Tell Me a Secret
by Holly Cupala
It’s tough, living in the shadow of a dead girl. It’s like living at the foot of a mountain blocking out the sun, and no one ever thinks to say, “Damn, that mountain is big.” Or, “Wonder what’s on the other side?” It’s just something we live with, so big we hardly notice it’s there. Not even when it’s crushing us under its terrible weight.
No one mentions my sister. If they do, it’s mentioning her by omission, relief that I am nothing like her. I am the good sister. Thank God.
To speak of my sister . . . there’s nothing more sacrilegious. Alexandra, Andra, Alex. Xanda—who was, and is, and is to come. To speak her name is my family’s purest form of blasphemy.
To think of Xanda is to conjure up a person out of phase with the rest of us. Gym socks and mary janes. Lipstick always slightly outside the lines, as if she were just the victim of a mad, messy kiss. Laddered stockings with dresses that were decidedly un-churchy. Sloppy in a way that was somehow repulsive and delectable at the same time. Repulsive to my parents. Delectable to me.
At ten, I was practicing her pout in the mirror. By twelve, I was trying on her clothes (in secret, of course), thrilled with the way her shorts hugged my cheeks and made my underpants seem obsolete. Xanda was seventeen. She didn’t wear underpants.
One day she caught me in her boots and safety-pin dress, the one she had painstakingly assembled like rock-star chain mail. I was so scared I poked a pin through the end of my pinky. I imagined her taking off one of her stilettos and plunging it into my heart.
But Xanda didn’t skewer me. Instead, she threw back her head and laughed a dazzling, tonsil-baring laugh, then smothered me in a hug. She had that sour, sharp smell, and I knew she had been with Andre—Andre, of the sultry voice and skin the shade of coffee with milk. Café con leche, as he put it. Sweet and dangerous. A bit of a con, said Andre. A bit of a letch, said my sister.
After she bandaged my finger, Xanda insisted I try on the matching safety-pin leg warmers. They hung like chains around my ankles. Clump, clump, drag. With a heavy grasp, she steered us both toward the full-length mirror hung on the back of her bedroom door. The metal of the safety pins shimmered down my straight, twelve-year-old hips. Xanda stood behind me, the glow of the bedroom window lighting up the pale chaos of her hair in a halo. She shimmered, too, but in a different kind of way. Her sheer white dress fluttered around her, a ghost trapped behind my chain-link figure. When she smiled, she looked like an unholy angel.
She studied my face with one eye closed, like an artist sizing up a canvas. “You know what?” she said. “I don’t think you should be Mandy anymore.”
“Should I be Miranda now?” I asked.
“No, I was thinking more like . . . Rand. Rand is so much cooler than Mandy. Kind of edgy. Don’t you think?”
I tested the name in my mouth. Rand. Rand would wear a safety-pin dress. Rand could probably go without underpants now and then. Rand sounded almost like Xanda. I liked it.
“Do you want to know a secret?” I whispered to the sister in the mirror.
“Tell me,” she whispered back. “Tell me, and I’ll tell you one.”
I cupped my hands around her ear. You never knew when our mother would turn a corner, shattering the most perfect moment with a well-placed shard of disapproval. Andre’s scent lingered in her hair, filling my head and fueling my passionate announcement: “I want to be like you!”
Xanda staggered backward, the smile on her face slipping first into a grimace and then into a beaming hiccup. She threw her arms around me and rocked back and forth. Her body heaved with silent giggles until I was nearly suffocated in her clutches. I laughed, too, at my own ridiculousness. It wasn’t until she pulled away that I realized she was crying.
“You don’t want to be like me.” She swiped at the tears, smearing her left eye just enough to match her right. A bitter laugh gurgled up. “You’d be better off being like Mom than me.”
The front door slammed—Mom returning from the church drama committee, or praying for Xanda’s soul. The safety pins closed in on me like a thorny noose. My eyes met Xanda’s in the mirror: panic in mine, resolve in hers. She pushed past me and out the door, where Mom saw her see-through dress and immediately began the usual tirade. Dressed like a streetwalker . . . playing with fire . . . don’t you see what you’re doing to your life?
I winced, knowing I could never stand up to the words my mother threw so easily at my sister. “That’s just it, Mom,” she countered. “It’s my life, not yours.”
Then it dawned on me: Xanda was buying me time. After wrestling with the pins, I escaped with only a few scratches through the secret passageway Dad had built between our bedrooms, her words burning in my heart. Tell me, and I’ll tell you one.
Xanda never did tell me her secret, though I thought I could guess. I could see it in her eyes the last time she left. I knew, from the suitcase bursting with her clothes found in Andre’s car when they tried to escape Seattle forever.
“It was that boy,” my mother told me the night she died. “It was that Andre’s fault, for his drinking.” And Dad’s, for bringing him into our lives.
