Chapter no 5

Little Fires Everywhere

As if the Jerry Springer episode had awakened her to Pearl’s presence, Lexie began to take a new interest in her little brother’s friend—Little Orphan Pearl, she said to Serena Wong one evening

on the phone. “She’s so quiet,” Lexie marveled. “Like she’s afraid to speak. And when you look at her, she turns bright red—red-red, like a tomato. A literal tomato.”

“She’s super shy,” Serena said. She’d met Pearl a few times, at the Richardsons’, but hadn’t yet heard her say a word. “She probably just doesn’t know how to make friends.”

“It’s more than that,” Lexie mused. “It’s like she’s trying not to be seen.

Like she wants to hide in plain sight.”

Pearl, so timid and quiet, so unsure of herself, fascinated Lexie. And being Lexie, she began with the surface. “She’s cute,” she said to Serena. “She’d look so adorable out of those baggy T-shirts.”

This was how, one afternoon, Pearl came home with a bagful of new clothes. Not new, precisely, as Mia found when she put them to wash: patched jeans from the seventies with a ribbon down the side, a flowered cotton blouse just as old, a cream-colored T-shirt with Neil Young’s face on the front. “Lexie and I went to the thrift store,” Pearl explained when Mia came back upstairs from the laundry room. “She wanted to go shopping.”

In fact, Lexie had first taken Pearl to the mall. It was natural, she had felt, that Pearl would turn to her for advice; Lexie was used to people wanting her opinion, to the point where she often assumed they did and just hadn’t quite said so. And Pearl was a little sweetheart, that was clear: those big dark eyes, somehow made to look even bigger and darker with no makeup at all; that long dark frizzy hair that, when turned loose from its braid, as she one afternoon convinced Pearl to do, looked as if it might swallow her up. The way she looked at everything in their house— everything everywhere, really—as if she’d never seen it before. The second

time Pearl had come over, Moody had left her in the sunroom and gone to get drinks, and Pearl, instead of sitting down, had turned in a slow circle, as if she were in Oz instead of the Richardsons’ house. Lexie, who had been coming down the hall with the latest Cosmo and a Diet Coke in hand, had stopped outside the doorway, just out of view, and watched her. Then Pearl had reached out one timid finger and traced a vine in the wallpaper, and Lexie had felt a warm gush of pity for her, the sad little mouse. Just then Moody came out of the kitchen with two cans of Vernors. “Didn’t know you were here,” he’d said. “We were going to watch a movie.” “I don’t mind,” Lexie had said, and she found she didn’t. She settled herself into the big chair in the corner, one eye on Pearl, who sat down at last and popped the tab of her soda. Moody pushed a tape into the VCR, and Lexie flicked open her magazine. Something occurred to her, a good deed she might do. “Hey, Pearl, you can have this when I’m done,” she said, and felt the fuzzy internal glow of teenage generosity.

So that afternoon in early October, she decided to take Pearl on a shopping trip. “Come on, Pearl,” she said. “We’re going to the mall.”

When Lexie said the mall, she did not for a moment consider Randall Park Mall, off busy Warrensville Road, past a tire place, a rent-to-own store, and an all-night day care—Randall Dark Mall, some kids called it. Living in Shaker, she thought only of where she did all her shopping: Beachwood Place, a manicured little mall set off from the street on its own little oval, anchored by a Dillard’s and a Saks and a new Nordstrom. She had never heard the term Bleach-White Place and would have been horrified if she had. But despite a trip to the Gap and Express and the Body Shop, Pearl bought nothing but a pretzel and a pot of kiwi-flavored lip balm.

“Didn’t you see anything you liked?” Lexie asked. Pearl, who had only seventeen dollars and knew Lexie’s weekly allowance was twenty, paused.

“It’s all the same stuff, you know?” she said at last. She waved a hand in the general direction of the Chick-fil-A and the mall beyond it. “Everyone shows up at school looking like clones.” She shrugged and glanced at Lexie out of the corner of her eye, wondering if she sounded convincing. “I just like to shop at places that are a little different. Where I can get something no one else will have.”

