“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.
I stay up until two in the morning so I can catch Charlotte right after she wakes up. Nick has fallen asleep behind me, the game controller still clutched in his hand. He’s dead to the world. I switched over to a movie but I’m not really seeing the super soldiers fighting the aliens. I’m thinking about everything. My future. Charlotte’s health. Where we are all going in a year or two years. I’m having uncharacteristic second thoughts. I never have doubts. Doubts are for people still trying to figure it all out.
I’m not saying that I know it all, but I know myself. I want to join the military, do something worthwhile. I want to be with Charlotte. I want to have a family. I want us all to be healthy and safe forever. Kind of in that order. Otherwise, I’m just a dudebro getting drunk, hanging out, and leeching off my old man. Thanks but no. Of course part of not being that guy is making sure you aren’t crushing your girl’s self esteem by ignoring that there are somewhat questionable pics being sent to everyone the two of you know.
Said old man would be all over my ass about talking to Charlotte about this issue right away, just like Nick was. I get up and head to my room, abandoning Nick to the company of infomercials flickering silently on the television screen.
“Hey baby,” I say when she picks up on my first ring.
“Nathan.” My name surfs out on a tide of relief and gratitude which makes me feel doubly the asshole. I’m responsible for making her feel insecure by not addressing the weird things that Greta has been doing.
“I completely screwed up,” I start. “I want—“
“You’ll never guess who’s here,” she interrupts. Without waiting for a response, she hurries on. “Colin Matthews.”
“Huh?” I don’t know any Colin Matthews.
“You know. The son of the actress and the baseball player? He had cancer but then was in remission but I guess not anymore because he’s here. It’s his third time. They’re doing some kind of experimental drug therapy on him that’s not allowed in the US yet.”
I rub my forehead as I digest this information. “Okay, that’s interesting.” Not really other than the fact some Hollywood asshole is far closer to my Charlotte than I am. That’s actually not okay at all. I bite back a few choice words that would likely place me in the dickhole category. Words like “Don’t fucking talk to him again” and “Does he know you belong to me?”
She blithely ignores my lack of enthusiasm. “When I saw him in the common room last night, I was so surprised but he wasn’t very nice to me.”
My emotions swing wildly the other direction. This douche was being mean to my Charlotte? “Sounds like I’m going to have to come over and teach him a lesson in manners.”
She snorts. “He’s got cancer. You can’t beat up anyone who has cancer.”
“Oh yeah?” I challenge. “Is there some book that says that? Is that in your medical handbook?”
That draws out a full fledged laugh, one that comes from her belly not her throat. She likes when I joke about her illness because it’s more normal for both of us according to her. “Yes, it’s number five, right after all your hair falls out. But his hair looks great. I was really impressed. I guess because you guys’ hair grows back so fast and it doesn’t need to be long. Nick’s hair grew out right away.”
My eyelid is twitching. She likes his hair? Thinks it’s great? I can’t even remember what I was supposed to say when I first called because the whole time we’ve been talking it’s been about this asshole from California. And she’s bringing up the fact that Nick shaved his head when she was diagnosed but not me?
“I thought you didn’t want me to shave my head,” I say hardly concealing my disgruntlement.
“What? Of course I didn’t,” she says. “I was just complaining. My hair makes me look five. Do I look five to you?”
She cares what she looks like? “I wouldn’t have slept with you looked five.” I knew that was a mistake before the last words left my mouth.
She sucks in her breath and then to my utter relief, laughs again.
“Sorry,” I mutter.
“No, it just sounded funny. Like I hope you wouldn’t sleep with five year olds.” She giggles again and then sighs. “I miss you.”
God, how weak am I that I need her to say those words to me? I miss you. And with that equilibrium is reestablished. I settle into bed. “How much?”
“So so so much. Like I wish I was there right now and we were holding hands.”
“That’s all?” I ask softly thinking that there was a lot more than just hand holding I’d do if Charlotte were here.
“Um and other stuff.”
I can almost hear her blushing. Hating to ruin the moment, the reason why I called resurfaces. “About Greta…” I begin.
“She’s being weird, isn’t she,” Charlotte interrupts. “I think she has a crush on you or Nick or both.”
“Weird isn’t the right word. Stalkerish maybe? I don’t really know but I can’t say I like it.”
