Mei Rosen wasn’t in the mood to go to Stu’s party, but she was desperate to get out of her house. It was excruciating, sitting at the dinner table with her parents, trying to pretend that tonight was a night like any other.
“How was rehearsal?” her dad asked.
“Fine,” she said, although in fact it had been amazing. Mr. Dominguez had told her that she’d brought an incredible new energy to her performance, and he suspected that she was on the verge of a dramatic breakthrough.
“We’re really looking forward to seeing you play Anne Frank,” her mom said.
“Great.” Mei twisted a clump of noodles around her fork. She knew that her parents, both doctors, wished that she spent more time on schoolwork instead of drama. It wasn’t from them that she’d come by her talent. That was for sure.
Her dad cast her a reproachful look. Earlier that afternoon, he had taken Mei aside and said, “Remember that it’s a hard day for your mom, so be extra nice, OK?” That was the only time he’d brought up the fact that this was the day that their first daughter was killed in a car accident, when she was sixteen years old. Just a few months later, they had gone to China to adopt Mei as a baby.
She caught her mom gazing sadly at the rivulets of wine trickling down the side of her glass, pressing her lips with her fingertips. Her drama teacher was right. “You can capture someone’s essence by mimicking things they don’t realize they’re doing,” Mr. Dominguez had taught her. “Then you can embody them on stage.”
Embody. That word gave Mei the shivers. Although her parents were nice to her, she couldn’t help but feel like Daughter #2, the understudy brought in to play the part of their real child. They never talked about their dead daughter, but Mei often felt like she was supposed to embody Rachel, to live the life she’d been deprived of, in some way that she could barely conceive of, let alone pull off.
In her room after dinner, Mei tried to put all thoughts of Rachel out of her mind and get ready for the party. She put on a one-shouldered pink dress with tiny black polka dots, slipped into her ankle booties and applied sparkly lip-gloss on her mouth. She was swiping on eye shadow when Peyton texted that she was in the driveway and Mei ran downstairs. When she saw her mom hunched at the kitchen table, still nursing that wine, she felt a twinge of guilt. But she swept the feeling aside, kissed her on the cheek and darted out the door before her mom could tell her to put on a jacket and ruin her look.
Rain lashed the windshield of the Mini, and Mei fought the urge to grab the steering wheel from Peyton, who was driving with one hand, scrolling through her phone for music with the other.
“Tonight’s the night,” Peyton said. “If Jasper is there, I am totally going to pounce.”
“Totally,” Mei said, making a sexy “meow” sound and clawing the air.
“You and Stu can sneak up to his room for some serious quality time, nudge nudge wink wink.”
“I guess,” Mei said and Peyton shot her a puzzled glance. “I mean, hell yeah!” Mei amended, trying to inject the proper note of excitement into her tone. Mei hadn’t meant to lie about having done it with Stu, but Peyton was always going on about how it incredible it had been with this camp counselor named Remy, and Mei didn’t want it to seem like she didn’t know what her friend was talking about. But the truth was, it had been six months since she and Stu first got together, and although they sometimes kissed until her lips felt all pruney, he’d never once tried to feel her up. At first she’d appreciated that he was taking things slow, but lately she worried that they just didn’t have any chemistry.
Everyone said that Stu was so hot, that she was so lucky to be with him—a popular senior and quarterback of the football team—but sometimes she felt like she’d scored a part for which she hadn’t auditioned, a part she wasn’t sure she wanted anymore.
The driveway leading up to the gate was already packed with cars, so they had to park in a muddy ditch and dash through the rain. Goose bumps covered Mei’s arms and legs, and she could feel the throbbing bass beat rising up through the thin soles of her ballet flats as they sprinted toward the Sheers mansion, which Stu called a “shack,” to be funny.
Perched on a bluff overlooking the Klamath River, it looked like a ski lodge made of giant Lincoln Logs. By day, the floor-to-ceiling windows captured the view of the pine trees covering the hillside that plunged down to the river. Now the glass flashed violet and black, violet and black, in time with the music.
Climbing the front steps, Mei took a few deep breaths, trying to will herself in the mood for a party. For a moment, she felt resentful that Stu had chosen to throw a rager tonight. But she reminded herself that he had no idea what this date meant to her. They never talked about anything that mattered. But as she reached the front door, her irritation lifted and a current rippled through her, reminding her of the jittery excitement she felt right before curtain call, when she was already backstage and in costume, preparing to embody someone else.
The mansion already swarmed with kids: filling the hallway, bobbing to the music, crowding the enormous kitchen nobody cooked in. Stu’s mom had died when he was a baby, and he’d been raised by nannies. But now that he was a senior he basically took care of himself, living on fast food when his dad was away on business trips, like tonight.
“I’m going to get us refreshments,” Peyton yelled, pushing into the kitchen.
Mei nodded and wandered into the Great Room. Above the fireplace, a sixteen-point stag head scowled at the kids lounging across the white leather sectional. Stu was sitting hunched beside Jamal, playing quarters. When he spotted her, he jumped up and grabbed her by the waist, sloshing beer on her dress as he pulled her down onto his lap.
