The teachers were getting on his nerves. In fact, everyone was getting on his nerves. He gripped the strap of his backpack, wary of the people surrounding him. He felt as if they were staring at him, and it just made him angrier, even though in the back of his mind he knew it was stupid to still assume everyone was paying attention to him. But when he looked up, he caught the eyes of a group of girls. They squealed when he forced a grin for them, and raced off down the hallway. He inwardly groaned.
James turned to see Zack jog up next to him, his hair flopping all different directions. But, it didn’t look dirty or greasy. It looked combed. And he even looked clean for once, with sharp dress clothes and a striped tie. He grinned when James’ expression changed into astonishment.
“It’s for my girl.” He said, smoothing out his tie. James knitted his brow, a smile creeping on his face. He wasn’t about to argue with Zack on it – he really did look nice. Even if a faint stain could be seen on his shirt. And his pants looked a little too big for him. He was trying.
His Mom’s voice echoed in his head. His smile instantly vanished. Zack noticed and his face fell.
“What? Too much? Too little? Will she not like it?”
Zack stopped walking and started to inspect himself. James placed a hand on his shoulder.
“No, no, it’s not you.”
“Oh.” He turned pink. It was one of the first times James had seen him blush like that.
“Man, your girl must’ve had a big impact on you. You’re blushed.” He smirked, and Zack looked like he was ready to pummel him in the face.
“Alright, no, sorry.” James laughed.
They started walking again. Or, almost walking. Zack stopped several times to check his hair in the reflections of the classroom windows.
“So,” he started, fluffing the back of his head, “what’s been up with you?”
James eyed the giggling sophomore in the windows. Zack either didn’t notice or didn’t care as he scraped at his teeth.
“You wanna skip class to find out?”
Zack didn’t look back as he nodded.
“Sure, man. Just gimme a second. I think I see a piece if bacon stuck in my teeth.”
“If you did, I think Mr. Hoof would’ve noticed.”
Zack glanced at him through the reflection, and then realized the class was staring at him. Most of them giggled while the teacher tapped her foot impatiently, glaring daggers. Zack shot them a wink and bolted towards the stairs.
God, what an idiot.
Zack leaned on his knees, staring at James. Disbelief was written across his face.
James nodded, running a hand through his hair. Ori sighed, swinging her legs against the concrete wall. They sat at the back of the school. It was the only safe spot where they could skip class and not get caught.
James hadn’t intended for Ori to come. He didn’t want to run the risk that she would tell Zack what had happened, but when she greeted them with a smile, a hug for James and a smack on the head for Zack, James knew it was safe to assume she wouldn’t But she did interrogate them where they were going.
“We’re going to go fishing for wallets on the roof.” Zack had said. Ori gave him “the look”. Then she had turned to James.
“We’re skipping class for own our personal use.” He blatantly stated. Ori smiled.
“Count me in.”
James watched his friend’s faces. The fun and games had died, the atmosphere bleak. It was so cold outside. He was surprised it hadn’t started to snow yet.
“You’re gonna lose hair if you keep doing that.” Ori muttered. James blinked. His hand was pulling at his hair. He stopped, but gave her a groan.
“I don’t give a damn about that. Ori, how could he do that?” James asked. She shrugged. A cold wind whipped her hair into a tornado, and she gripped her jacket.
“Fuck, how can you stand there and not have a jacket?”
“My anger keeps me warm. You didn’t answer my question.”
Ori sighed. She didn’t look at James. Zack spoke up.
“That is fucked up, dude.”
James puffed out his cheeks. Goosebumps had started to appear on his arms. He tried to refrain from rubbing them.
“I know. Haven’t you been listening?”
“We have. I think we’re just in shock, I guess.” Ori said, “I mean, weren’t you guys…okay for a while?”
James gave her a look.
“No. We have never been okay. We will never be okay. I mean, come on,” he dug his toe into the grass, “he talks with my Mom for months before I even know about it, they plan for him to pick me up, he took me out to lunch, then I don’t see him for a few more months and then he shows up for Christmas? God, the guy is the devil, I swear.”
