Thomas Ogden knew how the neighborhood boys saw his sister. Instead of coming over to play Nintendo with him, every game of Manhunt, every South Park marathon, every basement sleepover was about catching a glimpse of Julie.
His friends had taken to calling her: Julie Ogden. “I bet Julie Ogden has a million places to go in the middle of the night.”
“Stop calling her that,” Thomas grumbled. “She’s just Julie. You’ve known her for years.”
But nothing Thomas said could break the boys’ fixation with his sister, “Nah, we’ve known Julie for years, but not like this,” Jason smirked.
“Yeah, she’s Julie Ogden now,” Ollie chimed in.
“What does that even mean?”
“Dude, you know your sister is hot, right? I never want my brothers to grow up, just so she can keep coming over to babysit them,” Jason chuckled.
“Hot is an understatement,” laughed Miles, “I would give up my new iPod for 10 minutes with her.”
Thomas shook his head and turned away, glowing with embarrassment. “Shut up, you guys are just forgetting about how she used to have purple braces and acne.”
“Yeah she used to, but not anymore,” Miles shot back, winning the argument.
After the ninth round of Smash Brothers, the four boys broke for a stretch break. Miles and Jason shoved each other aside to get to the bathroom first, Ollie reached for a bag of potato chip crumbs, and Thomas lay out his sleeping bag on the floor.
Hey, we’re not going to sleep yet, right?” Jason asked, descending the stairs to the basement.
“Let’s play a game or something,” said Ollie.
“Okay,” Thomas replied, opening up the board game cabinet. The wooden doors revealed stacks of well-loved boxes. “We could do Trouble, or maybe Monopoly,” he listed off.
“Let’s ask Julie Ogden if she wants to play,” Miles suggested, dodging an elbow in the side from Jason.
The other boys nodded at the idea. But Thomas paused, “Only four people can play Trouble though, and she probably doesn’t want to.” There was a time when Julie might’ve indulged the boys in their late-night antics, joining them as the fifth in their group. But these days, Julie seemed preoccupied with her own life. She met most invitations to hang out with Thomas and his friends with a smile and a polite excuse about whatever else she was busy doing.
“Well, we’ll play Monopoly then,” Miles insisted, heading toward the stairs. “Come on, let’s just ask her.”
Ollie and Jason followed quickly and after a shrug, Thomas did too. They walked through the house as quietly as they could, knowing that Thomas’ parents had gone to bed hours ago.
As they reached the door, Thomas pushed past his friends to gently knock. After three unanswered knocks, he asked “Julie, wanna play Monopoly with us? Hey Julie?”
“She’s probably asleep,” Jason said, abandoning the mission.
Thomas snorted, “Julie is nocturnal, she stays up ‘til at least 2 A.M. watching reruns of The OC.” With that, he turned the doorknob and cracked the door wide enough to stick his head through.
“Julie?” All that stared back at Thomas were Julie’s pale-yellow walls and empty half-made bed.
“Where’d she go?” Miles asked, pulling the door open all the way and flicking on the light.
“I don’t know,” Thomas wandered through her bedroom looking for a sign of her, as if she could have been hiding behind the door to scare them. Soon, all the boys were in her room, thumbing through her Tiger Beat magazines and admiring her monarch butterfly poster.
“Look! She’s outside,” Ollie pointed out the window and all of the boys flocked around it. Sure enough, there was Julie Ogden in the front yard, leaning into the open driver’s side window of a green Pontiac Grand Am.
“Who’s she talking to?” Jason asked.
Julie’s body was blocking the face of the driver and Thomas had never seen this particular car before. “I don’t know.” He felt strange.
Even though his sister was the one in the front yard talking to the stranger in the green car in the middle of the night, he said “Guys, let’s get out of here.” It came out too loud and too fast.
“She’s getting in the car!” Ollie called out, nearly pressing his nose to the window pane.
