Alistair and I do our homework at the island in the kitchen while, at the stove, Mom stirs pasta fazool. The smell of onions and garlic makes my stomach growl and almost tricks me into thinking things can be the same as they were before Mom lost her job three months ago and started going to see Mel-the-reiki-guru.
The door from the garage swings open. “Make way!” Dad is carrying two giant bags from Flanners’. He’s wearing what Mom calls “that kid-in-a-candy-store-look.” It usually precedes news about an impulsive purchase that will lead to under-their-breath arguments about credit card penalties and living within our means. Alistair and I push aside our books and calculators to make room.
Mom sighs and turns down the burner. She gives dinner one last stir before putting the cover on the pot.
I look at Alistair and mouth, “Here we go again.”
He replies with a grin that says, “Who cares?” and slides his notebooks into his backpack.
Dad pulls boxes out of the bags. “I had the world’s best idea today …”
“We’re going to make the first real reality TV show.” He opens a box with a picture of what looks like a book light on it. “Micro-cameras.” He pulls out a gadget. “This one is so small I can put it in a plant, and no one’ll even know it’s there.”
Cameras. This shouldn’t surprise me. We spent our early years with the eye of Dad’s camcorder in our faces and recent ones with a phone pointed our way. He titles all his videos The Smiths Go to … followed by the vacation destination. Sometimes I think he enjoys embarrassing us by showing them to the relatives every Thanksgiving. I have had enough with Dad’s cameras, and I tell him so.
He doesn’t listen. “We’ll never really know when we’re being filmed. Eventually, we’ll forget about the cameras and start acting natural. No network, no crew. Real.”
Open Book, he wants to call it. “You guys put everything on social media sites anyway. How is this any different?”
“Well, for one thing, we’re posting it ourselves,” I point out. “Someone else isn’t secretly filming us.” His expression tells me he doesn’t see the difference.
Later that night, we complain to Mom, but she just takes a few cleansing breaths and says, “I am giving you a gift by not interceding here. Your relationship with your father will be stronger for it.” This is how she talks since she started seeing Mel.
I’m tempted to say, “What about your relationship?” but her expression is so peaceful I stop myself. It looks like Alistair and I will have to derail the project ourselves. We decide on sabotage as our first line of defense.
At first, we talk directly to the cameras, trying to taint any appearance of “reality.” We enunciate extra clearly. “Hel-lo, Alis-tair. What is that you are having for a snack this afternoon?”
“Why, Corrine, I am having some goldfish crackers. Would you like some?”
“Oh, no, thank you. I think a banana would be more to my liking.” The more artificial and boring, the better.
One night, Mom apparently forgets herself and follows our lead. She threatens to serve Ginger-a-la-king. We feign horror that she is going to kill our golden retriever, Ginger, and serve her in a light gravy.
That night, Ginger gets her own chair at the dinner table. She eats off Grandma Harrington’s bone china, while Alistair pretends to be Ginger narrating her day: “I was going to settle in the middle of the living room to lick my butt, but there’s a camera in there, so I went to the laundry room. I figured, who would want to watch someone doing laundry? That must be a dummy camera, so I went in there. It sure felt good to have some privacy for a change. Gwen, could I get a little more chicken? This is delicious!”
Later, we joke about Dad’s camera picking up footage of Ginger throwing up her dinner all over the family room couch. Dad smiles. “Even the fake stuff is real, you know.”
• • • • •
After a few days, I sneak into Dad’s study and find his password list under the folder in his desk drawer and log in on his computer to see what he has gotten so far. I find the Open Book file. It contains a bunch of clips of the most boring stuff imaginable: Mom filling the washing machine, Alistair playing video games, Ginger sleeping in the hallway. There’s no way any of this will become one of Dad’s film projects.
Then, in the last folder, I see a shot of my bedroom doorway, from inside the room. Alistair walks in, closes the door behind him and goes directly to my underwear drawer, where I keep my dummy journal. I know he’s been sneaking into my room to read it for years. He disappears from the frame to sit on my bed while he reads the last entry I wrote, completely fictional, about spying on him and Madeline Engleberger kissing behind the equipment shed by the tennis courts at school.
