Authors: Kate Larkindale
headed to the front steps after school, waiting for Hannah. Mel had practice, but today was the one day Hannah didn’t have ballet after school. I expected to see her lounging against the bricks on the second landing, but she wasn’t there. I frowned, loitering until I realized she wasn’t going to show. Where could she be? We always hung out on the days she didn’t dance. Always. Was she pissed that I went after Mel at lunch? It’s not like I was taking sides. Racking my brains, I let myself be washed down to the street by the last of the crowd.
I trailed one group of students until I reached the diner on Main. I was thirsty. A Coke would be good. I scrounged through my pockets and book bag until I came up with enough coins. Kids swarmed the low-slung building, buzzing in and out like bees in a hive. I nodded to a few I knew, but didn’t stop to talk. The air-conditioned chill sent goose bumps scattering across my bare arms. The dull roar of conversation was punctuated by the throb of the milkshake machine behind the counter. It was a dark blue sound that was occasionally shattered by the neon yellow clatter of cutlery scraping china.
Weaving through the tables, I scanned the occupants as if I were searching for a group of friends. When I saw Hannah, it was almost by accident. She was squeezed into a booth toward the back, far away from the glare of the overheads. Her back was to me, but I recognized her hair, tasted its spice even from where I stood. Her head was bowed, pressed close to someone else’s. A boy. Blond. Sam Taylor.
I froze. My eyes wouldn’t move away. Hannah shifted in her seat, tossing hair away from her face as she turned toward Sam. He laughed at something she said and slung his arm across her shoulders.
Was this the new order? Sam came first? She hadn’t even bothered to mention she was ditching me this afternoon. I realized my teeth were grinding against each other, my jaw aching with the force. I couldn’t release it though. Whirling around, I bowled through the queue at the counter and slammed out the door.
I stormed down the street wrapped in my personal black cloud. I had no right to be this angry. But today was the one day I got to see Hannah alone, without Mel, without the bickering and constant refereeing. I treasured that time. Clearly it meant little or nothing to Hannah.
I had no destination in mind, but before too long I found myself at the bus stop. Jules. I needed to talk to Jules. She’d know how to deal with this situation. When it came to boys, Jules was an expert. I just hoped Mom wouldn’t be there. I couldn’t handle her right now.
Tiptoeing up to the door of Jules’s room, I peeked inside. The chair by the bed was empty. Still cautious, I slipped into the room, eyes darting around before I allowed myself to relax and walk up to the bed.
I thought at first Jules was asleep. She lay on her side, one fragile-looking arm stretched over her head. Her face was pale, almost gray. I tried to shake the flavor of ashes from my tongue.
“Jules?” I kept my voice to a whisper, not wanting to wake her.
“Livvie?” She rolled over and sat up, the pillowcase leaving red creases in her cheek.
I nodded. “Yeah. It’s me.”
“Where have you been? I feel like I haven’t seen you in days.” Jules’s voice, usually a strong, brilliant gold-yellow, had faded to an insipid lemon shade. I could see the effort those few words took. My heart clenched, becoming a solid block in my chest. For the first time, I allowed myself to think the unthinkable: Jules might die. A door opened inside me, blackness spreading through my midsection.
I swallowed hard and pasted on a smile, banishing the darkness into a corner where it coiled and writhed. “I was here yesterday, remember?”
She frowned and rubbed her hand over her shorn head. The dark hair lay in tufts and whorls against her scalp and looked even more gnawed than it had yesterday.
I bit back a grimace at the irritating violet whine of the bed’s motor as she raised the end and settled herself more comfortably.
“What’s up? You look kind of miserable.” Jules scooted over on the bed, inviting me to sit.
I climbed up and sat, shaking my head. “It’s nothing.” My problems were so petty, so insignificant. So what if Hannah chose Sam over me? Jules had cancer.
“Is it Mom? I tried to tell her—”
“It’s not Mom. I haven’t even talked to her.” She’d already been in bed by the time I got back from Mel’s last night. And this morning, she’d ignored me.
“So, what’s so bad then? Boyfriend trouble?” She sounded eager. I guess being stuck here, any distraction was a good thing.
“No. Well, kind of.” I didn’t know how to start. Why would she care about my stupid little problems? She always had before, but her own problems were so much bigger now.
“Oooh!” Genuine excitement made her eyes shine. She even had a little color in her face now. At least my problems were good for something. “So, who is it? Let me guess… Um… Jeremy Holmes? No… Luke Passianato?”
