Chapter no 6

Little Fires Everywhere

Pearl, true to her word, handed Lexie a typed-up essay the next week—the story of the frog prince, from the point of view of the frog. Neither Mia, who did not want to admit she’d been

eavesdropping, nor Moody, who did not want to be labeled a goody two-shoes, said a word about it. But both were growing increasingly uneasy.

When Moody arrived in the morning so they could walk to school together, Pearl would emerge from her room wearing one of Lexie’s button-downs, or a spaghetti-strap tank, or dark red lipstick. “Lexie gave it to me,” she explained, half to her mother and half to Moody, both of whom were staring at her in dismay. “She said it was too dark for her, but that it looked good on me. Because my hair’s darker.” Under the smudge of lipstick, her lips looked like a bruise, tender and raw.

“Wash that off,” Mia said, for the first time ever. But the next morning Pearl came out wearing one of Lexie’s chokers, which looked like a gash of black lace around her neck.

“See you at dinner,” she said. “Lexie and I are going shopping after school.”

By late October, as one by one applications were sent in, a spirit of celebration set in among the seniors. Lexie’s application had been submitted, and she was in a benevolent mood. Her essay—thanks to Pearl— was good, her SAT scores were strong, her GPA was over 4.0 thanks to her AP classes, and she could already picture herself on Yale’s campus. She felt she should reward Pearl in some way for her assistance and, after some thought, came up with the perfect idea: something she was sure Pearl would love, but would never get invited to on her own. “Stacie Perry’s having a party this weekend,” she said. “Want to come?”

Pearl hesitated. She had heard about Stacie Perry’s parties, and the chance to go to one was tantalizing. “I don’t know if my mom will let me.”

“Come on, Pearl,” Trip said, leaning over the arm of the couch. “I’m going. I’m gonna need someone to dance with.” After that, Pearl needed no further persuasion.

At Shaker Heights High School, Stacie Perry’s parties were things of legend. Mr. and Mrs. Perry had a big house and took frequent trips, and Stacie took full advantage. With the tension of early applications released, and weeks yet until finals, the seniors were ready for fun. All week the Halloween party was the hot topic of discussion: who was going, and who wasn’t?

Moody and Izzy, of course, had not been invited; they knew Stacie Perry only by reputation, and the invite list had mostly been seniors. Pearl, despite Lexie’s involvement, still knew almost no one besides the Richardsons, and Moody was often the only person she spoke with during school. Lexie and Serena Wong, though, had both been invited by Stacie herself, and thus had dispensation to bring a guest—even a sophomore that no one really knew.

“I thought we were going to rent Carrie,” Moody grumbled. “You said you’d never seen it.”

“Next weekend,” Pearl promised. “That’s actually Halloween anyway.

Unless you want to go trick-or-treating.”

“We’re too old,” Moody said. Shaker Heights, as with everything, had regulations about trick-or-treating: sirens wailed at six and eight to mark the start and end, and although there were no official age restrictions, people tended to look askance at teens who showed up at their doors. The last time he had gone trick-or-treating, he’d been eleven, and he’d gone as an M&M.

For Stacie’s party, though, a costume was de rigueur. Brian was not going—he had put off his early application to Princeton and, along with a handful of other procrastinators, was scrambling to finish by the deadline— so he did not factor into the calculations. “Let’s be Charlie’s Angels,” Lexie cried in a burst of inspiration, so she and Serena and Pearl donned bell-bottoms and polyester shirts and teased their hair as high as they could.

Hairdos fully inflated, they posed, back-to-back, fingers pointed like guns, and surveyed themselves in the mirror in a haze of hairspray.

“Perfect,” Lexie said. “Blond, brunette, and black.” She aimed her finger at Pearl’s nose. “You ready for this party, Pearl?”

The answer, of course, was no. It was the most surreal night Pearl had ever experienced. All evening, cars driven by skateboarders and animals and Freddy Kruegers pulled up to park at the edges of Stacie’s huge lawn.

At least four boys wore Scream masks; a couple donned football jerseys and helmets; a creative few wore long jackets and fedoras and sunglasses and feather boas. (“Pimps,” Lexie explained.) Most of the girls wore skimpy dresses and hats or animal ears, though one had transformed herself into Princess Leia; another, dressed as a fembot, hung on the arms of an Austin Powers. Stacie herself was dressed as an angel, in a silvery spaghetti-strapped minidress, glittery wings and fishnets, and a halo on a headband.