Thomas’ mind reeled. Who could she be talking to so late at night? She didn’t have any friends who could drive. His sister and her friends were all sophomores and complained about having to wait another year to get their licenses.
Still, as he started to think back, she had spent an unusual amount of time out of the house in the past few weeks. He always assumed she was at her friends’ houses or picking up more hours babysitting for Jason’s four-year-old twin brothers. But he never knew for sure where she had been.
It was almost as if Thomas were living in an alternate reality where he was an only child. It was this dizzying realization that made Thomas question how he could have missed her being gone so often. Like a phantom, Julie had simply slipped out of the Ogdens’ lives.
The sound of the glass sliding up shook Thomas out of his thoughts and he looked up to see Jason leaning his torso out into the night air.
“What are you doing?” Thomas asked as Jason swung one leg over the windowsill.
“We should get a closer look. See who she’s talking to,” Jason replied, as if it were obvious.
“No! She’ll see us!” Thomas protested. “Guys, let’s go back downstairs. Who cares what she’s up to.” Thomas knew he had seen something he wasn’t supposed to have seen.
The boys didn’t listen. They were already tumbling over themselves to shimmy through the window and climb down the drain pipe.
“Can you at least go through a door?” Thomas relented, not wanting to break his neck on the way down.
At once, the four boys refocused their efforts on moving back to the first floor and sneaking out the back door in the kitchen. Outside, they hugged the side of the house to the driveway then crouched behind their family’s silver minivan. The fear of being caught and the curiosity about finding out what Julie was up to made Thomas dizzy. The boys nominated Jason to peek first. He made a big show of squinting in the dark and looking all around him to check if the coast was clear.
“They’re leaving!” Jason exclaimed to the horror of the other boys.
The boys leapt up in time to see the taillights of the green Pontiac driving down the street. They caught a glimpse of Julie’s blonde hair, pinned back with her butterfly barrette, and the back of someone’s buzzed head as the car sped out of view.
For Thomas, his sister’s absence became the new normal over the next few days. When she was home, she didn’t complain about the Kurtz twins as often, she helped their mom wash the dishes, and asked Thomas about his new video game. It wasn’t unlike Julie to be happy, but she wasn’t just happy, she floated. Thomas’ parents shrugged it off as “Julie growing up,” and in a lot of ways he guessed they were right.
At night, Thomas would stayed awake to listen for Julie creeping out of the house. Through his own window, he peered at the silhouette of the car waiting there, an eerie green highlighted by the street lights, with its own lights off as always. The driver never got out of the car. Sometimes, Julie would get into the car and they would just sit there, and other times, the car drove away as soon as she got inside. Either way, his sister was always home for breakfast the next morning, her new, floating self.
He didn’t understand Julie anymore. He’d never thought there was anything to understand, Julie was just...Julie, his big sister. At school, teachers referred to him fondly as “Julie’s brother because she’d paved the way with good grades. She was the responsible one; the one that taught Thomas everything he needed to know about middle school including where to sit on the bus in each grade. And she once even took the blame for knocking down their Christmas tree and breaking two glass ornaments while Thomas panicked in the backyard.
But now, she had a whole other life that Thomas knew nothing about, and that fact alone made Thomas feel small in a way being in her shadow had not. Like even though he was practically a teenager, he was really just a little boy who knew nothing about Julie, and he started to notice little things he hadn’t before.
One night, Jason’s dad stopped by to ask Julie if she could babysit on Friday instead of Thursday that week. Mr. Kurtz gripped Julie’s shoulder, while laughing at his own corny joke about Fridays. Mr. Kurtz barely acknowledged Thomas’ existence; he was so preoccupied with Julie. Usually he’d give Thomas a high five or say something about Jason. Tonight, he pushed Julie’s hair behind her ear and said, “I bet you’re popular at school, pretty as you are.” And Julie responded in her polite Julie-way.
Thomas had always liked Mr. Kurtz. But, was he always so strange?
