James threw up.
“Oh, shit.” Ori said, stepping away. Anna and Zack recoiled, and Chloe frantically pulled off her jacket to cover him. She motioned for one of the church monitors. Ori raced out the door with her keys in hand.
“Terribly sorry, James had said he wasn’t feeling well. Ori and I are going to take him home.” Chloe said, putting an arm around his shoulders and guiding him to the front door, “it was nice to see you, Anna.”
“Feel better, I guess, I’ll text you soon.” Zack called after them. James didn’t acknowledge him.
The blast of cold air did nothing to soothe his nerves. Sweat dribbled down his face.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” he heard Ori mutter as she jogged ahead to start her car. Chloe’s grip on his shoulders tightened.
“I’m sorry, James. I’m so sorry.”
She sounded as if she was about to cry. Her hand rubbed his back. Why was she saying that?
When they got into the car, Ori handed him a few tissues. He wiped off his mouth. The acidic taste of hot chocolate was permanently burned into his mouth. The car began to move.
“Let’s take him home-“ Chloe started. James frantically shook his head. No, no, not home. He didn’t want to run the risk of seeing either Mom or Marcus there. If he did…if he did, he wouldn’t be able to keep them from finding out much longer. Especially when Ori held onto the steering wheel like it was able to fall off.
James felt numb. He didn’t know really what to think. His best friend was dating her. That girl. And James had seen her face. That smile. She knew exactly who Zack was. She knew exactly that they were best friends. She fucking knew.
Then it hit him.
Did they know too?
The sick feeling returned to James. He looked up at the girls. Chloe was close to tears. Ori stared straight out the window.
“Did you two know?”
Silence. It felt like nobody even breathed.
“I did.” Chloe whispered. He turned to look at her. She laid her head on her arm, sniffling softly.
“I’m sorry, James. I’m so sorry. If I knew you were coming I could’ve warned you but-“
He snaked an arm round her shoulders, and pulled her in under the jacket. She stopped talking. Ori looked at the rearview mirror.
“Chloe told me. If I had also known I would’ve tried to stop you, I guess. But…but at least you found out now.” She cleared her throat.
They stopped at a gas station since James didn’t want to go home. Chloe refused to leave either of them, so they sat in the car, sipping on water and nibbling soggy peanut butter sandwiches. Chloe tended to James like a mother would – it creeped him out a little to see her act like his Mom but comforted him at the same time.
“Tomorrow is the last day of school until Christmas,” Ori commented, picking away the crust of her sandwich, “so are you going to tell him now?”
James set down his food. Chloe tipped the water to him.
“No, I think. I don’t know. I mean, why should I? He seemed pretty happy, I guess.”
It almost killed him to say it. Inside he was furious. He wanted to punch Anna in the face. Then punch Zack in the face. Then punch himself in the face. He wanted to punch all of them, in the face. His hands trembled with rage. Ori accidentally smashed her sandwich in her hands. Jelly rolled down her fingers. She stared at him.
“I know, that sounds crazy-“
“No, that’s not crazy. That’s fucking insane. That’s stupid, that is the worst idea I have ever heard of since someone tried to make Moero’s a thing.”
“Well he did seem pretty happy, right? And he did tell me they’ve already had sex before, so obviously he does it with consent.”
“Jesus, James, listen to yourself. Zack will screw anything as long as it has a heartbeat. What if one day Anna takes advantage of him?”
James stopped. This was so stupid. He couldn’t tell if she was right or not. He looked to Chloe but she just picked apart her sandwich, rubbing peanut butter on her napkin. She didn’t say anything.
“James, we can’t let Zack date her. She’s a bitch, a whore, she ra-“ Chloe widened her eyes at her and she coughed, sputtering, “she hurt you, and by hurting you she hurt so many more people. You have to tell him.”
He let go of a shaky sigh.
“I don’t have to do anything.”
Ori looked as if she was fixing to hurl her sandwich at him. Chloe puffed out her cheeks, her hand rubbing furiously on a napkin till the paper was shred to bits.
“We can’t force you to tell anybody, James, but it’s obvious this has gone far enough. Ori has told me about the numerous times she and Zack invited you out-“
“Those were parties. I don’t like parties-“
“Hey, what about the time I wanted to go to lunch, huh?” Ori interrupted, “you just said you had to study even though it was in October and we had no tests – I’m in the same classes as you dumbass.”
Chloe moved his bangs out of his face.
“When was the last time you did anything social? And I mean actually social?”
His mind went blank. Tonight. But Chloe wouldn’t think that would be a real answer. He fumbled for words.
“Exactly. James, this has taken over your life, hasn’t it?”
