Elle has eyes like impermeable fog—depthless and dangerous. It's why, Claire supposes, Noah sometimes looks upon the girl with a pinched face and a weary sigh hitched at the back of his throat. After Bob's death, he'd felt sorry for her, shoved notions of catastrophic repercussions aside and set her in the guest bedroom beside Claire's. Elle helps Sandra trim dinners, offers Lyle half-hearted courting advice even though she herself isn't familiar with proper dating etiquette and always obeys their house rules (including those pesky extras Noah paves out just for her).
Claire regards Elle with steely mannerisms and unadorned disinterest. Whenever the electric blonde levels her gaze with Claire's, sparks break through the otherwise foggy abyss and Claire finds herself glowering to stave off the resulting whirlwind in her belly. Elle inevitably runs. She rockets into her bedroom to berate the strange feelings snaking up and down her body. Some of it feels good and some of it doesn't. Daddy used to chastise her for indulging in the things that made her feel good, like crackle-frying small animals and searing people, making anything that could scream. She reasons Daddy would say this feeling is bad too.
Elle wriggles out of her clothing, lies on top of her sheets and stares at the wall separating their rooms, willing it to crumble away. She wishes Claire would catch her touching herself; hear her mewling and rasping the younger blonde's name. Elle groans and blinks tears out of her eyes as her sticky fingers fall away from her panties. Elle recognizes that it's frustration stoking the tears. She's never wanted anything like she wants Claire.
When Claire comes home on Friday and announces that she has a date with Dean Patrick at 8pm Elle feels a surge of anger plummet into her guts and the tightly reined control she's worked so hard on mastering slackens, causing every electrical pulse on their block to short-circuit. Sandra lights candles and pets her hair when Noah softly scolds her. "She's still learning, Noah," sighs Sandra. "Give her a break, she's trying," and with that Noah agrees so he pats her on the back like a fragile thing and mumbles something about a back-up generator.
Elle watches Claire putter around the dimly lit house. The blackout hasn't deterred her plans. In fact, Claire seems even more determined to see through the date. When Dean knocks on the door with flowers and too much gel in his dark hair, jealousy wells up behind Elle's eyes, but this time she clasps her glowing hands behind her back and urges herself to swallow the emotion. She imagines deluging Dean's lanky 6' frame with every volt she can muster, watching his tan skin hiss and shrivel into dust and his rubber tennis shoes puddle into the coarse welcome mat. The imagery helps her cope, even when Dean runs his filthy eyes up and down Claire's legs. The cheerleader is wearing a skirt three inches shy of proper and an indiscernible mirth in her eyes as she glances at Elle over her mom's shoulder.
And when Sandra shuts the door and ushers Elle into the kitchen for a warm glass of milk and oatmeal cookies, she asks her, "Wasn't that boy handsome?"
Elle wants to yell No! She bites the inside of her mouth until blood seeps onto her tongue and nods her head. Jealousy makes the cookies taste horrible. When Sandra, Noah, and Lyle retire to bed Elle sits up on the sofa with her legs tucked beneath her. She watches (thanks to the back-up generator) infomercials, Wonder Years reruns and a program about free range poultry to pass the time. The front door eeks open at exactly 12:03 and Elle is relieved to hear Dean's wheezy car hacking all the way down the road instead of hushed voices, giggles and overly wet adolescent kisses.
Claire sets her keys down and walks into the den expectantly. That unsettling whirlwind knots up Claire's insides again as Elle searches for any indication—an unkempt lock of hair, a rumpled blouse, smeared lip gloss—that icky, undeserving Dean had touched the cheerleader. "What are you looking at?" snaps Claire, plopping onto the farthest end of the sofa. She's flustered, but hiding it well.
When Claire passes the inspection, Elle sighs out an answer, "Nothing." She chews on her lip contentedly and mulls over whether or not to ask Claire about her date. Where had they gone? Does she like like Dean the way Elle like likes Claire? Elle openly stares at the cheerleader, but Claire doesn't like it, whips her head around to make a snarky comment about perverts and discretion so she peers at Claire stealthily. Claire's seated very unladylike—legs open wide enough to afford Elle a flash of virgin white cotton panties. She watches Claire bring her palm to her inner thigh to lazily address a pang or an itch.