I shook my head, unable to keep the smile off my face. Luke Passianato? As if! “No. It’s not me. It’s Hannah. And Mel.”
The disappointment that crossed her face made me want to invent a boyfriend then and there, but it was too late. “So, what’s going on?”
I told her everything. I explained about Mel and her crush on Sam Taylor, how she’d had her eye on him since he’d arrived the previous winter. I told her about my phone call with Hannah, about Mel and Eddie, about chasing Mel down the track, about Hannah and Sam at the diner.
“It’s hard, I know.” Jules sighed and shifted until she was closer to me. “You guys have been friends forever, and now it feels like it’s all changing, right?”
“Is there someone you like?”
I shook my head. “Not really.”
“Look, in my experience, guys are real good at busting up friendships. But they don’t last.”
“What? The guys or the friendships?”
Jules laughed, and for a moment she sounded like herself. “The guys, you doofus.”
“Oh.” My face warmed. Of course.
“You’ll get a boyfriend soon, Livvie.” Jules ran her hand across my hair. “Then you won’t feel so left out.”
I shrugged. I wasn’t sure I even wanted a boyfriend. Not if it made me forge
t my friends. How long it would take before Mel ditched me, too?
We sat in silence for a long time. It wasn’t uncomfortable though, and that struck me as odd. Jules was never quiet, never still. She attacked the world, one experience at a time, always moving forward.
“You’re not the only one Mom’s mad at.” Jules’s words startled me away from my thoughts. Mom. I’d been trying to forget her.
“She’s mad at you?” I gave her a skeptical look when she nodded. Jules could do no wrong. Even when she did, Mom always found some way to spin it so it wasn’t so bad. I glanced at my watch. It was almost five. She’d no doubt be back soon. “I should go. Thanks, Jules.”
“I wish I had better advice, but I think you just have to wait it out. Or make some new friends. You could do that, you know. Hannah and Mel aren’t the only ones out there.”
“Yeah. I know.” But I couldn’t begin to think how to make new friends. Hannah and Mel were so much a part of me. Without them, I wasn’t sure who I was or who I could be.
The kitchen light spilled out across the driveway, cutting through the twilight shadows that crept across it. Where had the afternoon gone? I snuck in the back door, hoping to get to my room without being seen.No such luck.
Mom rose from the table. “Where have you been?”
“With Jules.” I tried to push past her.
She blocked my way. “You didn’t think to call or anything?”
I stared at her. Call her? Why would I? “What? It’s only six.”
She blocked the door. “Today. You came home at ten last night.”
I shrugged. “What’s the big deal?” She’d never cared before.
She sighed and rested herself against the doorframe. “You’re running wild. Don’t you think I have enough to worry about with Jules sick?”
“You don’t worry about me.” The words spilled out before I could catch them. I missed a word, I thought vaguely. ‘You don’t
to worry about me,’ that’s what I meant to say. Or did I?
I looked at her. It was always about Jules first. Then me, the afterthought. The damaged goods. The one whose light paled into insignificance behind Jules’s brilliant glow. The spare parts to the lovingly oiled machine.
“What?” She cocked her head to one side and studied me.
“Nothing.” I tossed my book bag on the table. I sat down, my body too weary all of a sudden to stay upright.
“No, you said something. What was it?” Mom took the seat across from me, her back straight and stiff.
“I just said you don’t need to worry about me.” My breath caught in my throat as I waited for her to say something.
“Well, that’s good then.” She fumbled with the tissue box in the center of the table, pulling one out, then trying to push it back in. “I should go. Jules will be wondering where I am.”
She stood up and pulled on the coat draped across the back of her chair, not saying a word as she plucked her car keys from the bowl by the door. She dropped them into her pocket, the clash of key against key so loud, so orange, it made me wince. The color sent a bitter flavor flooding across my tongue, like uncured olives or raw coffee beans. I made a face.
“What is it?” Mom’s eyes skewered me.
“Uh… Nothing, Mom. Just, you know. A synesthesia thing.” I dropped my eyes, ashamed of my weakness.
“That again?” She made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “When are you going to outgrow that silliness?”
I bit my lip. “I don’t think it’s that kind of thing…” But I wondered. Was synesthesia something I could grow out of? The doctors I’d seen had never said anything like that, but I couldn’t help wondering how the world would look and feel without the colors and tastes. I couldn’t begin to imagine. I didn’t always like the sensory assaults, but I couldn’t picture the world without them.