Zack and Ori exchanged a glance. It was the same look that Marcus and Mom had shared. James felt a shiver go up his shine that wasn’t from the cold. Ori’s lips pulled to the side.
“Don’t you think you may be taking this a little too far?”
Zack didn’t say anything. James knew he agreed with Ori by the look on his face.
“What do you mean?” He said warily. Zack scratched the back of his head.
“It just sound like he’s trying to reconnect with you.”
Anger swelled up inside of him. It took almost everything to not yell at them. He breathed in a few times.
It was okay.
They didn’t know Marcus like he did.
“Well, he should’ve tried harder, huh?”
“James, look at it this way. He’s trying now, isn’t that what matters?”
Didn’t Mom say the same thing?
“No, no, it doesn’t.”
“So if he came back in, like, twenty years, would you still have the same look on him?”
“Yes, because then he would’ve waited almost thirty years to reconnect with family.”
Zack scrunched his nose.
“So technically right now does count?”
Ori raised her eyebrow at him. It was the Mom stare. James hadn’t seen that one in a while. He shrugged, pushing a hand in his hair again.
“Sure, yeah, whatever. But you’re not getting it-“
“No, we’re getting it alright.” Zack interrupted. James ignored him.
“You guys haven’t had a parent abandon you, okay? That’s what I mean. You guys haven’t been in my shoes.”
“By the amount you’re telling us though, I can see that your da-“ Ori started, but Zack shook his head furiously at her. James watched her, tense, as she swallowed then tried again.
“Marcus, is now wanting to be a good parent figure. Didn’t you even say that he talked with your mom for a few months before you even saw him? Doesn’t that say something?”
James shoved his icy fingers into his pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels. Mud had started to seep through his shoes. He didn’t care. He really hated it when his friends were right. Even more so since it was something like this. James wanted to tell them that they were wrong, that Marcus wasn’t their “returning parent” and so they didn’t know, but arguing with both of them – especially Ori – would be suicide. Even Zack agreed with her.
“Look,” he said, as if on cue, “James, we all experience something different. You can’t expect us to react how you will.”
The two glanced over at James, who was now shoving the entire toe of his foot into the ground.
“Did you tell him?” Her voice was timid, like James might bite her for asking it. Fuck. She remembered. His back immediately stiffened, but he kept his breathing calm. He was so glad the school didn’t put up Christmas lights. He was sick of red and green.
“Are you ever going to tell him?”
The word hung in the air. James could feel Zack’s gaze flickering between the two of them. He silently thanked god when a few minutes passed and he didn’t ask. It was better to let him assume. That is what James had been doing all along. It seemed to work.
“Hey, so, tonight is this party…”
James neck almost cracked from how fast he whipped his head around to face Zack. Ori had done it too.
“A party? Like a Christmas party?” She asked as she winced and rubbed her neck. Zack nodded.
“Yeah – don’t worry, it’s not like a big thing. It’s at my girl’s church and everyone is going,” he eyed James, “including Chloe.”
When was the last time he saw her? She didn’t come into work anymore. Finals, apparently.
Zack’s face said it wasn’t the type of reaction he was expecting. Maybe something along the lines of blushing and fidgeting. James turned to kick the piles of mussy snow on the ground. Act like he didn’t care. But his insides were bursting. He wanted to push down those goddamn “emotions” rising in his chest, but his fingers kept slipping through.
“M’kay, I’ll go.”
“Then I’ll go too.” Ori stated, hopping down from the wall. Zack looked as if his smile was going to eat up his entire head.
And just for a moment, he forgot about the color red, and started thinking about shades of yellow.
The driveway was empty when James arrived home from school. He was relieved – he didn’t think he could stand seeing either one of their faces. His stomach growled so he raided the fridge for a tub of chopped watermelon, then retreated to his room, locking the door behind him. He didn’t want to have another ‘surprise’ waiting if Mom knocked on his door. He let his backpack slide off his shoulder, then flopped onto the bed. A watermelon spear hung from his mouth as he picked up a book.