Elle doesn't realize she hasn't been breathing until the younger girl rustles off the sofa. "Good night," Elle says softly to which Claire gruntingly shrugs off.
Elle pours herself a glass of water out of a filtered pitcher before heading upstairs. Claire's bathroom is lit and slightly ajar. When Elle edges closer and inadvertently spies Claire's half-nude reflection in the bathroom mirror she nearly shatters the glass. Her heart flutters witlessly at the sight of Claire's naked chest, the toned flat expanse of her stomach, those legs. Claire continues to brush her hair and just when Elle starts to believe Claire is utterly oblivious to her presence, the younger girl casually locks eyes with her in the mirror and Elle's desire hits a new crescendo. Claire gazes into the mirror and Elle continues to gaze at Claire and they both pretend like neither one knows the other is watching. This happens until they hear the nosy click of a doorknob which prompts Claire to shut the door and Elle to hastily push inside her bedroom.
Elle plods downstairs to find Claire sitting at the breakfast bar nursing a half-eaten bowl of cereal. "Morning," she mumbles even though she knows Claire will just roll her pretty eyes. "Where's everyone?"
"Not that it's any of your business, but my dad had a Company meeting and my mom and Lyle are at church."
"Oh." She shakes some absurdly sugary cereal puffs into a bowl and reaches past Claire to snatch the milk carton. The cheerleader wraps a tiny hand around her wrist in a way that makes Elle cringe and want to zap her.
"You didn't say please," says Claire coolly. "Who else is going to teach you manners, Elle? Everyone thinks you're a freak. That's why Mom doesn't take you to church. She's afraid you'll embarrass her."
Elle pushes a carefully portioned current out of her gut and stings Claire hard enough to urge the cheerleader into laxing her clutch. Claire hisses and brings a throbbing finger to her lips. "Noah said you're not allowed to talk to me like that," she snivels, peeved and more than a little hurt. She steals the milk carton to spite Claire. "It's too bad you don't have any dungeons in this house, you know. My daddy would have locked me in the dungeon."
"That's because you have Jeffrey Dahmer written all over you."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Elle lets out a growl before she can stop herself. "I might tell him you're being naughty." Elle would never tell on Claire. She just likes to rile her up the way Claire ramps up the lightning bolts in her blood.
Claire smiles calculatedly. "Tell him," she says, absently swishing her spoon around the milk. "I'll just tell him you like to watch me undress. I'm sure he'll forget all about my little outbursts then."
Elle feels cold all over. Claire's words wipe out every electrical zip, pop, white-blue slice and scorching whip normally winding through her veins and meanly replaces them with a dull stagnant frost.
Claire's fingers cock her head upright. She studies Elle earnestly, "You're not scared, are you?"
Scared of Noah? No. Scared of being sent back to the Company HQ, or to that lead room where you can scream and scream until your lungs leak red and no one hears you? She swallows the hard lump in her throat. Yes. She'd rather die with Noah's gun to her head and a bullet wrung between her ears. Elle mulishly shakes her head. Daddy always told her to put her best face forward: "Even if the earth is shambling around you and you feel like it's the moment everything's going to go to shit, go out with dignity, Elle."
Claire feels her insides squelch at the fear curling off the other girl. Every rip of apprehension almost makes her want to tug Elle close, press their bodies snug and whisper nothing short of sickeningly sweet fluff. Almost. She hardens her grip on Elle's chin and edges closer. "All you have to do," she rasps, leaning forward to brush soft lips to the delicate outer shell of Elle's ear, "is be a good girl, Elle. You know how to be a good girl, don't you?" Claire pretends like she's unaffected by this touching, but if Elle was less distracted she'd notice the way Claire's eyes look hot and bothered, her frantic pulse, the ragged breaths.
Elle shivers. She likes the new way Claire is talking to her, touching her, cooing and purring at her like a cat. For the first time in her life she doesn't mind being a good girl. Claire dismisses her with a demeaning tap on the nose.
Elle poutingly reconsiders her enthusiasm as she separates the whites from the colors. Sandra taught her how to do laundry the proper way after her red sweater bled into her whites. When Elle comes back from the laundry room, Claire is stretching her limbs out. She smirks at the electric blonde. "I'm going for a run. I'll be back in an hour. Make sure you have a bath drawn for me."
