Author: So, my first story. Ever. I'm hoping to send it in for publication but... Feedback would be nice. (insert smiley here)

Taking Care of Sam

-1-

The night Chris died, I was having the time of my life.

"It's funny," I told the guy beside me, whom I met in person for the very first time only four hours ago. "I've had a lot of first-dates. But this is the first time I haven't caught myself hiding out in the nearest bathroom, texting a friend to fake an emergency to get me out of it."

Jackson smiled. He wasn't particularly attractive; uglier when he smiled, his teeth too pointy, his already thin lips stretched to the point of invisibility, but all of that was easy to overlook. A child seated with her family on the blanket next to ours suddenly squealed then, pointing at the sky.

"Look! The fireworks are starting!"

I turned my head at the ensuing BOOM!, just as green sparkles exploded in a massive circlet against the black overcast night. From the corner of my vision I could see Jackson remained staring at me, studying my face. It felt like he was searching for my flaws and I was glad it was dark out, when the pimple on my forehead and the two juicy ones on my left cheek (still not quite hidden even by several layers of concealor) would be less obvious. He would notice that my nose was too big no matter the lighting, but with the cover of darkness he wouldn't notice my enormous and probably clogged pores and with luck he wasn't attentive enough to realize that I hadn't plucked or waxed my eyebrows in months. That was what the dress was for, though, to draw peoples' attention from the imperfections of my face to the rest of me. I was pretty when really trying to be, but since I hadn't been that thrilled about Terence setting me up with his 'straight, super-tall, chocolate-covered-with-vanilla-center friend' to begin with, putting on any makeup should have been cause for celebration.

Then Jackson lay down, his head propped on his hand and his elbow tucked halfway under him.

"I like these silences," he said.

"You have a nice voice," I said, meeting his randomness with some of my own.

His easy smile remained, getting the joke. "Thanks, Emma," he said, "But I had a point. I meant that the silence between us, it's comfortable, you know? Sometimes you meet people and there's just that awkward silence." Here he paused as a series of fireworks went off, raining down in golden sparkles that crinkled like children rolling around in tissue paper or fairies burning.

I pointed at the sky as the last of the golden fireworks faded. "Those are my favorite," I murmured, distracted.

Jackson turned his attention to the display for the first time in the past five minutes since it began. There were blue, green, and red starbursts followed by pink and blue circlets, and then red and yellow circlets, and then smaller green and red starbursts. I never liked the green and red ones combined; reminded me too much of Christmas, and Christmas didn't belong in summertime. It was like seeing Santa Claus reading porn at a nude beach on Hawai'i, only with fewer innuendos.

"Hey Emma, do you mind if I lay my head in your lap?"

My face flushed, my heart raced. It shouldn't have made me that flustered. I was experienced. I'd had boyfriends, booty-calls, one-night-stands. I had more guy-friends than girl-friends, and I only just met this guy. For some reason, though, as I gave my head a happy little shake and he lowered his head to rest on my knee, I got warm allover and found myself grinning like a crack-head who just got her fix.

He was holding back. I could tell because, "Nobody's head is that light. You can relax, I'm not going to whip my lap out from under you or anything."

As Jackson gave a soft laugh, the weight increased on my knee until it was almost uncomfortable, but I didn't budge an inch. But as I got to thinking about it, I realized this probably wasn't a good position to be in after all. If he turned his head away from the fireworks, toward me, he would be able to look up my dress that had hiked up from just-above-the-knee to a-little-over-mid-thigh. It was a cute tube dress, white and frilly, and when coupled with a yellow lace petticoat-type button-up dress over it with white wedge heels that tied around the ankles, it was a pretty cute outfit overall. However, having the guy with his head resting on my knee looking up said dress kind of defeated the cute, childlike, girly appeal. And as darling as the Mighty-Mouse underwear was that I'd been wearing when Terence stuffed me into said dress, I doubted Jackson would find them half as attractive.

"Do you want to go dance?"

Jackson started to turn his head to look up at me, which is why I snapped my knees together at that instant and his head hit the ground with an audible thud. I grimaced and began spouting apologies, but he waved me off, laughing again as he sat up.

"It's cool, Emma," he said, "I'm fine. I was just about to say, yeah. I'd love to go dance."

Getting to his feet as he said this, he paused long enough to offer me a hand. When I accepted it, I was kind of shocked how little effort I had to back into his pulling me up, because frankly the guy looked like a splintered spaghetti noodle (the splinters being his limbs). He didn't let go of my hand right away and held it just long enough after I was steady to let me know how much he liked the contact. Then he was turning, walking away, our hands slipped apart and my heart was staggering after him.