Then I realize what I’m looking at: film footage taken without my knowledge, in my bedroom. My bedroom. I try to remember everything I’ve done in my room that would have been in the camera’s view. Every morning, I dress in the bathroom after my shower. At night, I change into my pajamas near the hamper in my closet. That’s way off screen. In total, the camera can see the edge of my dresser and the door. I wonder what Dad thinks he is going to catch from that angle. This time he caught a kid reading his sister’s diary. It’s not much, but he obviously thought it was important enough to save.
I search through computer files for other footage, but all I can find are the old The Smiths Go to ... videos labeled by location and year. I close out the windows I opened and slide the folder back over his passwords.
In my room, I stand in my doorway and try to see the camera in the ceiling fan. He’s hidden it expertly but not completely. I stand on my bed and reach up to rip the thing down, then think again. Dad’s a teacher. He’s all about learning. Maybe I can teach him something.
At the end of the school day on Monday, I slide up behind Jack and put my hands over his eyes. “Guess who?” We have been best friends since preschool, so I can do this sort of thing without any rumors starting about us hooking up.
“Why, Manny, what soft hands you have,” he says, pretending I’m his locker neighbor. Not everyone knows Jack has a sense of humor.
“Very funny. I need your help.”
On the way home, I tell him about Dad’s project. Jack, a believer in the benefit of the doubt, offers reasons Dad might put a camera in my room. “You said yourself, he had it focused on your door. Maybe he’s going to speed up the film and show you coming and going out of your room, like bees in a hive.”
He shrugs. “Well, at least you said the camera can’t really see anything.”
“Yup, it’s what the camera can’t see that will make our footage interesting.” I fill him in on my plan.
When we get to my house, I let us in through the garage door and grab a baseball cap hanging on a peg. “Put this on.” I don’t want Dad to recognize him.
We drop our bags and head upstairs. I open my bedroom door and act like I’m sneaking him in. I close the door behind him. “Keep your head down,” I whisper as I put one hand on each shoulder and try to make it look like I’m kissing him.
Pretending to take off my shirt, I walk toward my bed, which is outside the camera’s view. When I turn around, Jack almost runs right up my back. We sit on the bed trying not to bust out laughing. I don’t think there’s a mic in here but I can’t be sure.
We shift our weight to make the bedsprings squeak. He tries to hold in his chuckle but ends up letting out a snort, which makes me laugh. I try to turn it into a moan like in movie sex scenes.
I am tempted to purr, “Oh, God!” but know that if I try to make words, I won’t be able to keep from laughing. We sit back-to-back to get ourselves under control. When we’re breathing normally again, I check my watch. We’ve been here exactly two minutes. On our way home, we decided we should take at least twenty minutes to make our “encounter” seem real. I show Jack my watch. His face says what I’m thinking: what are we going to do for eighteen more minutes?
We lie on our backs with our legs dangling over the side of the bed and stare at the ceiling. I let my eyes follow a crack in the plaster from the light fixture to my closet door and back again. I count how many clock ticks it takes for each of Jack’s breaths. Four in. Four out. I close my eyes and think about how lucky I am to have a friend like Jack. Who else could I tell about Dad’s crazy project much less talk into a pretend sex scene?
Before I know it, my body feels like it’s in a free-fall, and I land on my bed with a jerk. I feel like I’ve been asleep for an hour, but it has been only five minutes since the last time I checked my watch. Long enough.
Jack’s eyes are closed, but it doesn’t seem like he’s sleeping. I nudge him and point to my watch. “Let’s go,” I mouth. He gives me a thumbs-up. He puts the cap back on his head and pulls it extra low. I wish I could see Dad’s face when he watches this footage. We stop at the door for one final pretend kiss.
Downstairs, we find Jack’s backpack, and I put the cap back on its hook. “Hey. Thanks again. I’ll let you know how it turns out.” As I close the door behind him, I notice the camera on top of the fridge is missing. I look for the one next to the picture on the mantle. Gone. I run up to my room knowing what I’ll find before I get there. The camera is nowhere to be seen. I’ve acted out a pretend sex scene with my best friend for nothing.
