Authors: A.J. Sand
A Fighting Chance
by A.J. Sand
Cover Design © 2014 Arijana Karčić, Cover It! Designs
Editing and proofreading by Cameron Scheck
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Here’s to carving out your own path and defining yourself.
I’ve seen a ghost.
explains the face from the past in the restaurant window. It vanished when I blinked, but I’m still staring at the glass for the kind of seconds that lasts forever. I don’t know why I’m surprised, though; I have always considered myself haunted.
Bullshit, Jesse, you’re going crazy if you’re seeing things. Also, if you’re arguing with yourself about it.
My girlfriend, Lydia, touches my hand, bringing me back to the moment, to Zoya’s, where all my friends have gathered for my birthday dinner. I’m shaking so much I have to set my glass down. “You okay?” she whispers as her brown eyes widen in concern, and when I nod she mouths
twice, the name of my fraternity. It clicks then that I am in the middle of my thank-you speech, and that I was talking about my frat brothers before I got distracted.
Uh, and to Duke, my best friend…and the guy who hasn’t kicked my ass for dating his sister…”
he yells from the other end of the table. My dickhead friends laugh, of course.
dude, you were the first person who made me feel welcome at Hamilton, and I’m sure Lydia didn’t plan this on her own,” I continue. “To the guys at Zeta Chi, my family, I’m going to miss you next year, especially the pledges, because I won’t have anyone to serve me drinks on Thirsty Thursdays. I’m incredibly grateful that all of you wanted to spend tonight with me. I guess that’s it. Thank you.” I take my seat as they clap.
“Welcome to twenty-two, JC!” Duke says. “Al
l right, where the hell is the food!” That gets far more appreciation than my speech.
I don’t celebrate my birthday
s but Lydia had been insisting all week that we go out, and I hadn’t expected that twenty other people would be waiting for us in Zoya’s
private dining room for my surprise party. Hamilton is a midsized East Coast college, so getting to know a lot of people is easy, but I have a sense of belonging here, something I have rarely felt. I am in a room full of friends and not just people looking for free food on a Friday night. My girl went all out, too, with a special three-course meal, which is served a few minutes after my speech.
Once dessert comes, most people have
either switched chairs or are moving away from the table to talk in smaller groups. That weird feeling from earlier completely dulls under the liveliness in the room. It was probably my mind forcefully yanking me down memory lane, which is normal because things are changing—I’m a year older and in my final semester of college. But I refuse to take the trip. Not tonight, and not when I have a future bright enough to snuff out the shadows of my past.
A waitress walks in
holding a gold label bottle with sparklers flying off the top. Duke points to me and she brings it over, while another waitress is behind her with champagne flutes. I pour and pass, opting to stick with my water. When Duke sees that I won’t have any, he strolls up to my side with a disapproving look. We call him Big Duke because he’s built like a human army tank at 6’2,” 275, which is even funnier because he and Lydia are twins. They have the same round face, dark brown eyes, black hair, and naturally tan complexion, but she is the complete opposite—short and petite.
His forehead creases as he
chugs his champagne—he’ll chug anything with a percentage of alcohol by volume. “Not even on your birthday, Buzz? I got the champagne specifically for
, bitch. It’s bad enough you wouldn’t let Lyds throw a party at the House.”
is short for “Buzz Kill,” which is my nickname in the frat because my liver isn’t on life support most days, like everyone else’s.
“I drank enough for
the birthdays of everyone in here when I was younger.”
“One drink isn’t going to kill you.”
His confused look holds as he runs his hand through his short hair. “All these girls in here and somehow
the pussy.” Duke has the kind of mouth that lacks a connection to his brain.
“Watch yourself,” I warn with a
shit-eating grin, “before I
tell you what happens with your sister when you’re not around.”
He frowns. “You’re sick.
See? It’s all that sobriety. Don’t make me rethink giving you your present.”