When Jackson noticed I wasn't beside him a second later, he paused, letting me catch-up. I was tall, but he was a head taller. We went down the street a block and as the music drowned out the fireworks' booming and the crowds' "oohing" and "ahhing," I found myself already dancing by the time we reached the steps leading down from the main street onto the riverside platform under the bridge. A banner hanging from the stage that popped up overnight proclaimed "Minneapolis Aquatennial" and in smaller red print beneath it: "Subway Block Party." There had been karaoke earlier, but now there was a 5-men-band playing Green Day on stage. There were so many people filling the square that it was a bit like descending into hell's mosh pit, except for the giggling children running around with sparklers and the adult couples standing around with their hands tucked in their partner's back pockets. The Green Day-wannabes and most of the teenagers, though; they fit right in.

I moved from foot to foot, twirling here and there, forcing Jackson to stop as I danced laps around him.

Eventually Jackson joined in as we got closer to the music and lost our identities to the crowd. He wasn't a good dancer, but then neither was I. We jumped around and squatted with our butts wiggling in peoples' faces, shoved people and got shoved, and shouted out what lyrics we knew, or thought we knew, even when we didn't. It barely registered when the bands switched. Jackson grabbed my hand, spun me around, pulled me in close. We came together and slow-danced in spite of the fast techno-punk beat.

The music stopped as the sky exploded in a multitude of multicolored starbursts, circlets, and lasers. The finale.

I gazed into Jackson's dark face, his black eyes, and as he stared back realized that this would be the perfect time to kiss him.

His fingers pushed back a strand of my auburn hair. The distance between us closed.

Then it stopped closing as his mouth hovered an inch above mine and Jackson's expression changed. My expression had changed, too, and I turned my head with a soft laugh and bumped my hip against his, covering up the moment.

"This was fun," I said, not knowing how loud or how soft my volume was because my ears were still ringing from being so close to the speakers and the fireworks were still booming their finale overhead. "Really fun!"

Slowly, Jackson's lips curled again.

"We should head back," he said, and his voice was deep enough that I heard him easily. "Beat the rush!"

Apparently most of the crowd had the same idea, though, because long before we got to the stairs there were plenty of people ahead of us. It still took Jackson and I fifteen minutes to walk the three blocks back to his car, and twice that to get out of the parking lot I had paid five dollars to get us in to.

"I had so much fun," I gushed. "That's, like, the best first-date I've ever been on! You really had it all planned out. Dinner, mini-golf, and then the fireworks. Remind me why you're single?"

Jackson's eyes glinted as he shot me another smile, murmuring, "There's still the second and third dates where we can get into details. I'm glad you enjoyed it so much, though. And just so Terry doesn't whine at me, I should mention now that credit goes to him for the fireworks. I just planned on the dinner and mini-golf, and then wandering around Uptown or something."

I whistled. "Boy, we're lucky Terence is gay, otherwise I would be allover that boy."

"And I'd have missed out on meeting such a wonderful girl as you."

It would have been a sweet moment if I didn't ruin it with a nasally, drawn-out, "Awwwww!" Then I giggled, "That's cheesy."

Jackson chuckled.

My phone vibrated under my thigh, where I'd left it on the seat during the block party scene. I fished it out and saw that I had a voicemail, and checked the Missed Calls log. Seeing Chris's name at the top of the list, my heart did a little flipflop that I chose to ignore. I turned off the phone and found myself looking out the window a second later. Catching sight of myself in the side rearview mirror and noticing the glower on my face, I concentrated on smoothing out my expression before trying conversation with my current date again.

Tonight was a fabulous night. I wasn't going to let Chris ruin it.

"Did he leave you a message, too?"

Panicked, I looked at Jackson to see him holding up his Blackberry. 5 Missed Calls from Terence scrolled across the bottom. Above that was a little symbol that meant Jackson had a voicemail.

The tension drained out of me as I laughed and lied, "Oh, Ter? Yeah."

"I bet he's calling to check-up on us," Jackson said, returning his phone to the cup holder between us. "I kind of want to call him back just to say something sarcastic, like, 'It's going great. She's short, fat, and blond, right?'" He laughed hard at his own joke, which was that I was the exact opposite of his description. I smiled politely but couldn't bring myself to laugh, because I had more than one short and blond friend, at least one of whom was mildly overweight. After a second he noticed this and said quickly, "Sorry. I didn't mean to be offensive. When I'm nervous, I just spit out stupid stuff like that."

"Why should you be nervous?" I asked, leaning across the center console.