• • • • •
Cameras appear in different places then disappear again. We never do forget about them as Dad hoped we would, but we do seem to stop caring about what they might catch while we’re living our “real” lives. In fact, I use every opportunity I can to let Dad in on things I want him to know but would never tell him to his face. I tell him how I miss the time right after dinner when he used to rebound my free throws in the driveway while Mom and Alistair cleaned up the dishes, and how he’d make up word games to play while we hit the badminton birdie back and forth in the side yard.
One day, I talk directly to a camera planted in the basket on the kitchen counter and tell him I think he’s addicted to his computer, that it’s his fixation with technology—not getting laid off from her job—that led Mom to start going to Mel. Then I stop midsentence because there’s no way to know if Dad actually hears any of my confessions. So far, it doesn’t seem like he has. Everything is exactly the same. He disappears into his office every night right after dinner. Alistair and I get stuck doing the dishes, while Mom stretches out with her laptop on the living room couch.
Come to think of it, Mom seems to be fostering her own relationship with the computer since she started working from home as a consultant. When I walk past, she quickly opens a new window but not before I can see she is on Facebook. I settle into the chair across from her, log into my own page and search for her hyphenated last name, “Harrington-Smith.” No dice. Maybe her account is under plain “Harrington.” Nope. I know it would be worthless to search for her using Smith. Finally, reasoning that all mothers want access to their daughter’s Facebook world, I ask her if she wants to be Friends.
“That’s sweet dear. But we really need to have our own,” she searches for the word, “circles.” At first, I think she’s kidding, but she isn’t. “You need privacy from me, and …” She doesn’t need to finish. My own mother rejected my Facebook Friend request. In person. I wonder if she did the same thing to Dad and that’s why he moved on to his reality TV project.
• • • • •
Now I can’t sleep. I’ve tried lying on my right side, on my left, then on my back again. I flip over my pillow hoping the other side is cooler. I decide to get a cool washcloth and a drink of water.
On the carpet runner, my footsteps are so quiet I can hear the tap of fingers on a keyboard alternating with mouse clicks. The clicking stops. I peek through the half-open door of Dad’s study and realize he’s wearing earbuds. His t-shirt hangs over the arm of his chair. It’s weird to see him sitting at his desk in no shirt and his sleep shorts. Even though the fan blows straight at him, he needs to wipe the sweat off his face and the back of his neck with his t-shirt. From this vantage, it looks like he’s editing video. I stretch my neck to try to see what it is, even though I sense I really don’t want to know.
He leans back giving me a full view of the screen. At first, I don’t know what I’m looking at. Girls who seem to be my age are strutting around in school uniforms, dark blue and red plaid skirts, knee socks, and navy blazers with an emblem on the left front pocket. I immediately think of the private school in Lake Mills, but their uniforms are forest green and maroon. These girls look like they’re trying to seduce the cameraman.
The frame zooms in on a blonde girl running her tongue over her shiny, red lower lip. I clench my jaws together and breathe through my nose like Mom tells me to when I am sick to my stomach. The blonde leans over to show her cleavage, squeezes her breasts together like she’s offering them up as an appetizer. I close my eyes, wanting to run straight back to my room. Instead, I am paralyzed, a line of sweat running slowly down my spine. By the time I open my eyes, Dad’s body is blocking the screen again. I go back to my room without the washcloth or the drink of water.
• • • • •
When I finally go downstairs the next day, my eyes feel like someone has gone at them with a piece of sandpaper. My skin feels like it’s covered with a sticky film. Dad is eating a sandwich at the island in the kitchen tapping on his phone. He looks like he always does—so much so that I start to think maybe I imagined the whole perverted thing. But then he picks up his napkin and wipes sweat from the back of his neck, just like he did last night.
Dad is always telling us we can talk to him about anything, especially the important things, and I can’t see anything more important than what’s happening in this house right now.
“Dad, can we talk?” I have no idea what I’m going to say, only that I need to say something.
He holds up one finger and keeps scrolling and tapping the screen. I know he thinks only a few seconds have passed, but, when the silence lasts into the second minute, I remind him I’m here. “Dad?”