“My leading lady,” he said, lifting a fist to muffle a burp. She perched awkwardly on his knee, yanking down her hem. Stu offered her his cup, but she took one look at the inch of warm backwash and shook her head.
“How’s the acting going, Mei?” Jamal slurred. The words were neutral enough, but he sounded sarcastic. Jamal didn’t have a girlfriend, and Mei often got the feeling that he resented her for monopolizing too much of Stu’s time.
“Pretty good,” she said.
“Opening night for Anne Frank is this week,” Stu informed him. “Next stop, Hollywood. Watch out, Lucy Liu!
Mei grimaced, feeling annoyed that he had to compare her to the only Asian actress he’d ever heard of. It’s not his fault that Hollywood’s racist, she reminded herself. There were too few Asian A-listers. She was going to help change that.
“You’re playing Anne Frank?” Jamal asked, smirking. “But you’re not Jewish.”
“Yes I am,” she said. “Besides, a real actress can embody anyone.”
“Would you ever go topless?” Jamal asked.
“Um, I guess, if the part required it.” Mei crossed her arms over her chest.
“Would you do a sex tape?” he pushed.
“Why not?” Jamal smirked. “I mean, everyone who’s famous has made one.”
“No they haven’t,” she said, but Jamal and Stu were too busy listing the D-list celebrities who’d made sex tapes to listen.
“Doesn’t your dad have, like, professional video equipment?” Jamal asked. Stu nodded. “You should totally do it!” He turned back to Mei. “For your career.”
When Stu failed to leap to her defense, Mei stood up. “Do you think Meryl Streep made a sex tape?” she asked angrily.
“Who?” Stu asked, burping again.
“Never mind! There’s no point even talking to you!” As she stalked off, she expected Stu to come apologize, but he let her go. He was probably pissed that she’d yelled at him in front of his friend. Well, she didn’t care. Newsflash, Stu, she wanted to say. When I act like you turn me on, it’s the toughest part I’ve ever played!
Still fuming, she wandered into the hallway, to break free from the crowd. Her scar, which had never bothered her, was driving her nuts, and she decided she must have nicked it with her zipper. It was on the small of her back, a raised mark a shade paler than her ivory skin. The lady at the orphanage had told the Rosens that women in China who abandoned their babies often marked them, so that they might recognize them later. As a child, Mei sometimes fantasized about a beautiful Chinese woman showing up at their door, asking to see her back. But of course life wasn’t some Disney movie. That was not going to happen.
Searching for a place to scratch in private, she drifted through a set of heavy wooden doors and found herself in the newly remodeled wing of the mansion. A wide corridor lined with dioramas stretched before her. The lights were low, and the scent of fresh paint hung in the air. She jumped at the sight of an enormous mountain lion, its yellow eyes flashing, crouching at the base of a tree as if ready to pounce. Then she came to her senses. The tree was real, growing from a planter. It gave off a piney fragrance, and the perceptible energy of a living thing. But the mountain lion, statue-still, did not.
She recognized that she had inadvertently walked into the new museum of natural history, which was full of stuffed animals—not of the cuddly variety, but taxidermied, preserved as they were in death. She saw a wolf, lips retracted in a snarl as it prepared to attack a petrified fox. But her attention returned to the cougar, which seemed to be eyeing her in particular.
Even though she knew it was illogical, Mei found herself backing away. This place gave her the creeps. She felt sorry for the animals, each stuck in one eternal pose, unable to stretch or twitch or run. Then she cast these morbid thoughts out of her mind. The dead don’t care what happens to them. It was the living that couldn’t wrap their minds around this sad fact.
Her scar was pulsing now. Listening to the thump of the music from the Great Room, she felt the need to get out and dance.
Maybe that would help.
The party was heating up. Someone had tossed a baseball cap over the stag’s antlers, and everyone was competing to decorate it like a Christmas tree. They tossed anything at hand: Mardi Gras beads, plastic cups, jackets.
“BRAS BRAS BRAS!” Jamal started this chant, and soon all the guys joined in. Peyton pulled hers out through the armhole of her shirt and hurled it up. Mei couldn’t help but laugh. She tore off her belt, swung it like a lasso and let go.
“Atta girl!” Stu yelled. He was standing next to Jamal, trading swigs off a bottle of apple schnapps. He flashed her a grin, and she found herself smiling back. This was his party, and he deserved to have fun. She made her way to him, wrapping her arms around his waist.
“Sorry about before,” she said. “I don’t know what’s up with me tonight. You know what I’m in the mood for?” To dance, she was about to say, but he spoke first.
“Oh yeah? Right now?” He cleared his throat and glanced at Jamal. “You, uh, want to go up to my room?”
Mei froze. They’d never been alone in his bedroom when his dad wasn’t home. Maybe that was why things weren’t progressing beyond first base. Her scar was still pulsing, and now her skin was tingling too, as if a feather floated along its surface. Maybe this is what it feels like to be turned on, she thought, nodding before she could change her mind. She’d put an end to the rumors that she was a prude.