By the time Lexie and Serena and Pearl arrived at nine thirty, everyone was already drunk. The air was thick with sweat and the sharp sour smell of beer, and couples dry humped in darkened corners. The kitchen floor was sticky with spilled drinks, and some girl was lying flat on her back on the table among the half-empty liquor bottles, smoking a joint and giggling as a boy licked rum from her navel. Lexie and Serena poured themselves drinks and wriggled into the makeshift dance floor in the living room. Pearl, left alone, stood in the corner of the kitchen, nursing a red Solo cup full of Stoli and Coke and looking for Trip.

Half an hour later, she caught a glimpse of him, out on the patio, dressed as a devil in a red blazer from the thrift store and a pair of devil horns. “I didn’t think he even knew Stacie,” she shouted into Serena’s ear when Serena came back to refill her drink. Serena shrugged. “Stacie said she saw him with his shirt off after soccer practice one day and thought he was fine. She said—and I quote—he was the bomb diggity.” She took a swig and giggled. Her face, Pearl noticed, was flushed. “Don’t tell Lexie, okay?

She’d barf.” She headed back toward the living room, wobbling slightly on her wedge heels, and through the sliding-glass door Pearl watched Trip poke a redheaded girl between the shoulder blades with his plastic pitchfork. She fluffed her hair and made a plan. In a little while Trip’s cup would be empty. He would come inside and he would see her. What’s up, Pearl, he would say. And then she would say something clever to him. She tried to think of something. What would Lexie say to a boy she liked?

But as she racked her brain for something sultry and witty, she noticed that Trip had disappeared from the patio. Had he come inside, or had he left already? She wriggled her way into the living room, cup held aloft, but it was impossible to see anyone. Puff Daddy and Mase poured from the stereo, the bass thumping so loud she could feel it in her throat, then faded back to make way for Notorious B.I.G. The only light came from a few candles, and all she could make out were silhouettes writhing and grinding

in decidedly unchaste ways. She wormed her way out into the backyard, where a knot of boys were chugging beer and arguing about the football team’s chances of the playoffs. “If we beat Ignatius,” one of them shouted, “and U.S. beats Mentor—”

Lexie, meanwhile, was having a momentous night. She loved dancing; she and Serena and their friends went downtown any time clubs had a teen night—or any time they thought their fake IDs, identifying them as college juniors, would get them past a bouncer. Once they’d snuck into a rave in a disused warehouse down in the Flats and danced until three, glow necklaces ringing their wrists and their throats. They often danced together, with the ease of two girls who had known each other for more than half their lives, hip to hip or pelvis to pelvis, Lexie backing up to twitch her rear against Serena. Tonight they were dancing together when Lexie felt someone press up against her from behind. It was Brian, and Serena gave her a knowing smirk before turning away.

“You’re not even in costume,” Lexie protested, smacking him on the shoulder.

“I am in costume,” Brian insisted. “I’m a guy who just mailed his application to Princeton.” He wrapped his arms around her waist and put his mouth to her neck.

Half an hour later, the dancing and the liquor and the sweet, heady rush of being eighteen had filled them both with a feverish flush. In the time they’d been dating, they’d done some stuff, as Lexie had coyly put it to Serena, but it, the big it, had sat between them for a while, like a deep pool of water in which they only dipped their toes. Now, pressed against Brian, mellowed by rum and Coke, music pounding through both their bodies like a shared heartbeat, she was filled with the sudden longing to plunge into that pool and dive straight to the bottom. When she had been younger and less experienced, Lexie had had visions about her first time. She’d planned it out: candles, flowers, Boyz II Men on the CD player. At the very least, a bedroom and a bed. Not the backseat of a car, the way some of her friends had; definitely not in the stairwell of the high school, as rumor had it Kendra Solomon had. But now she found that she didn’t care about that anymore. “Want to go for a drive?” she asked. Both of them knew what she was suggesting.

Without speaking, they hurried out to the curb, where Lexie’s car was waiting.

By the time Lexie and Brian had gone, Pearl was back in her corner of the kitchen, waiting for Trip to reappear. But he didn’t, not by ten thirty, not by eleven. With each hour that passed, and each bottle that emptied, things got louder and looser. At just past midnight Stacie Perry herself, trying to pour a glass of water, vomited into the Brita pitcher, and Pearl decided it was time to head home. But there was no sign of Lexie, even when she fought her way through the pulsating mass of bodies in the living room.

