When Mae sits up, note cards containing messages from concerned strangers tumble to the floor.
Shelby sits at the base of the bed, reading them out loud. “Saw you on television. Wanted to say I admire you. Are you writing notes to yourself?”
Mae, exposed, tries to pull the blanket back up around her but the weight of her friend holds it in place. “Of course not. Those are from...fans.” Fan is not quite the right word. “How did you get in?”
“Your mom let us in as she was leaving for work.” Taylor is here, too, jabbing at her phone in the corner. “You weren't answering your texts so we got worried.”
“My mom took away my phone.” Mae's throat is dry. Had she been sleeping mouth agape? If so, she hopes nobody took a picture.
Taylor shakes her head in pity. Shelby lets out a low “oooh,” and whips out her own device. “That makes sense. Well the rumors aren't too bad.”
“Rumors?” Mae misses the feeling of her phone in her hand, the way the slip of plastic nestles into her palm.
“There's the one about how you weren't in school.”
“But I wasn't in school.”
Taylor examines her polka-dotted manicure. “Do you mean the one about how Mae wasn't in school and Ethan wasn't in school because they were having sex in his pool?”
Shelby shoots Taylor a glare. “Funny. I didn't hear that one.”
“Yeah, me neither,” but Taylor's eye roll gives her away.
Mae's blanket unavailable, she pulls a pillow over her head. “You guys should do something fun without me.” When she opens her eyes, eyelashes scrape against blue cotton. Flashback provoked, she tosses the pillow across her room.
Her friends eye Mae steadily, shock tinged with fear, the way they might behold a cancer patient or an old person. “Maybe you shouldn't spend all day in bed...” Taylor suggests.
“Taylor's right. Get your ass out of bed.” Shelby finally gets up (blessed blanket, finally up to Mae's chin) but only to thumb through Mae's tidy closet. “And put on something cute.”
Mae feels elastic wrapped around thin ankles. “My sweatpants say sexy on the ass. Isn't that enough?”
“Nice try.” Shelby holds up a navy romper. “How about this?” Taylor nods in approval.
From the closet, in which Mae dresses, she hears Taylor ask “What will you do next? I mean now that you're famous?”
“I'm not famous like actually famous,” Mae replies to the closed closet door, which reverberates her voice back at her. “I didn't do anything.”
“Who is?” Still Taylor. “Maybe you could be on a reality show.”
“That's not a bad idea,” Shelby agrees. “My dad says you need a lawyer.”
“I know a reporter.”
“I said a lawyer, not a reporter.”
“She's really nice.” The sound of rustling. (Taylor rummaging through her fringe bag.) “Here, I think I have her card in here somewhere. She's a real adult with a real business card.”
“I think the order is lawyer up, hit the gym, delete Facebook.”
Shelby opens the closet door and Mae's refuge is no more; she had been standing in the dark fully clothed for much of the conversation, wondering how long she could remain undisturbed.
Because no girl is actively looking in the direction of the bedroom window (Shelby picking out accessories and Taylor playing on her phone and Mae still hiding in the closet), none see the man on the ladder until the zoom lens of his camera rasps against glass. Reactions are universal and immediate: high-pitched squeals, scampers down the hall, general hysteria in the living room, cries of “Oh-my-god-oh-my-god-oh-my-god, who was that?”
Who he is: a portly, middle-aged man in a black t-shirt frozen atop an aluminum ladder, clutching with both hands a camera the size of a small animal. Mae flings open the front door and he initiates his oafish descent, feet first like a bear cub down a tree.
Had Mae been in possession of her phone, she would have pointed it in his direction. She would have narrated the video: Caught this weirdo looking in my bedroom. She would have photographed his face and shamed him later. But sans phone all she can do is expel a long string of curse words. The man abandons the flimsy ladder and slouches toward his van.
Back inside, having slammed the door and locked it, unlocked it, and locked it again, Mae turns to find Taylor and Shelby wide-eyed in the hall, still and silent, as if awaiting a forgotten line. “We can't stay here.”
“Let's go to my house,” says Shelby. “My neighborhood has a security guy.” Mae never expected the bored young man who sits in a little booth at the entrance to Shelby's gated community, and who once asked if they needed a drug dealer, to ever be of use.