“It’s okay. Or rather while I don’t like it, I know it’s not your fault. It just made me feel…embarrassed and even a little insecure.”
Her voice has gotten soft and small. I cringe. Is it distance that feeds those feelings? Because if that is the case, I’m worried about how she’s going to take the news that I’m leaving after school to go right into Basic. That particular piece of information isn’t ready for consumption outside the family I decide. “You don’t ever have to be insecure about us baby. I love you.”
Her initial response is a huff of laughter. “I love you too.”
“We okay then?”
“Yes. Totally okay.”
I feel good after our phone call. We Skype a few times later that week and while Colin’s name is mentioned quite a bit it’s generally referencing how he’s managed to piss her off again. We have a good laugh about how he struck out with her tutor, Reta, and how I’ve managed to avoid Greta. She stopped texting me after I didn’t respond.
By Friday, everything is back to normal between us which is why when Nick asks me if we should hit Juliette Waite’s party at her parent’s house in the North Shore, I don’t hesitate to say yes. Juliette Waite is a North Prep graduate. She attends Northwestern and is well known for initiating the young men in our crowd into the pleasures of the female body. A lot of us have learned how to make a girl scream based on lessons taught by Juliette.
She’s an icon in North Prep history. I had my own time with Juliette when I was fourteen and she was sixteen. Good times. Of course what goes on in Juliette Waite’s bedroom stays there. That’s the code and weirdly we’ve all kept it. But her parties are legendary.
Not going never occurs to me. Charlotte is grumpy when she hears it’s that time of year.
“I can’t believe I’m missing Juliette’s party.” She wrinkles her nose in disgust. “Instead I’ll end up eating popcorn watching episodes of Space Patrol 2050.”
“I thought you hated science fiction.” I’m not paying a ton of attention. My phone is blowing up with people asking where Nick and I are.
“My T-Rex arms aren’t long enough to grab the remote from Colin’s hands and that’s allhe likes. But maybe Mom and I will do something. At least I won’t spend the whole night with you glaring at me.”
“I didn’t glare at you,” I protest. “I was making sure none of the assholes made a play for you. What was Bo thinking letting you out of the house with that bikini on? I spent the whole night reminding everyone you had just turned fifteen.”
She smirks. “Got your attention, did it?”
“So you did wear it to piss me off,” I exclaim. I knew it. Last year Charlotte had stripped off her demure bell shaped knit dress to reveal a white bikini with gold rings holding the various tiny triangular pieces of cloth together. When she spun around on her wedge heel and announced she was thirsty nearly every male there surged toward her. “You could have started a riot.”
“I bought it for you,” she says with a naughty smile. “I’d overheard you telling Nick during one of our boating trips that you loved white bikinis.”
This made me raise my eyebrows. “Really? I don’t remember having a preference.” But I do now. In fact, I think I still have a picture of Charlotte in said bikini. I scroll through my phone and find it. Mmmhmm. I know what I’ll be looking at later tonight.
“Stay away from the white bikinis tonight,” she says but I’m not paying much attention because a photo of one of the lacrosse players losing control of a beer bong and getting a facial from the excess beer is shared on the school forum. I show it to Charlotte.
“You’re obviously very occupied,” she sighs.
“No, sorry.” Hurriedly I put the phone face down but she’s waving her hand at me.
“Go on. I’m super tired anyway. Mom would kill me if she knew I stayed up this late to Skype with you.”
We exchange I love yous and then I grab an impatient Nick and we head out of the city. It takes us about forty five minutes. We have to park about a half mile away because there are a crapton of cars that have arrived before us. Thankfully Nick doesn’t say a word about our late start only asks how Charlotte is.
“Good. Spending a lot of time with the douchebag Colin.”
“I looked him up.”
“You don’t have anything to worry about.”
“Why would I worry about him?”
Nick throws his hands up. “No reason.”
Since we’re nearly at the door of Waite’s house, I don’t pursue this any further. Charlotte doesn’t like Colin. She’s forced to spend time with him. There’s no reason at all that I have to worry about the two of them.
Inside the house there are wall to wall people. Thankfully between Nick and I we can muscle our way past the crowd. It only takes a couple of people to drop away before a path is cleared for us.