James pushed her away. The sandwich bubbled in his stomach. It hadn’t. He still did things. Just…not with the same people. He had his rut, his school, job, home. It hadn’t done anything to him that they couldn’t fix.
Taking a deep breath, James looked up at them. Ori was still angry but her eyes had softened. Chloe was gently stroking his hair.
“I just want to forget,” he said, holding back the barrage of tears behind his eyes. God, he was such baby. Boys did not cry over this. Men did not care. He tried to relax himself. Chloe held his hand. She was so warm. But he knew she was just there to comfort him like a mother. He pulled away.
“Sooner or later you have to face it; the good thing is that you will have us at your side.”
She nestled her head into his neck. James didn’t move. Instead he breathed in. Her hair smelled like daisies. Ori coughed from the front seat.
“Okay, okay, shush. I’m getting tired of all this sappy crap.” She chucked the wrapper of the sandwich out the window, and it bounced off the window of the store. Chloe frowned, but Ori just gave a cute smile.
“So are we just going to sit here and share our feelings or are we actually going to go somewhere. You did say you didn’t want to go home and it’s barely six thirty.” She said. James rubbed her head. He still felt like sweat was dripping off him. Folding the rest of the sandwich into the wrapper, he pushed it into the cup holder. He still didn’t want to go home. Even the thought of it made him cringe. Mom and Marcus could be getting home from dinner or a movie or wherever. But he didn’t want to go back to the party, or somewhere crowded.
“Is there someplace quiet we could go to? I really don’t want to be near people.” He said. Chloe looked thoughtful for a moment.
“There’s a park near my college. Since most of us are out for break I doubt anyone is going to be using it.” They both looked at Ori. She paused mid-pick at her teeth.
“Go on college grounds and meet hot college guys? Count me in.” She said, revving up the car.
“C’mon, let’s go find men.”
The park looked as if it was in the middle of nowhere. As the moon started to drift into the foggy winter sky, the naked trees overlooking the field had drawn long shadows.
“Whoa,” Ori said as she pulled up into the lawn, “okay, never mind, I doubt we’re going to find guys here.”
Chloe opened the passenger side, stepping onto the dead grass. Her eyes squinted into the distance.
“What is it?” James asked when he exited the car. The cold air swirled around him and made his nose runny.
“There, do you see that light? I think someone has a fire going on.”
James and Ori came to stand next to her. Sure enough in the distance was a tiny orange dot.
“Are you sure it’s not like a lamp or something?” Ori asked, leaning closer as if it would help her see it better. James pushed her slightly.
“No, dummy, look – all the other buildings are dark.”
“So? Does that mean that dot isn’t a dorm room?”
“No.” Chloe said, starting to walk towards it, “the dorms are on the other side of campus. That is definitely a fire.”
James followed her, “maybe one of the sororities are having a hazing thing? Or it’s like in the movies – a bunch of topless girls running around performing exorcism.” Ori said. Then she gasped.
“Or maybe it’s a frat. Oh, I’m going to be so happy if it’s a frat party.”
“Looks too small to be a frat party.”
“Don’t be a party pooper, Clones.”
Chloe frowned at the nickname.
“At any rate, I pretty sure we’re all cold so it can’t hurt to investigate.”
James smiled, nudging Ori, “and if there are possessed Alpha Phi whatever, we’re depending on you to protect us.”
“Me? I’m wearing high heels and a skirt. I’m going to be the first to die.”
“Well, you’ll die with style.”
She winked at him, “damn right.”
It wasn’t until they all walked a little closer (Ori almost didn’t make it, James ended up having to give her Chloe’s jacket – “Ew, this smells horrible.” “Do you want to be cold?” “…no.” “Then suck it up buttercup.”) when they saw that it was actually a small get together. Beneath the limbs of the dead trees, a medium sized pit burned with red flicks of fire. Around it large chunks of rocks and logs were used as seats for the college studnets. Chloe immediately recognized one of them.
“Jordan?” She called. One of the shadows turned. James couldn’t see his face but when he shouted out Chloe’s name he could hear the smile in his voice. They ran to each other and hugged. James felt a prick of jealousy spark in his chest.
“Oh my gosh, I thought you went home?” Chloe said, pulling back into ‘Jordan’s’ arms. He chuckled.
“Yeah, I sorta waited a day. I wanted to spend some time with you and the bros but I couldn’t find you so I just came here with them.” He nodded to the group. They were all now close enough to see the surrounding college students gathered at the fire. Most of them looked to be freshmen but a few others looked like seniors.
“Hey-y-y-y-y, Mr. Smith.” He greeted as he slung an arm over his shoulder. James ruffled his hair.
“Hey Squirt, haven’t seen you in a really long time.”
“Same, where the hell have you been? I know I’m a freshman and you’re a senior and all, but I, like, NEVER see you at parties anymore. I see plenty of Zack though.”