“What? Oh, yeah. Okay.” He makes one more swipe of his finger and three more taps, puts his phone on the counter next to him, face up, takes another bite of sandwich and talks with a full mouth. “What’s up?”
I don’t know how to come right out and say, “I know you’re watching and maybe even filming porn movies. School girl porn. It’s disgusting, so stop.” But I don’t get a chance to go any further because his phone buzzes.
His eyes jerk to the screen to check out the number even though he keeps his face pointed at me. “It’s not important.” He pushes the phone two inches to the right as if it really doesn’t matter. “I’ll call them back later. Now, where were we?” The phone buzzes once more to tell him he has a missed call and then one more time to show a text is coming in.
“Forget it.” I open the refrigerator and look inside. “It’s nothing.”
I know he won’t leave me alone until I say something, so I say, “I was just wondering when I could get a new phone. I think mine’s dying.”
“Sure thing.” He smiles as he picks up his phone. He’s swiping and tapping again. “It’ll have to be next Saturday though. Your mother and I have a wedding to go to this afternoon.” I realize I’ll have to find a different way to let him know what’s on my mind.
I pour Fruit Loops into a bowl and head back up to my room. After I finish eating, I doodle awhile and then stare at the David Beckham poster over my desk. Every time my thoughts go back to the image of the girl in the school uniform, I try to imagine explanations for what I saw last night. Maybe he didn’t film that footage at all. Maybe he’s doing research on Internet porn or looking for clips to splice into a documentary about human trafficking. A group in my social studies class did a project on it for their final exam. Horrible. I hope extra hard that this is the real explanation. Deep down, I know it’s not.
I send Jack a text: Tell me again my dad isn’t a perv. His phone must be off because he doesn’t answer.
• • • • •
I spend the rest of the day trying to think of what to do. I consider going to Mom but can’t imagine what I would say. I start to write each of them a letter, but when I try to put this whole mess into words, I sound like an overdramatic teenager on a stupid sitcom.
By the time they leave for the wedding, I decide to talk to my dad in his own language. This time, I’m going to get it right.
I walk down the hall to his office and wiggle the mouse to wake up his computer. I log in and start sifting through his video clips trying to find the footage I saw last night. Like a detective getting into the head of a perp, I ask myself what he would do to cover his tracks. It occurs to me he might disguise his dirty-movie files as The Smiths Go to ... videos, but those turn out to be exactly what their titles say they are.
I decide to check Dad’s Internet history, hoping there’s nothing resembling an online porn site, that I dreamed the whole sordid situation. But there it is: sexyschoolgirls[dot]com. At the place in the video where I closed my eyes, the girl sits on the teacher’s desk and pulls up her knees and spreads them apart. No underwear. Disgusting. I click the pause button. The filmmaking doesn’t look like Dad’s usual work. This was filmed on equipment far more advanced than Dad has. At least the equipment I know about.
Alistair comes home from his soccer tournament. I put the computer into sleep mode and go downstairs to see how it went. He takes a container of yogurt and bag of chips into his room. With Mom and Dad gone, he’ll play video games until he falls asleep or our parents come home, whichever comes first.
Back in Dad’s office, I make use of all the skills I learned making films for social studies through the years. I copy and cut video clips from his projects, then record a scene from sexyschoolgirls[dot]com using my phone. It’s weird to say, but I like the gritty effect of a video of a laptop screen. Makes it feel “real.”
• • • • •
I rearrange the scenes and add transitions, effects, and background music. The result surprises me: a two-minute video that clearly sums up the past few weeks in our crazy house. I add footage of me talking directly to the camera and burn the project to a disk. I title it Corrine’s Open Book.
Downstairs I put the disc in the DVD player and turn down the volume on the TV, so Alistair can’t hear it. The video begins with footage from when I was four: The Smiths Go to Glacier National Park.