Juliette is sitting on the patio in a lounger with several sycophants around her. She languidly raises her hand in greeting. “The Jackson boys are here. I suppose we can now start the party.”
A few of the guys look older—college aged—and they glare at us but Nick and I are solidly built. We could take them. In fact, it might be kind of fun. I haven’t had a brawl for a long time. I step back and allow my arms to hang loosely at my side. Nick steps to the side to provide spacing and adopts a similar stance.
Three of Juliette’s subjects get to their feet, their greek letters straining across their drug assisted chests.
“Boys is right,” says the one in the middle. He must be the leader. The music continues to play but the energy out here on the patio has changed. There’s a charge in the air and everyone out here senses it.
“I’ve got the guy in the middle,” I say softly to Nick. “You take the guy on the right. The one on the left looks like he’ll flail around searching for a partner.”
“Got it,” he nods.
The leader charges me and I spare a glance to Juliette. Her eyes are sparkling with excitement. Yeah, she knew exactly what she was doing inviting these meatheads here. She probably talked up the fact that we were high schoolers and these frat guys showed up to teach us a thing or two. Good luck.
I meet their leader in the middle, about five feet from Juliette’s lounger and he swings at me, an obvious first that is meant to lay me out with one punch but I can tell by the wide sweep of his right arm as it moves toward me that he’s never fought before. Or if he has, it’s been with people as inept. His primary move seems to be the right jaw punch only it doesn’t land. I step sideways and he stumbles between Nick and I.
Nick grins at me but has to turn back to his smaller, but more experienced opponent. I watch as Nick swerves to avoid a combination and then counters with an open faced slap to the face. It’s a complete insult and his opponent draws back to blink in surprise while everyone around them giggles. I shake my head. One of these days Nick’s arrogance will be the end of him, but not today. The slap spurs his opponent to charge and Nick allows himself to be pushed back into a table.
I’m prevented from watching more when my guy comes roaring back. He’s watched too many mixed martial arts fights on television because this time he tries an elbow to the forehead. A good move as an elbow can have a greater force impact on a target. But it has to land to do any damage. I pull on his elbow until we’re flush together and then I press my other hand on the low of his back and pretend for a moment we’re dancing. This draws a roar from the crowd and a fevered look of rage from my opponent.
“Don’t like dancing?” I mock. Spittle is starting to form at the sides of his mouth. “You really picked a mouth breather this time, Juliette.”
I push him away before he slobbers all over me. Yeah, okay. I’m as arrogant as Nick. The leader motions to the third guy who is watching us and they both rush me. One of them gets a lucky fist to the side of my jaw and I feel another fist in my gut. The adrenaline is flooding me and since I’ve not had sex in weeks, this feels almost as good.
The third player is about six inches shorter than I am. He must have gotten the body shot in. He needs to go down first. I duck to avoid a punch from the big guy and then turn my body toward the third player. Two knees into the rib cage has him folding in half. I finish him with an elbow strike to the temple since he’s lower than me and he crumples to the ground.
The leader steps back, bounces around on his heels and rolls his shoulder like we’re in some cage match.
“You toying with your prey?” I hear Nick say. He must have sent his opponent to a sweet sleep. “Dad wouldn’t approve.”
“Na but he’d think this was sweet,” I answer. Opening up my stance, I raise to the balls of my feet and then in one swift move bring my right leg and strike the asshole in the temple. Shock widens his eyes before the lights go out in his brain and he falls backward onto the ground. No one catches him. In fact, everyone moved out of the way.
A silence falls and then cheers erupt, probably from North Prep kids. Juliette hasn’t moved an inch from her lounger although I see a few blood spatters on the cushion.
“Very nice,” she says.
“I’m guessing you didn’t tell them that your high school friends were sons of a professional fighter?” I swipe the back of my hand across my mouth but there’s no blood there. It must not be mine. A quick check of Nick reveals he’s fine too.
She presses a finger to the center of her lips. “Hmm. I may have forgotten to mention that. Now which one of you victors is going to celebrate with me tonight?”
“That’d be me,” Nick says bending over and scooping Juliette into his arms. I drop into the now vacated lounge chair and someone drops a beer bottle into my empty hand. This has the makings of an epic party. I place an arm behind my head and prepare to be entertained.