In the five years after Xanda died, each of my parents disappeared behind a locked door, no unauthorized entry—Mom into drama and the prayer chain, Dad into his construction business. I was left to wonder, what role did Xanda fill that I could not? What secret did she keep? And what path could I take to find it?
Any choice could lead to something irrevocable, as my boyfriend, Kamran, would say. I had to tread carefully.
I first saw Kamran checking out my labyrinth drawings in the Elna Mead Junior Class Art Exhibition last February. A guy I’d never seen before hovered right next to the display glass, drinking in the lines of my mazes as though he were trying to navigate them.
He wasn’t much taller than I, with metal-rimmed glasses, combat boots, casually holding a motorcycle helmet. He stood there at some point nearly every day, absorbing the images and making notes in a small notebook. I would find it odd if he wasn’t so hot.
Essence was my spy and confidante, back when we were still friends. Before Delaney Pratt changed everything.
“Yup, he’s still there,” Essence said, plopping her books down next to me in chem class. “Do you think he’s a freak or something?”
“No. I think he’s cute. I haven’t seen him before. Do you think he’s a transfer student? Ooh, maybe he’s from Germany or Israel or something. He looks kind of Euro, you know?” And a little bit of con leche, I hoped.
“No idea. Maybe Eli knows.”
Eli was Essence’s new squeeze—actually, her first-ever squeeze. She had been spending an inordinate amount of time getting to know him and his tonsils, so I didn’t see her much anymore outside of chem lab. They met in Drama, where Essence was honing her stage skills while I drifted deeper into preparing for art school—and checked out art-appreciating hotties.
Eli was not impressed with our sleuthing. “Are you blind? That’s Kamran Ziyal. He’s been around since second grade.” Eli was haughty in that “I’m infinitely smarter than you” kind of way, which Essence thought was cute. “Too cool to come down and mingle with the rest of us,” he declared. “He’s busy trying to get into aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.” Perfect—a stone’s throw away from my choice, Baird School of Fine Arts, in Boston.
I was too shy to say anything to this mysterious Kamran until the day I caught him holding a pencil and sheet of paper up to the glass—copying my work.
“Hey,” I said, my outrage overcoming the tongue that had been tied up for weeks. “You can’t copy that! It’s mine!” I sounded like a twelve-year-old, but I didn’t care. If Mr. MIT Astronaut Man was going to copy my art, I wasn’t above making a twelve-year-old stink.
He shifted his weight toward me, turning the full power of those olive eyes onto my face. I opened my mouth to shout something—anything—and he smiled a kind of cocky half-smile, knocking the rules of communication right out of my head.
White teeth . . . nice lips . . . eyelashes . . . I could no longer make sense of any of them. Except that they were talking to me. Well, the lips were talking to me. The eyes were looking at me in the same way they’d been looking at my art for the last month—searching for something beyond this dimension.
“I wasn’t copying, I was making a sketch of it for the poem I’ve been writing about your art. I wanted to remember it.”
The boy wrote poetry. About my art. I thought I was going to pass out.
“I’m studying hyperspace—you know, wormholes, which are kind of like labyrinths, only instead of traversing a landscape, they can traverse space and time, and possibly even an infinite number of galaxies. So I wanted to write about them. Your art inspired me.”
Okay, make that hyperventilate, here in hyperspace, with the cute boy who writes poetry.
“Oh . . . oh,” I stuttered. “So you write about wormholes. Labyrinths. I mean . . . labyrinths are my passion.” They had been, ever since Xanda died.
He smiled even wider. “I can see that. I like labyrinths, too.”
I was hooked, enough to keep checking for mystery-man Kamran, lurking around my art and hopefully thinking about me as much as I was thinking about him.
When the display came down, I was afraid he would disappear.
Everything about last year seemed irrevocable now—the intersection of Kamran and me. Meeting Delaney. Losing Essence. The choices we made, the last time I saw them all.
I would not have chosen to spend the summer before my senior year working at Evergreen New Creation Camp teaching art. “After all,” said my mother, “you can’t be a teacher if you don’t start acquiring some experience.” Make art, Mom, not teach art. But it was pointless to remind her when she had already made up her mind. Money in the bank, Dad would say. You never knew when you’d need it.
It was as if they already knew what I’d done and had devised the perfect purgatory. They couldn’t have chosen much worse than nine weeks at the church kiddie camp, eighty miles outside of Seattle. Nine weeks. Nine hundred kids. At least nine different behavioral disorders. And while I was painting crosses and rainbows and getting sick from the heat and collective prepubescent body odor, Kamran took classes and worked two jobs, Delaney jetted off to Amsterdam, and Essence would probably go to theater camp like she had every summer since fourth grade.