James tried to focus on whatever the book was talking about – some YA novel about a teenage boy blah blah blah that his Mom must’ve snuck into his room during the night, yet his mind wandered off.
It would be his first Church party – his Mom and he were never very religious people, except for the Holy Visa, and so he had never really gone to Church. A few times when he was younger and didn’t have a job to go to afterschool, his Mom would drop him off at an afterschool or summer camp at the local church.
At first it was fun, playing with the news kids, eating free food (James was astonished when he found out the mini breakfast cereal boxes were free, so he shoved ten of them down his shirt one afternoon to take home), playing games and listening to Bible verses. He had never believed in any of it. If God was real, then why did he let Marcus leave in the first place? Why did He make Mom an emotional wreck? Why did He force her to take on three jobs then make him take on one when he was barely a preteen to help make ends meet? James had always had questions about God but never asked them, fearing they would kick him out and he would never be able to reach his endless supply of Cap’n Crunch.
Chloe, on the other hand, was religious, and she did believe in the Holy Spirit, God, Jesus, whatever was up there that made down here. Frequently when she came in on work days she would try to steer clear from those types of conversations as to not make it seem she was forcing the religion down the other employees throats, but every once in a while some religious mom or grandma would walk in, see her JESUS IS MY SAVIOR button pinned to her shirt and strike up a conversations about how being gay was a sin, or how the wine they served in church was just watered down grape juice.
Suddenly, James felt unprepared. He didn’t have any suits, nor fancy dress wear. This was a church party, though Zack had neglected to tell them if it was casual or formal.
He sprang from his bed to make a mad dash for his closet, heart thumping widely.
“No, no, no, no, no,” he muttered, flipping shirt after shirt off his hanger. He was sure the church attendees wouldn’t appreciate it if he wore a Slipknot Tour t-shirt to the party.
Shit, why was he so worked up? This was just a simple party, there would probably be little kids there spilling red Kool-Aid drinks on themselves and mom’s with hair like a rats nest. His speeding heart slowed down.
Maybe just a white button shirt? Black pants? He didn’t own any dress shoes – his sneakers will have to do. He wished Ori was there to help him. Closing the door, he stepped back over to his bed. A puddle of watermelon juice stained the carpet pink near the foot of his bedframe. He sighed. As he reached down to pick up the now spoiled pieces of fruit, he noticed the splotches of paint on the ground. His eyes trailed them over to a pile of brushes laying near the corner of his room. Then for the first time in forever, he glanced at his canvas. Halfway wedged in a mountain of clothes, it still had the outline of a young woman’s face with billowing hair behind her, different strands of hair all different shades of gold, yellow, sunset, grey. He blinked.
A new idea came to him.
Several hours later, Zack had texted James to let him know the party was starting. He would be with his girlfriend, whom he still refused to tell the name of, insisting James needed to “come see for himself”. He stopped badgering Zack about it after that.
Ori came by to pick him up. Luckily Mom and Marcus had disappeared to God-knows-where (maybe he can ask Him when he gets to church) so it was easy for James to leave the house. He pasted a note to the front door in case he didn’t make it back home before they did:
at zack’s house studying for finals, be back before midnight
Mom would surely notice the lack of an ‘I love you” but he didn’t care. He didn’t want to give Marcus the wrong impression.
James passed by the hood of the car, and saw the surface of it was not the usual dark blue, but glistened pale under a layer of frost, the windshield an opaque mess. He couldn’t resist smacking his hand in the middle of it.
As he climbed into Ori’s car, she glanced at him up and down.
“What?” He asked. He had gone with the white shirt and black pants, but her eyes stared with distain at his feet. Oh. His sneakers were crusted with mud. Bits of it flaked into her car. He smiled apologetically at her.
“I don’t have dress shoes.”