He spied Ori, and waved.
“And barely ever of Ori.”
James just hunched his shoulders.
“You know, finals and all that.”
Levi didn’t look convinced so James coughed, “and also my mom caught me sneaking away last time so she grounded me until the Second Coming.”
“Oh, wow, harsh.”
“I know right.”
“Hey, I know you.” Someone called out. James turned. Tony was sitting on a log, beer in one hand. He waved to James as he stood and walked over. Though he couldn’t be certain, James thought he saw Ori blush when Tony winked at her.
“Yo, haven’t seen you since that wicked party, dude. How have ya been?” He asked, clapping James in an awkward one sided hug. James shrugged, uncomfortable with the feeling of his hand on his shoulder.
“Good, I guess.”
Tony grinned. He turned to the group.
“Hey, this is the guy from Drew’s back-to-school party.” He said. The rest of the group nodded a greeting to him. Chloe waved with her hand to Jordan, who still stood unbearably close beside her.
“James, Ori, since you’ve already met the non-important Tony,” Tony wagged his tongue at her, “I want you to meet my brother, Jordan. Jordan these are my best friends Ori and James.”
James’ jealousy evaporated, and he forced an awkward smile to Jordan as he shook his hand. Levi caught it and smirked. He glanced over at Ori, who looked as if she had to contain her giggles when Jordan flashed her a smile. Then he noticed how much she was shivering under the thin jacket James had given her.
“Aren’t you cold in that?” He asked. She shrugged, trying to play it cool but the light of the fire illuminated her bluish lips.
“Yeah. We were at a church party earlier so that’s why I’m dressed this way.” She said. Tony heard. A second later he jogged over from his seat with a large furry jacket. He draped it over Chloe’s brown one. She smiled at him.
He winked again. What was with this guy and winking?
It wasn’t really a party, Jordan had explained as they sat down on some rocks near the fire. It was just a little get together. Most of the people there had been at the party is what Tony had told James, but to be honest they didn’t seem that familiar. If he had seen them then his mind was still blocking them out. It wasn’t a surprise.
“You looked like you got black out drunk after you left for the dance floor.” Tony chuckled, sipping on his drink. James felt his throat tighten just by looking at the bottle.
“Did you go home after that?” Levi asked. An older boy with darker hair held a beer can away from him. He looked like a little kid trying to reach for a pacifier.
James fidgeted on his rock. He really, really didn’t want to answer that. Words fizzled in his mouth. He hoped none of them could see how much that bothered him.
“I took him home.”
He looked up. Chloe gave him a calm, reassuring smile. Tony nodded.
“Ah, so are you two a thing?”
Jordan’s head whipped around to them the second he heard Tony say it.
“Who is a thing with my sister?” He asked. His eyes zeroed in on James.
“You didn’t ask me if you could date her. What makes you think you could date her?”
Ori snorted under Tony’s jacket as James struggled to find an answer. Instead, Chloe came to the rescue again.
“Oh, shush up, Jordan. I’m not a prize dog. If I want to date him, I can,” she huffed. Jordan muttered something but didn’t further the argument. James glanced over at her. She smiled, the fire igniting it. He grinned.
The fire warmed them, and soon it felt as if they were all just old friends. The older boy that held the beer away from Levi was actually Drew, his older brother and the one that threw the party. Many times Tony recalled stories from all of his parties, to which Drew just smiled, tightened his hold on a girl next to him and sipped a can of Cuerva.
“No, no, and then Drew threw up INTO the balloon. Oh man, it was so gross. We gave it to a freshman who accidentally popped it over the balcony – which party was that again?” Tony rambled on, cracking another beer on the side of his log. Drew shrugged.
“Could’ve been any one of them, to be honest.”
“True, true, hey, did I ever tell you guys the story when there was the baby pool and the ketchup bottle? Well, I’m pretty sure it was a few years back during the summer of junior year-“
Levi leaned over to James, whispering as Tony was still talking, “so, why’d you guys come over here? I mean, Drew is my brother, but Chloe didn’t know Jordan was here and you and Tony aren’t necessarily bosom buddies.”
“We came from a church party. I didn’t want to go home so Chloe recommended this place. We didn’t think anybody would be here.” He said quietly. Levi looked surprised.
“I didn’t know you were religious.”
“Ha, I’m not. Chloe is, though.”
The two of them glanced over to where Chloe was sitting. Ori and Jordan sat on either sides of her, but Jordan was talking with Drew and Ori stared longingly at Tony. Chloe chatted with the girl Drew came with.
“I hope she doesn’t have too much of a crush on ole’ Tony there. He has a knack for talking.”
Levi smirked. James held in his laughter.
