I hate to admit it but Mom is right about Irene. The girl’s mind is totally messed up. If my parents find out what she got me into today, they’ll ground me for the rest of Christmas vacation.

Irene’s in my eighth-grade class but we’re only sometime-friends. I wish we were close friends because she’s the most popular girl in school. She’s even been on dates with boys, and I know she’s been kissed a million times. She sort of lets you know.

This afternoon Irene calls and wants me to go downtown with her to buy Christmas presents.

She goes, “Pam, you’ve got to come with me. I mean, the bus is bo-ring. And I have a surprise for you.”

“What is it?”

“You’ll see.”

A trip downtown is no problem for Irene. She gets permission to go anywhere. Me, I never know what my parents will say. But Mom’s helping at the church boutique and Dad doesn’t know Irene. He’s stringing Christmas lights on the roof.

I ask him if I can go and he thinks about it for a minute. Finally he goes, “OK, I guess, but take this in case of emergency.” He hands me down a ten-dollar bill and I go inside to tell Irene. When I leave the house Dad checks to see that I’m wearing my winter coat. We wave to each other and he calls out, “Be home before dark.”

Irene’s already at the bus stop when I get there. She looks mad about something, but she always looks that way when she’s alone. As soon as she sees me, she puts on a big grin. She’s wearing blue eye shadow, which I’m not allowed to wear till I’m fourteen.

I go, “What’s the big surprise?”

“Wait till we get on the bus.”

When the bus comes Irene leads me all the way to the back seat. The rest of the bus is empty. She goes, “Are you ready?” and I go, “Yeah, what is it?”

She opens her purse and takes out two cigarettes. I about have a hernia, I’m so scared.

“Oh, my God! Where did you get them?”

“My mom’s boyfriend gave them to me.”

Irene puts one cigarette in my hand and the other in her mouth. She takes out some matches and tries to light one. When it crumples in half she cusses at it.

She lights the next one, touches it to her cigarette, and puffs away. Pretty soon the air is full of smoke. I hold my breath as long as I can.

Irene hands me the matches. “Try it. They taste really great.”

I’m thinking about that cancer movie we saw in health class, but I didn’t want to sound dumb.

“Come on. Everybody’s doing it.”

I duck my head so the bus driver won’t see me in the mirror. Irene lights a match for me.

“Inhale.”

I inhale and it doesn’t feel like anything.

“Through your mouth, not your nose.”

“OK.”

I’m not so scared the second time. I suck in a mouthful of smoke and inhale through my mouth and suddenly I’m gagging and coughing like I breathed in mashed potatoes. My eyes are watering and I’m about ready to pass out.

The bus driver stops the bus. He goes, “You all right back there?”

I panic and crush the cigarette on the floor — with my hand. God! I mean pain. But Irene doesn’t care anyhing about the driver. She stares right back at him. She takes another puff and blows out the smoke in a long trail. The guy makes a disgusted face and keeps on driving.

Irene and I don’t talk for a while. I feel like an idiot and I hope she won’t tell anyone how I acted.

When she finishes her cigarette she digs in her purse again. I notice a picture of a man and a girl hugging each other. The man is lifting the girl off her feet, and she has her arms real tight around his neck. It’s probably Irene a couple of years ago, before we met. She and the man both have reddish blonde hair.

“Is that your dad?” I know her parents are divorced.

She covers up the picture and pulls out a handful of bills. “See, ten bucks. Babysitting money.”

I’m still thinking about the picture, and it takes me a minute to remember that she’s lying about the money. Irene used to babysit but nobody asks her anymore because she let her boyfriends come over and got caught. I don’t call her on it, though. She gets mad when you call her on things.

“What are you going to buy with it?”

“Something at The Chocolate Shoppe.”

“For Joey?”

“Yeah! He’ll love it.”

Joey is Irene’s latest boyfriend. He’s a chocolate freak. At school he dumps his lunch in the trash and buys Heath Bars and King Dons. He bums the money off his friends.

“You really like Joey, don’t you?”

“Oh, man! He is major motion.”

She winks at me in a sly way, like I’m supposed to understand something. I only wish I did.

Downtown everything is decorated with cascading lights and red and green banners and wreaths. A million people are rushing along Jefferson Street with their shopping bags. Santa Clauses and Salvation Army people are clanging bells.

At The Chocolate Shoppe we have to take a number and wait. God! You would not believe the stuff they have. There’s a chocolate Rudolph that has a red gumdrop nose and stands higher than my knee. It costs $75. There are chocolate Christmas trees and Santa Clauses and white, pink, and brown snowmen.

Irene thinks about a big chocolate camel. “Nah, that’s dumb. I’ll get him a variety.”

