How long can the days go on?

-Violent Femmes

Allison Reynolds' knife hovered in the air, poised to either stab into a cut of lamb or an elder Standish. Claire couldn't be sure which—though a girl could hope. Allison seemed to have forgotten all of Claire's make-up tips. Her eyes were ringed with black, her lips were black, her nails were black, and her black hair was done up like a kind of birds' nest with little skulls holding it out of place all over her head.

Allison was telling Mr. and Mrs. Standish a long, involved story about college basketball, a CIA conspiracy and a secret postal service called WASTE.

"Fictional worlds, Mrs. Standish, are not as separate from ours as people often suppose," Allison opined, emphasizing each word with a stab in the air with her knife. She then plunged the knife into the meat on her plate. "Do you suppose that in another world, Mr. Standish, this little lamb is still frolicking in a field with its mother?"

Claire's own mother stifled a cry and knocked back another glass of very expensive wine. She offered some to Allison who shook her head with a steady, unflinching glare as she slowly and steadily carved up the meat on her plate into tiny, tiny strips.

No one, no one at all, was looking at Claire or asking her about her night or her shopping or her car or her college plans. No one was fighting.

"Do you think I could bring that world and that lamb here into your dining room, Mr. Standish, by sheer force of will? I might. That's why I can't drink wine."

Claire's father blinked, and then blinked again. "But as far as the NCAA, who do you see winning the championship?"

Allison continued on as seriously as if she had been talking about...lambs reincarnated. "Houston looks good, but I don't see anyone beating Georgetown this year given the presence of young Patrick Ewing. I've called it for Georgetown all the way, much as it burned my patriotic, Illinois-loving heart. But even Superman cannot reverse history. And this is history. Or it will be by Tuesday. Could you pass the salad, Claire?"

Claire passed the salad. Claire realized she hadn't thought about John Bender, or bathroom doors, telephones, or handcuffs, since Allison had sat down to dinner and started holding forth. Maybe she really was magic.

"Could you tell us a little more about the secret postal system, Allison?" It was like they were talking about English class, or a yacht club race or something.

Allison nodded vigorously as she shoveled lettuce into her mouth. Claire's mother took the opportunity of pouring another glass of wine. There was silence as Allison chewed.

"The US government had recruited Patrick Ewing—it's why he went to Georgetown. To be close to the government. The government was upset that the CIA charter didn't allow it to intervene in matters here at home. That was how the secret postal system was born. Because it's fine to meddle with the postal system, and by making it secret, they decreased the probability that people would know, event hough it was okay in the first place. They modeled the secret system on the plot of a book by a novelist no one has ever seen. Who is actually a further government plot. So that if anyone ever caught on to the secret postal system, the CIA could just point to the 'novel' and say the person couldn't tell fiction from reality. That's why there aren't any pictures of Thomas Pynchon on any of his books. It's simple. Obvious, really, once you know."

Mr. Standish shook his head. Claire didn't understand why it wasn't exploding. She didn't understand how her mother and father were actually sitting around the dinner table talking to Allison as if she were not actually certifiably insane.

Maybe they got bored with these dinners, too. Or maybe the dinner was like the game people sometimes played in school of baiting someone by pretending to like them while all the time making them look dumb.

Except Allison didn't look dumb. She looked like a genius. With skulls in her hair, true. But they kind of just...worked.

Maybe Claire's parents were afraid Allison really might cast a spell and fill the dining room with resurrected baby sheep, reproaching everyone for the waste of their young lives, as Allison was currently suggesting. She made a strong case for vegetarianism and advocated for the humane consumption of Cap'n Crunch cereal. "Because he's just a cartoon, really. So it's not actual flesh we're eating in those crunchy, sugary nuggets of yum. Pass the salt?"

It was so much better than when John Bender had come over and her mother had hit on him that Claire wondered briefly if she should reconsider her allegiances.

But then, Claire's father was strangely attentive to Allison, and there she'd thought about Bender again. Maybe Allison's witchcraft wasn't that powerful, after all.

It hadn't been witchcraft when Allison arrived in her room with KitKat bars and a backpack and proceeded to stroke Claire's hair silently while she sobbed into her pillow.

She didn't ask any questions. She just took the phone off the hook, fed Claire bits of chocolate-covered wafer cookies and made funny faces at her until she laughed. Then they planned Allison's dinner outfit. Claire was thrilled with the tiny skulls.

"I love accessories," she squealed. "Even weird mental ones."

"Those ones are the best," said Allison, "they sneak up on you and steal your heart."

Claire realized she was staring at the skulls dotting Allison's head as Mr. Standish was grilling Allison some more on Georgetown's involvement with the secret postal system and whether it affected their chances in the big game. "Can we have dessert in my room?" Claire asked suddenly. "Not that this isn't completely awesome, but we have homework."

Later, in the sea of pink, Allison stirred KitKat crumbs into a bowl of soupy, melted ice cream. Chocolate and strawberry. They'd scooped those flavors out and left the vanilla untouched in the carton.

Claire put the phone back on its hook.

"Sure about that?" said Allison, staring intently into the swirling pink and brown soup.

