Mae Brady, arm stretched long, examines her face in the screen of her phone. She tilts her head slightly, a minuscule motion that shifts one cheekbone toward the sun. Light bounces off creamy bronzer. Adding a slight smile to enhance the effect, she flexes the muscle below her lower lashes just enough to make her eyes sparkle. Behind her lies the shabby yet familiar blue exterior of her mother's house. Mae pulls the camera in to crop out some chipping paint and click. She rises and heads toward her friends.
Shelby Cho listlessly applies rose lip gloss for the third time this morning. “Morning stoop selfie?” The butter-colored convertible she received as a sixteenth birthday present idles in Mae's driveway—the newest car on the block. Inside, an air freshener smelling of coconuts dangles from the rear-view mirror, an impulsive purchase advertised as the scent of summer, though outside still smells like real summer: an amalgam of freshly cut grass, sunscreen, car exhaust, and the occasional whiff of honeysuckle.
“To go with my eyeliner tutorial.” Mae slides into the passenger seat. “I had to take a pic before it melts.” Flat Illinois humidity feels most oppressive in late August, when the school dress code outlaws all weather-appropriate clothing.
“I do love your eyeliner, boo.”
“Thanks!” Mae's manicured nails flit across her phone. “The video's up now.” Her brief beauty tutorials are a recent project. She likes to point out that, three weeks in, her personal channel has nearly five hundred fans. “I've almost got five hundred fans, isn't that great? Ooh, someone just commented.”
Taylor Duncan yawns from the backseat. “Coffee, anyone?” A rhetorical question. The girls stop at Pearville Cafe every morning before school, where they stir milk into drip coffees until they resemble lattes. She yawns again, this one simulated, and still no responses from the girls in the front seat.
“You're so productive in the mornings.” Shelby lunges through the last stop light on High Street.
Mae stresses that “mornings are so important. You get so much done. Like today, I woke up at five and ate a bowl of Sugar Loops, painted my nails, did five sun salutations, and recorded this video, all before seven.”
“I can hardly get up in time to do my hair.” Taylor's voice rises in an effort to elicit a response. “Spanish II homework took me forever last night, probably because I've forgotten everything from Spanish I. You know we have to give presentations this year?”
“Presentations are easy. Just repeat the same few key phrases over and over in different voices.” Shelby brakes in front of the cafe's striped awning. Up ahead, a train rumbles toward Chicago. “Save a place in line, would you?” Taylor steps out obligingly.
It's Mae who discovered the coffee shop, during the summer before eighth grade. Back then she didn't know Taylor or Shelby or anybody, having just moved to Pearville from a two-stoplight town eighty miles away. Balancing on her bike outside the artfully decorated door, she marveled at the customers leaving with lattes in hand—adults who didn't seem tired, like her mother, but young and vibrant. Mae came often after that, to order an orange soda and perch on a stool. She observed office workers, families, kids on dates, and she noticed that some people spoke faster and clearer than others, and those fast talkers were, not incidentally, also the people who seemed to be going important places. At home Mae practiced the way they ordered, forcing her mouth into a foreign, vertical alignment. “A soy macchiato, please. A sOY macchiATO, please.”
On this ordinary Tuesday the warm lighting, piped in piano music, and reassuring wafts of roasted coffee fill Mae with ease. Men in light blue shirts and dark pants manage to end conversations with their headsets. Women in black sheath dresses and heels flip through phones silently. As indication of the trio's maturity, the only other high school students in line are two seniors, one of those couples always in the midst of a continuous make out session, who pull their faces apart just long enough to order iced coffees in unison. Behind them, Shelby gazes longingly at the croissants, though she has not eaten one since she began forming hips in ninth grade. Taylor digs for change buried at the bottom of her backpack. Mae checks for new comments. They are predictably flattering.
wish I could pull this off
Teach me your ways.
West of the coffee shop and the train station, Pearville High School dominates Main Street with its steel-framed spheres connected by winding patches of blue glass windows. It's the newest structure in town and the nicest building Mae has ever seen up close. From outside the effect is sleek, like an office building or a mall, but inside all those windows cast blinding patches of light against single walls, one of which is covered in neon flyers advertising guitar lessons; the annual science fair; a reminder about the homecoming dance. Strutting past the bulletin board with her coffee, Mae only slows when she spots a perky girl, industrial tape gun in hand, taping a massive poster next to those flyers. Someone who means business. The words VOTE peek out above the girl's messy bun.
Abby spins her head around. “Mae!”
Mae and Abby are not friends. “Are you running for something?”
“Me? Gosh, no! Just taping this up for Ethan.” Abby steps aside to show off the poster. “How does it look? I don't know if you heard, but we're actually back together, so.”
“Interesting.” Abby's somewhat pathetic relationship with Ethan Harrington does not interest Mae, but the poster does. It features an oversize picture of Ethan's face, obviously taken himself with his phone, then downloaded from the internet, pasted into photoshop, blown up, and printed on thick card stock. He wears a confident smile above a strong jaw. Thick hair blows in the wind. Water stretches behind him; the picture, upon closer examination, was taken on a boat. VOTE ETHAN HARRINGTON FOR SCHOOL PRESIDENT, the poster implores simply, needing no details when accompanied by a face like that. “Why not run yourself?” Mae asks. “Why let your boyfriend have all the fun?”
Abby jams the tape gun into her massive hobo bag. “Why would anybody vote for me when they could vote for Ethan?”
“Why would anybody vote for Ethan?”
“Because they always do?” Abby seems confused. “Who else would they vote for?”
The first bell rings, and still Mae stares at Ethan's mouth (which, she knows, is fond of ugly words) twisted into a self-satisfied smile: the unselfconscious countenance of someone who expects to win; who knows his rightful place in the world is on top; who never expects to be toppled.