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“So it’s bitter party for one now?” I ask. I shift on my feet wondering if I should leave or face him down. We’re going to be thrown together because of language and age and illness. If I turn tail and run, he’ll needle me forever but I’m not well equipped for this kind of fighting.
“I’m a realist. Who’s your tutor?”
“Reta Kielholz,” I say stiffly feeling uptight and hating it as if I am horribly uncool. This famous boy has a way of making me feel awkward.
“Ah, she’s got a tight —
I turn away abruptly. I don’t know what he’s going to say but I’m positive it will be crude and demeaning. At that moment I don’t care if he torments me until I leave. I’m not staying another minute.
“Wait, just wait, dammit.” He shoots up from his chair, his tin of contraband spilling onto the floor as he reaches for me.He doesn’t want me to leave and I reluctantly turn back.
“Sit down. I won’t say another word about her. Let’s start over. Colin Matthews.” His outstretched hand hangs between us.
“Or any other girl?” I press.
“Shit, why not.”
“Charlotte Randolph.” I take his hand, but just the tips so he knows I don’t trust him very much. He gestures for me to sit and I settle gingerly into the club chair opposite his. Colin’s hair is long, unruly. I wonder if he’s ever had it cut since it grew back. There’s a long swoop that he pushes back to reveal his mother’s famous blue eyes. “Does everyone call you Colin or do you have a nickname you go by?”
“No, it’s Colin. Why do you have a nickname?”
“Everyone calls me Charlotte but my mom’s friends all call her AM.”
“Like the time?”
“No, radio. Like AM/FM radio.”
“That’s weird.” He pulls out a pack of spearmint gum from his pocket and offers me one. It’s a peace offering I guess.
“Mom says its a life marker. High school people know her as AnnMarie but her best friend starting calling her AM for short and it stuck in college so you know how long people have known her by what they call her.” I’ve always thought was neat. Daddy calls her Sunshine sometimes but don’t share that with Colin.
“I’m going to make up a nickname for you.”
“No.” I shake my head. “I don’t like nicknames. My parents said that I’ve always been adamantly against them. A person would try to use it and I would either cry or not respond.”
“You’ll like the nickname I give you.” He smirks. I can’t even imagine what horrible thing he’d come up with. Colin is a weird mix of arrogance and uncertainty. I’m intrigued against my better judgment. Nate would probably despise him though.
“Is this your second time here?”
He holds up three fingers.
“Three times? You look good. Really healthy.” That is no lie. His face is full and his hair is shiny. He looks ruddy and built not the slender, gauntness that marks so many of us.
“Have to bulk up between bouts. Plus steroids and human growth hormones are considered appropriate treatment.” He flexes and I see the outline of a biceps. He’s not a muscular as Nathan or Nick but I give him a smile of approval. I don’t want him to feel bad. Looking good is probably very important where he lives.
“I want to get better. I guess I’d take anything at this point.” I’m way underweight which is part of the reason I’m here. His glowing health makes me envious.
“I figure I’ll die before I’m 18. I want to live as much as possible until then.”
I don’t know his situation so I don’t give out the reassuring platitudes that adults reflexively offer. Maybe he will die before the age of eighteen. Sometimes I think you know this. That there’s a place inside you that holds the truth of your future but only the brave or stupid or hopeless look. I’m none of those things…yet. “You’d think with all these advancements they could make some elixir that would make us completely healthy in an instant.”
Colin leans back and stares at the ceiling. “There’s always a catch. Like if you took the elixir, you wouldn’t be able to ever have sex again or it you’d take 25 years off your life at the end of it. No one lives without paying a price for it.”
Greta has taken to texting me repeatedly the next day, telling me she’s so sorry about last night and how she was drunk and it was all an accident. At first, I agreed it was an accident but the more that she kept assuring me that it was, the more that she fucking would not leave me alone makes me wonder about her motivations. Nick told me to watch out and maybe I need to pay closer attention.
I haven’t said a word to Charlotte about the picture and I regret. I should have brought it up first thing and that I hadn’t makes me look like I’m lying to her—at least by omission. But what was I going to say?
Hey your weird friend fell on top of me and someone else took a picture. It’s nothing?
That sounded like I was trying to concoct a cover up as well.
The photo’s already being passed around. It gets sent to me by about four different people.
“What’d Charlotte say about the picture?” Nick asks. I told him I wasn’t interested in another party so we’re playing a video game.
“I didn’t tell her,” I admit.
He glares at me and then closes his eyes. “You’re determined to fuck this up aren’t you?”
“Shut up,” I snap back. The whole thing is giving me a headache the size of Lake Michigan. “It’s no big deal. I’ll talk to her in the morning.” If I stay up late enough, I can catch her when she wakes up and I’ll explain everything. Greta’s weirdness. The photo setup. Everything.
“Just remember that it’s not just your relationship that will get screwed. It’s my friendship. It’s our families’ connections.”
“Yeah, I got it.” The steel in my voice sinks in and Nick stops hassling me. But he’s not wrong. If I hurt Charlotte, I hurt all of us.