James buckled himself in. Ori was wearing a simple longed sleeve shirt and skirt. It was the first time he had actually seen in her in something that wasn’t jeans. He wolf-whistled. She smacked him clean across the head.
“I know, shut up.”
He laughed, rubbing the back of his head.
“Are you wearing rings? That really hurt.”
“It better have. Or I’ll have to punch you in the face.
“No thanks. Trying to have that ‘young guy’ look till I reach forty.”
“News flash: you’re ugly now, you’re going to be ugly later.”
Now it was his turn to playfully punch her in the shoulder.
“Har har. Just get us to the party.”
She simpered, pulling from his driveway.
“Aye aye, Captain.”
James craned his neck towards her, eyes ablaze. She frowned with confusion. Then it dawned on her but by then she realized too late-
“NO, JAMES, DON’T-”
“OHHHHHHHHHH WHO LIVES IN A PINEAPPLE UNDER THE SEA-”
“STOP IT, JAMES-“
“ABSORBANT AND YELLOW AND POUROUS IS HE-“
“IF NAUTICAL NONSENSE IS SOMETHING YOU WISH-“
The local church was decorated in almost every Christmas lawn ornament known to man. Well, at least known to James. As they pulled into the parking lot, they both could see numerous light-up reindeer, a Santa’s Workshop display with church volunteers dressed as elves handing out candy to the children, several large cardboard cutouts of towering presents dotted the lawn, and a life size inflatable Santa to greet the attendees as they walked through the doors of the church. James was happy to see it wasn’t made of Coke.
“Alright, I’m betting this is the place,” Ori said as she parked in an empty spot. James undid his seatbelt.
“It would be a shame if this was an undercover crack house and the real church was down the road.”
“If that’s the case, then the crack whores are doing a pretty good job of blending in with the crowd.” Ori cracked a grin, and they left the car. The air around them was heavy with frost. Their breaths came out in puffs of smoke. Ori tugged on her jacket, walking quickly to the church. James followed after her.
“Regretting that skirt now?” He called to her. She raised her hand to give him the finger but at the last second she stopped, and just stuck out her tongue at him.
“You’re going to freeze in that.”
“At least I’ll look hot doing it. Now hurry your ass, I smell hot chocolate.”
The inside of the church wasn’t that different than the outside. It was decorated with even more Christmas-themed shit, but more people gathered around it. When they entered Ori headed straight for the hot drink stationed at the far side of the room. James didn’t have time to tell her he wanted one too before she was gulped by the onslaught of what seemed like thousands of children and parents.
He didn’t really know anyone in the church, nor did he see Zack, his mysterious girlfriend (whom he was starting to doubt actually existed) or Chloe. So he seated himself at the entrance, and waited to see if they would come to him. It worked like a charm.
“Hey, James, over here.” Zack’s voice called from the crowd. James peered over the heads of a few preteens before his friend’s smiling face came into view. He tried to see if there was a girl behind him. Speculation rose when Zack appeared, alone, hands in his suit pockets. James whistled.
“Lookin’ sharp, man.”
“Thanks dude. Did it for the lady.”
James expected her to come waltzing through the crowd, but no one came to Zack’s side. He raised his brow.
“Speaking of which…”
His friends grin only got wider when he asked.
“She’s over by the children’s booth, helping Santa read some books to the kids.”
“Hey, asshats. I got some hot chocolate.”
They both turned to see Ori walk towards them, steaming Styrofoam cups in each hand. She gave one to James. The warmth of the chocolate glowed in his hands.
“Thanks,” he said before taking a sip. It scalded the roof of his mouth.
“So,” Ori said as she sipped her cup, “where’s the missus?”
“She’s over by the children’s booth-“
“-helping Santa read books to the kids, isn’t that sweet?” James finished for him. Zack punched him in the arm. Ori looked as skeptical as James had felt.
“Seems every time I try to meet her she’s always doing something else,” she teased. Pink flushed Zack’s cheeks.
