His mouth was burning. The blood tasted metallic - like copper. And, God, she was so boring. And she wouldn't stop talking. She had even crushed his own fact that girls with red hair and blue eyes would always be sexy, always feisty. But her? James took a swig of beer as the girl in front of him rattled off facts about knitting. Yarn was not sexy. Knitting was not feisty. The alcohol sizzled in the cut in his lip. He couldn't remember her name. What did it matter? This girl was forgettable. He didn't have to remember her name.
"Are you okay?"
James snapped out of his thoughts as soon as she asked the question. The girl had stopped talking about different fabrics - yarn, cloth, whatever - to stare at him. Her eyes lingered on his lip. He touched it and found it slick. He hadn't even realized he had chewed completely through his skin. He nodded.
"Yeah, I am. I just forgot I was supposed to be meeting my friend," he jabbed his thumb behind him, "yeah, my friend, I'm his ride home." James flashed a smile and he could see it almost melted her. She grinned back at him and tucked a strand hair behind her ears. He inwardly gagged.
"Yeah, of course! Here, I'll give you my number if you want?"
James handed his phone to her, only out of politeness. He watched as she quickly typed in her cell, then her name, and sent herself a kissy face.
Great. He thought. Now she had his number. He was stupid not to expect that.
The girl handed it back to him but before she could say anything else, James took off, weaving through the warm crowd of bodies and looked for the exit. He didn't bother checking for Ori or Zack. Both would be too preoccupied to take him home. Not that he couldn't easily have one of the younger sophomores give him a ride, but he felt bad about taking advantage of them. It was stupid to think they were stupid. It stupid for him to have come. He didn't even want to come. He wanted to be at home, under his sheets, painting something, finishing homework, doing anything but be here. He didn't even know these people. He didn’t want to be here.
The problem was he couldn’t say no to his best friend. And that best friend liked to party. And when an almost topless senior bumped into him and spilled a shot of vodka on his clothes, he muttered a curse under his breath, “goddamn you, Zack.” He wiped the stain on his shirt with his hand.
When he felt he was far enough away from the girl, he sat down on a couch and ordered a beer from one of the freshmen waitresses. His previous had been emptied during the history of looming.
His phone beeped. He glanced at the screen. A message from his mom. He didn't reply. Then he saw the girl's contact was still there.
Pat. Pat was her name.
He hit the delete button.
"Hey-y-y, there's Mr. Smith!"
James turned, and sighed.
"Hey, Levi." He said as a tall thin boy waddled over to where he sat. He was lanky, his arms and legs looked like sticks stuck to a lump of clay. His dirty blonde hair was spiked, and, probably out of nervousness, kept being swept up through his fingers as he ran his hand through it again and again. James watched him as he sat down across from him, knees sticking out like door knobs. The young waitress brought out James' beer. It felt good and cold in his sweaty hands. He took a long gulp before offering Levi some.
"Oh, no, no I-I'm good." He stuttered. His knee thumped wildly.
"You okay there, man?" James asked. Levi nodded, forcing a smile.
"I'm awesome! Absolutely perfect. One hundred percent peachy-"
"You hate it here." James interrupted. Levi looked down at the floor.
“I had no idea these parties were like this.” He said meekly. James sucked on the rim of the bottle, amused. The beer made him feel yellow.
“Like, alcohol is the only drink offered. And the girls are hot but mean. I asked for a glass of water and they just laughed at me.”
James popped the bottle from his mouth. Levi was so innocent. He envied that. Pointing the rim at the freshman, James leaned in closer.
“You know what?” he asked. Levi moved forward.
“I hate these parties too,” James said with a smile. He flopped back into his seat. Levi sat still with amazement.
“But, you’re, like, popular, right?”
The thought made James laugh. He shook his head, “God no, I’m not popular. Neither is Zack or Ori.” He pointed to a girl with frizzy, dark red hair in a leather jacket talking to a group of girls. She noticed James and quietly mouthed ‘help me’ with smeared purple lips. Levi jerked his chin towards her.
“Yeah,” James sighed as he turned away, “though I don’t know where the hell Zack is, but I do know for a fact he’s getting a ride home from one of the druggies.”
Levi slowly nodded.
“Do you work?”
Why did the freshmen always ask him that question? James thought they had been conspiring against him just to see how annoyed they could make him. He nodded.
“Yeah. Over at the crafts store.”
The conversation died after that. James didn’t know what else to say. Levi relaxed against the chair. His fingers were balled up into fists, and James noticed his leg didn’t thump. Still, he looked sullen and tired. Grey.
"Can you take me home?"
It was barely above a mumble, but James heard, and with relief, set his beer on the counter and stood up from his chair.
