James was dead. He was so sure that he was dead. Or if he wasn’t dead, he had the feeling he was going to die.
The heavyweight of his own body was almost unbearable. His arms felt as if they were full of lead. His head pounded like a hammer on leather. His eyes were screwed in too tight. He had to pee. And he smelled. And his mouth tasted so damn toxic. He was thirsty. He was tired. He didn't think to refer to colors.
“Oh, shit,” summed it up for him.
When he finally got the courage to open his eyes, he saw a bedroom that wasn’t his. It was too clean. And it smelled like death. He looked down at his body. He was laying on top of mismatched blankets. His shirt was gone, his pants on the other side of the room. He sighed when he saw his boxers were still on. He must’ve had a heat flash last night or something.
The bed creaked and shifted as he slowly got up. His head stabbed itself, and a black fuzziness buzzed in front of his eyes. In a routine he glanced to his left to look for a clock – he found none. He ignored his conscious pleas to lay back down, go to sleep, pretend he was at home but a burning sensation in his mind told him he needed to go home.
He stood from the bed, wobbled a little, and then started to collect his clothes. His Kroger shirt was stained with orange dust in the shape of handprints and reeking yellow splotches of Chimay. His pants were wrinkled but they didn’t smell or seem to have any stains on them. As he put them on, he realized the belt wasn’t with them.
He could live without it. He would just have to ask Mom to buy another pair. He would have to bend down to try to find it, but he had the suspicion if he even tried to bend over he would fall and not want to get up. Ever. His phone waited for him on a table near the door. He grabbed it.
No new messages.
It wasn't a surprise.
James waltzed out of the room, one hand on his pants and the other holding his head. The room he had crashed in was just opposite from a balcony overlooking the foyer. He looked over the wooden railing and gasped. The party had taken a toll on the resort. Shattered glass bottles littered the wooden floor. Broken chairs and tables were heaped in piles. Papa John’s boxes with half-eaten pizzas stained the carpet. It wasn’t surprising to see bodies lying on the floor. The unfortunate ones who were left at the party.
“James, over here.”
He turned towards the voice. Chloe. She wasn’t smiling at him. James felt his chest throb. Her hand held up the keys to his car.
The stairs were tricky. He almost slipped on his own pant leg a few times, causing a few giggles from the clean-up crew. When he got to the ground floor Chloe turned her back to him and started for the door. His gut twisted when she didn’t say anything else.
“Hey, are you angry?” He asked. God, even the hum of his own voice shot numbing pain through his head. Chloe didn’t answer. She opened the door to the building and immediately blinding sunlight streamed in. James hissed, covering his eyes. Some of the guys that had been crowded near the door groaned.
“Ma, turn the light off.” One of them muttered under a blanket of jackets and red solo cups. James followed her, letting the door slam shut.
The lawn wasn’t spared from the party. Whatever the inside couldn’t handle was left outside in the dirt. Several cigarette butts still burning were dug into the pavement on the walkway. As Chloe tread across the grass, James spied hot pink duct tape and toilet paper stick to the bottom of her shoes. He shielded his face and tried to follow her.
Once they were near the car, he saw the back doors wide open and Ori sitting in shotgun. She looked almost exactly like she did last night, except this time, her eyes were glaring daggers at him. James had never seen her that angry. Was that because of him?
He looked at the ground sheepishly as he climbed into the back and shut the door. There he saw Zack sleeping against the window. Drool cascaded down his mouth and on the glass. A foul smell hit James in the nose. He scrunched up his face. That must be what he smelled like.
Chloe slammed her door shut after she got in. The loud sound startled James and made Zack bolt awake. The two of them groaned, holding their heads as it pulsed.
“No, you don’t get to do that.” Ori snapped at them. She punched the radio button on. Music blasted through the speakers, shaking James to his teeth. The pounding in his head escalated until it felt like his face was about to blow off.