"I just—I mean, he maybe already tried to call when it was off the hook and now I don't need to worry."

"You look unworried. Do you want to tell me about it now?"

Maybe it would feel better if she just…said it.

"I put John Bender in handcuffs and gave him a handjob."

"And all I got was this lousy t-shirt." Allison never stopped stirring.

Silence.

"Did he pressure you to do that?" Allison's gaze stayed right on the bowl.

"He was the one in handcuffs, Allison!"

Stirring. Swirly, brown-flecked soup of goo.

"I also smeared chocolate on him."

Allison lifted her eyes. The black was starting to smudge, which made her widened eyes look even wider. "Did you take pictures?"

Claire giggled. She couldn't help it.

The eyes narrowed, more serious. "Did he pressure you?"

"No." Claire sighed. "I can't even blame it on that." She felt the sick feeling again and was immediately grateful Allison's dinner discussion had kept her clear of the lamb on her plate. "It was totally my idea."

"Totally?"

"Well, Rocket gave me some pointers but only after I…I guess I showed I was interested."

"Were you?"

Silence. Claire picked at the little pink fabric pills on her comforter. "Yes," she whispered. "But I also just…like kissing." She looked up. "Allison, I only just started kissing last week! How did I get to handjobs and what if he doesn't want to kiss me anymore, or if he always wants…And I think he went home to his father and his father beats him and why am I even thinking about kissing when his life is so awful and when did I get to be such a slut?"

"Claire. You're not a slut. You're also a virgin. Not that you couldn't be a slut and a virgin at the same time but it's probably harder."

"Yeah, well, I'm apparently very talented. I'm the virgin and the whore. Hi! I'm Claire! Teach me how to kiss and I'll give you a handjob within the week! He was really mad about the tapes, too. And he left this morning, he said he had to work! It's Sunday!"

"He went to Rocket's today. I called Andy and Andy checked on him because, you know, it's Bender, he could be drunk or murdering someone or getting murdered. But Bender was working, and he said he'd go over to Kenny's later. You're not a slut."

"Do you think he's mad because I didn't go all the way?"

"Did you give him a handjob so he wouldn't be mad?"

"Maybe? A little? I mean, how long can I really expect him to just hang out kissing me?"

Allison didn't say anything. She bit her lip. Claire realized that might be a question she was asking herself.

"I mean, I think the answer to that question should be as long as I want him to. And he wants to. Because he likes me, and, like, you. I mean Andy. But then there's these-it's like there's these stories in the air, what guys are like, what they want. So even if they aren't pressuring you, they are. And it's not like they...you know, say no, or don't want it. Do you understand even any of the sense I'm not making?" Claire ended with a giggle.

"There are stories in the air." Allison gestured around the room. "Which in here, must take on a pinkish hue." She punched a pillow. "But you're right. I hear them, too. It's supposed to be okay if you hear voices if they don't tell you to do things. But they kind of do."

Claire nodded. "Of course, when you say it, it sounds ten times more likely that we belong in an insane asylum. But yes. They kind of do, but even that is a story I'm telling myself. Because maybe I'd feel better if," she took a deep breath. "Maybe I'd feel better if I was pressured. But it was me. I wanted to. It feels powerful. I like power, even though everyone thinks I have it mostly I don't, really. Mostly I'm doing what other people want me to do. Like, all the time. So it's like—I'm telling myself that I did it so he wouldn't get sick of being teased and leave, but it's not really true. I wanted to do it. I dreamed about doing it. That's what makes me a slut. I wanted it."

"Wow." Allison shook her head.

"Is that messed up?" Claire paused to think about what the world would be like if she, Claire Standish, became too freaky for Allison Reynolds to hang out that.

"Well, yeah, but—it's also really honest."

"Isn't that weird?"

"Yeah. Honesty is the weirdest. But Claire? I don't think wanting it makes you a slut. Technically, I think a slut is someone who does it for something besides want, like money or prestige or something. I'm pretty sure that giving a handjob to John Bender is not something that will enhance your prestige at Shermer."

"If anyone ever, ever finds out, I am one hundred percent and completely ruined."

Allison frowned. "Ruined." She sounded thoughtful, then her tone sharpened. "Does anyone know about you and Bender?"

"I certainly hope not. Jesus."

"I think under the circumstances we can leave the Lamb of God out of this."

An incredible sound came out of Claire, some kind of cross between a squeal and a grunt and a gasp. "You are awful."

"I thought you were."

Claire gasped for real, and it hut, because suddenly Allison didn't sound so much like she was joking or being outrageous just for the sake of it. "You did?"

Allison was quiet for a moment, her turn to pick the tiny pink pills from Claire's bedspread. "Well," she said, turning her stark eyes on Clare, now without a hint of humor. "Don't you think maybe it's a little messed up that you'll handcuff Bender in private but you won't hold hands with him—like, in the halls?"

"He wouldn't want that," Claire snapped, stung. "Can you imagine? Talk about a ruined reputation. John Bender holding hands? With me?" She kicked the other ice cream bowl over on the floor, mingling its pink and brown swirls with the pink roses on her carpet.

"Have you asked him?"

