Never Have I Ever Page 1

Author: Joshilyn Jackson

Genres: Fiction , Thriller


The Game was Roux’s idea. More than an idea. A plan. She made it up herself, this shotgun of a game. She packed it tight with salt and metal, counting on collateral damage, too, but she aimed it straight at me. She said it was like Never Have I Ever, but not any version I’d ever played. It began innocently enough, with everyone confessing the worst thing they’d done that day.

None of us had ever heard of Roux’s rules, so it was possible she invented them that night, for us. For me. Or perhaps she’d played this way before, spreading it, so that her game now cropped up at slumber parties when Truth or Dare or Two Truths and a Lie had lost their shine. Only middle-school girls could safely play it, children whose worst thing was, I showed my bra to that boy I like, or I called my sister the b-word.

We should have known better.

We were grown-up women, so we packed our worsts away in hidden boxes. We were mothers, so we sank those boxes under jobs and mortgages and meal plans. Mothers have to sink those boxes deep.

Roux announced herself with the knocker, three sharp raps, though of course we had a doorbell. It was at least twenty minutes after every other neighbor who was coming had arrived.

Charlotte, her arms full of refill snacks, paused by the stairs and asked, “Now, who on earth could that be?” We already had a large turnout. All the regulars were here, and then some.

“I’ll get it. Go on down to the basement.”

I opened the door to a stranger, standing easy with the fat moon rising behind her, practically perched on her shoulder. That moon had drenched my neighborhood in silver light, soft and wavery, so she looked like she’d climbed up the steps from an underwater world into the egg-yolk glow of my porch light.

I knew from the hair, dead straight and dead black, falling past her shoulder blades, that she was the latest tenant in the Airbnb house that was the bane of Charlotte’s cul-de-sac. It was a saggy-roofed eyesore that my husband, Davis, called “the Sprite House” for its peeling green-and-yellow paint job. Char kept up a running commentary on the house’s ongoing decay and the transients and tourists who passed through it; she’d christened this latest one “Cher Hair.”

Charlotte had also said she was pretty, but she was more than that. She was the pretty that’s on television: symmetrical features, matte skin, and that kind of long, slim, yoga body that still made me feel self-conscious about my own. I hadn’t been seriously overweight since I was a teenager, but looking at her I was instantly aware of the little roll of baby weight still clinging to my middle.

No purse, no book, no bottle of wine or snack to share. No bra either. She had on a loose, long sundress, deep blue, patterned in silver flowers, and a tattooed flock of tiny birds soared in silhouette across her collarbone.

She smiled, and I had no premonition as I smiled back. She didn’t look like my own destruction to me. She looked . . . the word was “cool.”

An odd thing to think. I was forty-two years old, and “cool” was a concept I had ceded to my teenage stepdaughter. Still, it was the word I thought, and if I felt anything, it was a stir, a rise. Here was something interesting.

Oliver was eating solid foods now, and I was emerging from a sedative cloud of nursing hormones a little restless, ready for a break in my routine. I looked at the loaded gun on my doorstep, and, stupid me, I hoped she had the right house.

She said, “Is this where the book club meets?”

“Yep, you found us. Amy Whey.” I stuck my hand out to shake hers. Her grip was firm, and she pumped twice in a way that felt weirdly businesslike.

She said, “I’m Angelica, but everybody calls me Roux.”

“Roo? As in Kanga?” I asked.

“I’m no Kanga, Christopher Robin,” she said, chuckling. Her lips were full and very pale. No blush, no lipstick, but the glossy orbs of her eyes were striped with liquid liner. Her oil-black hair, middle-parted, framed the perfect oval of her face. “It’s just my last name. French. With an x at the end?”

I knew the word. Butter and flour. A thickener.

“Did you get a chance to read The House of Mirth?” I asked, swinging wide the door.

“Sure,” Roux said, and came inside.

It was almost eight o’clock. We usually spent an hour chatting, an hour on the book, and by nine-fifteen, nine-thirty everyone was walking home feeling a little buzzed, a little smarter, a little more bonded with the other moms in our neighborhood.

“You’re in the green-and-yellow house?” I asked, to be sure I had her right. Charlotte had told me Cher Hair was a single mom with a son who was old enough to drive. Inside, under the lights, she looked to be in her mid-thirties. Awfully young to have a high-school kid.

“That’s me,” she said.

I led her back through the house to the basement stairs. “I’m glad you came. That place is such a short-term rental, we don’t usually get the residents at book club.”

“I’m here on business, and I’m not sure how long it’s going to take. I could be here quite a while. Might as well meet some people,” she said.

We were on the stairs now. “Oh, what do you do?”

She was looking down the stairs and didn’t answer. “What’s up with . . . what’s her name? My neighbor?”

Charlotte was hand-wringing at the foot, giving me emergency eyebrows.

“Charlotte,” I reminded her. “I don’t know. Let me find someone to introduce you around.”

“No need,” Roux said. She sailed past me, directly into the crowd, off to introduce herself.

As soon as she was out of earshot, Char said, “Cher Hair came? Now there’s twenty-one people here, not counting us, and no one seems to realize we do not have enough chairs. I should not move chairs!” She kept tucking her hair back. She looked like a nervous brown mousey, cleaning its ears.

“Her name is Roux, and of course you can’t move chairs, preggo. Relax! I’ll get them,” I told her.

She still looked worried, because she was Charlotte. Plus, this was her book club. She’d started it when Ruby began crawling and she realized she hadn’t read a book since giving birth.

“It’s like the baby ate my brain!” she’d said. “Forget reading. I can’t remember the last time I washed my hair.”

It looked like it had been a good while, but I’d kept that to myself. Instead I’d babysat while Char designed some flyers, and then we’d tucked them into every neighborhood mailbox. She’d called it the Brain-Dead Mommies Book Club, which I thought was bad, but at least I’d talked her out of Zombie-Mombies. It turned out her AA in marketing was wiser than I was. The flyer, the name, attracted the crowd she wanted. Almost everyone here was around her age, all with babies and preschoolers and littlies still in elementary. I was the oldest mommy in the room, in most cases by a good decade.

Before Oliver was born, I’d been on the fringes of this group, knowing them mostly via gossip I got from Charlotte on our daily power walk. Back then I’d played bunco with the middle-aged mothers who had retired from caring about diapers and breast-feeding. That set rolled dice, drank hard liquor, and talked serious about puberty and pot, birth control and college applications. As the stepmom of an adolescent, I’d needed them. These days I fit in better here, and my rare Florida basement space and my chair-moving muscles were forever at Char’s service.

“Get three chairs. Get four. Get at least three,” Char told me, and started counting the women again.

I handed her the stack of printed-out discussion questions and went back up. Every time I came down with another dining-room chair, I checked on our drop-in. Roux seemed fine, easy in her skin, moving group to group. Everyone I saw her speaking with seemed to smile a little wider, laugh a little louder. They were trying to impress her, and I couldn’t blame them. Roux looked so interesting, like a woman with a passport full of stamps, who would know how to make paté from scratch, who’d probably had sex in a moving vehicle. Maybe on the way here.

I came down with the last chair just in time to see Roux holding out a hand to shake with Tate Bonasco. I paused to watch. I couldn’t help it. Tate had never recovered from being pretty in high school, and she brought an eau-de-tenth-grade-lunchroom to neighborhood politics. She called me “the pit bull” behind my back, partly because I had short, sandy hair and an athletic build, but also because I’d thwarted her book-club coup. When we outgrew Char’s little house, she’d cited her big den as an excuse to jack the whole thing.