Mid-October wrapped its orange arms around southeast Pennsylvania, and the sweaty hallways of Oley Valley High School, where Cassidy Angstadt waded through the start of her freshman year, went from smelling like warm vanilla sugar to sweet cinnamon pumpkin. Cassidy had been hunting for something a little fancier than Bath and Bodyworks body spray, so after play practice one day, she scoured her older sister’s empty bedroom. With Abbie a freshman at Bloomsburg University, Cassidy hoped her sister left behind some more mature scraps of makeup and perfume.
Cassidy never expected to find the directions to a pregnancy test.
It couldn’t be Abbie’s. There was no way Mom and Dad’s perfect daughter could be pregnant. Even though she didn’t live there anymore, her room was still immaculate, the unused bed made neatly with hospital corners and all. Cassidy found the little sheet of instructions underneath the white dresser, where she had been digging for lost jewelry (she didn’t find any; Abbie guarded all her stupid, fake pearl earrings and necklaces like a dragon).
On the wall above the dresser, Abbie had created a perfect collage of pictures she had taken with friends over the years, arranged in color order to create a rainbow of memories that made Cassidy’s mess of photos from her middle school plays and theater camps look like entropy (entropy was a vocab word that week).
It was then Cassidy noticed that the collage was Swiss cheesed with missing pictures. Phil. Clutching the pregnancy test directions, Cassidy connected the dots in her mind: her sister had removed every picture she had taken with Phil, her ex-boyfriend as of three weeks ago.
Abbie and Phil dated for four years, ever since they went to the Oley Fair together when they were freshmen. Phil wore actual cologne from Calvin Klein, not Axe or Bod. He looked like an Aeropostale model with his spikey blonde Ryan Cabrera hair and gorgeous smile as white as his puka shell necklace. He played the guitar and got a scholarship to Temple University in Philadelphia, and everyone in school thought he and Abbie would get married. Sure, Abbie might’ve changed drastically when she began dating him, withdrawing and shoving Cassidy out of her life where she’d always been welcome before. But at least Phil had always been nice to Cassidy, even when Abbie didn’t want him to be, like the time he had extra tickets to Hershey Park and invited Cassidy and Brandon, her best friend and next door neighbor.
Brandon would know what to do. Cassidy was halfway through texting him on her flip phone when she remembered he’d just returned from a chess tournament in New York City (for which he’d been training for the past six months) and was probably exhausted. Oh yeah, and currently, he hated her guts, but she deserved that. They hadn’t talked since the fair, which was almost three weeks ago, and it had been agony. Before the fair, Cassidy had been one hundred and fifty percent positive he would ask her out. Now … well, none of that mattered now.
She snapped her phone shut with a sigh and looked around the room, still gripping the sheet of instructions. She had to think like Brandon would, like he was looking at a chess board. She spent a solid twenty minutes tearing the room apart and then putting it back together as neatly as Abbie would have. Her efforts fruitless, she flopped onto the bed and flung her arm over her eyes. Heck, she didn’t even know if Abbie and Phil had done it yet, though they must’ve. How could they date for so long and not? When she got a boyfriend, well, she was sure she wouldn’t “wait until marriage” like some people said.
She lifted her arm and started to read the instructions again. Just when she was about to call it quits, something caught her eye: one of the tiles of Abbie’s drop ceiling was ever-so-slightly askew. Cassidy leapt to her feet. She grabbed the desk chair and steadied it on the bed, and then climbed on top, standing on her tiptoes until she was high enough to pop the ceiling panel out of place. She balanced herself on the wobbly chair and felt around inside the ceiling.
She didn’t find a single pregnancy test.
She found three of them.
She snatched them from their dusty little spot and tumbled back onto the bed with them in hand (gross, she knew, because they had been peed on). Every one of them was positive with little orangey-pink plus signs. She may have been a theatre nerd, but this was drama she was unprepared to handle.
Downstairs, the front door opened and slammed shut.
Three weeks before Cassidy found the pregnancy tests, drama was the only thing on her mind because it was fair time, which meant something exciting was finally happening. Other schools in the county had homecoming, but without a football team, Oley’s homecoming was pathetic at best. Instead, they had the Oley Fair, which was a million times better than anything else in the county, even Governor Mifflin’s Community Days in July or the Reading Fair in August. It was the quintessence (vocab word!) of autumn in Berks County.
When Abbie got home, Cassidy had about three seconds with her before Phil pulled up in his Jetta. Abbie ran outside to greet him, her perfect blonde hair streaming behind her like ribbons. Cassidy watched from the window.
But instead of kissing, Phil said something Cassidy couldn’t hear, and Abbie freaked out. “Are you breaking up with me?” she shrieked.
