Annie found herself playing a game she hadn't even thought about since she was twelve years old and Robbie McCormick cut his lip on her braces. Her image of some benign affair, where everyone stood around with a wine glass and nibbled canapés, was deteriorating faster than her last blind date--with Stan the Used-Car-Salesman.
She'd had no idea when her sisters had invited her to this thing that it was going to be some nightmarish, pre-teen flashback. Annie felt ridiculous in such a revealing position, sitting cross-legged, trying to tuck her pastel patchwork skirt between her thighs. She noticed a lot of the women had discarded their shoes, but she was wearing soft, knee-high black boots that didn't lend themselves to a casual slipping-off. The entire room had morphed from mingling adults to a gang of unruly adolescents, hooting and howling and elbowing each other the minute they all sat in a circle on the floor in their suits and skirts.
Her oldest sister, Chloe, spun the empty rum bottle and everyone roared when the narrow end settled on Rebecca, the middle sister. While the men whistled and whooped, both women crawled, giggling, toward the center of the large circle. Their cheeks flushed the same shade of rosy pink as they briefly touched lips.
Annie blushed as well, appalled and astonished at how her body remembered these old games with a dreadful pang and tingle: first kisses and two-minutes-in-the-closet fumblings. There was the time she and her sisters had tried to make their own soap opera just to have an excuse to kiss the boys. Then there was the summer they'd built a fort made of someone's discarded turquoise carpet and played spin-the-bottle with an empty gin bottle Gary Hillman snitched from his mom's stash.
There was a burst of laughter from the other room and Annie glanced toward the adjoining door to the den. She wondered what they were playing in there. Truth or dare? They sound just like teenagers, she thought, like some feral pack full of adolescent angst. Are we really just one immature game away from that part of ourselves? She smiled wryly, feeling far removed from any sensible adult reality as she watched Rebecca creep back to the middle of the circle to spin the bottle.
A chorus of "woo-hoos!" sang out when the bottleneck found John, Becca's husband of two years, and they kissed. Annie winced when she saw his tongue slip into her mouth. She looked away, focusing on the red and white streamers hanging above her head. There were red foil hearts with plump cupids pasted in their centers spinning wildly on thread and attached to the ceiling by thumbtacks.
Annie was surprised Chloe had allowed tacks in her ceiling, even for something as important as maintaining the theme of the night--the sound of the bottle spinning on the hardwood floor brought Annie's focus back to the game. John's eyes were glued to the bottle as it slowed. She ducked as if she could avoid it as the bottle stopped, pointing just past her knee to the chubby girl on her left. Thank god. John was crawling toward them, grinning and eyeing Annie's hemline, while the redhead next to her blushed to match her hair. Rebecca was watching, looking casual, but Annie knew better.
"Hey, I think this is pointing to Anne," John exclaimed as he drew nearer. "Look at the angle."
"This isn't geometry, John, come on," Annie hissed at him, keeping her voice low, hoping her sisters couldn't hear. "Kiss the girl and get it over with already! Looks like she needs it more than I do." Annie cut her eyes to the redhead's face, which had flushed a deeper shade. The girl looked down at her lap as if there were something interesting there.
John raised his eyebrows at Annie, and she saw she had made a mistake. "Rebecca, I'm serious. Come look! I swear this thing is pointing at your sister. Chloe, are you the referee here?"
"John, it's pointing at Lynn, not Annie," Chloe called. "Come on, let's keep the game going."
"It is not," John insisted. "You aren't even over here! Come look!"
"Oh fuck this," Annie muttered, struggling to stand without flashing the entire group a shot of her panties. For a moment, she thought she had succeeded, but from the look on a few of the guys' faces, she realized they had seen something. Raising her voice, she said, "You know what, John? You kiss the fat girl here, and I'll just step out of this juvenile little game that I never in a million years thought I'd be playing at the age of twenty-seven, okay? What do you say?"