“OKAY, OKAY, WE GET IT, SHUT IT OFF, PLEASE,” Zack cried through his hands. Ori turned it up.
His eyes were going to pop out of his head. The hammer was a jackhammer pounding into concrete.
"JESUS, ORI, STOP," James shouted. After a few more seconds of agonizing pain, Chloe reached over and shut off the radio. The boys slumped against the seats, almost crying from the pain.
"What the hell Chloe? I thought that they deserved it." Ori fumed. Chloe sighed, "Making them feel even more regret right now isn't going to do much good, unless you like seeing them writhe in pain,"
"Well, I do, so turn that shit up again," she reached for the dial but Chloe smacked her hand away. The car started slowly pulling from the parking lot. It was silence until they were on the highway headed home.
"What time is it?" Zack mumbled, his hands pushing aginst his temples. James mimicked him. This was the guy that was always drunk and hung over. It only made sense to copy what he was doing to try and get rid of the pain.
"Can't you read?" Ori said, glaring at the rearview mirror. Zack narrowed his eyes right back.
"Yeah, I can, but I would prefer it if you tell me."
"God, you're so lazy."
"No, I'm tired, so why don't you tell me the fucking time, slave?"
Ori whipped around in the seat, "what the fuck did you just call me?" She snarled.
"Hey, hey, calm down," Chloe said with her eyes trained on the road. James held his head tighter.
"Nu-uh, I will not calm down. This son of a bitch just called me a slave."
"Because you wouldn't tell me the goddamn time-"
"Guys, seriously, stop-"
"You're such an asshole, Zack! Jesus, you drag us to the party and now we have to take care of you," Ori threw her hand into the air, gesturing wildly, "you fucking expect us to take care of you when you go out like this! It's exhausting!"
"I didn't ask you to come out, now did I, sweetheart?"
"Don't you dare call me sweetheart you selfish prick!"
"You're the bitch who was selfish-"
"Don't call me a bitch-"
"Don't call me a prick-"
"GUYS! SHUT UP!" James roared. Chloe slammed on the brakes. They all tipped forward, screaming until the car came to a stop. James wiped the sweat away from his eyes. Everyone seemed to be breathing heavily. Through the rearview mirror he could see Ori, her cheeks flushed and eyes watered. Zack stared out the window. Chloe gripped the steering wheel. Her knuckles were white.
"It's ten fifty." Ori's voice was cracked. Zack glanced at her, then turned to the window.
The rest of the ride was in silence.
Zack was the first to be dropped off at home. Ori followed, then James had to switch with Chloe as she got out of the car at her house. He lingered at the door, wondering if he should ask her if she was angry with him like Ori had been. But she didn't hesitate to walk inside and lock the front door behind her. His heart dropped into his feet.
Mom's car was still missing when James arrived at home. He didn't try to call her from their home phone - she would be at work at the time. And he should have been at school, but his head and body ached, his pants were still falling down, and the horrible taste of day old Cheeto stuck to his tongue. He felt disgusting. No wonder Chloe didn't want to talk to him.
He stripped his clothes off, tossing them into the washer and took a shower. As he lathered down he noticed something odd. His hips were purplish as if he had banged into something to give him a bruise. His forehead throbbed. He didn't remember getting into a fight with anybody. It was more likely that he just accidentally attacked the floor or something. The water around his feet had turned brown and yellow. It gave him an idea.
He dried off. He didn't bother putting clothes on. He wasn't going anywhere. Screw school. At least for today.
James stepped onto his carpet and felt the rough patches of paint under his heel. It felt good. His painting of the daisy was half finished. It sat patiently on his easel. He picked up a green brush and went to work.
"How was school today?"
"Yeah? What did you learn?"
Mom seemed okay today. They ate greasy hamburgers and day old french fries at the dining table. Mom had gotten them as part of her paycheck - it was the third month in a row that Gus didn't pay her the full amount.