“I’m going to the hospital.” Mom turned away. “I’ll stay with Julie tonight.”
“Okay.” I sighed.
“Uh, Mom?” I leaped up and scrabbled across the table for my book bag. “Before you go, can I get you to sign this?” I rummaged around until I found my crumpled test paper, the scarlet F scrawled across the top. “I failed a math test.” My hands trembled when I handed it to her. I’d tried. I really had. I just stunk at school. Too many colors and tastes competed for my attention. I waited for the barrage of words to crash down over me, the anger and disappointment to pound my skull.
She didn’t even look at it, just pulled a pen from the junk drawer under the sink and signed her name. Then, after tossing the pen back into the drawer, she left.
or almost two hours on Saturday night, I lay on Mel’s bed and watched as she tried on every item of clothing in her closet. Twice.
“What about this?” Mel stood over me in a cropped green T-shirt and a pair of black jeans. Her tattoo peeked over the waistband.
“You look gorgeous,” I told her for what felt like the thousandth time that evening. Mel always looked gorgeous. I wondered why she couldn’t see it. I’d kill for legs half as long as hers.
“It’s not too slutty?”
“No, it’s fine. You look hot, but not desperate.”
Mel crossed to the mirror and scrutinized herself again, turning this way and that. “I guess it will have to do. He’s going to be here in about twenty minutes, and I haven’t even started on my makeup.”
“What about you? Are you going to change?” Mel glanced over her shoulder at me as she unscrewed the cap on her eyeliner pencil.
“Nah. I don’t have anything to change into.” It hadn’t even occurred to me. I looked down at my comfortable worn jeans and faded hoodie.
“Here.” Mel tossed a shiny black blouse in my direction. “At least change your shirt.”
“It won’t fit,” I muttered, but I replaced my sweatshirt anyway. There was no point in arguing with Mel. “Can I use your mascara?”
I could feel the low thrum of bass as soon as we turned onto the street. Light poured from the house, and even at only nine there were kids sprawled on the lawn.
“This is it?” I leaned over the seat to whisper to Mel.
“Yeah. Jeremy’s older.”
I bit my lip. That didn’t do much for my confidence.
“Come on, Livvie. It’ll be fun.” Mel had her door open even before Eddie turned the engine off. Excitement prickled from her in visible waves.
I slid out of the car and followed her down the street, the bass sending pulses of blood red across my vision. I steeled myself for the overload I knew would come when we got close enough to hear the rest of the music.
The house was large, but so stuffed with bodies it was difficult to breathe. I squeezed through the crowded hallway, keeping my eyes fixed on Mel’s blond head in front of me. We passed through a living room where people were dancing, the furniture pushed back against the walls. Eddie high-fived with several guys, but didn’t stop to talk. He seemed to have somewhere to go. We passed through a doorway into a room that was even more crowded than those we’d been in before. The noise of voices almost drowned out the music, and a haze of heavy smoke hung over everything. My head spun, colors and flavors coming at me in every direction, red and spicy one moment, blue and bitter the next. This was why I hated parties.
“Here!” Mel lurched toward me, a coffee mug in each hand. She thrust one at me and I took it, the strong-smelling liquid splashing over the rim and onto my hand. I licked it off, startled by the harsh alcoholic flavor. I watched Mel belt back a huge swig. Her eyes watered, but she managed not to grimace. Eddie pressed through the crowd and joined us, a mug of his own clutched in his fist. I glared at Mel. Wasn’t he driving? She ignored my look and moved closer to Eddie.
“Great party,” she yelled over the noise.
“Yeah,” Eddie agreed.
I leaned back against the wall and watched the smoke swirl around the ceiling. I sipped my drink, but it was too strong and burned my throat. Across the room, two boys yelled at one another. The music was so loud I couldn’t hear the words, but I could see the way they leaned in toward each other, their faces contorted into something ugly and terrifying. Cords stood out in their necks, and they bared their teeth bared like animals. I shivered.
The room did not fall silent, but something changed as everyone became aware of the shouting boys. Conversations dropped to whispers. People peeked over their neighbors’ shoulders with furtive eyes. Another boy stepped forward with his hand raised, but the pair were so embroiled in whatever was going on between them, he was ignored.
“Mel,” I said through clenched teeth, tugging on her arm. “Let’s get out of here, okay? I don’t feel good about this.”