Pearl stopped, eyeing the blue-and-white Gap bag dangling from Lexie’s arm by its drawstrings, wondering suddenly if she would be offended. But

Lexie was seldom, if ever, offended: subtle implications and subtexts tended to bounce off the fine mesh of her brain. She tipped her head to one side. “Like where?” she asked.

So Pearl had directed Lexie down Northfield Road, past the racetrack, to the thrift store, where women on break from the Taco Bell down the street, or getting ready for the night shift, browsed alongside them. She had been in dozens of thrift stores in dozens of cities in her life and somehow every single one had the exact same smell—dusty and sweet—and she had always been sure that the other kids could smell it on her clothes, even after double washings, as if the scent had soaked right into her skin. This one, where she and her mother had rummaged through the bins for old sheets to use as curtains, was no different. But now, hearing Lexie’s delighted squeal, she saw the store through new eyes: a place where you could find cocktail dresses from the sixties for Homecoming, surgical scrubs for lounging on sleepy days, a wide assortment of old concert tees, and, if you were lucky, bells, real bell-bottoms, not the back-again retro ones from the Delia’s catalog but the actual thing, with wide flares, the denim tissue-thin at the knees from decades of wear.

“Vintage.” Lexie sighed and set upon the rack with reverence. Instead of the blouses and hippie skirts Mia always selected for her, Pearl found herself with an armful of quirky T-shirts, a skirt made from an old pair of Levi’s, a navy zip-up hoodie. She showed Lexie how to read the price tags

—on Tuesdays anything with a green tag was half off, on Wednesdays, it was yellow—and, when Lexie found a pair of jeans that fit, Pearl expertly pried off the orange price tag and replaced it with a green one from an ugly eighties polyester blazer. Under Pearl’s guidance, the jeans came to $4, Pearl’s entire bag to $13.75, and Lexie was so pleased that she pulled into the Wendy’s drive-through and treated them to a Frosty apiece. “Those jeans fit you like they were made for you,” Pearl told her in return. “You were destined to have them.”

Lexie let a spoonful of chocolate melt against her tongue. “You know what?” she said, half closing her eyes, as if to put Pearl in sharper focus. “That skirt would go great with a striped button-down. I’ve got an old one you can have.” When they got back to her house, she pulled a half dozen shirts from the closet. “See?” she said, smoothing the collar around Pearl’s neck, carefully buttoning a single button between her breasts for the minimum of modesty, the way all the senior girls were wearing them that

year. She swiveled Pearl toward the mirror and nodded approvingly. “You can take those,” she said. “They look cute on you. I’ve got too many clothes as it is.”

Pearl had bundled the shirts into her bag. If her mother noticed, she decided, she would say she got them at the thrift store with everything else. She wasn’t sure why but she felt sure her mother would not approve of her taking Lexie’s old things, even if Lexie didn’t want them. Mia, putting the clothes to wash, noticed that the shirts smelled of Tide and perfume rather than dust, that they were crisp, as if they’d been ironed. But she said nothing, and the following evening all of Pearl’s new clothes appeared in a neat pile at the foot of her bed, and Pearl breathed a sigh of relief.

A few days later, in the Richardsons’ kitchen and clad in one of Lexie’s shirts, she noticed Trip looking at her again and again out of the corner of his eye and adjusted her collar with a smug little smile. Trip himself was not even aware of why he was glancing at her, but he could not help noticing the little hourglass of skin her shirt revealed: the bare triangle framed by her collarbones; the bare triangle of midriff, with the delicate indent of her navel; the intermittent flash of navy blue bra above and below that single fastened button.

“You look nice today,” he said, as if he were noticing her for the first time, and Pearl turned a deep pink, right down to the roots of her hair. He seemed embarrassed, too, as if he had just revealed a fondness for a very uncool TV show.

Moody could not let this pass. “She always looks nice,” he said. “Shut up, Trip.”

As usual, however, Trip did not notice his brother’s irritation. “I mean extra nice,” he said. “That shirt suits you. Brings out the color of your eyes.”

“It’s Lexie’s,” Pearl blurted out, and Trip grinned. “Looks better on you,” he said, almost shyly, and headed outside.