He was wearing Lucky cologne. I only knew that because of some relatives that gave me the men's Lucky cologne by accident one holiday. It wasn't my favorite scent, but it did smell nice, and I liked that he had put some on for our date. Maybe he wore it all the time regardless of if he had a hot date; but it was more romantic to believe he did it because he was just trying to impress me.

Jackson smiled and didn't answer, but nearly crashed into the car in front of him, which was answer enough.

Fifteen minutes after the thirty it took just to get out of the parking lot and the traffic jam, the little red Honda Accord Hybrid turned down Summit Avenue. The fifth house from the initial turn into the neighborhood was on the smaller side with white aluminum siding and blue trim. The driveway was short and made up of cracked black tar. Jackson cut the engine and got out. I got out, too, and regarded him with confusion.

"What are you doing?"

He answered in the same bemused tone, "Walking you to the door… Unless, did you want me to stay in the car?"

I almost laughed at him, but he already looked as if I'd hurt his feelings a bit. Instead I shook my head. "Nobody's ever walked me to the door, is all."

So we walked around the car and headed for the door together. It felt a little weird. I kept checking to see if he had changed his mind and stopped. He followed easily, smiling whenever I glanced his way. Then I stepped up onto the porch, turned to Jackson, making him stop on the step below me. I was finally on eye-level with him. That felt weird, too, but also pretty good. I grinned big.

"It'd kind of be overkill if I repeated how much I enjoyed tonight, wouldn't it?" I asked.

"Maybe," Jackson murmured, stepping in as close to me as he could while both of us remained on our respective steps.

His hands came to rest on my hips, but with a grip so loose that I glanced down to see if he was actually touching me. Then, distracted, I admired the contrast between his dark skin and my white and yellow ensemble. My skin wasn't much tanner than either dress, and I made myself blush thinking about how his skin would look if it were really pressed to mine. But then I didn't have to think about it because his lips were on mine—kissing softly, slowly.

Jackson pulled away, shyly ducking his head as he slipped his hands from my hips and into his jeans' pockets.

"Okay," he said, backing up clumsily. "Well, Em…"

"Don't call me," I said. Clearly startled, Jackson looked up. He also looked fairly hurt. I grinned and winked, "I'll call you. Soon."

His soft laughter followed me into the house and up to bed, even after Jackson was long gone. The house was dark and I hadn't bothered to check the garage or the other bedrooms to see if Terence, Amanda, Jake, or Caleb were home. I only paused in the bathroom to wash off tonight's makeup before heading upstairs. In my room, I stripped down to the Mighty-Mouse underwear I'd been so keen on giving Jackson a concussion to avoid him seeing, and then slipped under the soft green covers of my full-sized bed. I drifted off almost immediately, which was unusual for me, but before I could think of anything more than Jackson and how idiotic we must have looked dancing tonight, I was out.

I awoke when someone opened my bedroom door. It had squeaked since we moved in four years ago, but since none of my roommates knew how to fix a squeaky door (myself equally ignorant in this area), it remained my one personal special-effect whenever I felt like waking up in a horror movie setting. As I came awake now, I barely kept the scream in my throat as a shadowy figure entered and moved in the darkness toward my bed.

"Emma?" came Amanda's voice.

"Oh thank God," I muttered sleepily under my breath. "It's you, Ames." And then something else processed. Her voice had hitched when she said my name. I sat up, grabbing my head when the blood rushed to it and the world spun. "Amanda… Are you crying? What's wrong? Did that dick Jake do something stupid?"

"No," she murmured, sitting down next to me. A hand gripped my shoulder. "It's Chris."

I froze.

I don't care. We're over. He isn't my responsibility anymore. Let his new girlfriend clean up after him. I don't have to care anymore!

"Oh, him," I said as I shrugged off her touch. Amanda was a sensitive, emotional girl. Some would call her overdramatic. She cried while watching Animal Planet. Constantly. I loved Amanda dearly, but I was tired and Chris's problems were no longer my problems. But for some reason, I still heard myself asking, "What happened?"

Amanda hiccupped, and then spluttered, "W-we've been t-trying to get a-a hold of y-you f-for hours, Em. It—he, he…"

I wrapped my arms around my friend, smoothing her hair with one hand and rubbing her back with the other. "It's okay," I murmured, because it would be okay. It always was. Chris just had his own flare for dramatics. My emotions had been through so many burning loop-de-loops with him and built up so much scar tissue that I couldn't even force myself to care anymore where Chris was concerned.

But I was wrong.

"He's dead, Emma. Chris is d-d-dead."

-