Peeking outside, she couldn’t tell whether Lexie’s Explorer was still parked in the uneven row of cars.

“Have you seen Lexie?” she asked anyone who seemed remotely sober. “Or Serena?” Most people stared at her as if trying to place her. “Lexie?” they said. “Oh, Lexie Richardson? You came with her?” At last one girl, splayed in the lap of a football player in the big armchair, said, “I think she took off with her boyfriend. Isn’t that right, Kev?” In response Kev put his meaty hands to her face and pulled her mouth toward his, and Pearl turned away.

She wasn’t entirely sure where she was, and the vodka blurred the already sketchy map of Shaker in her mind. Could she walk home from here? How long would it take? What street did Stacie even live on? For a minute Pearl allowed herself to fantasize. Maybe Trip would come through the sliding-glass door, a crisp waft of cool air following him into the kitchen. You need a ride home? he’d say.

But of course this didn’t happen, and at last, Pearl snuck the cordless phone from the kitchen counter, ducked outside by the garage, where it was quieter, and called Moody.

Twenty minutes later a car pulled up in front of Stacie’s house. The passenger window rolled down, and from her perch on the front steps, Pearl saw Moody’s scowling face.

“Get in” was all he said.

The inside of the car was all buttery leather, soft as skin under her thighs. “Whose car is this?” she asked stupidly, as they pulled away from the


“My mom’s,” Moody said. “And before you ask, she’s asleep, so let’s not waste time here.”

“But you don’t have a license yet.”

“Being allowed to do something and knowing how to do it are not the same thing.” Moody wheeled the car around the corner and turned onto

Shaker Boulevard. “So how drunk are you?”

“I had one drink. I’m not drunk.” Even as she said this, Pearl wasn’t sure it was true—there had been a lot of vodka in that cup. Her head spun and she closed her eyes. “I just didn’t know how to get home.”

“Trip’s car was still there, you know. We passed it on the way out. Why didn’t you ask him?”

“I couldn’t find him. I couldn’t find anyone.” “Probably upstairs with some girl.”

They rode in silence for a while, those words churning in Pearl’s mind: upstairs with some girl. She tried to picture it, what happened up in those darkened rooms, imagined Trip’s body against hers, and a hot flush crept over her. According to the clock on the dashboard, it was nearly one o’clock.

“You see now,” Moody said. “What they’re like.” As they approached Mia and Pearl’s block, he clicked the lights off and pulled up to the curb. “Your mom is going to be pissed.”

“I told her I was going out with Lexie and she said I could stay out until twelve. I’m only a little late.” Pearl glanced up at the lighted kitchen window. “Do I stink?”

Moody leaned in close. “You smell a little like smoke. But not like booze. Here.” He pulled a pack of Trident from his pocket.

The Halloween party would, by all accounts, last until three fifteen A.M., and end with a number of kids passed out on the Perrys’ Oriental living room carpet. Lexie would creep home at two thirty, Trip at three, and the next day they would still be asleep past noon. Later Lexie would apologize to Pearl in a whispered confession: she and Brian had been thinking about it for a while and tonight seemed like the night and—she didn’t know, she just wanted to tell someone, she hadn’t even told Serena yet, did she look any different? She would look different, to Pearl—thinner, sharper, her hair pulled back in a drooping ponytail, traces of mascara and glitter still streaked at the corners of her eyes; she could see in the faint crease just between Lexie’s eyebrows what she would look like twenty years from now: something like her mother. From then on, it would seem to Pearl that everything Lexie did was tinged with sex, a kind of knowingness in her laugh and her sideways glances, in the casual way she touched everyone, on the shoulder, on the hand, on the knee. It loosened you, she would think; it lightened you. “And how about you?” Lexie would say at last, squeezing

Pearl’s arm. “You found your way home okay? Did you have fun?” And Pearl, with the caution of the recently singed, would simply nod.

For now, she peeled the wrapper from the gum and put it between her lips and felt the mint bloom on her tongue. “Thanks.”