When they call her number she goes along the bins of filled chocolates. Four French mints, four peanut butter cremes, four cherry-filled, and so on. She buy about two dozen. The guy puts them in a bag and we leave.

I don’t have anything to buy, so we cross the street to wait for our bus. After a couple of minutes Irene starts to get bored. She goes, “Let’s walk around.”

I’m thinking we ought to wait but I don’t want to sound babyish, and it’s all so neat downtown with the color and people and bells ringing. I’m not even cold. We walk along Jefferson Street until we come to the government building. Then Irene opens the bag of chocolates.

“What the heck? He won’t miss a few.”

She gives me one and we sink our teeth into sweet rich heaven. Mine is a peanut butter creme. God! Is it delicious! I could eat a whole box of them. Irene must be thinking the same thing because she gives me two more, a fudge-filled and a French mint.

We sit there on the wide steps, massively pigging out and wiping chocolate off our mouths. People look at us as they walk by. We eat one of each kind and we agree that the fudge-filled are best but the cherry-filled are sick.

“Hey, you better save some for Joey.”

“True.” Irene stuffs the bag into her pocket. It’s only half full now.

We get up to go and suddenly a car screeches to a halt in front of us. This old woman — like she must be a hundred years old — is crossing the street toward our side. She’s nowhere near a crosswalk and she doesn’t even look at the car that almost hit her. I mean, I’m talking weird! She’s wearing this torn-up man’s overcoat, almost down to her ankles, and tennis shoes with broken laces. Her hair is scraggly and greasy and her face is smudged. The way she’s chewing her lips, I can tell she doesn’t have any teeth. She’s got an old cloth shopping bag that’s empty and ripped under the handle.

Irene whispers to me: “Is she for real?”

The woman walks with a limp and she has to pull herself onto the sidewalk. She goes right past us like we’re invisible.

We start giggling and then Irene gets this bright idea:

“Let’s follow her.”

“What! Are you crazy?”

“Let’s see where she lives. I bet she lives downtown somewhere.” Irene laughs like it’s just a game but she doesn’t get this excited over games.

I go, “This is weird,” and then, like a dummy, I go along. It seems like nothing can happen to me if I’m with Irene. We start following the woman but we stay a short distance behind her so nobody will notice.

The woman limps at the same pace all the way through the shopping district. She doesn’t stop to look at the decorations in the stores. She doesn’t even stop for traffic lights. A few people look at her but she doesn’t look at anybody.

I go, “Is she retarded or what?”

Irene’s not paying attention to me. She’s watching the woman’s back like a spy.

At one intersection there’s a cop directing traffic. People are crowded on the corner waiting to cross, but the woman goes right through everyone into the street. A driver blares his horn at her, and the cop yells, “Where the hell ya goin’, lady?”

She keeps on walking like she never heard him. Some of the people laugh and some stand on their toes to see her. The cop shakes his head and grumbles to himself. When he lets us go Irene and I run to catch up with the woman.

We come to the edge of downtown, right before the freeway. The stores here are old and their windows are all grimy. There’s a big warehouse with trucks backed up to a platform. Some workmen are standing around and one man on the platform shouts, “How ya doin’, Granny?” and the others laugh. The woman just passes them by.

I grab Irene’s arm. “We better go back.”

“No!” She jerks away from me. “Come on. They won’t do anything.”

“What’s got into you?”

Irene’s eyes are glued to the woman. She pulls me forward, in front of the workmen, and one of them whistles at us. I don’t even dare to look sideways, but Irene cusses at them under her breath. She goes, “I’m not afraid of those losers.”

We catch up with the woman again. She turns down an alley, and I mean this place is unbelievable. There’s trash everywhere and a stink of grease and soot. An old wreck of a car is toppled over with its hood up and its tires missing. A dog is roaming through the paper and cans and bottles.

The three of us are the only people in the alley. Irene and I follow the woman past the backs of stores: Ross Electrical Supply, Fabric City, Plastic Home Products. We step around a dead cat in the road.

The woman stops at a trash can that’s overflowing onto the ground. She sets her bag down and starts to rummage in the trash can.

I go, “Barf me out!” and Irene goes, “Not so loud!”

The woman picks out empty cartons and metal junk and drops them on the ground. Then she finds a small cardboard box. She shakes it next to her ear, opens it, closes it again, and puts it in her bag. She leans way over inside the trash can, and we can hear her banging things around. She lifts up something yellow that looks like a comb and puts that in her bag, too. Then she starts over again at the next can.

I go, “What’s she doing?” but Irene doesn’t answer. She’s watching the woman and her mouth is twitching in a way I never noticed before.