"Yeah, come on. Let’s fetch Ori, and then we can go."
"Do you think she'll mind?"
It was Ori shoved a red solo cup at James, grabbed her keys from his hand and waved towards the group of girls behind her. They called her name but she ignored them and stomped away.
"God, I thought you would never ask…but I’m driving,” she snapped as they made their way back through the house. She didn't question why Levi was with them. James was glad for that. Once they were in the car and headed down the road did she then ask where his house was.
"Over by West Park, you know, Seabury Dr."
"You live on Seabury?"
"No, Hidden Trace Ridge."
Ori glanced behind her. Levi smiled.
As she turned back towards the road, James looked to the backseat. He hated the silence but Levi didn't seem as if he wanted to talk. James adjusted his chair. Texted his mom. Stared out the window. The hanging street lamps made the night seem more menacing than it actually was. James hunkered down in his seat. Silence. Complete and utter, boring silence. It was better talking about types of stitches than having nothing to talk about. He sighed, and picked his nails. His phone dinged. An unknown number. He blocked them.
"How come you're so hot?"
The question had completely thrown off James' cool. Ori busted out laughing. James turned to see a beet red Levi fiddling with the cup holders.
"What?" He asked. Levi inhaled sharply.
"I mean, Jana was looking at you the whole time I tried talking to her, and you were already talking with Pat, and Jana said you were hot and Pat texted me that she had just finished talking to the hottest and nicest guy ever, so," he swallowed, "I don't know. It seems like you get all the girls."
"Yeah, James," Ori piped up, wiggling her eyebrows, "why does it seem you get all the girls?"
James shook his head and leaned against the seat. He didn't expect this.
"I don't know. The hair, maybe?"
Ori ruffled his hair.
"No, fluffy, messy, maybe they just love you because your hair looks like Harry Styles."
"Harry Styles is a different kind of hot," Levi said. Ori turned to him.
"There are levels of hotness?" She asked, genuinely curious. James sat back in his seat and listened as the two talked about an attraction social ladder.
"I'm not that hot." He muttered to himself.
No one heard him.
The lights were out when Ori pulled into the driveway. James waved goodbye then slammed the door to her car. It wasn't until he got up to his room where he saw the lights of her car fade out into the distance. He showered, scrubbed off the traces of cigarette smoke and flirty shoulder touches, and laid down in his bed, staring at the dark ceiling. It wasn't until the door to his room slowly opened. The hallway light tumbled in, and he could see a shadow standing in the doorway.
"You okay, James?"
James puffed out his cheeks.
"I'm fine. The guys thought it would be funny to steal my phone. Sorry that I couldn't get back to you sooner."
His mom shifted her weight. The floorboards creaked.
He hated silence.
"Did you need anything?" His voice came out sharper than he expected, and even though he couldn't see her face in the darkness he could tell she was taken back a little. But before he could apologize she sucked in a breath.
"Yes. Your dad," she stopped, sighing, "your dad, he's coming to pick you up from school tomorrow."
James didn't miss a beat.
He knew it wasn't the answer his mom was expecting. To take something so casually was not like James. Usually, if the topic came up he had a say in it, but now, as he stared at the shadowy figure in the hallway, he tasted the blood on his tongue. The cut on his lip. The feeling of red.
His mom stood there for a moment. Then, with reluctance she turned away, closed his door and shut off the light. James was too tired to think. He didn't want to be angry, or scared. He didn't want to be riled up in whatever. He wanted to paint or draw or something. As soon as he got up, and took the brush in his hands and squeezed out a mixture of blue and gold, red, green, he was too tired to monitor what he was even doing.
Different colors. He felt the purple slide between his fingers.
He was too tired to keep his eyes open.
Then he was too tired to stay awake.
James had a hard time waking up. His eyes were crusted shut. He smacked his lips. The taste of stale beer lingered on his tongue. He slowly sat up, groaning and rubbing his face. Once he was able to see he glanced over at the clock. Red numbers flashed back at him. Six eighteen. He groaned again. It was too early. Too early to get up, especially for school. He wished he only thought it was a Wednesday, and it was actually Saturday, because who goes to parties on Tuesday nights? He looked down at his hands and saw stains on the carpet.
Unfortunately, he was that person.