Despite Pearl’s insistence that her mother wouldn’t mind, Mia minded her lateness very much. When Pearl finally came upstairs—smelling of smoke and alcohol and something Mia was fairly certain was weed—she had not known what to say. “Go to bed,” she had finally managed. “We’ll talk about it in the morning.” Morning had come, Pearl had slept in, and even when she finally emerged near noon, disheveled and sandy eyed, Mia still hadn’t known what to say. You wanted Pearl to have a more normal life, she reminded herself; well, this is what teens do. Part of her felt she should be more involved—that she needed to know what Pearl was up to, what Lexie was up to, what all of them were up to—but what was she to do? Tag along to their parties and hockey games? Forbid Pearl to go out at all? She’d ended up saying nothing, and Pearl had consumed a bowl of cereal in silence and returned to bed.

Soon, however, an opportunity presented itself. The Tuesday after the Halloween party, Mrs. Richardson stopped by the duplex on Winslow Road. “To see if you need anything now that you’re all settled in,” she said, but Mia watched her gaze roam around the kitchen and into the living room.

She was familiar with these visits, despite what leases said about limited rights of entry, and she stepped back to let Mrs. Richardson get a better view. After nearly four months, there was still little furniture. In the kitchen, two mismatched chairs and a gateleg table missing one leaf, all salvaged from the curbside; in Pearl’s room, the twin bed and a three-drawer dresser; in Mia’s room still only a mattress on the floor and stacks of clothing in the closet. A row of cushions on the living room floor, draped in a bright flowered tablecloth. But the kitchen linoleum was scrubbed and the stove and fridge were clean, the carpet was spotless, Mia’s mattress bed was made with crisp striped sheets. Despite the lack of furniture, the apartment did not feel empty. “May we paint?” Mia had asked when they’d moved in, and Mrs. Richardson hesitated before saying, “As long as it’s not too dark.”

She had meant, at the time, no black, no navy, no oxblood, though the next day it had occurred to her that perhaps Mia had meant a mural—she was an artist, after all—and you might end up with Diego Rivera, or you might end up with glorified graffiti. But there were no murals. Each room had been painted a different color—the kitchen a sunny yellow, the living room a deep cantaloupe, the bedrooms a warm peach—and the overall effect was of stepping into a box of sunlight, even on a cloudy day. All over the apartment hung photographs, unframed and tacked up with poster gum, but striking nonetheless.

There were studies of shadows against a faded brick wall, photographs of feathers clotting the shoreline of Shaker Lake, experiments Mia was conducting with printing photographs on different surfaces: vellum, aluminum foil, newspapers. One series stretched across an entire wall, photographs taken week by week of a nearby construction site. At first, there was nothing but a brown hill in front of a brown expanse. Slowly, frame by frame, the mound turned green with weeds, covered in brushy grass and scrub and, eventually, a small shrub clinging to its peak. Behind it, a three-story tan house slowly arose, like a great beast climbing out of the earth. Front loaders and trucks flitted in and out of the scene like ghosts caught unawares. In the last photograph, a bulldozer razed the dirt to even the terrain, flattening the landscape like a popped bubble.

“My goodness,” Mrs. Richardson said. “Are these all yours?” “Sometimes I need to see them up on the wall for a while, before I know

whether I’ve got something. Before I know which ones I like.” Mia looked around at the photographs, as if they were old friends and she was reminding herself of their faces.

Mrs. Richardson peered closely at a photo of a sullen young girl in a cowgirl outfit. Mia had snapped it at a parade they’d passed on the way into Ohio. “You have such a gift for portraiture,” she said. “Look at the way you’ve captured this little girl. You can almost see right down into her soul.”

Mia said nothing but nodded in a way Mrs. Richardson decided was modesty.

“You should consider taking portraits professionally,” Mrs. Richardson suggested. She paused. “Not that you’re not a professional already, of course. But in a studio, maybe. Or for weddings and engagements. You’d be very highly sought after.” She waved a hand at the photographs on the wall,

as if they could articulate what she meant. “In fact, perhaps you could take portraits of our family. I’d pay you, of course.”

“Perhaps,” Mia said. “But the thing about portraits is, you need to show people the way they want to be seen. And I prefer to show people as see them. So in the end I’d probably just frustrate us both.” She smiled placidly, and Mrs. Richardson fumbled for a response.

“Is any of your work for sale?” she asked.

“I have a friend in New York who runs a gallery, and she’s sold some of my prints.” Mia ran a finger along one photograph, tracing the curve of a rusted bridge.

“Well, I’d love to buy one,” Mrs. Richardson said. “In fact, I insist. If we don’t support our artists, how can they create great work?”