The trio prepares for battle. They pile into the bathroom and share the streaky mirror to touch up blush, then eyeshadow. Shelby lightly contours around her nose. Mae spritzes a bun with spray. Taylor smooths serum all over her hair. Mae outlines her eyes. Shelby applies lip gloss.
“Ready?” The room smells like the lotion store in the mall. They are ready.
The girls leave with forced indifference. Heads held high, strutting toward Shelby's convertible, they ignore those who vie for their attention: the creeper in his van rolling down a window; two randos in a dark sedan. While the girls don't acknowledge these ragtag members of the almost press, they do gaze straight ahead with fully made up faces, arms on hips or angled behind them or bent to hold bags, but never lax at their sides because that photographs poorly.
They slip into familiar seats with Shelby behind the wheel and Mae buckled into the passenger side. High Street feels busy for a Tuesday evening, but it isn't until the girls try to drive away that they realize why. Taylor panics from the back seat. “We're trapped!” The sedan swoops around to the left, joining the van in front to effectively pin them against the curb. “We're totally trapped!”
Instead of shifting into reverse, Shelby shouts at Taylor to shut the fuck up. The horn blares in one painfully extended tone. But Mae can tell that Shelby is the one freaking out. Not in an obvious way like Taylor, who sits on her hands and involuntarily bounces up and down, but Shelby's knuckles clutch the steering wheel so tightly her veins bulge.
Mae regards the honking cars and shrieking friends and wakes up to a profound (for her) realization. Despite a lifetime of craving attention, of actively seeking it out, she is not having fun. The car walls close in around her. Mae holds the door at bay with one hand. She hasn't even been breathing out of her nose, but taking tiny little gasps of air from her mouth, her back pressed up against the seat.
Shelby's horn honks until the van in front of them abruptly pulls into a gravel driveway, which allows the girls to make a hard right onto Williams Street. Just as the road opens up, the sedan to their left accelerates to cut them off. Shelby slams on the brakes. Mae feels her seatbelt catch. Taylor, who isn't wearing one, flings forward onto synthetic cow print. Trembling, she leans back and buckles up. “I want to go home,” she says in a wobbly voice. “I can't take this anymore. Please just take me home. Shelby?”
“We heard you the first time.”
The sedan's passenger points a camera out the window. They slow for the photo. Shelby coldly slams one sneaker against the gas and steers haphazardly to the left, successfully passing the photographers, and she does not slow down. She keeps accelerating, all the way down Main, past the nicer pub and the police station, until she spins onto Pearville Avenue and over the Kankakee River and toward the stately neighborhood where Taylor lives. They speed past old colonials with their detailed gardens. Taylor hops out of the car before it fully stops, babbling. “I just can't do this anymore. I don't wanna be a part of this.” She slips off her heels clumsily and sprints up her front yard.
Every muscle in Shelby's body is visibly wound tight as a spring. “Do you see them?”
Mae spins to check. Greene Street stretches still behind them until it rounds a gentle corner. Leaves of expansive hickory trees flutter in the breeze. A bee, exploring flower patches at a respectable pace, buzzes softly. When it appears, the sedan moves more tentatively than before.
Tightened coils in Shelby's right leg snap. The car lurches forward, flying down Greene and over a curb, having gained a mind of its own. It squeals around a roundabout and back onto Pearville Avenue.
“I think they're gone, I think,” Mae reports into the wind. The little yellow car keeps accelerating, flying across the bridge and squealing onto River View Road. “We can slow down now!” No answer. “Shelby, slow down!”
Seat belts dig into collarbones. The wind stops. Ahead is a makeshift roadblock of orange plastic barricades stretching across the entrance to Crimson Road, the beginning of Oak Farms.
Shelby releases her grip on the steering wheel. “Sorry about that.” She opens and closes her fists in amazement.
Air, sweet and surprising, enters Mae's lungs. “No problem,” because there is no sign of the sedan. “It's just, I thought we were about to crash.”
“It's like they wanted us to crash.”
Deviating from his usual apathy, the security guard pounces into action. Sinewy arms remove barricades. He scans left and right for suspicious characters. The little convertible putters up the hill.