She took another pull on her drink. “It’s fine, Livvie. Nothing to do with us.”
Before the words were out of her mouth, the taller of the two boys threw a punch. The other one, a blond, staggered backward with the force of the blow, but managed to stay upright. He clutched his jaw. His face purpled, looking as if it might explode like an overripe melon. He circled the other kid, raising clenched fists from his side.
“C’mon.” Eddie wrapped an arm around Mel’s shoulders and led her around the outside of the room. I followed them, my stomach knotting at the sudden change in atmosphere. It felt dangerous in there, and I was glad to slide out the back door onto a tiled patio.
“Wanna hit?” A tall, thin girl with stringy brown hair thrust a joint at me.
“Uh… No thanks.” My world was trippy enough without adding drugs.
“Suit yourself.” She drifted away, trailing pungent smoke behind her.
I looked around for Mel and Eddie, but they’d vanished. Great. Unsure what to do, I took another sip of the drink still clutched in my hand. Man, it was nasty.
“Hi, Livvie.” Elise Barrowman staggered around the side of the house holding hands with a skinny boy I recognized from my bio lab. Frank? No, Joseph. “Isn’t this the most awesome party?”
“Yeah. Awesome.” I nodded and tried to smile. Where was Mel?
Elise bent her head close to me, and I could smell her breath, sharp and alcoholic. “Did you try the punch? It’s soooo gooooood.” She giggled.
“No. Must have missed that. I just got this.” I held out the mug, which she took.
She took a messy slurp, liquid dribbling down her chin. “Oooops.” She giggled again, the high-pitched sound sending neon blue zigzagging through my skull. She tried to pass the cup back, but I shook my head, watching as she handed it to Joseph.
“Have fun,” I said, moving away and heading into the darkness that lurked just beyond the edge of the patio.
The lawn was soft beneath my feet. I slipped off my sandals and curled my toes through the cool, damp grass. Behind me the music and voices receded into a constant murmur, green and blue by turns. I walked further, amazed at how far the lawn stretched. The heavy scent of roses perfumed the air, and I breathed deeply as I circled a huge old tree that sat in the center of the yard. For a long time I stood, my back pressed into the knotty bark, breathing in the scents of roses and grass. I wished I could stay there all night, but I knew I needed to find Mel.
I headed back toward the house, pausing outside the kitchen door with my ears pricked for the sounds of yelling I knew punctuated a fight. Nothing. I peeked around the doorframe and was relieved to find the fighting boys gone. The place they had been was filled with other kids, talking, laughing, dancing, and smoking as if nothing had taken place. I walked in, eyes sweeping the room in search of Mel and Eddie. They weren’t there.
I worked my way across the kitchen and through the door to the living room. A girl danced in the middle of the floor, eyes closed, her body gyrating to the beat. She didn’t seem to notice the eyes following each sinuous move she made, and I wished I could be so unselfconscious. I kept walking, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The sway of her hips mesmerized me. Her skirt clung to her legs, the folds creeping up to reveal strong, muscular thighs and just a glimpse of pale pink panties. I tore my gaze away and looked up. Her head tilted back so her hair swung loose and free behind her, her lips parted as if waiting for someone to kiss them.
I slammed into someone, the spell breaking in an instant. “Oh! Sorry.”
“No problem, darlin’.” The boy grinned, revealing a lot of very white teeth. “You need a drink?”
“No, I’m good.” I shook my head as he held out an almost full bottle of vodka.
“Suit yourself.” He smiled again and reeled off in the direction of the kitchen.
I found Mel and Eddie in the hallway. They were squeezed into an alcove under the stairs, faces melting into one another as they kissed. Their mouths made wet smacking sounds against each other. Heat flooded my face at the fleshy pink color of the noise. I backed away, not wanting to see or hear any more. But I didn’t want to lose them again either, so I settled myself against the wall a few feet away, fixing what I hoped was a friendly smile on my face. Just not too friendly.
It felt like forever before Mel and Eddie stumbled into the hall again, both blinking in the dim light.
I pushed myself off the wall. “There you are! I think we should go home now.”
Mel wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand, smearing her already smudged lipstick even more. “Now? It’s early, Liv. I need another drink.”
“I’ll get us one.” Eddie kissed her cheek with lips wearing a scarlet stain that matched hers. He walked away, shouldering his way through the crowd that had thickened in the time I’d been standing there.
“Please, Mel? I want to go.” I tapped her arm to get her attention.