I shake my head. “Dude, we talked about this
. I said—”
Yeah, yeah, I heard you the million other times; you get off on
But I couldn’t help myself, and you’re going to think I’m pretty fucking awesome. It’s as much for me as it is for you, anyway,” Duke says as he reaches into his pocket for his cell phone. He hands it to me after pulling up a screen. “It didn’t need public speech fanfare.” It’s confirmation for plane tickets and a hotel suite. “Vegas. MGM Grand. Spring break. Me. You. Lydia and Carmen, for four days.”
“Whoa…really? Duke, man, this
the fanfare. But…with me and Lydia’s trip coming up this summer, I can’t afford—”
, remember? It’s done and covered. I had already planned for us to go for at least the weekend, but then last week Lydia told Mom and Dad about this surprise dinner thing, so they took care of the rest.” The Prices are great. They’re the real-life versions of the people smiling in the stock photos in the frames at Target. “Lyds got us all tickets to Cirque de Soleil, too. No way I’m going with just the girls to see dudes in leotards twirl in the air for two fuckin’ hours.”
Fine…thanks, dude,” I say, pulling him in for the handshake-hug combo. “Tell your parents I said thank you, too.”
Plus, I owe you for getting me through Franklin’s hard ass quizzes.”
How’d you do on the last one?” I ask.
Duke shrugs. “
Eighty. Good enough. But the one before that was a seventy. If I keep it up, and manage to pull off a B minus on the final, I can graduate without looking like a
dumbass.” Last semester he got an email from the registrar stating that he was short a math course, and statistics was the only thing he could fit into his schedule. Lucky for him, I took the class last year, and the prof is a lazy shit who doesn’t change his material much. I promised Duke that I wouldn’t let him fail. We’re getting out of Hamilton together.
“Call for you, Jess,” Lydia says as she walks over
with my cell. As soon as I take it, a cold noose tightens around my heart, but I do my best not to react to the Texas area code.
A place I cut ties with four years ago, and counting. My plan is to have “and counting” go all the way to the grave.
“Thanks…” Walking out of the dining room, I head
for the hallway. My pulse slips into a sprint as I stare at the lit screen. I know who’s on the other end. For the past four years, she has called on this day. My choices are always to either be a dick and not answer or be selfish and do, and every year I make the same shitty decision. Swallowing my guilt, I force the call to voicemail and push the phone into my pocket. Sometimes I wish she’d just give up and figure out that anyone who won’t take her calls for four years isn’t worth calling anymore. I flinch when my phone vibrates after a few seconds of stillness.
She left a message.
That’s a first.
birthday call?” Lydia asks, running her hand over my shaved head after she turns the corner.
“Yeah…” I keep the details of my background to a controlled bare minimum, even for Duke and Lydia.
Everyone knows I’m from a small town called Glory, my mom died freshman year, and my father may as well be dead. My orphan bomb detonated—once you mention a dead parent
a deadbeat parent, people stop asking questions.
Lydia wraps her arms around my waist and aims a worried look up at me.
too much? You seemed pretty freaked out earlier. I know you said you didn’t want—”
“I’ve never had a birthday party thrown for me before.
I’m not mad, Lyds. Thank you.” I give her a reassuring smile and kiss her.
shoots me that same uncertain look Duke always does. “Never? I looked up your town a while back…it’s so small. As popular as you are here, I’m sure you knew enough people there to have tons of parties. A guy like you must’ve been, like, a big fish in a small pond, especially at that tiny high school—”
“I didn’t have
high school experience.”
At home she has bedroom walls covered in a lifetime of cheerful memories with friends, and sometimes I think she has no fucking idea the kind of bubble frozen smiles under frame glass creates. Her parents’ divorce was so amicable that everyone—new partners included—is currently vacationing together in Aspen. “But I’m glad this was my first birthday party.”
“Good. Because t
here’s something else.” She caresses my jawline and pulls my face to hers. Pressing me against the wall, she winds her hips on mine, all slow and sexy. I’m easy, so this guarantees that at some point tonight one of us is going to end up on our back before the door to my apartment closes.