I returned home the week before school to life as usual in the Mathison house: Mom the drama queen, Dad the absentee, and me . . . a seventeen-year-old with too many secrets—and a mountain of my own, threatening to blow.
Coming home after almost three months was like walking into someone else’s house, all dressed up to look like ours. Same shiny wood floors speeding through the entry and into a bright, sunny kitchen; same white trim on white paneling; same whispered challenge to find a speck of dust or trace of actual humans living there—except for my own reflection in the mirror as soon as I crossed the threshold.
I looked at my face to see if anything had changed, if my secret was written there for anyone to read. But it wasn’t. Grimy with camp dirt, bedraggled, tired—three sessions of summer campers left the only signs.
“Wait until you read my script, Mandy,” my mom was saying as she pushed her way through the front door, dragging a summer’s worth of my clothes on wheels. “I am so close—I was hoping to finish before you got home but ran out of time. You know how these things go. So much to do around here.”
“I know,” I said. It was all coming back to me. The notes. The scripts. The to-do lists. The never-ending cadre of people to impress.
All the way home, Mom had talked about her new script for this year’s Christmas montage. Almost finished, can’t wait to get your opinion, will be the best one yet, Mom went on. I wouldn’t be seeing much of Dad—nothing new about that. The summer remodeling season wasn’t over, then there would be the interior remodeling season, then set-building season, then the winter remodeling season. As if I needed an explanation after years of Dad never being home. I kept waiting for some sign of quiet rebellion, some indication he might one day break free and boogie. Either that, or ditch us for good.
“And the best part,” she continued, brushing the hair out of my face and then wiping her hands on her skirt, “is what I’ve been writing for you . . .” A pause, for maximum effect. “. . . the starring role.”
Once, there was a time when I might have been thrilled to hear those words spoken to me and not to my sister. We each had our parts to play in the perfect family drama: Mom, the director; Xanda, the actor; Dad, the builder; me, the backdrop. I had painted more sets than I could remember—living rooms, war zones, hospital corridors. Only once had I acted in one of Mom’s plays—the year Xanda died.
“God, Mom, you don’t have to force everybody into your lame-ass play,” Xanda had said when Mom announced I would play the daughter of a traumatized soldier, the lead role originally meant for Xanda. Onstage, she could be the kind of daughter my mom wanted—the kind I already was, if only she would notice. But this year, Xanda refused the part.
“I’m not forcing you,” Mom said. “I was asking Mandy.”
“So you’re forcing Rand instead. Do you even realize what a control freak you are?”
I stood there, trying to shift myself into part of the wall. They were like the angel and the devil, arguing over my soul. Good Mandy, Bad Rand. Or was it Bad Mandy, Good Rand?
“Mandy,” said Mom, her teeth clenched as the word pried its way out. “I’m not forcing you, am I?” The question uncloaked me.
Xanda turned to me expectantly. “Well?” she demanded. “Do you want to be in the show?”
“I—I guess so.”
Mom looked smug. Xanda looked utterly defeated. I felt like a traitor.
“Congratulations,” Xanda sniped. “It looks like you’ve successfully created your own puppet government.”
It didn’t occur to me until much later that the role Mom offered had never been about me—only about getting to Xanda. I wondered what my mom had in mind now.
I smiled wearily. “Thanks, Mom. I’ll be upstairs.”
“You must be exhausted from the trip. Take a shower first though, huh? I just washed everything.” She rolled my suitcase down the hall with two fingers, checking the floor for skid marks as she went.
I could hear her unzipping and sorting as I climbed the stairs, the squishy carpet familiar under my feet. I passed frame after frame of my drawings and paintings—all labyrinths. The same labyrinths that had brought Kamran and me together.
After the junior class art exhibit came down, a note tumbled out of my locker, written in tiny staccato handwriting: Meet me under the plum tree.
I read the note over and over, floating through the rest of my classes like plum blossoms. When the last bell rang, I found Kamran there, his helmet in one hand and a second one in the other, motorcycle standing by.
“I have a surprise for you. Hop on.” Before I had a chance to ask where we were going, he fitted the helmet onto my head and slung on his own, then strapped our bags to the back. He mounted the bike and I wrapped myself around him, drinking in a musky smell with the faintest hint of sour-sweet.
As we wound our way through the streets, I couldn’t stop thinking about the feel of my body against his or the warmth I felt through every layer. We crested Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, where the past met the present in a violent tumble of brownstones and mansions, transients and transplants, infinite varieties of colors and art and self-expression. We nearly collided with pedestrians, odors exotic and taboo, and a thousand visual feasts.
“That’s my parents’ restaurant,” he shouted, pointing to Café Shiraz, a hole-in-the-wall place with cinnamon and garlic scents emanating from the open door.
“Is that where we’re going?”
He grasped my hand with his nimble and smooth one. “Ask no questions, I tell no lies.”
