The summer Aneka’s leg is broken, her big sister Rima has a sleepover with all of her lacrosse friends. Aneka helps her set up the blow-up beds in the basement. She grabs the pink blankets and floral comforters from the closet where her mother keeps the “good linen.” She fluffs the pillows and blows the dust off the Bluetooth speaker her Uncle Leo bought her for Christmas. Aneka is thirteen and hasn’t had a sleepover yet. Rima is sixteen and has had several.
Aneka has watched the lacrosse girls all summer. She has sat on her pool bed while they sit with their bare legs crossed at the picnic table. She has watched the sunscreen on her forearms go white beneath the water, while the sunscreen melts into the lacrosse girls’ bodies, giving their ebony skin an enhanced glow. Aneka’s father always warned them about being outside at high noon but the lacrosse girls aren’t afraid of getting “too dark.” They giggle as the spaghetti straps of their tank tops fall to reveal caramel tan lines. They spread their yoga mats on the floor and stretch their upper arm muscles to Beyoncé. They caress the shaft of their lacrosse sticks between painted nails as the little yellow ball flies across the blue sky. The more Aneka watches them the lazier she feels, wading on her pool bed in her one-piece, a bloated chili pepper. She does not fill her swimsuit the same way Rima and her friends fill any piece of clothing they put on their bodies, that perfect chest-to-waist ratio that even the loosest of gym shorts and the most unflattering of V-neck jerseys cannot hide.
The biggest part of Aneka’s body right now is the cast on her leg. It has many multi-colored signatures on it, a select few paired with hearts. One of these signatures is from blondie Stephanie Slater from homeroom, who dated blondie Bradley Daniels in grade six, and whose lacy pink underwear was always showing in her low-rise jeans. Looking at her signature doesn’t give Aneka the same satisfaction it gave her when she first got it. She thought the signatures meant new friends. She hasn’t gotten an offer to hang out with anyone, let alone Stephanie Slater, all summer.
The closest Aneka had gotten to hanging out with anybody was an invite to Bradley Daniels’ funeral back in May. The card was mailed to her directly, unlike the common choice of Facebook invites, which Aneka’s mother had said were insensitive, but Rima said were modern. The card had come in a red envelope with a stamp that had white roses on it. Aneka hadn’t been surprised. Bradley had always worn red, and worn it well, on his Green Day t-shirt, on his high-top Converse and even, for a few months in grade six, on his hair. Before he died, Aneka thought there could be no such thing as too much red.
The lacrosse girls go into the pool to cool off after practice. They wear neon string bikinis that they pull high on their waist like 1980s supermodels. They stand in a single file line that reminds Aneka of the lipsticks she’s seen on the counters at Sephora, different shades of red and pink. Rima gives Aneka her phone to take pictures of them. While the girls fluff their curls and touch up on body oil, Aneka looks at the pictures and imagines being one of them instead of herself, and what picture she would choose. She thinks about her leg beneath her cast, if it’s rotting away and everyone is just afraid to tell her. She knows a few people whose feet have rotten away by no choice of their own but at least they are pretty. They still have ponytails that they can twirl between their fingers to distract the boys from looking at any other imperfections.
Aneka had worn a red dress to Bradley Daniels’ funeral, partly because the outfit made it easier for her to tell her parents that she was just running to the mall, partly because she wanted to prove that she knew Bradley best. Maybe his mother, a pretty woman with blonde ringlets who always touched his shoulder during parent-teacher conferences, would touch her hair, which she had twisted and loosed out just for him. Maybe his mother would smile at Aneka like she was the daughter she’d always wanted, not like that Stephanie Slater, who would be wearing a tight black dress that showed off too much curve and crying a little too hysterically to be genuine. Not like that Stephanie Slater, who didn’t even have an injury to show for herself. Aneka had been through the fear, just like her son.
The funeral was held at a home in Park Slope, luckily just off the bus line by Aneka’s place, which made sneaking out much less scary. Bradley had a lot of friends, she realized, as she stood by the coffee shop just across the street from the funeral home. His family members were just as pretty as the girls he’d befriended at school. Aneka hadn’t gone inside.
Before they settle into their blow-up beds, Aneka and the lacrosse girls go to the minimart to hang out in parking lot and stare at the basketball players in the park across the street. Rima sucks on her lollipop until she is only sucking on the hard crystals that are left on the stick. There is always a boy at the end of Rima’s escapades. Tall skater types with hair that looks unwashed, eyes that always look like they are somewhere else. Aneka is okay with Rima liking these kinds of boys. A boy with a plan is not always good.
Sometimes in public Aneka wonders if people recognize her. It is very unlikely. She is neither one of the dead nor is she one of the students perched at the local council member’s office with posters covered in glitter letters about NRA and CIA and KKK. Stephanie Slater is one of those students. Stephanie Slater wears her hair crimped now. She keeps her makeup natural. She draws fake freckles on her cheeks. The news loves Stephanie Slater, with her cargo pants and her slim stomach and that low, somber voice that could get her into a bar. Adults are children and children are adults and popularity and beauty seem to go a long way in the world. Stephanie Slater has a reason to be mad. Stephanie Slater was the one who had friends and lost them, not Aneka.
When Rima and her friends gather on their beds, they talk about things Aneka isn’t supposed to hear but she will listen in anyway. Aneka is only invited to the PG parts of the sleepover, where they play Wii Sports and teach each other card games. In these moments, she will sit in the midst of them on the bed, her toes touching their toes, her thighs touching their thighs, and imagine that she is Rima, that she holds the cards. Aneka sits in the kitchen upstairs on her computer, reading fanfiction but keeping her ears peeled. She hears how Rima did something at a party last weekend that made her feel like someone had peed on her. She hears the lacrosse girls burst into laughter. She hears the lacrosse girls tell her she must be really good at something. The lacrosse girls talk about making a guy scream like they aren’t scared of it.
Aneka doesn’t know when she’ll be mentally prepared to be alone in a room in the dark, let alone with a guy. She is nervous about that part of the sleepover. She is sensitive to the quiet, or more so how the quiet will inevitably lead to noise, and what that noise is nobody can ever expect. She has put herself through tests in her bedroom closet. Rima found her crying there last week. If Rima had to run down four flights of stairs in her school to get to safety, chances are Rima wouldn’t have tripped and folded into a pretzel like Aneka did. Rima would run outside unscathed and all of the students who aren’t dead will put her in a chair and lift her up like a queen on their throne.
The lacrosse girls fall asleep while George Lopez is still playing on the television. One by one their bodies go to another place and Aneka begins making small talk to keep each person awake. Rima is the first to snore, and this heightens Aneka’s nerves a bit. She’s not sure how high on the list Bradley was, or even if it is supposed to bother her so much that he is gone. The furthest she’d gotten with Bradley was when they’d been partners in gym class. He’d spotted her while she did crunches, his forearm pressed against the tips of her athletic sneakers to keep her in form, or maybe just to keep her beneath him. His grip was much too firm but she hadn’t told him anything was wrong.
One day, Aneka thinks, she will make a guy scream the way Rima describes it. He will be unable to contain himself. It will not be her crying out for God. It will be him, mouth agape, jaw strained, reaching for her like she is his final breath. Then the Stephanie Slaters of the world will surround her, their hands clinging to her shoulders like she is the oxygen that keeps them inhaling and exhaling, over and over and over again.