It's been two weeks since Claire told Elle to be a good girl and Elle hasn't liked one bit of it. She's been up to her elbows in detergents, dry cleaning orders, english papers (after Claire discovered Elle's propensity for the subject) and every two-bit whim the younger girl sought to indulge in. When Claire beckons her to the make-up counter to serve as a stand-in for a lipstick shade that could go either way, Elle wants to tell Claire where she can shove it. She purses her lips tight instead, makes Claire fuss over the correct way to pucker her mouth. When Claire asks Elle to please make her some lemonade because Noah's watching, Elle forgets to add sugar. When Claire tells her to make breakfast, she burns the toast and makes the eggs sunnyside up instead of scrambled. When Claire sends Elle and Mr. Muggles to the groomer's, Elle brings him back home with a green mohawk and not much hair anywhere else. Sandra's eyes are as wide as pie plates and Elle giggles into her fist as the woman reprimands her daughter. Claire isn't happy but Elle doesn't care. She even steals the last piece of vegetarian pizza knowing full-well that Claire only eats vegetarian pizza and had had her eye on the greasy triangle.
When Elle skips out of her bathroom that night, freshly showered and dressed in short shorts and a tank top to combat the heat, Claire's waiting for her around the corner. She has her arms tucked across her chest and a mean look on her face. "You're not following through with our agreement," she hisses, poking a perfectly manicured finger into Elle's chest (which Elle kind of likes).
"That's because I didn't know you were going to induct me into 21st century slavery," she says in a tone that sounds much like a duh.
"Oh, come on, Elle. What were you expecting?"
She opens her mouth to blurt something out, but her lips just flop shut, face flushing as she remembers exactly what she had expected. Something sultry, unequivocally more fulfilling than washing Claire's lingerie or taking the barking rat out for a walk. The way Claire had leaned up against her body and touched her soft lips to her ear…
"Elle!" snaps Claire. When the electric blonde responds with a dreamy smile Claire sneers disgustedly and stomps down the hall and into her bedroom where she shuts the door, reconsiders, and then scoots it open a tad.
Elle isn't stupid. She nearly tumbles over Mr. Muggles and a family heirloom in her dash towards Claire's bedroom. It's dark. The door shuts behind her, sealing the shadowy drone in. Elle bites her lip and keeps tiptoeing forward. She holds her hand out and torches it. The pretty blue halo shows her that Claire is just ahead of her, maybe two feet. Head bowed and eyes lidded. "Claire?" she whispers, edging closer. Maybe she shouldn't have come. Maybe this was another one of Claire's teasing ploys. Daddy was right about assumptions. Boy does Elle feel like an ass right now. She wonders if Claire feels like one too. "I'll just go," she says and turns to leave, extinguishing her makeshift light.
Claire's hand grips her arm with a surprising strength and even though the cheerleader doesn't say anything Elle knows she's asking her to stay. So she stays and eventually Claire comes closer, drags her fingertips down Elle's arms, tracing the live wires under her skin. Elle shuts her eyes and Claire's lips touch her face, just under her eye, barely-there butterfly kisses over her cheek and then on her lips. They're both breathing hard and Elle wants to slam Claire against the wall and fuck her, but she doesn't. Claire's mouth presses on hers more firmly, needy, and when Elle draws the tip of her tongue along the swell of Claire's bottom lip the cheerleader lets out the sweetest moan. Elle swears the airy sound makes her come a little and she bites down. Claire whimpers and Elle can't help but wind her fingers in the younger girl's hair. She's cupping her face with the other hand, stroking down her cheek and neck. She gets this thrilling urge to squeeze down on Claire's delicate neck. Perhaps from sloppily quelling all that resentment she'd been subconsciously harboring from those times Claire was mean to her. After a while, Claire breathlessly shoves her away. Elle illuminates the room and stares at Claire. She looks beautiful. Flustered, eyes rounded and alight with want, lips swollen and wet, hair slightly rumpled and chest heaving laboriously. "Get out," she rasps and Elle wants to stick her chin out indignantly, say 'no.' But Claire repeats herself and Elle obeys.