On Friday afternoon, as Thomas watched TV from the living room couch, he felt someone’s presence enter the room and turned to see Julie standing by the doorway, eyes focused on the show that was just ending. She was dressed differently; she had pinned her hair up in some elaborate hairdo with the butterfly clip poking out and she wore a black skirt made out of a sparkly material.
“The OC’s on next,” Thomas started, “Do you wanna watch?”
Julie quickly shook her head, “Oh no, I’m on my way out. Would you record it though?”
“Sure,” he paused, trying to prepare himself to sound casual. “Where are you going?”
“Uh, it’s Friday remember? I’m babysitting. And Mr. Kurtz said it’ll probably be late so he’ll drive me back.”
There was a long pause while Thomas thought back. “Oh okay.” It hadn’t ever been this awkward between them, but it was almost as if Thomas were talking to a stranger. He didn’t know what to say to her anymore. “Don’t you think it’s weird that you babysit at Jason’s house?”
Julie shrugged. “Why? Besides, I’m not really babysitting Jason, I’m babysitting his brothers—you know that.”
He chewed the inside of his cheek, hoping to build up some courage before blurting out, “You’re dressed kind of weird for just babysitting.”
Julie hesitated but then laughed again. “Okay, thanks for letting me know, freak. Don’t forget to record The OC!”
With that, she turned and walked out the door, leaving Thomas sitting on the couch trying to remember what kind of car Jason’s dad drove these days.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t a green Pontiac Grand Am.
When Thomas woke up in the middle of the night, the first thing he did was draw the curtains back slightly, checking to see if the familiar green vehicle was parked outside the house, waiting faithfully.
But all that he saw was the empty street not yet disturbed by the sunrise. He didn’t even know what time it was. He waited for a few more seconds, thinking maybe he would see it driving down the street with Julie inside any moment now, but the neighborhood remained still. Thomas shook his head and started toward his bed when he heard a noise. Not footsteps or a creaking door, but running water. It was the faucet from the bathroom that connected his bedroom with Julie’s.
She was home.
Thomas pressed his ear to the door, listening to confirm that he had really heard her.
Yes, the sink was running in there.
Maybe it was Thomas’ half-awake logic or the fact that nothing pre-dawn felt real to him, but Thomas put his hand on the door and gently pushed it open, knocking quietly at the same time.
The lights were off.
Julie’s hair was disheveled and black skirt impossibly wrinkled. She stood at the bathroom sink, with black tears running from her eyes. Her hand was clenched so tightly over her mouth, it was like it was a cork in a bursting dam, like it was the only thing holding her together.
She turned to look at Thomas, and for that one second, neither one of them moved. No one said anything at all. Then, Julie took a step forward to close the door and Thomas took a step back. The door closed not with a slam, but with a painfully slow creak.
Thomas stood on the other side of the door, not knowing what to do next. His stomach, whirled. He wanted to call after Julie. He wanted to know what happened to her that night and all of her nights. But as quickly as that feeling arose, it was churned into a shame. He felt more helplessly childish than ever in his entire life.
After a few minutes, Julie’s door into her bedroom closed, he opened the door again, flicked on the light, and blinked. Thomas wasn’t sure what he expected but the bathroom looked as it always did— actually, neater than usual. He stood in it for a second, examining himself in the mirror as if he could look into it and see what she saw. He picked up the butterfly shaped hair clip that had been abandoned next to the sink. He held it for a second, feeling the cool metal against his fingers. Then he set it down, turned the lights off, closed the door, and climbed back into bed.
That night, Thomas hoped to sleep easily, comforted by the fact that Julie was only one bathroom’s distance away, sleeping too. But Thomas wondered if those extra seconds the door took to close were Julie’s way of giving him a chance to do something different, a chance that he didn’t take. He laid there awake until the sun finally rose, trying to understand everything he didn’t know, and wondering if she would have been happier in the green car.
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