Shoving clothes on and half-heartedly getting his books ready for school, he wondered if he could take a detour to school. Or at least half the day off. Or maybe just not come in at all. What seemed like a small amount of beer pulsed through his veins, making him feel nauseated and tired. He hated that feeling the most out of anything. And James hated a lot of things. He washed his hands – the sink was now blueish-black - he made toast - he didn't like toast but Mom had forgotten to go shopping that week and he didn't want to experiment with the questionable milk and eggs in the fridge; he posted a sticky note on the door of the pantry to remind her - gathered his things and strutted out the door. He didn't lock it. Why would anyone want to steal from them? If anything, they should be the ones looking for unlocked doors. James could really use a new computer screen. His was slow. And covered in paint.
The weather outside was hot and damp. It made his fingers feel sticky, and the toast soggy. If James had any pride he would've tried to get his license and not ride the bus. That would've been a goal if he had pride.
Zack was waiting for him just outside the bus station. He leaned against a streetlamp, kicking a hacky sack between his feet. He looked as if he was the walking dead, with pale skin, baggy eyes and tousled blonde hair, though he smiled with a hundred watts. He had on the exact same clothes from yesterday, only now stained and wrinkled.
"Hey, jackass, you from an anime or somethin’?" He called, nodding to the toast halfway in James' mouth. James rolled his eyes.
"Hey, dumbass, you from the 80's?"
"I'm from your mom."
"That's so unoriginal."
James handed the rest of his toast to Zack. He shoved it into his cheeks.
"Thanks, man." He said with his mouth full. James snatched away the hacky sack, tossing it between his hands.
"Yeah. Where'd you get this?"
"I dunno. Had it in my pocket this mornin’."
"Did you steal it from somebody at the party?"
Zack grinned at James. James shook his head. Then they both started laughing.
The bus came, and the two got on. They didn't have a plain yellow school bus, the school didn't have the resources to send another registered bus to their street. It would also be a hassle if the other drivers had to drive all the way around to their stop only to just drive all the way back.
Even though that is what a school bus is supposed to do.
The city bus dropped them off near the school, and the two tossed the sack back and forth before they reached the building. Inside, blaring white lights made it feel like an asylum. The hallways were painted what seemed to be a baby blue but looked more like a robin’s egg. For the first time, James smelled Zack - there was no hot breeze to mask his musk. He smelled like cigarette smoke. A booze bar.
"Ugh, Imma kill myself, I swear," Zack mumbled to himself as he caught the bewildered look of a few passing freshman. James jabbed his chin at one of them.
"I think she served me a beer last night."
"I don't care. The lights are too bright. Do you think they're too bright?"
"Jesus, Imma kill myself."
James felt like shit, but just glancing at his best friend made him feel better. It always made him feel better. Too bad he couldn’t put Zack in his backpack. Then he wouldn’t have to deal with Marcus alone.
"Oh my god, no." Ori stated, smashing a french fry in between her fingers, "no, God no, hell no."
Zack glared at her through his hair, sweeping it up with a frustrated sigh.
"You always say that, why do you always say that?"
James stole a crusty fry and popped it into his mouth. Now this was something he did like.
"Because you always have bad ideas." James retorted as he reached for another fry off Ori's plate. She swatted him away with a burger bun. "This is one of those bad ideas."
"But GUYS," Zack started. James stopped. The voice Zack just started to use was trademarked for only the most serious of begging. He saw Ori tense up when he used it. She placed a hand over his mouth, shaking her head while doing so.
"NO. You stink. You have yesterday's clothes on. You're not going to that party the day after one, and you are not dragging us in on it, understand?"
James snickered on a bite of hamburger. Zack pushed her hand off his mouth, rubbing his lips.
"Fine." He muttered. He turned to pick at a salad.
"But honestly, if you guys even wanna have the tiniest bit of fun, it's at the Trace Ridge resort. You know, the one Wilson owns?"
"By the barn?" James asked. Ori shot him a look, and he held up his hands.
"Yeah, by the barn." Zack said, "seriously, guys, it's the homecoming football game after-party. We gotta at least check it out."
"We don't 'gotta' do anything." Ori snapped. Zack placed a finger on her lips.
"You look hot when you're mad like that, y'know?"
Ori shoved him away.
“God, you’re disgusting.”
“You love me.” Zack teased. Then he turned to James.
“By the way, today I thought after our bus ride we could go by Torchy’s and grab a couple of tacos.”
James swallowed a dry lump of potatoes in his throat.
“Can’t.” He tried to avoid the reason by swirling the rest of his fry in mustard and ketchup. Zack looked at him in confusion.
“Why can’t you?”
“I have a thing.”
"Hey guys," a familiar head of black hair popped up behind Zack, "what's up?"
They ignored him, both Ori and Zack looking at James with the same expression.
“What do you mean?” Ori asked. James took in a deep breath. He saw their eyes and decided it was best for all of them if he just said it.