As they started to kiss, Mei kept pulling away, trying to show him how she wanted it— more gently, less slobber—but he couldn’t take a hint. While his tongue probed for her tonsils, his arms hung slack at his sides. Doesn’t he like my body? Why isn’t he touching me? Why can’t I turn off my brain and get into it?
She flicked off the light, so she wouldn’t have to stare at the swimsuit model tacked over his bed, with her platinum hair, orangey tan, and breasts as round as grapefruits. Maybe the issue was that he was into a different type of girl: someone who looked nothing like her.
Stu burped directly into her mouth. “Whoa,” he said. “I think I need to lie down.” Not knowing what else to do, she lay down beside him. The mattress sloshed and bucked beneath them. “Issa waterbed,” he slurred, as he climbed on top of her. “Old school, right? It was my mom and dad’s.”
Mei could feel the chill of the water through the thin plastic, and she shivered. The story of Stu parents’ tragic romance was legendary. They’d been high school sweethearts, crowned prom king and queen, married right after graduation. But Stu’s poor mom had died when he was just a few days old, going into some kind of coma as a result of the pregnancy. His dad had mourned her for years, never even dating until Simone moved back to Cascade.
But it wasn’t exactly a turn-on, lying under Stu on the waterbed where he’d probably been conceived. His breath reeked of alcohol and guacamole, and Mei felt seasick. She tried rolling out from under him, but he was six-three, and must’ve weighed over two hundred pounds.
“Hey, you’re squashing me,” she whispered. But he wasn’t listening, too busy drooling on her neck and making a rhythmic snorting noise in her ear. Is that supposed to be sexy? She felt increasingly angry as he ignored her subtle and then not-so-subtle signs that she wasn’t having fun. “Stu, I’m serious! I can’t breathe. This does not feel good!” But he didn’t move an inch, and as he emitted a snore, suddenly she realized why. Now she was really desperate to escape, but she didn’t want to yell in case someone opened the door. She’d die if word got out that her boyfriend had fallen asleep on top of her while they were supposedly getting it on.
Her whole body felt like it was itching. Itching on the inside, even. To comfort herself, she pictured her drama teacher. Mr. Dominguez believed in her. He gave her tough parts, convinced that she could embody anyone. What would he advise in this situation?
A breathing exercise. That was key to clearing her mind.
She breathed in and out, in and out, and as her lungs inflated, she felt a sudden strange gathering of strength, followed by a shocking numbness. A horrible thought flashed into her mind. Had someone slipped her a roofie? Then a feeling of tightness enveloped her, like she was sheathed from head to toe in Saran Wrap.
“Get off me!” she cried, no longer caring who heard. “Get! Off! Me!” Her voice sounded hoarse, and Stu stirred. He started nuzzling her neck again, as if the nap had invigorated him. Now he seemed to get into it for real, grinding against her with real heat. But she was way too insulted to keep up the charade. She put her hands on his chest and shoved him off.
He flew backwards, landing in a heap on the floor.
How did she manage that?
He was staring back at her, a look of shock mirroring her own. “Oh my god,” he said, as he scurried backwards. “What the hell are you doing in my bedroom?” She got up and he yelped, “Don’t touch me! Don’t come anywhere near me!” He clutched the bedside lamp to his body, holding it like a shield. “I don’t know what just happened, but we will never, ever, talk about it. Got it?” He bolted from the room and Mei slid to the ground.
What did I do to make Stu so afraid?
She rested her head on her giant, hairy knees. “Omigod!” She had a new voice too, strong and deep, and she could see that her arms were hairy, too.
She groped at her face. Is that stubble?
She rushed into Stu’s bathroom, switching on the light to see Mr. Dominguez staring back at her. She held up one trembling hand and her drama coach waved back. She raised her thick, dark eyebrows and he did too. Her heart hammered behind her chiseled pecs. Who knew that Mr. Dominguez had a nipple piercing?
Is this really happening?
Then a wave of fatigue hit her, and she collapsed.
Peyton’s voice woke her up. “We have to go! Mr. Sheers is home, and he’s super pissed!” Mei panicked. Peyton could not see her like this! But Peyton was acting like nothing was wrong, and Mei felt a rush of relief, looking down at her own slender legs. She must have dreamed the whole hideous episode. But when she stood up, her cute pink dress was all stretched out, hanging like a sack so she had to clutch it to her body.
They ran downstairs to find a furious Mr. Sheers in the foyer, lecturing Stu. “It’s going to take weeks to fix the damage to the museum! At least one animal was stolen!”
“I’m sorry,” Stu croaked. “I didn’t think things would get out of hand.” He glanced at Mei, then looked away just as quickly, his expression hard to read.
“Let me give you girls a ride home,” Mr. Sheers said, throwing them each a fleece. Mei took it gratefully, glad to cover up before she flashed a boob.
“I’m fine to drive,” Peyton said, but she could barely walk straight.
“Not a chance. Your parents would never forgive me if anything happened to you,” Mr. Sheers said, shepherding them out the door.
As she passed him, Stu stared down at his feet, his face almost purple with embarrassment.
Maybe it really happened.
Logic told Mei that this was impossible.
But intuition said something else.