Cassidy watched their ensuing argument with her nose against the window until Phil got back in his Jetta and spun out of the driveway and down the street of their development. “We were supposed to be perfect!” Abbie hollered after him, but he was already at the stop sign so he probably didn’t hear her. Abbie stood on the lawn with her arms wrapped around herself.
Cassidy ran upstairs and IMed Brandon, her frantic fingers pounding her keyboard. While she waited for him to reply, she checked Phil’s away message. It said I’m not a perfect person, there’s many things I wish I didn’t do </3 in 18 pt. navy Times New Roman. Oh my god, it really was over!
Omg, Brandon finally responded after a full minute, will she still take us to the fair?
idk ill ask, Cassidy typed back. She heard Abbie slam her door, and she tiptoed out of her own room and knocked softly. When Abbie didn’t say anything, she opened the door and peeped inside. “Hey Ab. You okay?”
Abbie was sitting on her bed, legs folded, back straight. It took her a moment to tear her eyes from the collage on the wall. She gripped the hem of her maroon American Eagle sweater in her French manicured fingers and snapped her head to the door. “I’m fine.”
Feeling awkward, Cassidy stared at the ground. How did Abbie keep her carpet so clean? “I guess this means we’re not going to the fair, huh? I mean, I totally understand, but…”
“Oh, we’re going to the fair.” Abbie’s eyes were on fire.
“Omigosh, really?! Then can I borrow your sweatshirt? The Hollister one next to you?” she asked, and Abbie responded by throwing the sweatshirt at her and grabbing her keys off the bed.
Abbie said nothing the whole drive to the fair, even when Brandon tried to cheer her up. Sometimes, Cassidy got jealous of how Brandon smiled unconsciously around her sister but never around her. Or how he would hold the door open for Abbie or offer to help her out with stuff like math homework or html. But tonight, Abbie needed this, and he did get her to smile once, so Cassidy was glad for that.
As Abbie drove, her temperament seemed to shimmer like hot air above a car hood in July. She glanced in her rearview at Cassidy and Brandon a few times, and Cassidy could see the hint of craziness in her eyes. It was terrifying, like being out in an open field right before a thunderstorm and feeling every hair rise with the threat of impending lightning. And then, Abbie would calm down and the air would clear for a few moments before the cycle started again and swallowed her in a silent, fervent rage. Even when she looked totally normal, there was still something slightly unhinged in her movements, in the way she flicked on her turn signal, in her glances to the backseat. She looked like she was going to do something dangerous and destructive.
They parted ways as soon as they got to the fair, and Cassidy and Brandon spent the majority of the night talking about the breakup as they rode the rides and ate sloppy joes and pierogis together. As evening fell, the lights from the Ferris wheel Cassidy and Brandon rode together made Brandon’s brown eyes glow like the northern lights, which Cassidy had never seen but learned about in science last year. They caught glimpses of Abbie as she wandered around with high school friends, and they ran into her in Cider Alley while she was buying apple cider made by the seniors in Ag Bio that year, but she bounced around like nothing had happened.
Two or three hours of fun later, as they were stocking up on foot long pixie sticks and giant Hershey bars from Candy Alley, Brandon was quiet. His thick chestnut hair fell into his eyes. When they were kids, Brandon had been as much of an outcast as Cassidy, the both of them nerds, but now, with the recent articles about his chess title in the Reading Eagle and Philadelphia Inquirer, and with how he had grown his hair out and gotten new, trendy glasses and finally had his braces removed … well, Cassidy knew for a fact that she had competition, like Zoe Lipton, the only girl in their grade with a belly button piercing, who, as of July, signed all her Xanga posts with “<3 <3 B” (Cassidy wasn’t stupid. She knew what that meant).
They waited in line to pay and she watched him fiddle with his lucky chess piece, a black queen he usually kept in his pocket, its little crown chipped. It was from his first ever chess set, which he got for Christmas in first grade. “Do you think Abbie’s okay?” he asked, his voice soft.
“I dunno. She looked okay, I guess.” Cassidy contemplated whether to start eating her candy in line or wait until they could find a place in the grass near the bandstand to watch the sweaty Elvis impersonator gyrate his pelvis around stage and chow down like they did last year.
“She said on her MySpace she thought Phil was gonna propose tonight because their very first date was to the fair. She made one of those sparkly gifs for it and everything.”
“Oh. Wait, you have a MySpace?” Cassidy wasn’t allowed to have a MySpace until she was sixteen years old even though Abbie had one at fifteen. Her parents didn’t know about Cassidy’s Xanga, but it wasn’t like she was doing anything wrong.