“Yeah, well, she does a lot of things. Y’know she’s a regular volunteer here – does soup drives, helps out with the recycling community, bakes cakes for some of the food donations, usually gathers books for the children over at the local preschool-“
“Blah, blah, blah, Mother Teresa, yes, okay.” Ori said, putting her hand over his mouth. Zack frowned. Before he could move her hand away though, Ori did it for him and pointed through the crowd.
“Hey, isn’t that Chloe?”
All three of them looked to see where she was pointing. The backside of a girl, or woman, clad in a familiar brown jacket and long blonde hair faced away from them. It was pulled into a pony tail. His heart shot into his throat after bouncing off his feet.
“Imma go get her.” Ori stated. James opened his mouth to protest, but she was already gone. Suddenly aware of what he looked like, he turned to Zack, who was texting on his phone. When he noticed James, he smiled and put it away. He glimpsed the screen as it went into his pocket.
“Just checking up on her.” He said with a smile. James was surprised. Whoever this “A” was certainly had changed Zack for the better. He never had that usual smirk, and he never seemed to come to school anymore with the clothes still on from the day before.
“Do I look okay?” He asked.
“Sure, I guess.”
“What do you mean sure?”
“You look fine, dude, seriously. Don’t get worked up.”
James breathed. He stole a look in Chloe’s direction only to find her looking back. Heat rushed to his face and he almost spilled his drink.
“Oh, hey, she’s coming over here.”
James frowned at a spot of hot chocolate staining the hem of his shirt. He motioned for Zack to hand him napkins so he could try to soak it up.
“Who? Your girl?”
Sure enough, the second he looked up again Chloe was there, standing next to Ori, smiling. Jesus, did she always look good? James was about to compliment her, then he saw her smile. It was…off. It was her cashier smile. He didn’t say anything as Zack held out his hand to her.
“Hey, Clone, what’s up?” He said. She smiled at him.
“Hey, Zack. Where’s,” her eyes flickered over to James for a second. Confusion flooded him.
“Where’s the missus? She’s-“
“She’s over by the children’s booth, helping Santa read books to the kids, donating a kidney, feeding the poor.” Ori sighed, “yes, we know.”
Zack grumbled to himself. His phone beeped, and he almost smacked James in the face as he hurriedly pulled it from his pocket. A smile bloomed on his face.
“Hey, she gets a break in a few minutes. Stay here, Imma go meet up with her then bring her back here so y’all can meet her.”
He practically skipped away. James watched him go with an amused smile.
“Man, whoever she is, she is doing something right. I have never seen him that happy before.” He said, turning to the girls. But they were whispering frantically behind him.
“What, no, I didn’t know Chloe-“
“Did Zack not tell you?”
“No, no he didn’t. He wanted it to be a surprise.”
Chloe pressed her palm against her forehead. She looked scared. James reached out to her, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“Hey, are you okay?” He asked softly. She tensed under his touch, though she didn’t move away.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” She bit her lip, stealing a glance at Ori. Ori nodded. “Listen, you want to go to the mall? This party was just for the children so we don’t have to stay.”
James didn’t like the tone in her voice. His brain nagged at him. She was hiding something.
“Didn’t Zack just go to get his girlfriend-“
“Oh, I’m sure he won’t be back for a while, this place is crowded af, let’s go.” Ori said as she gripped his arm and pulled him to the exit. He frowned but didn’t argue. At least he had time to spend with Chloe. As soon as they reached the front doors though, James saw Zack weave his way between people. It looked like he was tugging someone behind him.
“Hey, there’s Zack. Let’s at least meet whoever changed my best friend from a dud into a stud,” he laughed. Ori and Chloe shared a look.
“James, I don’t think that’s a good idea-“
“Mh, yeah, I probably shouldn’t say that. Do you know her Chloe?” He asked. Chloe opened her mouth to answer, but Zack got there first. His hand was laced through with a girl’s. James smile evaporated.
“Guys, hey, I want you all to meet my gf,”
He pulled her closer.