"Mom, seriously, you gotta report him. He's committing a crime by not paying you the required amount," James said as he bit into his burger. A drop of tomato juice leaked from his mouth. His mom wiped it with a napkin. She looked so tired.
"Maybe. Or maybe he just really likes me and is saving up to give me a big bonus."
She sighed, setting down her chicken sandwich. James knew she didn't like to argue. Not with him, not with anybody. There was always so much to do and so much that they both needed to keep track of.
"James, please. Don't you remember how difficult it was before for me to get a job? If I lost the one at Sonic, you would have to get a second job. You probably wouldn't even have the time nor the resources to save up and go to college."
She crushed a mint-white straw in her finger.
"Gus is not the best manager, I know. But as long as I keep getting the paychecks, and as long as it's enough to sustain you," her hand is laid over his, "then it's okay for me."
James boiled in his seat, "but it' not okay for me." His mom didn't move.
"I know. But, baby, let it slide. Please?"
She playfully tosses a french fry at him. It hit him in between the eyes. Ketchup made the fry stick. His mom giggled, watching as he pried it off and took a bite. She seemed so much better when she was smiling. James wanted her to be like that all the time. But she couldn't if he kept prodding at her about it. He had to leave her alone - even if she was being a doormat. He smiled at her. She smiled back. Then the phone rang. Mom's lips simmered to a tight line. He felt his forehead wrinkle.
"Who is that?" He asked with his mouth full. She waved him off as she answered the phone.
"Hello? Oh, hey," her voice was halting. James gulped down his soda.
"Yeah?...Yeah?...Yeah?...yeah, okay, okay." his mouth breathed, "okay then. See you tomorrow." She hung up. James felt his burger sit like a rock.
"Who was it?"
She stood still. She breathed.
"Marcus. He wants to take you out for lunch tomorrow."
The rock was being pressed. Tightly. It was hot. Lava.
"But I'll be in school."
"Doesn't matter to him, apparently."
"Well, it matters to me."
The rock could've turned into a diamond. James shoved the Sonic wrappers into the trash before he barged up the stairs.
"James, can't you see he's trying?" Her voice was desperate.
"I know." He didn't let himself look back as he gathered his things, "I gotta get ready for work Mom."
He heard her sigh.
She didn't say anything else. James unhooked the keys from the keyholder by the door.
"Bye," he said. Then he shut the door.
The Kroger lights seemed to glow brighter. Less blue. More white. It was quiet, except for the slow-paced elevator music that played over the speaker. James stood at his register. The hum of the machine was easy on his head. There was no small talk. Or frat boys. Or Zack. Or Chloe.
Solitary confinement inside the store.
He had never felt so alone.
James rode the bus to school without Zack the next morning. It was obvious he was still coping with a hangover, even though James had gotten over his earlier. His head still throbbed but only when a loud sound boomed close to his ear. When he got to the library, the ceiling lights didn't have any effect on him, thank God. Only the sight of Ori made him shiver. She sat in her seat, arms crossed, not afraid to glare at him as he entered the room. He awkwardly placed his backpack on the ground and slid into his seat.
"Hey," he said tentatively. Ori didn't respond. He glanced the whiteboard in front of the room. James still felt her staring at him.
"You can't keep staring at me like that, Ori."
"I can try."
The bell rang. Their homeroom teacher stood in front of the class and proceeded into the day. While the class began working Ori took out his notebook. He watched her as she scribbled on a blank page and handed it back.
‘You're an asshole.’
He shot her a look. She didn't flinch. He wrote back.
‘Why are you so damn angry today?’
‘Because you’re an asshole.’
‘That’s not a real reason.’
‘It can be a real reason if I say it is.’
James glared at her. She stuck out her tongue.
‘What did I do?’
'You know what you did.’
'No, I fucking don’t.’
'You know Chloe liked you.’
James read it. Then re-read it. He looked up at Ori.
Her face slowly lost some of its hardened glare.