“Not now. Eddie’s brother is here. He saw you earlier and wanted to meet you. He said you were super cute.”
I gave her a skeptical look. Me? Cute? Did she expect me to believe that? “Seriously?”
“Yeah. Seriously. And he’s almost eighteen, too. Let’s see if we can find him.” Mel took my arm and tugged me along with her as she trawled the hallway and living room. I followed reluctantly, running my fingers through my hair.
“There she is!” Eddie swooped down on us, enveloping Mel in a bear hug that made her squeal. “Adam, you remember Mel, right?”
“Mel.” The tall, dark haired boy with the cocky grin bowed gallantly. “And who’s this?” He fixed his gaze on me.
“This is Livvie. Remember? My friend?” Mel shoved me toward the guy who I recognized from earlier. He still strangled the vodka bottle in his fist.
“Ah… So this is Livvie. I’m Adam. Eddie’s older and much better looking brother.” He grinned again, and my heart sped up a little. He wasn’t kidding about being good looking.
“Hi.” My voice shook a little, and I knew my face was turning scarlet.
“You’re looking a little hot, there. Why don’t we step outside for some air?” Adam slung his arm around my shoulders and steered me through the kitchen and onto the patio. I looked back over my shoulder and saw Eddie and Mel dissolving into the crowd once more.
Adam drew me across the tiles and around the corner of the house. I breathed in the scent of grass and roses again, trying not to be too conscious of his arm around me, and the way our hips bumped as we walked. My heart pounded in my chest. What was I supposed to do?
“So. How come I haven’t seen you around school?” Adam stopped in the shadows at the side of the house and leaned up against the wall. His eyes glinted in the darkness.
“I don’t know. I’m there every day.” I shrugged. Why would he notice me? No one else did.
“You must hide. No way would I miss the cutest girl in school.”
My face flamed, and I stared at the ground. Me? Cute? Did he really think that? I snuck a peek at him and found his eyes on me. “I’ve seen you.”
“Yeah, well, I’m kind of hard to miss. Drink?” He held the vodka bottle out to me.
I took it and tipped it to my mouth, letting a thin trickle of liquid burn its way down my throat. “Thanks.”
“Do you run track like your friend?” Adam leaned closer, and I could smell the liquor, along with the musky scent of his cologne.
I shook my head. “No. Sports aren’t really my thing.”
“So what is your thing?” His voice was low, close to my ear, a soft, warm wine colored velvet wrapping my consciousness.
My chest tightened, and I had to work to draw in air. What was happening to me? “Art,” I managed. “I like art.”
“Cool. An artist. Would I have seen any of your stuff?”
“Probably not.” I thought he’d brought me out here to cool off. I was hotter than ever, head spinning, face burning, heart beating so hard and fast I thought it might explode through my ribs. I had to get myself under control. “I need to go to the bathroom. Do you know where it is?”
“Sure. Look, I’ll take you.” Adam wrapped his arm around me again and steered me back to the house. We moved through the crowd, and I was very aware of the looks we got, curious, incredulous, or puzzled.
“Here you go. The facilities.” Adam stopped outside a door in the wall of the hallway, near where I’d waited for Mel and Eddie to stop sucking face.
“Thanks.” I ducked inside, grateful for the dulling of the noise and the moment of privacy. I splashed some cold water on my face, surprised when it didn’t sizzle and send steam spiraling into the atmosphere. Staring at my wild looking eyes in the mirror, I forced myself to breathe. He’s just a guy, I told myself. Good looking, yes, but just a guy. He was a guy who seemed to be interested in me though. Me. Jules’s plain, freaky little sister. Hannah and Mel’s weird friend.
“Okay,” I said aloud, running my hand through my hair. “You can do this.”
I slid out the door and glanced along the corridor. Adam stood a little way down with his back to me. Three other guys were with him, and they slapped palms together, laughing loud enough that I could hear it from where I stood. I was about to leave the safety of the doorway when I heard one of the boys speak and ducked back behind the still-open door.
“So who’s the chick? I never picked you for a pedophile.” The boy who spoke laughed after he said this.
“She’s friends with my brother’s new girlfriend. And man, you’ve never seen a chick so desperate. In five minutes, I had her wrapped around my little finger. Give me an hour, and I’ll be getting laid. Oh, yeah.” Adam took a swig from his bottle and thrust his pelvis at the other boys, making a lewd hand gesture at the same time.