“No, but I check Abbie’s sometimes,” Brandon said.
“Oh,” Cassidy said again. Luckily, the line lurched forward and it was time for her to pay, so she could search her pockets for quarters to keep from fixating on the fact that she could barely get Brandon, who was so preoccupied with chess and his upcoming tournament, to even glance at her Xanga, and yet he apparently checked Abbie’s MySpace enough to know what was going on in her life.
They lugged their plastic bags of candy to the bandstand. Cassidy had already started on her Cookies and Cream bar and was about to suggest they go see if prizes had been awarded for the best vegetables yet over in Ag Alley, but when she nudged Brandon, he was distracted by something. At first, she thought he was gawking at Zoe Lipton, who was waggling her hips as she sauntered and danced around a group of sophomore guys. Brandon was supposed to be hanging out with her, not ogling Zoe Lipton—but then she saw who he was really watching: Abbie.
Together, they watched her walk through the crowd, alone for the first time that night, her gaggle of high school friends nowhere in sight. If she was a ghost, she would’ve floated right through people, Cassidy thought as she slipped around the tilt-a-whirl and out of sight. Her hair and face both looked dark and harsh, like she had been carved into an old tree.
“Do you mind if I go talk to her?” Brandon asked, and he looked so eager that Cassidy couldn’t say no. “You’re honestly the best, Cass,” he said when she nodded and waved him off.
“You owe me a milkshake!” she called as he skittered away, weaving through the throng of classmates in the direction Abbie had gone. Did he really think she was the best? Did he know she was tingling and effervescent (vocab word!)?
Fifteen minutes passed, then twenty. She stopped eating candy after her third pixie stick made her nauseous and jittery. Where was Brandon? She didn’t even know if he had found Abbie, but she had seen Zoe Lipton going the same direction she’d seen Brandon go, and so finally, after twenty-five minutes of speculation, she stood up, dusted off her jeans, and went looking for him, her pockets still stuffed with candy.
She searched for a while, checking Comfort Lane and Soda Alley, but he was still nowhere in sight. In fact, she found Abbie just as she sat on a curb in Dairy Lane before she found any sign of him.
“Have you seen Brandon?” she asked, feeling like she towered over her sister.
“Why would I have seen Brandon?” Abbie snapped. She held her maroon sweater in one arm and tugged her jeans up with her other, and she sounded winded, though she had been circling the fair all night like a turkey buzzard.
The smell of the cows from the stables was suffocating. “He was looking for you.”
The mantle of happiness that Abbie had worn earlier that night was gone. Her blue eyes were wide and her shoulders were slumped. For the slightest moment, the Abbie who Cassidy had grown up with was gone, replaced by a stranger who, far from the glittering lights of the rides across the fair, looked hollow, her eyes two smoldering rings in the orange streetlight overhead. She didn’t blink, but looked at the ground, and somehow conveying that no matter what, she would never be able to escape the events of the day, that whatever had happened had consumed part of her; Cassidy didn’t know which part, but she was suddenly too scared to ask. Abbie rubbed her forearm with a bony hand, and her French manicure made her nails appear bloodless.
“I think I saw him near the Commercial Building,” she said.
If Cassidy was an artist, she would’ve drawn the words coming out of Abbie’s mouth as cigarette smoke, because that’s what they sounded like. She nodded and thanked her sister, and said they’d be ready to leave soon.
Sometimes, groups of people sat behind the Commercial Building (where roofing companies and churches stood at boring stands and tried to get parents to sign up for stuff) because it was the farthest away from the lights, which meant the most private. She didn’t know why Brandon would be back there, but when she passed Zoe Lipton coming through the exhibits inside the Commercial Building, she felt her scalp prickle with curiosity.
Cassidy circled around the building, squinting as her eyes adjusted to the dim light from up on the corner. She saw an old wooden fence at the end of the building, flanked by an overgrown bush. Behind the bush was the famous Oley Valley Fair sign with its Pennsylvania Dutch slogan, Kumm Fer en Gutte Zeit, in a fancy yellow font, and beneath that was the translation in plain white letters: Come for a Good Time. A car passed on the road behind the bush and what she could see of the letters on the sign looked like they were glowing.
She made out Brandon’s shape in front of the bush. He was putting on his sweatshirt. No, not his sweatshirt. That was on the ground, next to his belt—he was putting on his t-shirt.
“Cassidy!” he said, knocking his glasses off.
“Your shirt’s on backwards,” she said, kneeling to grab his glasses off the ground. Her breath got stuck in her throat. “What were you doing?”
He ripped the shirt off, his smooth, bare chest rising and falling in the orange light. “Nothing! I-I was just trying to cool off!”