The next day, Moody raided his savings and presented Pearl with a notebook, a slim black Moleskine held shut with an elastic garter. “Hemingway used this exact same kind,” he told her, and Pearl thanked him and zipped it into her bookbag. She would copy her poems into it, he thought, instead of that ratty old spiral notebook, and it gave him some comfort—when she smiled at Trip or blushed at his compliments—to know

that he’d given her the notebook that was holding her favorite words and thoughts.

The following week, Mrs. Richardson decided to have the carpet steamed, and all the children were told to stay out of the house until dinnertime. “If I see one boot print—Izzy—or one cleat mark—Trip—on those carpets, you will lose your allowance for a year. Understood?” Trip had an away soccer game, and Izzy had a violin lesson, but Lexie, it happened, had nothing to do. Serena Wong had cross-country practice and all her other friends were occupied one way or another. After tenth period, she tracked Pearl down at her locker.

“Whatcha up to?” Lexie asked, popping a white tablet of gum into Pearl’s hand. “Nothing? Let’s go to your place.”

In all her previous years, Pearl had been reluctant to invite friends to her home: their apartments had always been crowded and cluttered, often in run-down sections of town, and odds were high that on any given day Mia might be working on one of her projects—which, to an outsider’s eye, meant doing something odd and inexplicable. But Lexie appearing at her elbow, Lexie asking to come over to her house, Lexie asking to spend time

with her—she felt like Cinderella looking up to see the prince’s outstretched hand.

“Sure,” she said.

To Pearl’s delight—and Moody’s great irritation—the three of them climbed into Lexie’s Explorer and they headed down Parkland Drive toward the house on Winslow, TLC blasting from the rolled-down windows. When they pulled up in front of the house, Mia, who was outside watering the azaleas, fought the sudden but overpowering urge to drop the hose and run inside and lock the door behind her. Just as Pearl had never asked friends over, Mia never invited outsiders either. Don’t be ridiculous, she told herself. This is what you wanted, wasn’t it? For Pearl to have friends. By the time the doors of the Explorer opened and the three teenagers piled out, she had turned off the water and greeted them with a smile.

As Mia made a batch of popcorn—Pearl’s favorite, and the only snack in the cupboard—she wondered if the conversation would be hobbled by her presence. Perhaps they would sit there in awkward silence, and Lexie would never want to come over again. But by the time the first kernels pinged against the pot lid, the three teens had already discussed Anthony Brecker’s

new car, an old VW bug painted purple; how Meg Kaufman had come to school drunk the week before; how much better Anna Lamont looked now that she was straightening her hair; and whether the Indians should change their logo (“Chief Wahoo,” Lexie said, “is so blatantly racist”). Only when the subject of college applications came up did the conversation stall. Mia, shaking the pot so the popcorn wouldn’t scorch, heard Lexie groan and a thunk that might have been her forehead hitting the table.

College applications had been increasingly on Lexie’s mind. Shaker took college seriously: the district had a ninety-nine percent graduation rate and virtually all the kids went on to college of some kind. Everyone Lexie knew was applying early and, as a result, all anyone could talk about in the Social Room was who was applying where. Serena Wong was applying to Harvard. Brian, Lexie said, had his heart set on Princeton. “Like Cliff and Clair would let me go anywhere else,” he’d said. His parents were really named John and Deborah Avery, but his father was a doctor and his mother was a lawyer and, truth be told, they did exude a certain Cosbyish vibe, his father sweatered and affable and his mother wittily competent and no-nonsense. They’d met at Princeton as undergraduates, and Brian had pictures of himself as a baby in a Princeton onesie.

