Never Have I Ever - Joshilyn Jackson


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