"I am not," Claire took a deep breath. She made herself stare at ballerina pictures for a full thirty seconds before speaking. "I am not going to be a clingy princess girl who whines about being a girlfriend. I'm just not!"

"Is that totally why you don't talk to him in public? Because you think he doesn't want to look like he has you for a girlfriend? Because I am not at all sure he doesn't want to look like that."

"NO! It's not the only reason. He would have to say so if he wanted that. He would have to explicitly ask. And then I would have to think about it. Allison, he's not just some nice boy who everyone misunderstands because he's abused. Ok. He is abused, but that doesn't mean he isn't also seriously, seriously messed up!"

"You're noticing this now. Some of us have stuff that messes us up, do you not like that about us?"

"Allison. You and John are not the same. You have had...horrible stuff and you are trying like hell and you are...weird but here, and...awesome."

"John is awesome."

"Yes. He is awesome and he tore the door off its hinges. He didn't hurt me, he doesn't. But that's scary. And it's not like he's making some enormous commitment to me and, like, giving me his jacket or something! He took me on one date! He just barely made the crazy leap of admitting he doesn't like watching me kiss other people and he thinks it's a moral failing! He feels me up in alleys, that's what he likes!"

She stared at Allison. Allison was holding a grubby Care Bare and absently stroking its head. Except it wasn't absently at all.

"I'm not" Claire whispered "giving up everything I have, no matter how stupid you think it is, for some boy who doesn't even know enough to call me the day after he woke up in bed with me after what was obviously my first time with...waking up with a boy. He doesn't talk to me at school, either, did you think of that?"

"Did you call him?"

"That's not my job. I got the room. I brought the chocolates. I taped him, yeah. Okay. We all did. But I am not clinging. I will not do it. I gave him.. He can call, or he can just..."

"Go home?"

Claire thought about John Bender's toes and wondered how anyone ever managed to survive any of this at all.

xxxxx

"KENNYYYY!"

The street was quiet, rows of small white houses with mostly hedges and okay grass. Quiet. Had been. John's voice was loud.

"KENNYYYY! OPEN THE GODDAMN DOOR OR I'LL OPEN IT FOR YOU!"

John was only a little drunk, a few shots in quick succession so he'd go through with it. With all this. And if he was going to get drunk, it had to be now because being drunk tomorrow in school would get him kicked out and then he wouldn't get to see Claire.

He heard the squeak and scrape of a window opening, and his friend's head poked out. "Bender. Shut the hell up. What do you want."

"You're the one who heard the fucking tapes, right? You heard them?"

"Yeah—alright, hell. But if I come down, are you gonna deck me?"

"I should. I seriously fucking should. What the HELL were you thinking, helping those preppy little rich kids fuck with my head like that?"

"Allison Reynolds isn't rich. Or preppy. And I doubt she or Claire need my help to fuck with your head." He sighed. "I did it for Brian. He's helping me with math and thinks I could have my own shop someday. And for you, you sick motherfucker. Hang on. I'll be down, and if you deck me, I'll tell Allison." The window slammed shut.

"I'm not afraid of Allison fucking Reynolds!" shouted John to the entire neighborhood.

Kenny opened the door. "Then you're a bigger idiot than I ever thought. What's up?"

John Bender looked down at the beat-up backpack in his hands. He looked at the ground beneath it and wished it would swallow him and all of Illinois along with it.

"Ineedyourhelpwithsomething."

"What was that?" Kenny was still halfway behind the door.

"You heard me."

"No, I didn't. Probably because you were talking to the ground, Bender."

"I need….help with something. From you. Because you know stuff."

"What kind of thing."

"You already heard the tapes. So it has to be you. Plus you do all that AV stuff."

"I'm not in fucking AV club."

"Your girlfriend's little brother is. C'mon."

"Okay, Bender." Kenny opened the door and John walked in. "But get yourself to the bathroom and wash your mouth out with toothpaste or something. You reek like whiskey and my mom'll throw your ass out if she smells it on you."

John stopped dead in his tracks when Kenny opened his bedroom door to show a very familiar dweeb sitting crosslegged on the floor surrounded by books and papers. His whole body seemed to twitch in greeting.

"What the hell is he doing here?"

"I believe it's the backstroke, sir," Brian blurted, and then practically fell over laughing. Kenny snorted. Bender stood still and stared.

"Alright, alright, I'm leaving." Brian began gathering up the papers in a sort of pile. He shifted, sat on a pencil.

"Got any pudding?" Bender asked.

"Um, um—no, but…" Brian repiled an already piled pile. "I could, you know, get you some. But then. I mean, from the store but then I'd have to come back."

Bender nodded. "That must be why you bring in the grades, genius."

"Um, and—is that, is that okay?"

"Hey, it's my house, okay? It's not up to Bender" John cut him off with a glare. "Brian's in AV club," Kenny mumbled.

"Get the pudding, dweeb, give us a minute, and then you can come back."

Kenny added, "With Twinkies, too."

Brian unpiled the piles, got up from the nest of science on the floor, and ran off.

John sighed. "That kid is hopeless and fucking awesome at the same time, I don't get it. Got any coffee? I could get even a little more sober than I am now, if you can believe it. Tomorrow"