Annie nudged him hard in the side with her shin as she passed. She heard him grunt. She turned back when she got to the kitchen door and saw the redhead standing, wobbly, making her way in the opposite direction. Annie felt a stab of guilt and shoved open the swinging door to her sister's pristine kitchen. The light was off, and she left it, knowing her way even in the dark. She plopped onto one of the stainless steel kitchen chairs and unzipped her boots with a sigh, then toed them off.
Annie could hear her sister busily trying to save the day. "Let's play the kissing game!"
She heard someone--possibly John--say, "I thought we were?"
Annie sighed in relief when that awful, stunned silence turned back to party chatter. She wished she drank or still smoked--or did anything dangerous and bad for her. Anything that could make her feel good--or just alive--even for a moment. Her sisters seemed to think the answer to Annie's attitude was a man and had set about finding her one--with a vengeance! When she looked at Chloe and Rebecca's lives though, she didn't find much to envy. If that's what having a man was about, she didn't want to have any part of it.
Besides, Annie wanted something more, something different. She was tired of all the games and hookups and pretending. She had been to hundreds of parties like this one, and she always felt like some aging, dark-haired Barbie doll propped up in the corner by her sisters for all the Kens to come by and gawk at. She could never be herself, even for a moment. She always felt too guarded to let herself really get to know people, let alone really feel anything for anyone.
Chloe poked her head through the swinging kitchen door, spilling light into the room. Annie covered her eyes, which had already adjusted to the darkness. "What do you think you're doing? You're going to ruin everything!" Chloe hissed.
"Get the fuck out of here," Annie spat back, giving her sister the finger.
Chloe rolled her eyes, opening the door to step in.
Annie leaped to press against the swinging door, trapping Chloe firmly between the door and the frame. Chloe grunted in surprise.
"I'm not kidding. I am not going back out there, so you can forget about it. What the hell are they doing now?" Annie stared past her sister, her brow furrowed and her mouth agape in horror as men and women in a circle were passing a playing card from person to person, mouth to mouth.
"The kissing game," Chloe replied meekly.
"Oh my god. That's it. Get out of this room and don't let anyone else in here! You got me? I am done with this Hook-Annie-Up-Valentine-Shindig!"
"But, sweetie, you--"
"No! Not another word from you, okay?"
"Okay, fine. Could you...?" Chloe waved her hand, the one inside the kitchen, indicating the door where she was stuck. Annie eased off a little and Chloe sighed, stepping back out into the living room. "We were all just trying to do something nice for you, Annie."
"Yeah, yeah. Thanks a lot. Appreciate it. Go!"
Annie flopped into the kitchen chair, tipped it back and put her bare feet up. She smiled with a bit of satisfaction, knowing she was probably the first and only person to have a body part other than maybe an elbow on Chloe's expensive table.
"Didn't your mother ever tell you that you could crack your head open doing that?"
Annie let out a yelp and the chair toppled backwards onto the hand-laid Italian tile. She saw stars bursting in the darkness behind her eyes and blinked rapidly to clear them. "Fuck!" she swore, rubbing the back of her head and rolling off the chair onto the floor. Her head was tender and already swelling, and she thought she could feel the wetness of blood. "I think I'm bleeding. Who's there? Where are you?"
"Right here. Are you okay? I'm sorry."
Annie saw the shadowy figure move out from underneath the kitchen table.
"I don't know if I'm okay. I think I'm bleeding." She tried to stand but immediately felt woozy again and had to sit. She rubbed the swelling on the back of her head, wondering how bad it really was. "Could you turn on the light, please?"
"I'm sorry, I can't do that," he replied, steadying her with a hand on her arm. It was a warm hand, large, with a firm grip.
"Gee, thanks, buddy. Fine, I'll do it myself." Annie sighed and started to stand again. His hand on her arm kept her from moving.
"No, please, don't." It was a request, but it didn't sound like one.