‘Um, yeah. You didn’t know?’
James felt his face smile. He read it a few more times. Chloe had liked him.
“Mr. Smith, I am talking.” The teacher scowled at him. James tried to smile. As soon as he turned back to the board, James furiously wrote on the notebook and shoved it back to Ori.
'Yeah, you screwed up.'
'What did I do?'
Ori furrowed her eyebrows.
'I...honestly don't know.'
James almost smacked his pencil down. He couldn't believe it. Ori was angry because Chloe was angry and she didn't know what it was about?
'You don't know?'
'Look, she talked to me the other day and since details are confidential, all I can say is, you screwed up. Big time.'
He practically ripped another piece of paper from the notebook.
'So why are you angry at me?'
'Because she really liked you and it seemed as if you liked her for a while.'
'I did like her. I do like her.'
'Then you should've told her.'
James stared down at the paper. She was utterly right. He should've.
When the bell rang, Ori did wait for him outside of the classroom. She didn't talk. He didn't really want to. They walked to second period in silence.
Lunch came and went without a notice from Marcus. James assumed he said it for show yesterday on the phone as he splattered an array of colors on a canvas. He didn't care. He wanted to paint.
Mrs. Whinny had eyed him as he picked up a few cans of paint and set them on his desk. She was annoying him. He knew that she just wanted to make sure he was okay - his paintings were mostly reflection of what he felt. But today his colors were bright and cheery. He picked them purposefully. He didn't feel that way.
Halfway into class the door opened. Usually, no one came in or left unless it was for class so James turned his head. A small girl with candy pigtails stood at the entrance, holding a pink slip in her hand. She ignored the stares of the art students.
"I have a permission slip," she said, handing the slip out to the teacher, "for a James Smith?"
James blinked. Mrs. Whinny tossed the slip his way without glancing at it. He grabbed it with yellow hands.
James Smith proceed to Office
Out at 1:34
There was a signature down at the bottom. He recognized it immediately. He sighed.
"Hey, why are your hands yellow?" Marcus asked when James came through the double doors. He wiped them on his jeans, smudging paint on the fabric.
"Sorry," he muttered. Marcus shrugged, threading a hand in his hair.
"Doesn't matter to me. Wanna go? Dr. Robinson," he winked, "is waiting for us."
As Marcus strutted out the door James lingered behind him. Well, at least he wouldn't have to lie to mom.
"Have you ever been to Applejacks? Kinda like a ripoff Applebee's but better. Have you tried their ribs? Amazing."
"Oh, no, Mom and I-"
"Ah, that's right. I'll take you both out for dinner sometime soon. Maybe to Applejacks? Chipotle? McDonalds? Chick-fill-a? Or Sonic?"
James frantically shook his head.
"God no. Not Sonic. Anything but Sonic."
Marcus grinned evilly.
"Sonic it is."
Marcus took him to Host World's famous diner. (Wasn't that famous if James had never heard of it). It looked sad and broken from the outside with the inside looking happy and broken. A waitress started to pour a cup of iced tea as soon as they sat down.
"Thanks, Debbie," Marcus smiled, shuffling into a red leather booth. James watched as she blushed and bit her lip, escaping into the kitchen. He sipped on his iced tea while James picked up his menu.
"I come here all the time," he said, tonguing a lemon.
James stared at a picture of an enormous hamburger.
"It's about thirty minutes from work. Did I tell you where I work? Southwest, you know, the airport."
His voice cracked. James stiffened. His grip on the menu tightened.
"I'm, uh, I'm a manager there. In charge of the computers."
James watched as his tongue pushed out in his cheek. His mom poked at his head.
At least he was trying.
At least it was now.
"Publications Technology manager." He said softly. Marcus snapped his eyes up to him. James was still looking at the menu.
There was a smile on his voice. And James ended up smiling too.
Just a little bit.