“I’m not an idiot. I-I saw Zoe Lipton.” She understood with sweeping realization the betrayal Abbie was going through with Phil.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, but that only made Cassidy feel worse.
He snatched his glasses from her, scooped up his belt, and wriggled into his sweatshirt without a word. He refused to look at her. “Did you make out with her? Or—or more?” she asked, and the tears rolled down her cheeks.
“If you wanted to make out with someone, you could’ve just asked me, I-I-I would’ve done it! You know how I feel about you!” Once the sobs started, they didn’t stop. “But with Zoe?!”
His hands shook as he threaded the belt through the loops of his jeans. “So what if I did, Cassidy? It’s none of your business! Why are you always so annoying?” He had never yelled at her before. Brandon ran both his hands through his hair and grunted in frustration. “We’re not dating. I never want to date you! God, just leave me alone!”
Cassidy watched him storm away through a hot haze of tears. All she could smell was cotton candy and funnel cake and the gasoline-powered rides, which seemed far away now, and she couldn’t help but notice how the orange streetlight that glinted off his glasses made his face look just as hollow as Abbie’s.
As soon as Cassidy got home from the fair, after the most silent car ride of her life, she went upstairs and logged onto Xanga, where she clicked “new post,” and began typing furiously. When she was done, she read her post over once. “So apparently I found out that B lost his v-card (and no it wasn’t with me, ew you pervs). If you see him in school next week, ask him about what he and Zoe IceTea did at the fair.” She winced at her embellishment but decided to go ahead with it—Brandon made her hurt and she had no problem doing the same. Who cared if she didn’t know if he and Zoe actually, y’know, did it?
The top of her scalp itched and she felt like a giant hand was pushing down on her—what she was doing was wrong, sure—but she ignored everything and hit the publish button. She could always delete it in the morning.
When she was done, she turned her computer off and lay in bed, fully clothed, on top of her quilt, staring into the darkness, her face stiff from her earlier tears. The walls were thin enough that she eventually fell asleep to the soft sound of Abbie crying into her pillow in the room over.
Cassidy’s Xanga post reached way more people than she thought it would, receiving fifty comments by Sunday morning. Brandon with his chess titles was the closest thing Oley Valley High School ever had to a celebrity.
When he walked into the cafeteria the Monday after the fair, a few of the upperclassmen Brandon had befriended stood up and clapped for him, their shouts of excitement echoing off the fluorescent lighting overhead.
Brandon looked around, eyes wide behind his glasses, searching for help. The shouts of encouragement hit him like they were physical blows. Cassidy met his eyes with what she could only hope was her steeliest gaze and then looked away. He skittered out of the cafeteria, clutching his lunchbox with both hands.
He stayed home for a few days that week and refused to talk to her, even when Cassidy brought him his homework. She deleted the post on Xanga that Tuesday, but even three weeks later, he ignored her in every class until he left for his tournament, and all she could say to that was whatever.
But now, after finding these pregnancy tests in Abbie’s ceiling, Cassidy really needed help. When she heard the front door slam, she shoved the positive pregnancy tests into her bra before shoving the instructions in her pocket.
Abbie was in the living room, her duffel bag at her feet. Her cheeks and neck were blotchy and her eyes were red; she looked like she hadn’t ever smiled in her life, like her face was too heavy to smile. She acknowledged Cassidy’s presence before taking off her sweater, the same maroon one she had worn to the fair, and throwing it on the ground. Without a word, she curled up on the couch.
Cassidy sat on the chair across from her, but did not make eye contact. The pregnancy tests burned against her skin. She wondered if it was because of the pee.
“Where are Mom and Dad?” Abbie asked.
“Grocery shopping. Are you okay?”
The question created fresh tears in Abbie’s eyes. Cassidy’s chest tightened when her sister’s face crumpled. She bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood.
“Ab, I found something,” she said, handing Abbie the pregnancy test instructions. Abbie didn’t look mad or angry or sad at all. When she reached for the piece of paper, Cassidy caught a whiff of her perfume (Euphoria by Calvin Klein) and longed to smell like that. Their hands touched—Abbie’s were freezing. She looked the paper over and handed it back to Cassidy.
“Did you tell anyone?” she asked.
“No. Are you pregnant? Does Phil know? Are you gonna get back together?”
Abbie’s face was smooth like the surface of a frozen lake. Cassidy couldn’t tell if it was intentional or not, but she pressed her hands to her pelvis. “No. I’m not pregnant.” There were no tears. “Can you please go away now? I need some time alone.”
