Chapter 3

The Soft-Spoken

Taylor called me as soon as I came home, her tone no more forgiving than the night before.

"Are you coming?" she demanded. I loved her opening lines.

I paused. "Who is this?"

"Don't be an ass. Are you coming tonight or not?"

"Uh, I guess."

The line was silent for a moment, and I could imagine her visibly relaxing. She could get so worked up over some things. "Cool," she said, her voice softer. "We're meeting in the theater lobby at eight-thirty, then with some people after the movie at a party down the street."

A party? A vague feeling of nausea settled in my stomach. This was certainly going to be interesting, to say the least.

"Jas?" Taylor prodded.

"I'll be there," I said at last. But I wasn't happy about it.

She hung up, leaving me to stare dumbly at the phone for a few seconds before dropping it back in my bag. I got up from where I sat on my bed, rubbing my shoulder absently and glancing at the clock. 7:37. I had almost too much time on my hands. Sighing, I trudged over to my closet, pulling out clothes at random.

Luck was not on my side, and I spent the next forty minutes sifting through crappy clothes before I finally settled on jean shorts and a white t-shirt with a bikini underneath in case there was a hot tub or pool. Then, with another glance at the clock, I headed downstairs, my fingertips skimming the wooden railing.

"Jas?" a voice called before I reached the door.

I pivoted, my hand releasing the door handle. "Maria?" I mimicked, smiling. She smiled back, albeit absently. Her hazelnut skin had a slight sheen to it, and strands of her dark, frizzy bangs clung to her forehead with sweat.

"I don't want to stop you from meeting with your friends, honey," she said, shifting her wait, "but do you know how to work the air conditioner?" Her voice had a slight lilt to it, one that I had gotten used to over the past few months.

I nodded. "Not a problem. Just give me a second."

She smiled gratefully, waddling towards the kitchen. I watched her for a few moments before running up two sets of stairs, watching for the trick step on the second flight. Stepping on it at the age of eight had been more than enough of a lesson to stay away from it.

The attic, as usual, was dusty and crumbling, with cobwebs dusting the ceiling and the corners of the floor. I found the air conditioner remote on top of the bookshelf, pressing the power button before rushing back down the stairs. My breath came more quickly than I would have liked; I really needed to get back to running outside.

I waved to Maria before walking outside and mounting my bike. I was going to be late, even though the theater was just down the block.

Sure enough, I arrived at 8:36. It was the first thing Alix said to me as I entered the lobby, followed by my gawking at her hair. It was streaked with neon green, which, strangely enough, made her look older and more mature. I almost felt jealous, except for the fact that I knew if I tried anything as wild with my looks I would look ridiculous. Only Alix could pull off something like that.

"Hey, Jas," Jess greeted, smiling widely. The clear braces she had gotten last year glittered on her teeth. She was the hyper, fun member of our group, sort of a milder version of Casey.

I smiled back. "Jess."

Laura ignored me, of course. She wasn't dramatic enough to turn her back to me, but her eyes never focused completely on my face, sliding off whenever they got too close to my eyes. Now, when she was so close, I felt some of my anger towards her slipping, despite my attempts to keep a firm grasp on it. It was almost impossible to label her as an evil bitch, because she was exactly the antithesis. Her father was a minister at a Baptist church down the street, and she looked the part of a minister's daughter, too, with her delicate features and aura of shy modesty. It was maddening.

"So, who's got cash?" Taylor asked, digging her hand into her pocket. There was something comforting about the familiarity of the situation; Laura and Taylor had more money than needed, I had just enough, and Alix was a bit under ticket price.

Together, we purchased four tickets, along with popcorn, candy, and sodas.

When we arrived at the house, some of the party had already spilled outside onto the front lawn. Music threaded through the bodies, pulsing in bone-jarring rhythms. I shivered in my t-shirt, pulling pointlessly at the sleeves in an attempt to cover more of my arms. For some reason, I felt nervous, jittery. When Alix nudged my shoulder to offer me her jacket, I jumped.

"Anything up, Jas?"

I shrugged, accepting her jacket gratefully. "Just a bit chilly."

Alix nodded, and Jess reached over to squeeze my shoulder briefly. "There'll probably be some cider," she said. "Just hope it's not spiked."

Alix rolled her eyes. She didn't much care for abstinence in any form.

I plucked a piece of fuzz from the jacket sleeve, trying to relax. The sky shifted restlessly above, dark clouds releasing the deep, rumbling purr of distant thunder. Taylor scowled at it before tugging open the front door. Strangely, it wasn't painfully loud, like most parties were. Actually, it was quieter inside than out. The music was turned down to an almost-bearable volume, giving identity to the voices that giggled, murmured, and teased all around us.

Several boys with dilated eyes were sprawled across the stairs, talking too loudly over the rims of fogged plastic cups. The sofas were also occupied, but the occupants didn't look up to conversation. I was fighting to act casual, to pretend I wasn't just tagging along, waiting for the end of a party that had yet to start.