The hamburgers they had ordered was almost as big as their heads. They towered over two mounds of fries and a pitcher of iced tea.
"Oh, God." Marcus gasped, pulling out an impossibly large patty. James tried to bite into it but only got a mouthful of mustard-drenched bun.
"How are you supposed to eat this?" Marcus muttered, wiping away a stain of ketchup on his chin. James shrugged.
"Didn't you say you came here often?"
"I do come here often. I've never had the burger before."
"What do you usually have?"
Marcus fumbled to pick up the sandwich. A slice of tomato slipped out and onto the plate with a wet splat.
"The cabbage stew," James wrinkled his nose, "oh stop that face, it's really good. I'm used to the smell by now."
They are the rest of their lunches and James packed his up when it came to the size about a normal burger. Marcus took an extra large cup and dumped the iced tea in. They strolled out of the diner, mustard smeared on their faces. And even though the ride back was quiet, it seemed to James like maybe it was looking up.
For maybe just for today.
The night shift at Kroger was easier to bear. James still didn't know what happened with Chloe, or why she was so angry at him. He felt happier than usual and more prepared, even going as far to rehearse several lines to what he was going to say to her. His fingers drummed nervously against the cash register.
James felt heart leap into his throat every time the automatic doors dinged. He almost felt like a dog.
It wasn't until later in the night when she checked in for work. James stood at the empty register, clicking on random numbers when she whisked past him, pulling her hair into a ponytail. He felt his face pull into a smile.
She didn't look at him.
She stared at the monitor.
"Chloe, damn it, please?"
"Why were you with her?" Her voice was tiny.
James stared at her. Confusion rippled through him. Her?
"What do you mean?" He asked. Chloe sucked in a shaky breath.
"Why. Were. You. With. Her?"
James stepped out of his counter, walking closer to her. He didn't dare touch her. He wanted to be closer. He felt the need to just pull her in close.
"Chloe, I-I don't know what you're talking about-
She whipped around, her eyes on fire.
"I SAW YOU, JAMES, UNDERSTAND? I. SAW. YOU. WITH. HER!" She almost screamed. It echoed in the empty store. Tears built up in her eyes and James had to push the feeling of wanting to wipe them away.
"WITH WHO, CHLOE? I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT."
"THAT RED HEAD. I SAW YOU TWO TOGETHER."
James knitted his eyebrows together. What red head?
"I wasn't with Ori." He said, reaching for her hand. She pulled away.
"No, not Ori. Levi's friend. The redhead," she searched for a name, "Pat."
James looked at her. Redhead. Pat?
When did she see them together? He only remembered Pat from the last party. He didn't remember Chloe being there. He tried to choose his words carefully for his next sentence.
"Chloe, I only talked to Pat for a minute, at a different party. I was never -"
"I tried looking for you." She interrupted him. A streak of tears washed down her cheek, and she smudged them away, "I know I'm not your girlfriend but I thought you liked me, and I liked you, so, I looked for you. You were gone a really long time."
"And I went to the game room, with all the guys. One of the frat boys there told me he saw you out on the dance floor. I went there, didn't see you. So I checked the pool, then the bathrooms, and then the kitchen, living room - " she stopped to gasp. James stood still, watching her, his face scrunching up with uncertainty.
"- until I found you. In one of the bedrooms. There was this girl, red hair, she was holding you up and dragging you to one of the rooms. I asked what she was doing and she said taking you home, but then...then you kissed her hand, and down her arm, and whispered something into her ear and then she just winked at me and-"
Chloe covered her mouth. Her cheeks were red and her eyes were a bursting dam. James didn't move. His heart was beating eighty times a second.
"Oh my god."
Chloe looked at him and wiped her nose.
He clutched the counter, suddenly dizzy.
Bile rose in his throat. He stumbled forwards.
“You're going to love this."
He looked up at Chloe, now with tears in his eyes. Suddenly his vision fuzzed.
He blacked out.