Everyone seemed to arrive ten to fifteen minutes late as was the social convention for some bizarre reason. By half past seven, everyone had a drink in their hand and was engrossed in their conversations. Everyone of course, except me. I hadn’t moved from my spot on the sofa, content with watching my peers from here. Most of the girls had their hair down and seemed to be enjoying tossing it around or playing with it as they spoke. The boys seemed to be laughing a lot and shuffling from foot to foot.
I looked over to where Otter was chatting with Vicky and Will. They by far looked the most comfortable, but thinking about it, Vicky and Otter were difficult people to shake up. It was odd that even with everyone sticking to their friendship groups in this first hour, awkwardness filled the room.
Nathan was branching out and talking to Ellie Peterson and Courtney Thompson, Melissa’s best friends. I looked around but Melissa and Kyle were nowhere to be seen. I was hoping they’d forgotten or couldn’t be bothered to come. Otter didn’t need them; her house was already filled with people.
I stroked Simba who’d curled up next to me as I continued to survey my year group with a critical eye. Isabelle Ross had far too much makeup on. I thought she wore a lot at school but this was ridiculous. She’d gone for the smoky eye effect but it looked like the black eye effect. Jasmine Ward had stroked Alfie Clark’s arm five too many times and it was no wonder Connor Reed was eyeing his mate and chuckling. Jack Robinson was also looking at Jasmine from across the room but for a different reason I was sure. His eye line was too low to have noticed her arm. Caitlin Morris’s eyes flicked to Josh Hughes every fifteen seconds and she sighed when he smiled at her from his group of friends a few feet away. Rebecca Murphy’s laugh was beginning to cut right through me and I considered getting myself a plastic cup of lemonade.
I didn’t know these people well but after an hour of watching them, I felt I knew too much about them. When people started to lose their better judgement and began to dance, I decided it was time to move to a different spot. I squeezed past different groups to get to the kitchen, touching more skin than I ever had in my life. Other than giving me a quick look, I was ignored.
Megan and Beth must’ve been having a private conversation because they stopped talking the second I stepped into the kitchen. They shot quick hellos at me before finding another empty space to have that conversation.
Though Otter had an array of alcoholic beverages, the non-alcoholic menu left a lot to be desired. I went for the lemonade and leant up against the counter, enjoying this quiet section I’d found. I was wondering if I could slip into Otter’s bedroom without being noticed when I heard the voice I despised most in the known universe.
“No, no. You go in, babe. I’ll get you a drink.”
I tensed and turned so I was facing the counter and away from the door. If I was lucky, he wouldn’t notice me here.
No such luck.
“We meet again.” I could hear the smirk in his voice before I turned round and saw it.
Kyle Sutherland was an average human being. Though Nathan described him as hunky dream boat Kyle, I couldn’t agree. He was averagely tall with mousey brown hair. His eyes seemed too small and too far apart. They were so brown that they were almost black, making him look as untrustworthy as I knew he was. His face and ears seemed too round, as did his mouth. The only interesting feature he possessed was his beak of a nose. He hadn’t bothered to dress up for the occasion, wearing jeans, trainers, and a designer polo shirt.
I could see why he was hunky dream boat Kyle but I could also see straight past it too.
“Abia, I told you to call me Ky.”
I went to walk past him but he grabbed my arm and pulled me back.
“Where are you going?”
“Back to my friends. I have no interest in talking to you.” I glared at him, hoping he could feel the rage burning off me.
“You haven’t spoken to me all year.”
I shrugged my arm off him. “It was intentional. We have nothing in common, we don’t run in the same circles, and most importantly, I don’t like you.”
“What?” He chuckled and I had the urge to punch him in the mouth. “I thought you must like me.”
“You were wrong. Bye.”
He jumped in front of the door frame and blocked my exit. I crossed my arms over my chest and tapped my foot. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of an argument.
“You seemed to like me when you had a drink.”
“Thanks to that, I learnt alcohol is my worst enemy. Please let me go now.”
“You make it sound terrible. It wasn’t.”
“It was. Don’t you remember?”
“I remember perfectly well. You were the one so drunk you were throwing up.”
I huffed. “It happened. It’s never happening again and we’re never going to mention it. I have nothing more to say to you.”
He took a step towards me and I recoiled. “I wanted you to know that I haven’t told Mel.”
“That much I gathered already. You should tell her. Healthy relationships aren’t built on lies.”
“It wasn’t a big deal.”
“It was big enough.” My heart was taking off in my chest and it felt like the room was shrinking.
“I suppose it was for you.”
“Please leave me alone, Kyle.” I was finding it harder and harder to breathe.
He bent his head and sniffed my drink. I screwed up my face and yanked it away from him.