“I can tell.”
“Oh, also, are you and Chloe a thing? Neither of you said anything when Jordan was giving you the death stare.”
James considered that for a moment. She never really did deny it, but she didn’t confirm it either. Was she just teasing her brother or did she really want to be with him? His head felt heavy as his stomach started to erupt with butterflies. The confusing mix made it even more difficult for him to answer the question. He looked up towards Chloe. She was braiding the other girl’s hair into a dark ponytail. She was laughing. The sight made him almost smile.
Then he caught himself.
“No.” Levi looked surprised.
“No? Huh, I would think that after the party last time you would be all over her.”
The reference sent his skin crawling. He stood up, shaking off invisible spiders. He didn’t care to check the time before saying, “well, it’s getting late; I really need to get back home before my Mom blows a fuse.” He waved to the others, motioning for Ori and Chloe to follow. Ori groaned, but came anyway, but not before she handed a napkin scribbled with her phone number to Tony.
“Call me,” she mouthed, and then trotted off to the car, taking Tony’s jacket with her.
Chloe stayed for a little while longer, talking with Jordan and the others before finally she came back to the car. The winter weather hit them in the face once last time as she opened the door and climbed in. James sniffed, his nose starting to run.
“It is so freaking cold – I’m probably going to get sick tomorrow.” He muttered, blowing his nose into a napkin. Chloe smiled, her own face red by the wind.
“That would be unfortunate.” She laughed. James watched her, his own smile coming to his cheeks.
Yeah. He liked her.
The bile car was in the driveway when they got to James’ home. Both of the girls offered to walk with him inside and stay for a while, but he didn’t want to seem like less of a man if he brought girls to his aid. And no matter how sexist that sounded in his head, he just couldn’t get rid of the belief. What if Marcus was there? What if he figured out what James’ was doing?
It would be more embarrassing than anything he could think of.
James waved goodbye to them and raced for the front door. A blast of heat greeted him when he opened it. Inside, all the lights were out. He couldn’t really tell if anyone was actually home. It didn’t really seem like it, other than the fact that the heat was on. He looked out the window to give thumbs up to Ori’s car. The headlights flickered, and they backed up and headed down the street, out of sight.
James quietly made his way up to his room. The stairs obviously weren’t on his side – they shrieked and screamed on every step. James prayed that whoever was home didn’t hear him.
He winced as the sound of the hardwood floor creaked closer to him. A shadow crept over the stairs. He looked behind him to see Mom, dressed in a red formal gown. Her hair was done up in a bun, makeup was slathered on her face, and she had a glass of champagne in her hand. She looked beautiful.
“What are you doing? Why do you smell like ash?” She asked. James frowned.
“I could ask you the same question.” He said. Now she frowned. With a silent gesture she called someone over. An invisible hand took away the champagne. Now James’ frown was much deeper.
“Is Marcus here?”
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
She sighed. James stood on the stairs, arms folded.
“Your dad picked me up at work today, and took me out for shopping and dinner.” She explained, lightly touching the top of her bun. The word ‘dad’ still struck a chord to him.
“What were you doing out so late?” It was his turn. He shrugged.
“You didn’t get my note?”
“Well, I was at Zack’s house, okay?”
“What were you doing at Zacks’ house? Why are you dressed like that”
He really, really, really wanted to just ignore her and stomp up the stairs.
“Lily, honey, leave him be.”
Marcus. James gritted his teeth.
“You know,” he yelled over the stairs, “taking my side won’t make me like you more.”
His mom looked as if she would come up there and snatch him bald-headed, but Marcus just laughed.
“I can try.”
James cursed under his breath, and then he stomped up the stairs. When he got to his room he tore off his shirt, throwing it into the corner, along with his pants. He took a shower to wash off the smell of ash and fire and beer and hot chocolate off him. He scrubbed hard with the sponge. He still wasn’t able to get the stench off him yet.
When he got out of the shower he almost flopped onto his bed, though he noticed a white restaurant take-out container on his pillow. He scowled, but the smell of mushrooms reached him. He opened it. A huge cheesesteak sandwich, bigger than the size of his fist, sat nestled in the middle of what looked like hundreds of thin fries.
They had gone to Philly’s.
It was his favorite.
It must have been Marcus’ idea. Or Mom’s. Or they both cooperated. It didn’t matter. He didn’t want it. He shoved the lid back on it. But when the smell of the mushrooms hit him again, his stomach rumbled. It had been hours since the peanut butter sandwich, and even though his stomach was sour from that night, he was still hungry.
He glanced at the door to his room. It was closed. He locked it. He shouldn’t eat it. His stomach disagreed. He made sure the door was locked again. This was so stupid.
He ate it anyway.