Elle can't sleep. Her body is humming everywhere and her lips are numb from smiling so wide. The ache between her legs keeps tugging her hands up and down her body, but she bats the desire away, unwilling to settle for second-rate satisfaction when Claire's mere feet away. She knows the cheerleader wants her. But how bad? She wonders if Claire is awake, stubbornly struggling with the notion of getting off or simply getting off. Rubbing until it's raw. Elle bites her pillow and begs for the sandman to take her away.
Claire won't look her in the eyes. Lyle is at a friend's house and Sandra's busy with Mr. Muggles business. Elle sits on the kitchen island and Claire leans up against the opposite end. Noah is in charge of tonight's dinner. He's wearing an apron with Mr. Muggles' face on it and sashaying to and from the cabinets and refrigerator, stove and counter. "Will you start prepping the green beans, honey?" he asks Claire.
The cheerleader jumps up, startled, but easily regains her perky footing. "Sure," she says.
Elle picks a green bean out of the bowl and snaps it in half. Noah slaps her hand away and says, "Will you please set the table?"
Elle lays out four places because Lyle is staying over at Benny's. She makes sure the dining ware is perfectly spaced and symmetrical with one another. Noah thanks her when she comes back into the kitchen and even allows her to steal another green bean as a reward. She stares at Claire, but the cheerleader doesn't say anything, doesn't even acknowledge her with a glower or a piercing remark. Elle doesn't like this very much.
Sandra wrangles everyone into one room and announces it's time to put the Halloween decorations up. Lyle groans and Claire sighs noisily, but Elle is excited. Daddy never let her decorate for Halloween because "there's no such thing as fun productivity." Sandra drives them out to a pumpkin patch that evening. Claire chooses a squat, lopsided pumpkin because it's nearest, but Elle takes her time narrowing one down, stalking past row after row to select the biggest aesthetically pleasing pumpkin she can sort-of lift. They tack a skeleton to the front door, string up fake heads and a cartoony witch on a broom, smear cobwebs and plastic spiders across the windows, wind stolen police tape around the front porch and arrange light-up headstones up and down the front lawn.
They laze around the kitchen with round mugs of hot chocolate and gut their pumpkins. Claire stabs her squash passionlessly. When Elle asks Claire what she's carving, Claire says, "Your face," so Elle drops the subject and focuses on her own artistry. Sandra coaches Elle in the beginning, but she gets the hang of it. Noah is away on Company business but Elle carves an extra pumpkin with thick horn-rimmed glasses just for him. Sandra smiles and fixes her an extra mug of cocoa. Claire squints her eyes at Elle when Sandra's not looking, sneers, "Suck up."
Halloween is days away and Claire still won't look her in the eye. Elle wishes the cheerleader would boss her around and make her do her laundry because at least then Claire acknowledged her. Claire has been yapping on about a Halloween party for the past week. When Claire's cheerleading friends come over on Tuesday Elle overhears Jenna telling Claire, "Dean Patrick won't stop asking about you. He's totally into you."
Elle painfully bites her lip, squares her shoulders, and pushes into the kitchen where the girls are doing their respective homework assignments. A brunette girl with bright eyes stares at her as she reaches into the fruit bin and pulls out an orange. The girl casually leans into Claire and whispers, "Who's that?"
Claire looks up. "That's just Elle," she says, seemingly annoyed. Elle feels Claire's eyes at her backside and even though she isn't particularly thirsty she can't help but bend over to reach the juice box at the back of the fridge.
Claire grimaces and pushes harder against her pencil. The lead makes a groaning noise, but no one notices.
"God, Katie," laughs Jenna. "You're such a skank. Last week you were checking out my gross step dad and then the bag girl at Wild Oats. Let's not forget the chemistry substitute, Cruella Deville herself. I'm all for progression and open-mindedness, but you're worse than my boyfriend."
Katie scoffs, flicks brunette hair over her shoulder. "First of all, your step dad is like 20 years younger than your mom. He's dumber than my brother's hamster, too sweet, and looks like he walked out of an Abercrombie and Finch catalogue. I'd hold his hand at most."
"Whatever." Jenna holds up her hand and casts a curious glance towards Elle. "She would never go for you anyway."
"I, for one, would like a second opinion," huffs Katie, bumping a slender shoulder into Claire, "What do you think?"
"She's off limits."
"Why is she off limits?"
