COURTNEY FRANCESCI took a sip from her water glass and grimaced. Her father had personally refilled their glasses with a flourish moments earlier, and the water had diluted the vodka sheâ€™d discreetly added to their drinks from the bottle in her purse. No matter; she and Ashley would be out of here as soon as all of the guests moved into the country clubâ€™s dining room, which shouldnâ€™t be much longer.
â€œNineteen-sixty,â€ Ashley murmured, languidly twisting the ends of her long hair around her fingers. Courtney followed her best friendâ€™s gaze, watching the slender woman make her way a bit unsteadily out of the ballroom into the private dining room, where dinner would soon be served.
â€œI donâ€™t think so,â€ she said. Ashley had a special contempt for older women who dressed youngâ€”appearing nineteen from the back, sixty when they turned around. â€œSheâ€™s forty-five, tops.â€
â€œSeriously?â€ Ashley exhaled impatiently, grabbed her cell phone off the table, and pushed back her chair. â€œExcuse me? Excuse me, maâ€™am?â€ she called, her voice shifting effortlessly into the cadence she and Courtney used with adultsâ€”the â€œmake-â€™em-happyâ€ voice, as theyâ€™d been calling it since middle school, the one that convinced teachers and coaches and perfect strangers that they were nice girls, good girls.
The woman turned, a brittle smile on her lips. â€œYes, honey?â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry to bother you, but is this yours?â€ Ashley said, holding up her cell phone. Its case featured a graphic of a naked pinup girl; Ashley held her hand strategically over the cartoon breasts, whose nipples, if you looked closely, were pierced with tiny gold rings. â€œI think you dropped it when you went by.â€
The woman retraced her steps, bringing with her a faint cloud of expensive perfume. Up close you could see that her pale blond hair was stiff and unnaturally shiny. Her eyes were expressionless, her forehead Botox-smooth, and there were tiny fissures along her lips. A closet smoker, probably. And yesâ€”Ashley had been right: the woman was around sixty years old, trying to look much younger, with her bleached hair and careful makeup, her Bebe dress and platform heels.
â€œNot mine,â€ she said, pleasantly enough.
â€œOh,â€ Ashley said, faking disappointment. â€œIâ€™ll give it to Mr. Francesci. Heâ€™ll be able to find out whose it is, I bet. I hope you have a nice evening.â€
â€œYou girls did such a nice job.â€ The woman was slurring her words slightly, speaking with the exaggerated care of someone who was well on her way to intoxicated, but still self-aware enough to want to hide it. â€œAll of your parents should be proud.â€
Courtney waited until the woman had wandered into the dining room, which was beautifully lit with candles and the soft glow of the crystal chandeliers turned down low. Missa, one of her fatherâ€™s employees, who had been tasked with keeping an eye on them while they poured the â€™09 Merlot for anyone who wanted a taste, was over by the pinot table counting the remaining bottles. Courtneyâ€™s parents were standing in the doorway between the rooms, greeting their guests as they wandered in to dinner. Her mother offered her limp, cool hand and once-dazzling smile to the men and kissed the womenâ€™s cheeks, while her father clamped the arms of the men he liked and clamped harder the arms of those he didnâ€™t.
â€œProud,â€ she echoed softly. â€œSure. Letâ€™s go while we can.â€
She slipped in front of a slow-moving elderly couple, catching her motherâ€™s thin smile of disapproval, and kissed both her parents quickly. â€œI know, I know, home by midnight,â€ she said, and then she and Ashley were out of there, leaving her parentsâ€™ silent protests behind them.
Courtney remembered the boy who went to get the car. Heâ€™d been in her English class freshman year, before the Francescis left the Foothills and moved to Sonoma. Heâ€™d had acne then; he had faint scars now. An improvement, but not enough to merit acknowledging him. If he recognized Courtney, he didnâ€™t let on; he undoubtedly recognized Ashley, but wisely pretended not to.
Ashley could be brutal. But so could Courtneyâ€”at least, before sheâ€™d had to move away and start over. Now, after a year and a half at a new high school, she was still the new girl, and in the spring sheâ€™d graduate without ever having fought her way to the top. In Sonoma, sheâ€™d endured the snubs and offhand cruelty of the popular girls, the same treatment sheâ€™d once dished out without a second thought. That was why these trips back to the Foothills were so important: they reminded her what it was like not just to be someone who mattered, but to be untouchable, riding the wave that crushed everyone else beneath it. Only now it was Ashley and Siennaâ€™s wave, and Courtney was just along for the ride.
â€œHenryâ€™s?â€ she asked, slicking on another layer of lip gloss.
â€œChange of plans. His parents came back to town early, so weâ€™re going to meet by the SaveMore.â€ Ashley turned her long-lashed eyes to Courtney and smiled with a faint trace of genuine happiness that caused something inside Courtney to turn over. She remembered that expression, sort ofâ€”the way they both used to look, happy and kind of goofy, before they grew up. But it had been a long time. â€œI brought sparklers.â€
The SaveMore was a convenience store that anchored a strip mall less than a mile from the gates of the Foothills. It had been wedged into the twisting road before Montair had managed to get the zoning straightened out. Now there was nothing else along that road but million-dollar homes on two-acre lots.
