’s okay.”

Susan Matlick takes me inside. Her house is enormous and full of glittery gold balloons and pink paper lanterns. Somewhere deeper in the house I hear girls shrieking and some song I’ve never heard before with lyrics like ooh-oh-hm-hm-hm.

It’s the kind of song I don’t think Mom would let me listen to.

“Everybody else is downstairs already,” Susan Matlick says, pointing towards the staircase. I follow her without saying anything, half because I can’t get over how huge her house is and half because I don’t how to talk to someone I barely know.

The only things on my mind are tapeworms. I guess I could tell her what I know about them now – hey, did you know that tapeworms can be twice the length of a giant squid if they live inside whales? – but she might think that’s gross and make me go home. Maybe I want to go home. I haven’t decided yet. The stairs creak behind us as me and Susan Matlick walk to where the party is.

There are only four other pajama-clad girls in Susan Matlick’s room, even though I was convinced she invited everyone in our class and that’s why I got an invitation. The first girl is Heaven Miller, of course. She has more hair than I have on my whole body, fluffy and black, but tonight it’s neatly braided with little clips at the ends. She’s kind of smiling at me, which is nice because everyone else is making the face Mom makes when our cat throws up a hairball in the laundry room. Dominique Buckley, who got to skip school for a month when her parents got divorced, leans over and whispers into Marlie Wyatt’s ear. I don’t really know Lorelei Hebert either, but last year she told me that the worst word in the world was “fuck” and if you said it you would go to hell.

“You invited Jenny?” Dominique Buckley asks, sounding betrayed.

“Shut up, Dom. It’s her party.” Heaven shoots me a look that says, I’m sorry, but I just shrug.

“Yeah, it is my party.” Susan Matlick smiles and gestures to a polka dot bean bag chair, where I sit down uncomfortably. “Which means y’all have to listen to me, okay?”

“Says who?” Dominique Buckley throws a pillow at her, but Susan Matlick catches it, laughing.

“Says me! I’m the oldest so y’all gotta do what I say. Which means presents first.”

Susan Matlick’s girl gang murmurs and nods in agreement. Marlie Wyatt turns off the radio and the room goes silent, like we’re about to perform some kind of ritual.

“So who’s gonna go first?” Susan Matlick reaches over to one of those liter-sized Coke bottles and takes a swig out of it. Some of the soda gets on her chin and drips onto her pajama top.

“I will,” Dominique announces proudly. She pulls a fuzzy black box out of her pocket and drops it into Susan Matlick’s hands. It’s one of those jewelry boxes they have on display at the mall, and I can see Susan Matlick’s eyes widen a little as she carefully takes the ring out. The ring blends in with everything else in the room, gold and pink and flashy.

“I bet that cost two of my allowances,” Lorelei whispers.

“Try three.” Dominique crosses her arms. “Mom said that counts as my Christmas present, but she’ll probably forget that by then like she always does.”

“It’s awesome,” Susan Matlick says. She’s twirling it around on her finger, looking at the rest of us expectantly. I start to sweat when I think about my present. Stupid Dominique and her stupid ring. Anyone can buy a ring.

I could buy a ring if Mom stopped taking my allowance for college and spent it on something that’s actually important.

Then Lorelei gives her her present, then Marlie, then Heaven. They’re all rich people presents, stuff like a new CD player and gift cards to boutiques I’ve never heard of.

Then it’s my turn and everyone’s looking at me.

“Um.” I grope around my duffel bag until I feel the envelope in my hand. It’s a little crumpled from the clothes I put on top of it. “Here you go.”

Dominique looks at my present, then whispers into Marlie’s ear again. Susan Matlick opens the envelope – one of those big, tan envelopes – carefully, like she can already tell what’s inside and doesn’t want to tear it up.

She stares at the picture. Everyone but me runs up behind her to get a closer look while I think about how I didn’t color the hair all the way, and that I couldn’t make both eyes the same size, so I covered one with bangs.

“This is really good, Jenny.” Susan Matlick’s eyes are bigger than they were when she saw Dominique’s ring. “How come you’re such a good drawer?”

I think about my How to Draw Anime book, which is shoved beneath my bed so Mom won’t find out there are naked people in it. “I practice,” I reply.

Susan Matlick gently puts my portrait down with the rich people presents, then stands up and stretches.

“What now?” Heaven asks. “Since it’s your party and all.”

“We should eat,” Susan Matlick says. “We have cake and Pringles and stuff.”

Dominique looks at me and is in the process of whispering to Marlie again when Heaven pushes past her, followed by Lorelei. The five of them march ahead, eager to get to the kitchen, but it feels like someone glued my feet to the carpet.

Susan Matlick liked my present.

The cake is the only thing in Susan Matlick’s house that doesn’t look like it cost a million dollars. It’s one of the same old grocery store cakes I always get for my birthday, with dry, cracked icing on top and some oozy filling that looks like Pepto Bismol. I eat a couple bites, but it’s mushy and wet and I can’t stop thinking about tapeworms and how messed up it would be if there were tapeworms in grocery store cakes, so I quietly dump it into the sink and hope no one sees it.

“We should watch a movie,” Susan Matlick says through a mouthful of cake.

“Like what?” asks Dominique.

“Like what Mom watches when she thinks I’m not around.” Susan Matlick is smirking
because she knows something we don’t. “She has, like, a ton of them. Stuff with boobs.”