The whole alley is lined with trash cans. The woman hunts through all of them. She pulls out all kinds of things — wire, cloth, pieces of wrapping paper — and puts them in her shopping bag. Irene and I stay out of sight behind building walls and telephone poles. At the end of the alley the woman’s bag is full, and it bumps against her leg as she limps along.

I go, “Thank God! She’s heading back.”

The woman circles the block and we’re on Jefferson Street again. This time we don’t have to pass the workmen. When we get to the shopping district I go, “That was fun, wasn’t it?” and I walk toward the bus, but Irene goes, “I want to find out where she lives.”

“What if she sees us and calls the cops? What if she has a gun in her bag?”

“Oh, don’t be such a wimp.”

Irene pulls me by the arm again. We follow the woman all the way through the shopping district. At least we’re still on Jefferson Street, which is the bus route, and I’m thinking about a quick getaway if anything happens. At the end of the shopping district the woman turns the corner and crosses the street toward an abandoned two-story apartment house. I look at the place and I go, “No way!”

I mean, this building is total scum. The bricks are black. Every single window is broken; some are just plain gone. There are steps going up to a wooden porch and the porch is caved in on one side like it was rammed by a truck. Every few seconds the front door swings open and bangs shut in the wind.

Under the porch there’s another flight of steps. The woman hobbles down them to the basement entrance.

Irene goes, “Do you believe that place?” and I go, “We better catch the bus here,” but Irene is already crossing the street like the building was some kind of castle.

She goes, “Let’s peek in the basement window.”

“Then can we go?”

“Yeah, yeah. Come on.”

There’s an empty lot on one side of the building and a paint store on the other. A few cars are passing by and nobody scary is around. So I follow Irene across the street.

We peek in the first basement window but there’s nothing to see. The ground outside is covered with glass and wood and rusty nails. The bang of the front door makes me jump.

Irene runs on to the next window and kneels down. Suddenly she waves at me to hurry “Look! There she is.”

I squat down and we watch the woman inside the room. We can see pretty well because most of the window is broken out. The woman is taking her things out of the bag and setting them on a little table under the window. This table and one chair are the only furniture in the room. In one corner there’s a mattress and a messy blanket.

I go, “Is that where she lives?” and Irene goes, “She must freeze her butt off.”

The woman has this philodendron in a pot. She sets it on the table and breaks off a couple of brown leaves. Then she starts fastening her little things onto the plant. She uses bits of wire to tie on colored cloth and red wrapping paper and the yellow comb. She fishes some yarn out of her bag, breaks it on the edge of the table, and hangs pieces of it on the leaves. Then she sits in the chair and gazes at the plant. Irene and I look at each other but we don’t say a word.

The woman sits there a while and then we can see her face changing. It looks like she’s got all the troubles in the whole world. Her face crinkles up and she starts to cry. She wipes away her tears but they keep coming down and flowing into her toothless mouth. She bites her knuckles and we can hear scraping noises in her throat.

I’m scared and I don’t know what to do. I get up and head toward the street. I’m hoping Irene will follow me.

She goes, “Pam! Wait!”

She runs after me but suddenly she changes her mind. She dashes down the steps to the basement.

“Irene! Don’t!”

This time I do not follow her. I run back to the basement window. Irene comes into the room where the woman is sitting and crying. She tiptoes up behind her and touches her hair. After a while the woman quiets down but I can’t tell if she knows Irene is there.

Irene takes the bag of chocolates out of her coat pocket. She looks at the woman and she looks down into the bag. Then, one by one, she sets all the chocolates in a neat row under the philodendron. She wads up the bag, stuffs it in her pocket, and tiptoes out of the room. We meet again in front of the building.

I go, “What about Joey?” but she doesn’t answer. We run across the street to catch the bus.

It’s getting dark now. Lots of people are on the bus with brightly wrapped packages. Some little kid up front is singing “Frosty the Snowman” so loud that the whole bus can hear. People are smiling at him and his mother is trying to make him pipe down. We pass the convention center, where they have the big Christmas tree. It’s loaded with a million colored ornaments and long strings of lights.

The whole trip Irene looks out the window. She clutches her purse to her stomach with both hands. I can tell she doesn’t want to talk.

Just before we reach our stop, when there’s nobody left on the bus, she turns to me. She says in a cold voice: “I cried like that once.”

I make a dumb little smile because I don’t know what to say. Irene looks at me in a mean way, like she’s jealous of me, and I’m thinking this is the end of whatever friendship we had. But when we get off the bus she suddenly goes, “Just kidding,” and she laughs out loud. I am totally confused.

We head off in different directions, and she twirls and skips down the street. She keeps shouting things to me:

“Merry Christmas, Pam! Happy New Year, Pam! Happy Easter, Pam! You’re a cool dude!”

I wave back but I don’t say anything. I’m going: weird, Irene, you are weird!