“You not drinking? You really mean it?”
“That’s so stupid.”
I didn’t glorify that with an answer, only enjoyed it in my own head.
“You’re a good kisser, Abia.”
I felt my mouth purse. “Have you been drinking already?”
“No, just remembering.” He went to brush some hair behind my ear and I shuddered, jumping back a step.
“It was terrible, Kyle. You’re remembering wrong.”
“It was not terrible.” His lazy smile disgusted me and my stomach clenched at the sight of it. “What was terrible was that we got cut off so soon.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“I mean that more than anything. Kissing you was the biggest mistake of my entire life and I wish I could take it back. I’m glad I was throwing up all night. My body was reminding me what my intoxicated brain couldn’t remember.”
“It was just a little kiss. And a little fooling around.”
I felt sickness swirling in my stomach and a tackiness in my mouth. “Luckily for you it was a little. Do you know my cousin Nathan?”
“Going to set the big cousin on me?”
“If you leave me alone I won’t have to. I told you I wanted you to go away. Please don’t harass me more than you already have.”
“I’m not harassing you.”
“You’ve done more than that. Now please get lost.”
“You don’t want to find out.” The dark, deep edge on my voice was one I’d never heard before but one I liked. I had always been poor in confrontation but I supposed it showed how much I hated every cell of Kyle Sutherland.
He shrugged and went to make a drink. I couldn’t hear anything but the beat of my heart and the pounding blood in my ears and behind my eyes. It was taking all my energy not to gasp for breath.
I couldn’t help but notice he poured a stupid amount of vodka into one of the glasses. It seemed he wanted his long-term girlfriend to go blind. “Abia.” He turned to me once more as he went to leave. “You loved it really.” And with a wink he was gone.
I let out all my breath at once and collapsed onto the floor, pulling my knees up to my face. The tile floor was cold but I needed that to quieten the hot rage pulsing round my body. My fists were curled into tight balls and my limbs were trembling. I wanted to hurl abuse at Kyle and out him for the gross pervert he was, punch him over and over in the face, and then fling myself into Otter or Nathan’s arms and cry.
Unfortunately, life was never quite what you expected.
“What a bastard.”
I looked up to find the bottom of some smart black shoes hanging from the counter. The shoes had long skinny legs covered by smart black jeans. I peered up to find a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, decorated with a purple tie. The wearer of these clothes was Zed, staring at the door frame and shaking his head.
“Who does he think he is, Casanova?”
“I dunno,” I breathed, the shock of seeing him too much to deal with right that second.
“Want me to hurt him? I’m gonna admit I wanna hurt him a little bit.”
“I wanna hurt him too. A lot.”
He chuckled. “When I said a little, I of course meant a lot. What’re you doing hanging around with him?”
“What’re you doing gate crashing my best friend’s party?”
“It looked pretty cool, can’t blame me. So who was that twat?”
“It doesn’t matter. He shouldn’t bother me again.”
“I didn’t like what I heard.”
“What did you hear?”
“Too much if I’m honest but the highlights were ‘kissing’ and ‘fooling around’. Care to shed some light on that for me?”
“No.” I shook my head as I rested it on my knees. “I’ve never told anyone what happened and I’m not about to tell you.”
“Except I already kinda know what happened. Did you have sex with him?”
“No. Though I didn’t know what I was doing that night. But no, I definitely didn’t.”
“Good. That’s something.” He jumped down off the counter and sat next to me, our sides touching. I flinched away from the contact but he didn’t seem to care. “So . . .”
I lifted my head to look at him. It was the first time I’d been close enough and calm enough to take in his face in full. His hair looked much the same as when I’d seen it before, a windswept, bed head look. But like Nathan, he’d put some product in it. The top half of his head had fringe sweeping across it and the bottom half came to a point at his chin, like a true triangle. His slightly droopy, clear bottle green eyes –which I couldn’t help but notice – made his face seem genuine and easy going. His nose was a cute bulb on his face, more pronounced than my sorry excuse for one. His smile said trustworthy the way his eyes did. I also noticed for the first time that his ears were quite big and broad and stuck out.
“You’re name’s Abia, huh?”
I groaned. “You heard that?”
“Yeah. It’s interesting. Where did that come from?”
“My parents thought they were being clever. It means ‘great’ in Arabic.”
“But you’re not Arabic.”
“That’s why my parents are stupid.”
He grinned. “I’m more than happy to keep my end of the bargain if you like, though you weren’t technically the one to tell me.”
“What?” I felt my forehead crease.
“I said if you told me your real name I’d tell you mine.”
“Oh right.” I wiped my eyes, though to my surprise, no tears had fallen. “Okay, go on then.”