“Marcus…Marcus is picking me up from school today.” He drew his lips into a tight line. Ori leaned back in her seat, her confusion morphing into shock.
"Your dad? As in DAD DAD?"
James shook his head at her.
“His name is Marcus, not…not that other thing.”
Zack shook his head, and stabbed a fork into his salad, "he's got some nerve pullin’ up here."
Levi set down his tray, confused. "Wait, who?"
Ori shushed him.
"Who told you this? Him?" She asked quickly.
"No. My mom."
"Did she say why?"
James shrugged again, starting to feel uncomfortable.
Zack leaned forward, leveling his eyes with James.
"Dude, we can totally skip out on this." He said.
"Yeah, I can take you home, definitely." Ori leaned in too. Levi stared at them, slowly chewing on a burrito. James pushed them both back with his hands. He wasn't going to run away. He had to have known before he would have to face Dad. Probably not in the ideal situation, but James never thought of an ideal situation. He pushed his plate toward Ori and stood up from the table.
"No, it's fine," was all he let himself say as he walked away from the table.
"Wait, what are we talking about?" He heard Levi say.
The rest of his lunch was spent in his art class. Then he stayed there for the rest of fourth period. It was probably one of the only classes he could throw pencils around and make a mess to still get an A. And now, when his anger wasn't in check and he was short of a breakdown, he could throw any color of paint on a canvas, call it art, then get a big fat gold sticker on it. His house key bounced frantically on his thumping leg. He wished he could have forgotten it. He wanted to forget. He didn't like thinking about it. What he did like, though, was using his fingers for paintbrushes. Miss Whinny didn't mind. She was a hippie, a tree hugger. She preferred fingers to brush.
"Let it all...go. Let your imagination flow." She preached as she glided across the stained granite tiles. She peered through thick glasses at each students work piece. One boy had drawn a detailed sketch of the White House.
"Beautiful. See corruption in the purest color."
Another had drawn a beloved cartoon character.
"Perfect representation of society's influence on children and young adults."
Then she got to James. He didn't pay any attention to her - just smeared colors on the canvas with his finger, erased it with his thumb and smeared a different shade with the other hand. He didn't know if he was keeping everything straight in his head - it was weird to feel disorganized in his own mind - but all the other undocumented thoughts and unwanted ideas, he threw it all on the canvas. He wasn't sure if Miss Whinny was still there, so he pretended he was alone. At home. Where his mother worked three jobs to sustain him and barely made ends meet. Where they were qualified for financial aid when it came to school functions. Where he had to waste weekend time with an almost full-time job on his own.
He blinked. There was a hand on his shoulder. He looked over. Miss Whinny had clasped onto him, looking at the painting.
"My, oh my," she whispered, "…James…this looks like pain."
James glanced at her then back at his painting. Black, brown, grey smudges of mixed color. His hands had dipped into the red. It looked like it was bleeding. Then he tossed it to the side and looked around for a fresh one. He grabbed a piece of paper instead. Mom's favorite flower.
He drew a daisy.
The daisy stayed with him until the very end of the day.
"You sure you're ready to do this?" Ori asked as she held onto his hand. It was still hot outside, and James hoped the sweaty feeling was from the heat, "I can still take you home if you want?"
James shook his head.
"No." He answered, "that won't be necessary."
Ori had that look on her face - that look was when she doubted anyone, mostly Zack. James wasn't used to it being directed at him. He swallowed and tried to punch his heart back down from his throat. Zack placed a hand on his arm.
"The city bus doesn't come for another eight minutes." He said softly. Again, James shook his head. He didn't know if he could even speak without choking. His stomach leaped up into his throat and wedged itself beside his heart every time he saw a car pass by. This side of the school was where only teachers went. Other parents didn't know about it.
James had texted his mom earlier, asking her if she could let Dad know he wanted to be picked up right around the bend. He didn't want any strangers, anybody he didn't care for watch him and study his face as he climbed into the backseat of his dad's car. He knew that even if he caught one glance, he would explode.
Ori helped him control his emotions. Zack helped him try to forget. They tossed the hacky sack up and down and tried to see who could get the closet to the roof without losing it. And after an hour and thirty minutes of sitting next to the brick wall of the school and outlasting the damp heat of the weather, James almost forgot what he was waiting for. That is until an ugly, bile-colored car snuck past them and pulled right up against the curb. The window rolled down, and a bearded man with sunglasses tipped out his head. He didn't say anything, but just looking at him made James' breath hitch. Ori was reluctant to let go as he stood up. He opened the back door of the car, throwing his backpack in before he could jump the bushes and run away.
"Bye guys." He said without turning around. Then the door shut, and the car pulled slowly out of view from the school.