The next afternoon Tammy showed up, dressed in ratty old clothes. She was oddly quiet even for her. I asked her what was wrong.
"Nothin'," she answered.
"Are you sure you wanna go to this party?"
It was about five in the afternoon, and the pre-Samhain scramble was still going on.
Robbie was already gone, and Mom was getting all dolled up to take the Old Man out on a date. They were highly distracted.
That made it all easy. All we had to do was get our costumes on—or in Gina's case put on her Raggedy-Anne decoy costume—and wait for the parental units to clear out. We could mastermind our subterfuge from here.
"I'm all set." Mother popped into the kitchen. "How do I look?"
She was wearing a navy blue off-the-shoulder dress with daring lines and a cut that showed her curves. She accessorized with a string of pearls and matching patent leather pumps and a slim strapless purse.
"Wow Mom," Gina said. "You look great."
"Thanks. You two both look so cute. Heidi and Raggedy-Anne. Never change, girls. I mean children."
"Come on, honey," Daddy called from the front room, "the taxi is here."
If they were taking a taxi, they'd be drinking. Good.
"Coming, dear." She turned to Gina. "Don't take this as a criticism, but I'm surprised you weren't more elaborate with your costume this year. You usually go all out; must be you're growing up. I'm proud of you."
She looked at me.
"So proud of both of you."
She hugged us and was out the door before we knew it.
We had the house to ourselves.
We helped Gina into her costume; she didn't seem to have Tammy's new-found reluctance to undress around hirls, or maybe it was just that we were siblings, and had once been sisters.
She filled out that costume well. She wasn't exactly voluptuous, but she was a lot curvier than I was and had that wiry build of a dancer-in-training.
Her chest may have had some help from the gold-lamé eagle plastered across her bust, but the star-spangled hips and ass were all her own.
"Damn, girl," I teased her, trying to draw Tammy out of her funk. "You don't look like no girl-child. You betta' be careful."
"I will," she promised and put on her coat. "Mom and Dad are going to a movie. It's over at 8:00 and they have dinner reservation at 9:00.
"They'll be back by ten, eleven tops. That means we need to meet somewhere by eleven thirty at the latest; we don't want to come in too late."
She shoved a couple of paper sacks into her already bulging canvas tote. "I've got my other costume. I'm going now. Where do you wanna meet?"
"How about Shoffer's diner. They're open till two."
"Okay," she replied cheerfully and sauntered out the door.
"What about you, gloom-bat?"
"What about me?"
"You're so down today. What gives?"
"Okay, but that's your second nothin' today. Any more and I'll have to cut you off."
She gave a half-hearted smile.
"I'm okay, honey-chile. I just in a bad moot today."
"Nothin'," she sounded like a scratched record. "Sometimes you don't need no reason to just be sat."
"Well, cheer up," I pinched her cheek, "We're about to go out and have some fun. So you're goin' as a hobo?"
"Not exactly. There's a bit more to it."
"Like what," I said, looking for subtle clues.
"You sure this is the right house," Tammy asked, looking at the mailbox with her flashlight.
"Sure," I told her, holding the scrap of paper that the address was written on under the beam of light.
For some reason, they didn't tell us before hand the address of the party, Topher had just said "Christy's house", and left it at that.
Bobbi had called about 4:30 that afternoon and gave me the street address. She read it into the receiver like it was a secret code.
It was a big two-story flag-stone house done in the style of a manor. I'd be tempted to call it a mansion, it was so big. It was on a humongous lot, with iron fences and two gates that opened onto a semi-circular drive.
We were by the brick posterns of one of the gates, trying to figure out how to get in. There was no sign the house was inhabited.
"Ssst," someone said, and I turned to Tammy.
"I didn't say nothin'."
I turned and saw a slim teen that I'd seen at the BLT. I didn't know if it was a boy or girl. Heo was one of the wall-flowers that surrounded the likes of Tilly but never dared speak up.
"What," I asked heom.
"This way," heo gestured and we followed. "Around back."
There was a pool around back, but it was drained for the winter and covered with a thick custom tarpaulin. A small makeshift pup-tent had been erected at one end, down where the ladder and diving board should be.
We passed a clump of rose bushes and another androgynous wall-flower stood up.
"Damn," Tammy exclaimed, pushing heom out of her way. "You scar't the shit outta me!"
"Be quiet," the other warned. "And shut out the light."
I could see nobody else but I heard a dull rumble coming through the ground.
Our guide led us through a manicured topiary and to an earthen mound about ten feet high and thirty feet across. It was an island of native wildlife, like a nature preserve. I could see little crosses in there, like it was a tiny graveyard.
We went around to the other side and there was a door. It was a dug-out, maybe a wine cellar, or it could have been a bomb shelter.
On the plaque above the nearly horizontal steel door was a stone lintel incribed "Joshua Habbit—Old Habits Die Hard."
The last bit was in Latin.
Was it a tomb? I was getting a vibe of serious creep.
I could see someone had drawn the outline of a sarcophagus in the dust on the door. It was really good.
It began to creak ominously and the door opened. Bobbi was there, holding it open for a gorgeous young mulatto woman maybe a couple of years older than me.
She was carrying a case of beer on her head.
Bobbi spotlighted her with her flashlight.
She was taller than me, about five-and-a-half feet, but slim, with a figure that a fashion model would envy. She wore a chocolate brown form-fitting dress with tangerine tiger-stripes. Orange makeup completed the look on her face and arms.
She had calm, intelligent eyes which looked oddly familiar, and a warm smile.
"How do you do," she said and handed me a beer. "You must be Dani. Topher's told me so much about you."
"Glad to meet you." I took the beer.
"I'm Christy." She handed another beer to Tammy, who took it and popped the top without ceremony.