"Because, Katie, she just is, okay?" Claire growls, slamming her pencil against the table. The tip snaps off and rolls towards the beveled edge.
"Oh my God," laughs Katie. "Is there something you'd like to tell us?"
"No. Shut up. Just drop it, okay?" And they do, but only because Claire is the alpha cheerleader.
Elle senses Claire is in a grayish mood. She makes it a point to saunter over. "Hi," she greets, armed with a saucy smile and twinkling eyes.
"Go away," snarls Claire. "We're busy."
"I'm not," announces Katie. "I am officially done with my history paper. But if we're bothering you guys, we can go to the living room?"
Before Elle can protest or dully note Claire's richer-than-average hostility, Katie loops Elle's arm with hers and escorts her away from her friends. Claire doesn't look too happy and for a second Elle wants to console her, but then she remembers how much of a bitch Claire has been and doesn't look back again. Katie is flirty, overtly sexual and incapable of keeping her hands to herself. She touches Elle's hair, her hands, her leg. She leans in, makes farfetched innuendos and bats her eyelashes too much. Despite these little nuances, Elle can't forget that Katie is a pretty girl. When Claire comes after them an agonizing half hour later to tell Katie she should leave because Claire isn't allowed to have friends over for non-homework related extracurricular activities until Friday, Katie fearlessly pecks Elle on the cheek. Elle knows Claire is lying because Claire is a good girl and never gets in trouble.
Dean shows up the next day for dinner. He has too much gel in his hair again and a stale boxed cake for dessert. He talks about sports and weather and cuts all his food into bite sized pieces. Claire won't stop staring at Elle. Dean is horrible at playing footsy. He brushes his feet against Elle's foot and winks at Claire. Elle zaps him and he spills water all over his lap. He yelps like Mr. Muggles. Halfway through dinner Noah asks Elle to grab some more napkins and as soon as she disappears into the kitchen Claire rips the chair out from under her and scrambles after Elle, mumbling something about ice cubes. "What do you think about Dean?" Claire asks as Elle rifles through cabinets.
"What is he even doing here?" Rifle. Rifle.
Claire slams an ice cube tray on the counter. "What were you doing with Katie?"
"Don't act stupid, Elle."
"Bullshit. No one 'just talks' with Katie."
"Well, I did."
"That's not what she said."
"I suggest you get better sources because all we did was talk. And if inviting Dean over for dinner is your idea of payback then bravo, consider us even."
"That is not why Dean is over for dinner. I happen to… like him. A lot. Yeah, I really like him. In fact, I was thinking of kissing him tonight. He might be the one."
Elle rolls her eyes. "Good luck with that."
"Don't look at me like that."
"Like you've got me all figured out."
The napkin hunt is forgotten. The ice cubes are shoved aside to melt. Claire and Elle are nose-to-nose now and breathing huskily. "Don't I?" whispers Elle.
Claire leans upward slightly, connecting their lips. Elle's hands fervently wrap around Claire's thighs, pushing her up against the kitchen island as the cheerleader knots her ankles behind Elle. The kisses are scorching and burning urgent trails down to their very cores. Their moans bleed together, stretching out to end where another one begins. Claire's clawing at her back and this time Elle thinks she might just fuck Claire on this counter in ear range of yucky Dean and the oblivious Bennets. She runs her palms up Claire's back, down her sides, slides them across her hips and curls them around Claire's ass, squeezing possessively. Claire groans and tightens her legs, grinding herself against Elle. "I think someone's coming," whispers Elle, pushing at Claire even as the cheerleader presses her mouth to her neck and grinds her hips more firmly. "Claire," she hisses, pulse thrumming so hard and fast she might explode.
They scatter just as the kitchen door flops open: Elle furiously jabbing into a previously abandoned cabinet with dilated eyes and a rutted ponytail and Claire fishing out a runny ice cube with her blouse twisted and her skirt riding up. Noah studies them inquisitively. He frowns so rigidly his horn-rimmed glasses slide down his nose and he has to poke them back into place. "Did you two want dessert?" he asks.
Claire smiles and shakes her head. "No thanks, Daddy."
"Elle?" His tone is unmasked suspicion.
Elle feels her skin prickle with anxiety. "I'm fine," she manages.