"Most everybody's outside," a girl informed us, gathering up a tray of nachos to take out the sliding glass door to her right. Her hair was short, bright pink, and spiked. After a few moments I recognized her.

"Anna?" Jess gasped. "Your hair-" She trailed off, gesturing uselessly. "It's… gone."

Alix smirked. "I like it."

"Thanks. Not bad yourself." Grinning, Anna motioned toward the door. "Mind getting this for me?"

Taylor, who was still in front, slid the door open, and the rest of us filed through after Anna. Immediately, we saw what she was talking about. The pool was littered with people, most of which were playing a game that appeared to be water volleyball. A few people bordering the pool deck waved, and I nodded back vaguely, barely recognizing any of them.

Anna split off from our group to place the platter she had been carrying on a table to the side of the pool deck. After a moment, Alix followed her, removing her sandals and dangling her legs in the water.

"Hey," a voice greeted from below us. I took a moment to catch my breath before flicking my gaze to the pool. A familiar pair of brown eyes stared up at us.

"Mark," Jess returned easily, either oblivious to the tension or ignoring it completely. "What have you been up to?"

He jumped out of the pool, using his arms to carry him up onto the textured stone of the deck. His dark hair, usually hanging down to just below his ears, was slicked back from the pool water. "Not much." He shrugged. "The guys just wanted to toss the ball around, and some people joined in."

Grinning, Jess nodded toward the game. "Mind if I join in? Looks like fun."

He smiled back, grabbing his towel from the chair behind Taylor. As my attention shifted to her, I caught her staring at me and quickly glanced away. How long was he going to keep standing there, anyway? I was resisting the temptation to sneak a look at Laura, but just barely. "Yeah, sure," Mark replied. "I think Dave's team needs another player."

Jess nodded again and waved to us, already peeling off her shirt and shorts and she walked to the pool steps. I walked off, too, towards the food table. The food was completely unappetizing—the guacamole had finger tracks, and the chips were soggy—but I decided to grab a Pepsi, popping the tab and waiting for the fizz to dissipate. When I deemed it safe, I took a sip, tilting the can against my lips.

"Hi, Jas."

I choked on the drink, some of it splashing onto my neck. Wiping it away with my palm, I glanced up. "Lisa."

She hurriedly gathered up some napkins from the table and thrust them at me. I politely declined. "Sorry for scaring you like that," her words were a bit slurred, and I studied her face.

"I never figured you for a drunk," I said bluntly, in a tone I hoped wasn't patronizing. The last thing I wanted was to be like Laura.

As I suspected, she didn't get defensive, merely shrugging it off. "I'm not drunk. Really," she added, after seeing my doubtful expression. "Doesn't everyone drink some once in a while?"

"Who did you come here with?" I asked, ignoring the question.

"Uh, Dave," she said, pointing toward the captain of Jess's team. He was blond, tall, and a bit gangly, it looked like. But he seemed to have an awkward sort of precision when hitting the ball. "He's my brother," she inserted hastily, when she noticed me studying him.

I laughed. "Who wanted to come, you or him?"

Lisa shrugged, fidgeting with her ponytail. All the same, she looked pleased with herself for making me laugh. "Me, I guess. But he seems to have gotten the better deal."

"Why don't you play with them?" I suggested.

She shrugged again, looking vaguely uncomfortable. "I didn't bring a suit."

"Why not borrow one?" I glanced over at Laura and Taylor to see that they were still with Mark. Lowering my eyes back down to my drink, I took another sip.

"I just couldn't," Lisa said lamely.

"Why not?" I wasn't really paying much attention to her anymore.

Her voice lowered to a whisper. "Because I wouldn't fit into any," she replied miserably.

I looked back up at her, an eyebrow raised. "You don't have much self-confidence, do you?"

She started to answer when, without warning, the sky opened up. Several girls in the pool shrieked as lightning lit the sky. Stumbling toward the house, Lisa and I waited impatiently to squeeze through the glass doors. I hugged Alix's jacket tighter, ignoring a buckle that poked into my side.

"Hey," breathed a voice against my ear. Startled, I whirled around.

"Mark.' The awkwardness from the beginning of the party had returned; I felt like running to the car.

He grinned, teeth glinting. It was an easygoing, just-humor-me grin. I remembered when he had worn braces; the bands had always been grey, never once changing in the two years of his treatment. "Still mad at her, huh?"

I stiffened, brushing dripping hair from my eyes. "I don't know what you're talking about."

He quirked a brow. "Really."

"Look, if this is about Laura, then–"

"So you do know."

I sighed. "Mark, it's not about you, alright? I told you, that was a mistake."

His gaze was cool, assessing. "Then what is it about?"

Not able to think of a reply, I turned away, taking the opportunity to step onto the already-soaked peach carpeting.


Thank-you TwEeTztheBiZaRrE, PandemoniumExpress, bluz, cbprice25, Bleeding Air, EnChAnTeD-KoReAn, and Amethyst-Heart.