“That’s very generous of you.” Mia’s eyes slid toward the window briefly, and Mrs. Richardson felt a twinge of irritation at this lukewarm response to her philanthropy.

“Do you sell enough to get by?” she asked.

Mia correctly interpreted this as a question about rent and her ability to pay it. “We’ve always gotten by,” she said, “one way or another.”

“But surely there must be times when photographs don’t sell. Through no fault of your own, of course. And how much does a photograph typically sell for?”

“We’ve always gotten by,” Mia said again. “I take side jobs when I need to. Housecleaning, or cooking. Things like that. I’m working part time at Lucky Palace now, that Chinese restaurant over on Warrensville. I’ve never had a debt I didn’t pay.”

“Oh, of course I wasn’t implying that,” Mrs. Richardson protested. She turned her attention to the largest print, which had been stuck up alone over the mantelpiece. It was a photograph of a woman, back to the camera, in mid-dance. The film caught her in blurred motion—arms everywhere, stretched high, to her sides, curved to her waist—a tangle of limbs that, Mrs. Richardson realized with a shock, made her resemble an enormous spider, surrounded by a haze of web. It perturbed and perplexed her, but she could not turn away. “I never thought of making a woman into a spider,” she said truthfully. Artists, she reminded herself, didn’t think like normal people, and at last she turned to Mia with curiosity. She had never before met anyone like her.

Mrs. Richardson had, her entire existence, lived an orderly and regimented life. She weighed herself once per week, and although her weight did not fluctuate more than the three pounds her doctor assured her was normal, she took pains to maintain herself. Each morning she measured exactly one half cup of Cheerios, the serving size indicated on the box, using the flowered plastic measuring cup she’d gotten from Higbee’s as a new bride. Each evening, at dinner, she allowed herself one glass of wine— red, which the news said was most beneficial for your heart—a faint scratch in the wineglass marking the right level to pour. Three times weekly she took an aerobics class, checking her watch throughout to be sure her heart rate had exceeded one hundred and twenty beats per minute. She had been brought up to follow rules, to believe that the proper functioning of the world depended upon her compliance, and follow them—and believe—she did. She had had a plan, from girlhood on, and had followed it scrupulously: high school, college, boyfriend, marriage, job, mortgage, children. A sedan with air bags and automatic seat belts. A lawn mower and a snowblower. A matching washer and dryer. She had, in short, done everything right and she had built a good life, the kind of life she wanted, the kind of life everyone wanted. Now here was this Mia, a completely different kind of woman leading a completely different life, who seemed to make her own rules with no apologies. Like the photograph of the spider-dancer, Mrs. Richardson found this perturbing but strangely compelling. A part of her wanted to study Mia like an anthropologist, to understand why— and how—she did what she did. Another part of her—though she was only vaguely aware of it at the moment—was uneasy, wanted to keep an eye on Mia, as you might keep your eye on a dangerous beast.

“You keep everything so clean,” she said at last, running a finger along the mantelpiece. “I should hire you to come to our house.” She laughed and Mia echoed it politely, but she could see the seed of an idea cracking and sprouting in Mrs. Richardson’s mind. “Wouldn’t that be perfect,” Mrs.

Richardson said. “You could come just for a few hours a day and do a little light housekeeping. I’d pay you for your time, of course. And then you’d have all the rest of your day to take pictures.” Mia began searching for the right, delicate words to uproot this idea, but it was too late. Mrs. Richardson had already latched on to it with vigor. “Now, really. Why don’t you come and work for us? We had a woman who came to clean and do some dinner prep before, but she went back home to Atlanta in the spring, and I could

certainly use the help. You’d be doing me a favor, really.” She turned around to face Mia squarely. “In fact, I insist. You must have time for your art.”

Mia could see there was no point in protesting, that protesting, in fact, would only make things worse and lead to ill will. She had learned that when people were bent on doing something they believed was a good deed, it was usually impossible to dissuade them. She thought with dismay of the Richardsons, of the vast and gleaming Richardson house, of Pearl’s face when her mother dared set foot on this precious soil. And then she imagined herself safely installed in the Richardsons’ kingdom, half obscured in the background, keeping watch over her daughter. Reasserting her presence in her daughter’s life.

“Thank you,” she said. “That’s so very generous of you to offer. How could I refuse?” And Mrs. Richardson beamed.

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