Cassidy’s head spun—not pregnant? She had three pregnancy tests that proved otherwise! How could she be pregnant then but not now? “Sure. Sorry. I’m, uh, gonna go on a walk. Can I borrow your sweater?”
Abbie curled up into an even tighter ball, now clutching her stomach and wincing in pain. She said nothing, and Cassidy took this as a cue to slip into the still-warm sweater. Without another word, she took her house key from the hook by the door and went outside.
She arrived on Brandon’s porch minutes later.
“Listen, I know you’re not talking to me, and I understand,” she sputtered when he answered the door. “But I need your help, and I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t an emergency.”
She stood outside of the gray screen door, trying to make out whatever emotions were on Brandon’s face. “Also, how did your chess tournament go?”
“I lost in the first round. What do you want?”
“Can we go inside?”
“No. Tell me here.”
She ignored the pain in her chest, stuck her hand under her shirt, whipped out the pregnancy tests, and shoved them against the screen. “I think Abbie’s pregnant, but I asked her and she said she wasn’t. I mean, she’s obviously lying, or else she got…” The solution dawned on her as she spoke. “Oh my god, do you think she got an abortion?!”
Brandon jerked the screen door open with a violent tug. He swayed. “What?”
He was supposed to be the one helping her figure this out, not the other way around. He was a chess champion—all he did was figure things out!
“I found these hidden in Abbie’s room, and they say she’s pregnant, but she said she’s not. How can that be if she didn’t have an abortion?”
“Pregnant?” Brandon whispered. Cassidy looked up and saw herself in the reflection of his wide eyes. The heat rolled off his body and barreled into her.
“Yes! See look, the test’s instructions say there’s a 99% accuracy, and she took three! That’s gotta be over 100% statistically. Look—” She reached into the pocket of Abbie’s sweater, looking for the instructions to the pregnancy test, forgetting that she stuffed them into the pocket of her jeans. Her hand brushed against something hard. She pulled the object out and studied it.
It was a chess piece. A black queen. Missing a chunk out of the top.
Brandon’s lucky chess piece.
She could not understand what this was doing in the pocket of the sweater Abbie had worn to the fair, but the longer she stared at it, the piece shining in her palm like ink, the more images rushed to her head. Abbie in the sunken light of Dairy Lane, her eyes wide and somehow gruesome. Brandon’s belt lying on the ground, his naked chest heaving with unseen tears in the orange streetlight. He had gone to find Abbie. Abbie knew where he had been.
“Brandon,” she breathed. “You and Abbie—”
His face was the same shade as the clouds that stretched across the overcast sky. “I tried to cheer her up,” he said.
“But—but she’s 19, and you’re 14 and—”
“I just wanted to help, Cass!” He yanked at his hair, the motion knocking his glasses askew. He turned away. “She said she was upset and I asked if I could help and she kissed me and said it was okay and—” His words were strangled, and his back was bent with despair.
“She’s my sister.”
His eyebrows knit together. “I didn’t want to do it!”
The fury dripped out of Cassidy until she couldn’t feel her face. “What did she do?” she said, though she couldn’t taste the words as they left her mouth. But, holding the pregnancy tests in one hand and Brandon’s chess piece in the other, she already knew. Brandon clutched the doorjamb until his knuckles turned white. His shoulders were hunched. He looked like he was going to turn and say something else, but the only thing to leave his body was a sob. He took off his glasses and covered his face with his hands.
Cassidy juggled the objects she was holding and put her hand on his shoulder, but he wrenched himself away and slammed the door before she could say anything else. Her pain from a few weeks ago when she’d posted about him on Xanga seemed miniscule now. As angry as she had been, she could see this was destroying him.
“Brandon, please,” she whispered. She couldn’t breathe for a moment, so she lifted her fist and pounded on the door. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!” she finally yelled.
There was no response. When she rested her forehead against the door, she could feel it shake with the force of Brandon’s sobbing. He would not open the door, so she left. Her feet were numb. She wanted to rip off Abbie’s sweater and throw it in the street, but it was cold outside.
Back inside their house, Abbie was curled up on the couch. Cassidy couldn’t see her from the porch, but her sister was in there, sick and vulnerable. It was the first time Abbie needed Cassidy to help her, and that felt so wrong—Abbie was perfect and she always had been, and Cassidy was a mess, and they would never, ever be the same as one another for as long as they lived.
Cassidy couldn’t bring herself to go inside. She pressed her back against the door and slid to the dusty porch. She had to do something or tell someone. When she pulled her cellphone out of her pocket, it was cold to the touch, but she was a sheet of paper that someone held a match to the middle of. The orange flames moved slowly, smoldering, burning her, choking her with the scent of smoke, until she was nothing but an orange ring of blackened edges.