I have fallen off a pony and knocked out my front teeth before they are ready to come out. My mom is holding me on her lap, a blood-covered washcloth stuffed in my mouth. She’s rocking me back and forth, trying to get me to stop crying. “Shh. There, there,” she’s saying even though her voice is drowned out by my sobbing. She’s stroking my forehead and kissing my temple, but her eyes are shooting daggers at my dad behind the camera. “Put that thing away!” She shifts her body on the bench, so he has to move if he wants to continue to take the close-up of my bleeding mouth. I can’t remember the last time she stood up for me like that with Dad.
The next clip I shot over my mom’s shoulder with my phone when she was absorbed in an online exchange with Mel-the-reiki-master. You can’t see what she’s typing, but when she looks up and finds me watching her, she ends her conversation immediately and reminds me about the importance of respecting each other’s privacy.
Next, the scene cuts to the shot of Alistair sneaking my journal out of my drawer.
• • • • •
While the camera stays on the dresser, I give a voiceover. “Dear Diary, I learned something really creepy about my dad today. When he’s not splicing together film clips to embarrass the hell out of his family, he’s watching porn on the Internet. Teenage girl porn.”
The film switches to the classroom scene with blondie on the desk. I cut it right after she shows her cleavage, just in case Alistair should accidentally see the DVD. He doesn’t need to see anything more than that.
The final scene is me looking straight at the camera. “Here’s what I think,” I say. Even though my voice sounds confident, it is clear from the way my neck muscles clench and my eyes have a hard time settling on the camera that I really don’t know what I want to say. I deliver the lines I practiced before I turned on the camera: “This is a wake up call. There’s creepy stuff happening in this house and Alistair and I are too young to deal with it. Figure it out, will ya?” Even though I don’t cry on the video, I have to wipe my face as I watch myself. I push the power button on the DVD player, and the room is silent again.
I walk over to the bookshelf where we keep the photo albums and turn on the light, keeping the dimmer turned low. I sit on the floor with one of the albums on my lap. The book is so thick, the binding creaks when I open it. Looking at photos, I don’t get that nauseated feeling I get when Dad plays our travel videos. Something about the freeze-frame makes me feel like I’m not the same person as the girl in the picture who has carrot sticks poking out of her ears and an orange wedge in her smile where her teeth should be.
Then there is the photo of me wearing Mom’s wedding veil. It was taken four years ago on a snow day that kept us all cooped up in the house. Mom had decided it would be a good day to clean the basement and get rid of the toys we’d outgrown. At first, we enjoyed sorting through things, but soon we all got a little restless. Mom was trying to talk Alistair into getting rid of his Kinex set when Dad turned around from sorting through the old dress up bin. A pink boa was draped around his neck. He wore bright green star-shaped sunglasses and a clown’s rainbow-striped wig. “Yoo hoo,” he waved the boa like he was flirting with us, his voice as high as a girl’s. “What’s all the fuss about?”
Pretty soon Mom was marching around with an eye patch, Mardi Gras beads, and a Happy New Year 2007 glitter-covered tiara. Alistair found a matted auburn beard at the bottom of the trunk and topped off his getup with a sparkly gypsy vest and pink high heels.
I held up a bent beaded circle with a fluff of white netting on the back. “This looks like the thing on your head in your wedding picture.”
“It is.” Mom set the band on my head and fiddled with the netting. “Look at that, Charlie. Isn’t she beautiful?”
It was hard to take him seriously in his clown wig, but Dad’s voice was sincere. “She’s the spitting image of you, Gwen.” He pulled her toward him. “What do you think? Would you marry this clown all over again?”
“In a heartbeat.” She smiled. “Arrrr. Got a kiss for Captain Jack?”
Remembering the scene brings back the feeling I got when I was a kid and my mom and dad were kissing. Half of me didn’t want to watch because I thought it was gross. The other half wanted to linger in the moment because the kiss meant our family was solid.
I slip the picture from the album and prop it next to the DVD player and find a piece of scrap paper next to the phone. “Mom and Dad: Push Play” I draw an arrow pointing down and tape it to the TV. My hands are shaking. I guess I know that what they’ll see could demolish whatever bit of family we have left. Still I can’t know what I know all by myself. That’s the job of the parents. I turn off all the lights except the lamp near the TV and go up to bed.