For Lexie, the precedent was not quite so clear: her mother had grown up in Shaker and had never gone far—just down to Denison for her undergrad before boomeranging back. Her father had come from a small town in Indiana and, once he’d met her mother at college, simply stayed, moving back with her to her hometown, finishing a JD at Case Western, working his way up from a junior associate to partner at one of the biggest firms in the city. But Lexie, like most of her classmates, had no desire to stay anywhere near Cleveland. It huddled on the edge of a dead, dirty lake, fed by a river best known for burning; it was built on a river whose very name meant sadness: Chagrin. Which then gave its name to everything, pockets of agony scattered throughout the city, buried like veins of dismay: Chagrin Falls, Chagrin Boulevard, Chagrin Reservation. Chagrin Real Estate. Chagrin Auto Body. Chagrin reproducing and proliferating, as if they would ever run short. The Mistake on the Lake, people called it sometimes, and to Lexie, as to her siblings and friends, Cleveland was something to be escaped.

As the deadline for early applications approached, Lexie had decided to apply early to Yale. It had a good drama program, and Lexie had been the

lead in the musical last year, even though she’d only been a junior. Despite her air of frivolity, she was near the top of her class—officially, Shaker did not rank its students, to reduce competitive feelings, but she knew she was somewhere in the top twenty. She was taking four AP classes and served as secretary of the French Club. “Don’t let the shallowness fool you,” Moody had told Pearl. “You know why she watches TV all afternoon? Because she can finish her homework in half an hour before bed. Like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Lexie’s got a good brain. She just doesn’t always use it in real life.” Yale seemed a stretch but a distinctly possible one, her guidance counselor had said. “Plus,” Mrs. Lieberman had added, “they know kids from Shaker always go on to do well. They’ll give you an edge.”

Lexie and Brian had been together since junior year, and she liked the idea of being just a train ride away. “We can visit each other all the time,” Lexie pointed out to him as she printed the Yale early application. “And we can even meet up in New York.” It was this last that finally swayed her: New York, which had exuded a glamorous pull on her imagination ever since she’d read Eloise as a child. She didn’t want to go to school in New York; her guidance counselor had floated the idea of Columbia, but Lexie had heard the area was sketchy. Still, she liked the idea of being able to jaunt in for a day—a morning at the Met looking at art, maybe a splurge at Macy’s or even a weekend away with Brian—and then zip away from the crowds and the grime and the noise.

Before any of that could happen, though, she had to write her essay. A good essay, Mrs. Lieberman had insisted, was what she needed to set herself apart from the pack.

“Listen to this dumbass question,” she groaned that afternoon in Pearl’s kitchen, fishing the printed-out application from her bag. “‘Rewrite a famous story from a different perspective. For example, retell The Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch.’ This is a college app, not creative writing. I’m taking AP English. At least ask me to write a real essay.”

“How about a fairy tale,” Moody suggested. He looked up from his notebook and the open algebra textbook before him. “‘Cinderella’ from the point of view of the stepsisters. Maybe they weren’t so wicked after all.

Maybe she was actually a bitch to them.”

“‘Little Red Riding Hood’ as told by the wolf,” Pearl suggested.

“Or ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’” Lexie mused. “I mean, that miller’s daughter cheated him. He did all that spinning for her and she said she’d give him her baby and then she reneged on their deal. Maybe she’s the villain here.” With one maroon fingernail she tapped the top of the Diet Coke she’d bought just after school, then popped the tab. “I mean, she shouldn’t have agreed to give up her baby in the first place, if she didn’t want to.”

“Well,” Mia put in suddenly. She turned around, the bowl of popcorn in her hands, and all three of them jumped, as if a piece of furniture had begun to speak. “Maybe she didn’t know what she was giving up until afterward. Maybe once she saw the baby she changed her mind.” She set the bowl down in the center of the table. “Don’t be too quick to judge, Lexie.”

Lexie looked chastened for an instant, then rolled her eyes. Moody darted a look at Pearl: See how shallow? But Pearl didn’t notice. After Mia had gone back into the living room—embarrassed at her outburst—she turned to Lexie. “I could help you,” she said, quietly enough that she thought Mia could not hear. Then, a moment later, because this did not seem like enough, “I’m good at stories. I could even write it for you.”

“Really?” Lexie beamed. “Oh my god, Pearl, I’ll owe you forever.” She threw her arms around Pearl. Across the table, Moody gave up on his homework and slammed his math book shut, and in the living room, Mia jammed her paintbrush into a jar of water, lips pursed, paint scrubbing from the bristles in a dirt-colored swirl.

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