“Are you ready? I don’t think you’re ready for the full force of this.”
I chuckled and it made my entire body feel lighter. “I’m ready. I think I can handle it. My best friend’s called Ottillie, that’s pretty bizarre.”
“Though you gotta admit Otter’s a pretty awesome nickname.”
“You heard that as well?”
“Come on, it’s her party. Now d’ya wanna hear my name or not?”
He paused for effect, this strange look in his eye. “Zachariah.”
I could only parrot it back to him. “Zachariah?”
“Yeah. My mother was fond of ridiculous names. You don’t want to hear my sister’s.”
“I think my sister’s name’s pretty terrible too.”
I raised my eyebrows at him. “I’m not gonna tell you what it is. You’re lucky you even know my name.”
“Fine. We’ll carry on like you’re not some sort of privacy freak. Okay?”
I nodded. “What does Zachariah mean then?”
“It means ‘God remembers’ which is pretty damn boring for a four syllable name, don’t you think? The bloody meaning is almost shorter than the name itself. Yours is the best. You are quite literally great.”
“No wonder you go by Zed.”
“Hey! That’s not fair. I sit here and be nice to you and you give me this grief.” He was still smiling.
I smiled back, it was small but I could feel it in my cheeks and in my eyes. “Why don’t you go by Zach?”
He stuck out his tongue and screwed up his face, forehead, nose, and the skin by his eyes crinkling. “Why don’t you go by Abi?”
I suppose my face must’ve looked similar to his because he laughed.
My body seemed to have recovered from my run-in with Kyle. My breaths were coming easier and I didn’t feel like I was drowning anymore. Enough of my mind had cleared for one question to shout loud over all the rest. “What are you doing here?”
“I told you, gate crashing.”
“But how? How’d you get in?”
He winked at me. “That would be telling.”
“How’d you know it was happening?”
“Isn’t it obvious? I heard it. It’s pretty loud.”
“You’re all dressed up for it though.” I motioned to his outfit. It was a hundred times better than Kyle’s and Kyle’d been invited.
“Who said I was dressed up for this?”
“What were you doing in Cullham?”
“You’re full of questions aren’t you? Can’t you just be glad I showed up?”
“Why should I be glad?”
“I made you feel better after Shithead Sutherland was here being a complete dickhead.”
I narrowed my eyes. “We never spoke Kyle’s name aloud.”
“Perhaps I know more than you think.”
“Who are you?”
“Now you know that already.”
He jumped up and offered me his hands. He had long palms and long fingers. I took them and he pulled me up in one swift motion.
“I know last time I said I liked the glasses but I also like you without them.”
“Oh.” I let go of his hands. “Thanks.”
“So, Abia Amelia, you don’t drink?”
“No. No I don’t.” I crossed my arms. “Why? You gonna tell me it’s cool or something else that’s just as ridiculous?”
“No.” He smirked. “I don’t drink either. I like my brain.”
The breath was taken out of me and all I could do was stare at him. Otter’s words of mind reading came back at once. I filled my thoughts up with a huge image of a purple giraffe doing the can-can in a sparkly red dress but Zed’s expression didn’t change. Perhaps not a mind reader after all then.
“What are you?” I blurted out.
His eyebrows came together. “What am I?” He sniggered. “What do you think I am?”
“That’s the problem.” I put one hand on my hip. “I don’t know what you are. You can see the flowers. You disappeared right in front of me. You appeared in here just as quick and quiet. How do you do that?”
“I have my ways.”
“I think everything that’s happened between us is peculiar enough to grant that question.”
“Who are you is one thing but what are you? Don’t you think that’s a little harsh?”
“Not when I’m losing my mind here.” I tapped my foot on the ground.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you, Amelia, but I’m just a man.”
I pushed fringe off my face. “But this doesn’t make sense.”
“Why don’t you do what your cousin said and just forget about it?”
I froze. “How do you know that?”
“I told you, I know more than you think.”
I retreated until my back was pressed against the counter. “Am I making you up, Zed? Because that’s what makes the most sense right now. Please tell me you’re some sort of extremely late imaginary friend.”
“Amelia,” he said, sounding amused. “Would I really be what you’d imagine? Come on.” He motioned to himself. “Plus, if I was your imaginary friend I’d be calling you Abz right? That’s what your friends call you.”
“How can you know that?”
“No, it’s too much.” I was afraid to take my eyes off him in case he disappeared again. As much as his presence was making it hard to breathe and think straight, it was better than him vanishing. I still needed answers. “How do you know me?” It was hard to hear him over the boom of my heart.
He bit his lip and thought for a moment. “I’d love to tell you, Amelia, I really would. But . . . this is just something you have to figure out by yourself.”