"Thanks. I'm Tammy." She started drinking.
"Where is Topher," I asked. I really wanted to see hir.
"Hit's around here somewhere, unless hit went for more beer."
Hit'd been teaching her the right words. I wondered if they were relatives.
I could see she had a tiger-tail pinned to her costume when she turned to the pool. She led a congo-line of drunken party-goers over to the tent and they all went in.
I wondered how crowded it must be in there.
Tammy and I descended the stairs into the underground.
It was a roundish room, shaped like a key-hole when you considered the stairs, dimly lit by candles along the perimeter and a hurricane lamp hanging from the ceiling.
It was mostly filled with barrels and crates. It looked like a store-room.
Some of the supplies had been broken open and three makeshift spreads were laid out on top of empty crates. The one in the middle held liquor bottles, to either side were tin-plates of hors d'oeuvres and canapés made from various preserved foods.
None of it looked very appetizing but I could see someone had but a great deal of effort into making do.
I took a saltine spread with something gray. It was cheese, sort of.
I tried to open my beer and found I didn't know how.
"Here you go, Bambi" said Tammy, trading me bottles and opening mine with no apparent effort. She swapped them back. "Ain't you ever opened no beer before?"
"No," I said matter-of-factly. Why would I have?
"Never? Don't your Daddy drink beer?"
"Sometimes, but he owns a bottle opener."
"Huh," she said and drained the rest of hers.
"You better eat something, honey," I told her. "Or you're gonna get drunk."
I took a tentative sip of my own beer.
It was fizzy, like soda, but that's the only aspect of it I was familiar with.
It didn't taste like I thought it would. It was crisp, sort of, like those apple sodas, but with a tang stronger than cider. And there was something else—maybe a hint of formaldehyde.
"Hey Tammy, do they put formaldehyde in beer? I think I can taste it."
"No," she shook her head. "That's shoju."
When she saw the look I gave her she felt compelled to explain.
"Uncle James has a business partner from Korea who drinks it...it's nasty."
She moved to the buffet and started stacking things on a paper plate. She got to the bar.
"Rum and Coke," she asked the bartender pleasantly, then added "a double."
The girl in the bat costume, I think it was a girl, shrugged and mixed it up. She gave it to Tammy who drank half of it in one go.
"Slow down, Evel Knievel," I told her, "you don't want to kill yourself."
"You just watch out for y'self, flyweight" she teased. "And let Momma Branch take care o' me."
If she kept drinking like that, she'd get drunk, or worse yet, sick. Then there would be questions.
I took another drink of my beer, this one bigger.
It wasn't bad.
Nothing was really happening in Old Man Habbit's cellar-of-doom, so I left Tammy alone and went to find Topher.
I didn't find him, only a couple of boys necking in the bushes, but I found the source of the booming. It was bass and it was coming from the pool.
I went over to the tent. Nobody was inside, but I could see why. There was an opening to the empty pool beneath, and I could see light coming up through it. The tent was there to keep anyone from seeing the light.
Then I realized it was all set up for this: the silent sentries, the underground music, it was all to keep this party on the sly. Maybe Christy's parents were out of town and said not to party in the house.
Well, we weren't.
The music was quite audible in the tent, but when I went down into the pool, it was deafening.
It was crowded, and well lit.
There were strobe lights strung along ropes on three sides of the pool, backdropped with wool army blankets, I suppose to muffle the sound.
At the far end of the pool was a car-stereo in a box, hooked to a car battery set on a crate, and a scuttlebutt of cold beer beside it.
I didn't recognize anybody.
I wended my way through the dancing crowd and found Christy in the corner, having words with a boy with a sour look on his face and a torn collar. She talked to him sternly and turned away.
He got mad and left.
"What did he do," I asked after he was gone. I could barely hear myself.
"He was hitting on a girl," she fairly yelled the reply, "and she asked him to stop."
"Oh," I said and took another drink of beer. "Did her boyfriend get mad?"
"No," she hollered. "Her girlfriend."
Oh. I'd forgotten I was, both figuratively and literally, underground.
"Did you find Topher," she asked, blinking in the strobelights.
"No," I yelled back," and the music stopped. "Not yet!"
A romantic melody began and the floor emptied out. A few couples made their way to the center and began slow-dancing.
"Do you dance," Christy asked.
"No, but my sister does. She's quite good."
"Not at all?" She pointed to the couples on the floor. "Not even like that?"
"I could," I answered, feeling like I somehow owed an explanation, "but I never have. I mean, what's the point?"
"Come on Dani," she held out her hand. "Try it. Dance with me?"
Slow dance with another girl?
A girl, not another. It was no more ridiculous than dancing with a boy.
What the hell? I drained my beer.
I took her hand and she led me out onto the dance floor.
She was just taller than me, enough to rest my head on her shoulder. She grabbed me around the waist and pulled me close, and we started swaying together, moving in lazy circles, oblivious of the other dancers.
It felt good. I don't usually long for human contact, but she was so soft and warm, and she smelled good. Like summer flowers.
I realized I might be leading her on, and I didn't want that.
"Have you known Topher long?"
"Since we were little kids."
"Are you two related?"
"We have the same grandparents."
What an odd way to denote consanguinity. That could mean they were either siblings or double cousins.
"Tell me what he's like. I've only known him a week or so. I like him, but wonder if he's really that nice."
"He's not," she spoke frankly. "He's a sneaky cuss, and you can't trust him."
"Really? It's all a facade?"
She stepped back, but kept pace with our dance. "As fake as this."
"You're not fake. You're in costume."
"Thank you, Heidi." She moved closer and put her cheek against mine. For a second, I thought she was going to kiss me.