Commercial buildings blurred into brownstone apartments then towering evergreens near Cornish College of the Arts. He turned into the campus parking lot and led me through the heavy doors and stained glass to the current art exhibit: Travels through Space and Time.
Later, over kebabs and hummus and his mom’s famous stuffed figs, we talked about light sources and vanishing points, MIT and Baird. He told me about his parents leaving everything to come here and start a restaurant, I told him about my parents disappearing into their work. I asked about physics. He asked about art. I stopped short of telling him about Xanda.
The office and basement were lit when we pulled up to my house—each of my parents in separate domains. Kamran and I sat on the curb under the rhododendrons, exactly the place where Andre parked his green Impala and Xanda disappeared into the night. We watched the sky turn from gray-gold to gray-plum, an echo of the paintings we’d seen at Cornish as we wandered the corridors, hand in hand. He was so close, I could feel the roughness of his jacket brushing up against my skin.
“So you never told me about your poetry.”
“Ah, right.” He grinned. “You mean when I was copying your artwork.”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. So where is this so-called poem, inspired by my labyrinths?”
“Oh, that.” He ran his fingers through rumpled hair, olive eyes squinting through dark, dark lashes. “You don’t really want to see that.”
“Oh, but I do.” I felt out of my depth. Xanda would have pulled him close, felt the skin under his T-shirt, his waistband . . . for me, it was enough to be touching his sleeve.
He rummaged through a folder in his pack for a sheet of graph paper swirled over with that same tight handwriting. Sentences began in one corner and spread out like branches in a tree.
He held it aloft. “I don’t know if I want you to see this—it’s not actually a poem. Well, sort of. It’s more like . . . strings of possibility.” He sat down next to me, tracing his finger over the lines. “It’s all the things that could bring a person to this point—”
“W-well, two people.” Leaning over his shoulder, I caught only fragments: She follows a path, a labyrinth . . . A landscape of mystery beneath her lines . . . A girl seeking shadows, past and future . . . What secret she seeks, answers or lies . . .
The sentences curled away from each other until I reached the top, the one that nearly stretched off the page: . . . paths cross, time stops . . . then she and I would meet.
Those sentences uncloaked me, the same way I felt when he lost himself in my mazes—like he already knew me. The thought both excited and terrified.
“To what point?” I asked, my voice unsteady. I could almost taste the figs lingering on his breath.
Then our lips met in our own mad, messy kiss, tender and fruity, pomegranate fireworks, his hands cupping my face and mine warm under his jacket, noses bumping and chins tilting until he pulled away, the two of us existing in a moment of perfection.
It was then that I knew I could tell him anything—about Xanda, the labyrinths. Someday I might even tell him about Andre.
Need to talk, Kamran’s text had said. We’d barely spoken since I left in July, only a few clipped conversations and a backlog of unanswered messages—his and mine. I would have to tell him when I saw him. It would be his secret, too.
I shut myself in the bathroom. Stripping down had become a ritual at camp: hoping, checking, nothing. Delaney once said, “I don’t worry too much if I only miss one.” What if I’d missed two?
If it doesn’t happen today, I thought, I’ll take a test. But I’d have to see Kamran first. Be wrong.
Downstairs, my mom typed away on her laptop. “. . . Then the narrator, he’ll be telling the backstory at this point, drumming up sympathy for the grand finale, the final moment when she reveals . . . oh, yes!” The sound of her whispering lines had exactly the same effect as a cheese grater on the back of my neck.
“Mom, can I use the car? I’ve gotta run some errands.” Kamran would probably be at Big Boss now, or at his parents’ restaurant.
“Okay, honey,” she said distractedly. “Pick up a new toothbrush, will you? After two months at camp, yours is probably disgusting.”
“Sure.” The drugstore was already on my list.
“Oh, I forgot to mention—Delaney called,” Mom sang as I reached the front door. “Back from her trip?” She sure did like that Delaney girl. I would have to call her when I got back.
A half hour later, I steered around the massive Big Boss parking lot. A woman with a toddler rolled a cart piled high with diapers to an SUV while the car in front of me flipped on a blinker.
“Come on,” I muttered, swinging wide with the Lexus.
That’s when I saw him, looking not quite like himself in the red Big Boss vest and chasing down stray shopping carts, but entirely like the person whose body and soul had touched mine. I didn’t even realize how much I’d missed him until now.
Only he wasn’t alone.
He was with her. Delaney. Wearing a matching vest, hips peeking out over her jeans as she slapped him on the butt.
The ground started sliding out from under me.
Collided a cart into hers.
Sent everything reeling, fissures cracking until I could no longer stand the pressure of my body, certain to implode at any moment.
I peeled out of the parking lot before either of them could spot me. There was a drugstore to find, a toothbrush to buy.
Not to mention a pregnancy test.