Across the street from the SaveMore was a footpath that took a wandering route up the steep hillside to an abandoned farmhouse that dated back to when Montair was ranch land. There was little left but the foundation and the remains of a few crumbling walls, and a blackened pit in the center where a couple of generations of kids had built fires around which to drink and get high. The site had a couple of things to recommend it: because of the slope of the land, you couldnâ€™t see it from the road, or from any of the neighboring estates; and the view was nice, the flatlands of Montair laid out below. At night, Ashley liked to light sparklers and make dizzy loops in the darkness.
â€œI didnâ€™t really dress for that,â€ Courtney said, keeping her expression carefully neutral. She was wearing boots with high wedge heels. The weather had been warm for the last week, climbing into the high fifties each day, and the path wasnâ€™t steep, since it zigzagged up the hill. But she had been looking forward to Henry Jasperâ€™s house, where back in freshman year sheâ€™d once danced to G. Depâ€™s â€œLetâ€™s Get Itâ€ and everyone stopped what they were doing and watched, just watched her, and it was like she got all the way out of her body for a few minutes. What that felt likeâ€”if it wasnâ€™t joy, it was close, and she wanted to see if any of the feeling was still there, in the Jaspersâ€™ great room with the lights down low.
â€œWell, if you want, I could call Jack, we could go to his place . . .â€
Ashley didnâ€™t finish the sentence, but Courtney saw the choice she was being offered: Sophomore year, theyâ€™d partied with some older kids. Jack Lee was a senior back then. Heâ€™d gone to Santa Cruz and flunked out, and now he lived in an apartment building his parents owned and folded towels at a gym. Jack and his friendsâ€”ever changing, all strangely similar; the evening would end in the party room, not unpleasantly, because there would be a rainbow of pearly little pills on offer, not to mention liquor and the hot tub. She would strip to her underwear and slip into the warm nothing of the hot tub, or not. She would let some boy find the clasp to her bra, or not. Sheâ€™d go chasing numb, and she would find it.
Or, wait in the parking lot in front of the SaveMore convenience store, squint at the Pinkyâ€™s Pizza sign, and pretend it was fifth grade after a softball game, and Coach Joan was buying because they made the championships. Let that memory fade away as the cars pulled up and the girls who had been her friends spilled out, perfumed hugs and breath laced with liquor like her own, boys sheâ€™d known when they were far from grown. Everyone would pretend to be so excited to see her and she would be grateful, and theyâ€™d cross the road and climb the hill and gather around the fire fed with broken branches that the boys dragged over, and she would spend the evening clinging to the edges of the conversation, content to be silent, drinking up the dregs of what theyâ€™d once meant to her, like medicine. Ashley would flit about, lacing everyone together with her words and laughter until they made a tangled knotâ€”Ashley was outrageous and Ashley could be cruel, but with her real friends, the ones she chose to love, she could be surprisingly generous. Sheâ€™d fan up the party into full flame and then, when it got late, sheâ€™d find Courtney and theyâ€™d leave without saying goodbye, and people would remember that everything had been best when they were there, and theyâ€™d still be home by midnight.
That was one of the only rules: home by midnight, which in this case meant Ashleyâ€™s house, since Courtney was staying over. In the old days, her dad would insist on talking to Mr. Cole to be sure they were really in the house. Now, with Mr. Cole gone and Mrs. Coleâ€™s boyfriend living there, everything was different. They could probably stay out as late as they wanted. Who would ever know? More importantlyâ€”who would care?
â€œLetâ€™s go to the SaveMore,â€ she said suddenly. â€œNot Jackâ€™s. I mean, if you donâ€™t mind. I havenâ€™t seen Sienna in ages.â€
Ashley narrowed her eyes, her mouth tightening, and Courtney regretted mentioning Sienna. Maybe the two of them werenâ€™t getting along again. It was like that sometimes, since Courtney had moved away. â€œI mean, and everyone else. I justâ€”â€ Courtney let out a breath made cloudy by the cold. â€œI just want it to be us tonight, okay? Like it used to be . . .â€
Ashley nodded. If she was disappointed, which she probably was, she didnâ€™t show it. Jack would be there tomorrow, the next day, the next; it wasnâ€™t like Jack was going anywhere. And Courtney would be gone. By eleven tomorrow morning, when her parents pulled up in Ashleyâ€™s driveway, showered and shellacked, smug with the success of their kickoff Winemaker Series Dinnerâ€”because it had clearly been a success, even before the dinner was served, judging by the lines forming at the order stationâ€”Courtney would already be leaving, in bits and pieces. When it was tomorrow, even while she and Ashley lay in bed and talked, ate their raisin bagels, listened to musicâ€”the minute she woke up, Courtney would already be on her way to gone.
It was always like that. Whenever she came back to the Foothills it hit her hard, her old home reclaiming her, reminding her of everything. And when she had to leave, she felt the loss all day long, dragging out the pain of saying goodbye again.