“Wait!” me and Lorelei shout in unison. It was because I started thinking about bikini girl again, and I couldn’t do that with Susan Matlick in the room, and Lorelei’s dad is a preacher and watching a boob movie would definitely convince her she was going to hell.

Susan Matlick is raising her eyebrows, and I rack my brain to come up with an excuse.

“Um. I know something better.”

“Like what?”

“Like sci-fi. Like horror movies.” Dominique rolls her eyes with a groan, but Susan Matlick seems to like the idea. She licks a dab of dry icing off her lip.

“Yeah, we gotta watch somethin’ scary,” she says. “My sister says that’s what people do at sleepovers.”

Susan Matlick picked the bloodiest movie she could find, but it’s not that scary, not to me anyway. We migrated to Susan Matlick’s bedroom, which is where the TV is and also how you can really tell she’s rich. We can’t afford two TVs, and even if we could, Mom wouldn’t let me have one in my room anyway.

“Ew,” Heaven says when the blonde lady in the movie gets ripped to shreds. Dominique covers her eyes and squeals, which makes Susan Matlick laugh those short little barks again.

Marlie and I are near the back of the bed, since only the other four can fit on the edge in front of the TV. As the woman on TV is getting eaten, Marlie lowers her head and looks at me.

“Dominique was talking about you,” she whispers. The corners of her mouth are turned up, wrinkling her freckled cheeks.

“Okay.” I try not to seem interested.

“She said Susan only invited you ‘cause she felt bad that you don’t have any friends.”

“Okay.”

“She said you’re fat. Oh, and that you dress like a dyke.”

I don’t reply to that one.

When the movie ends, it’s dark outside and Dominique is asleep. Susan Matlick shoves her off the bed. “Move it, Dom. This is where I sleep.”

“You move it,” Dominique growls. They start smacking each other with pillows in a way that doesn’t seem all that friendly.

“Come on, you guys.” Heaven says, who is pulling out her sleeping bag, sticks out her arm between Dominique and Susan Matlick. Dominique’s pillow goes sailing across the room and hits the wall. “I wanna sleep.”

Susan Matlick’s room is big, but not big enough for my sleeping bag to fit on the floor
without my feet being in someone else’s face. I put the sleeping bag back in my duffel bag and sit in the corner, telling myself I probably won’t sleep anyway. In the quiet that’s fallen over Susan Matlick’s bedroom, I hear a fast, tiny whisper.

“Oh my God, Lorelei, would you shut up? Not everybody wants to hear you pray,” Susan Matlick hisses from her bed. Lorelei finishes with a hushed amen and the room is quiet again. I put my head down against my knees and think about how Dad has leftover Chinese food for me and that soon it’ll be like none of this ever happened. I think about how Dominique Buckley will find other girls to call dykes and Susan Matlick will wear her new ring to school while my picture gets buried under loads of squishy uneaten birthday cake.

It’s not morning when I wake up, but I think I can hear birds. The birds sound like they’re coming from just outside – then from Susan Matlick’s room. Then from Susan Matlick, crying in her bed.

I don’t know what to do, but I stand up and tiptoe around the other girls without really
thinking about it. Standing above Susan Matlick’s bed makes me feel like the monster in the movie, about to chew off the crying girl’s face. I tap Susan Matlick’s shoulder, then tap it harder.

I hear the sheets shift and I can tell she’s looking at me through the dark.

“W-what do you want?”

“Are you okay?”

I hear her inhale, her voice still all shaky. “I’m so mean, Jenny. I’m mean to you and Dom and all my friends and my mom and I don’t know why. I don’t know why I hit Dominique and told Lorelei to shut up. I don’t know why I’m so mean.” She pauses. “Can y-you get in my bed with me?”

My brain feels like TV static, like I’m not really moving at all. I slide under the sheets.
Susan Matlick hiccups and holds my hand. I give it a squeeze.

“I don’t think you’re mean,” I tell her.

She takes another shaky breath.

“Isn’t today your birthday too, Jenny?”

My stomach starts bouncing like it’s full of rubber balls.

Susan Matlick remembered my birthday. It’s dumb, but I pull up the fluffy pink quilt so she won’t see me smile.

“Yeah, it is.”

“Then it can be our birthday party. Not just mine. We can stay up late ‘cause we’re twelve and everybody else is still eleven.” Susan Matlick’s eyes are shining in the dark, like a cat’s. “We’re the birthday queens!”

We don’t let go of each other’s hands, even when we fall asleep. That’s when I have a dream about me and Susan Matlick, and how, because we’re the birthday queens, we get our own castle. Our thrones are pink and gold, and I spend all day drawing pictures of her, finished pictures like the ones in my book. The whole time, I can’t think of any place I’d rather be.

“You have a good time, Jen?”

I’m still thinking about the party and last night and how I for real held Susan Matlick’s hand.

“I guess.”

We had donuts for breakfast and then Susan Matlick had to go to church, so we had to go home.

I watched Heaven leave with her dad, then Marlie, then Lorelei. Then it was me and Susan Matlick alone in her shiny kitchen.

“How come you invited me?” I asked her.

Susan Matlick’s eyes swerved towards me, but she didn’t say anything. There was a tiny smile on her face.

I heard Dad’s car rumble into Susan Matlick’s driveway and left without saying another word.

“I got chicken stir fry for you yesterday – that’s the kind you like, right?” Dad looks at me out of the corner of his eye. I nod, but I’m not thinking about stir fry or anything else except the feeling of Susan Matlick’s hand in mine.

Then I get home, and I eat my stir fry, and I write the “l” word in my sketchbook until I run out of the room.