"Well, come on, girls. Poor Dean has been sitting out there dateless for 20 minutes. Your mother is talking his ear off about competitive dog showing and I don't think the poor boy is going to make it through another minute without reinforcements. You know how long-winded Sandra can be about her passions, Elle."
Elle nods silently because she thinks Noah is setting her up. She sits down at the table and watches everyone except Claire eat Dean's chocolate bundt cake and vanilla bean ice cream. And when the torturous ordeal is finished and everyone is full of ultra-processed refined sugars and nearly out of random things to discuss Claire makes something up about a literature assignment and rushes Dean out of the house so quickly he's still got a napkin tucked into his shirt.
Sandra and Claire clear the table, Lyle wipes it down, and Noah washes the dishes. He asks Elle to man the drying station so she cowers beside him with a clean rag. It's just the two of them and this suffocating air of awkward pretense in the kitchen now. Elle knows Noah is a smart man, can piece two and two together with patches over his eyes and his hands tied to his nuts. "You and Claire seem to be getting along better," he says and Elle nearly breaks the bread plate she's been polishing.
"Not really," she offers, hoping to lead him astray. "As far as Claire is concerned I'm her least favorite person. Ever." She hopes Noah is buying this. "Ever ever."
He hmms like a doctor and Elle knows to be worried. "She's been acting strange ever since you've been here," he says. "I don't know. Maybe it's just an overprotective father's overactive imagination," he laughs, rinsing suds off the last dish before handing it over.
"That's got to be it."
"What do you think about that Dean kid?"
Elle forces a smile on her face. "He's… nice."
Noah hmms like a doctor again and leaves the room. Elle's wobbly legs give out and she slides onto the floor, relieved that Noah didn't kill her for touching his Clairebear and grateful that Noah's suspicions were still mere breadcrumbs.
Everyone is on their way to the Bennet's lakeside cabin. Except for Claire who says she's sick and Elle who's punished for zapping a rude neighbor. Elle doesn't believe Claire is sick because when Noah tells Claire she's in charge of the older girl she smiles wider than a watermelon wedge. They haven't talked about the incident in Claire's bedroom, or the incident in the kitchen, or the incident in the living room during a previously taped episode of Saturday Night Live, or the incident in the janitor's closer (after Claire phoned Sandra and told her she'd forgotten her cheerleading outfit Elle was appointed delivery girl and when their eyes had locked in the empty, squeaky-floored hallway, neither girl could resist). They haven't gone past kisses and over-the-clothes feels mostly because whenever Elle unsnaps Claire's bra or runs her fingers up her skirt someone nearly walks in on them. And lately Elle has been seeing Noah's face, nostrils flared and eyes open and engorged, but that isn't the worst part. Bam! Bam! Bam! all the way until the gun lets out a spent click.
Elle lies down on the couch. There's nothing on TV and Noah changed the access code to those naughty channels she sometimes likes to watch. The house is warm and she inadvertently nods off. Something soft tickles her face, antagonizing her out of slumber. Claire's bent over her, long hair brushing against her cheek. Elle sits up and Claire offers her a sneaky smile. She's dressed in a threadbare bikini that draws Elle's eyes everywhere. "I'm bored. Come in the hot tub with me?" she says.
"I thought you were sick?"
"I feel a lot better."
"I should probably stay here and lash my knuckles with a ruler or something. I mean, I don't think Noah would like it if I was having fun when I'm supposed to be reflecting and atoning." She fluffs the throw pillow under her head and shuts her eyes.
"Daddy said I was in charge. You heard him," says Claire, folding her arms across her chest. "That means you have to do what I tell you to do."
"I don't think he meant it like that, Claire. I know it's probably what you're accustomed to, being daddy's little girl and all, but you can't just skew shit to get what you want. I'm an adult, okay? I know these things."
"Barely," scoffs Claire, carelessly tossing blonde hair over her shoulder. Claire can be such a priss. "Don't get all self-righteous on me, or did you forget which one of us is the nut case?"
Elle wants to punch Claire in the face, bloody her pretty mouth, even knock some teeth loose. She kicks the coffee table and jets out the front door instead. She doesn't listen when Claire calls after her and pries the cheerleader's fingers off her arms when she tries to physically restrain her three-fourths down the driveway. She doesn't know where she's going, but she doesn't care. Claire is mean and Elle is sick of being a good girl.