Chapter 1: Fiery Welcome
My pathetic life was unfurling like a ball of hairy yarn dropping off a cliff before my very eyes. All I could do was gape dumbly at the slow-motion horror—kind of like people's reaction while they sit in a theater and force themselves to watch a god-awful, third-rate movie. Sure, it sounds funny, except this was my life I was watching.
It all began that one cursed day after Econ 101, where I trudged through slushy snow, braved through piercing wind, and clawed my way out of traffic to get back to my apartment. It was a decent apartment in a good collegiate neighborhood. Only, it wasn't mine. I shared it with my half-brother, Orwell Bayton.
He, as a junior in college, had settled comfortably in this apartment since the year before and amassed a ton of junk and whatnot. I, on the other hand, was an up-and-coming freshman, penniless, homeless without a single possession to my name. If it weren't for Orwell's "act of philanthropy", I would have been curled up on the frozen streets right now and turned into an ice cube. Or worse, living in the dorms but having no means to pay for it. I was here only because I followed Orwell and my father's footsteps to attend my father's Alma Mater for the sake of keeping family pride and tradition alive.
Kurtis Bayton, my father, would gladly furnish me financial aid...if he could afford it. But seeing how he's divorced both from Orwell's and my mother to raise two kids in college on his own, that proved somewhat of a challenge. In the end, Orwell, who had a full-time job, decided he'll take pity on his little sister. He'll adopt me like a stray cat and allow me to freeload off him, rent free. In exchange, I only needed to provide him a daily dose of caffeine, less sugar. Oh, and buy the grocery sometimes. And do his foul-smelling laundry. And wash the dishes, clean the toilet, take out the trash. As well as stay out of his room.
The point being, that's not what was making me jump off a cliff. The fact that all my clothes, my textbooks, my undergarments, and my belongings were lying outside my bedroom, on the floor, was what made me almost jump off a cliff. I couldn't stand the clutter, the mess especially when I had just organized it last month.
"Orly!" I called to my brother as I unwrapped my scarf and peeled away my gloves. "Orly! I know you're home, you son of a pig sty. You don't have class today!"
There was no response. I almost second-guessed myself until I said, "Orwell!"
"Yes?" he instantly replied, popping his head out from his bedroom. He was holding his earphones away from his ears. Even standing by the entrance of the apartment, I could hear the loud rock 'n' roll music blasting through his earphones. Even with the exploding volume, I was sure he pretended to not hear the first time when I hollered. He hated that nickname.
"Orwell, why are all my things on the floor and not in my room? It looked like a blizzard came through it. Or rather, you ransacked it," I accused him.
"Better yet, the blizzard ransacked it," he suggested with a serious, long face; a face that resembled nothing like mine. He was as fair-skinned as I was golden tanned. He was tall and lean, whereas I was merely average and insecure about my fat thighs. Orwell received his features from his mother Gina, our father's first wife. Needless to say, I've inherited Noah's (better known as my mother) genes. One commonality Orwell and I did share was our great sense of fashion (not to be vain or anything), which we both possessed but no thanks to our father's side. That man had the worst taste in clothes, and Orwell and I swore on each other's lives we would stray from that as far away as possible.
I digress from the story of why my life was in the process of being in shambles.
"A blizzard so did not ransack it." I choked in horror, "You ruined all the placement of my plush dolls!" I dug through the debris of the calamity and found my most cherished Mr. Turtles squashed under all 751 pages of The History of America.
"All right, Vinny, here's the skinny (Ha!)," Orwell stood up from his lazy chair and strolled to where I stood in awestruck depression. He dared drape an arm over me. "My best friend from college ran into some ah—misunderstanding with his landlord."
"What does their conflict have to do with me?" I cried like a sour grapefruit.
"Well, he's without a roof over his head at the moment, and it couldn't have come at a worser, colder season. Being the gracious man that I am, I invited him to live with me—"
"— Us!" I interrupted.
"—for a few months until he finds a bachelor pad and gets back on his feet."
"And you failed to mention that you had a sister living with you already?" I screeched. "This is so absurd! Why is it that my junk is dumped outside?"
"Because he offered to pay half the rent and utilities. And being a paying customer—uh, tenant, I can't offer him the worn-out couch." Orwell glared at me as if hoping to subdue me until I was willing to put up my room for bid just because his friend was going to help out with the bills.
"Orly, I'm your sister." This was my last attempt of reasoning before full-blown begging. Wait, I didn't beg.
"You're a freeloader," Orwell corrected.
"Oh, curses! I can't argue that, but it would have been nice of you to at least warn me about it. You're rudely kicking me out of my own room! Am I supposed to sleep in the den tonight?"
"You can't be ser—"
"Well, technically, tomorrow night. He won't be moving in till tomorrow. You better treat him right. He's a close pal of mine, and I can't wait to see him, actually." He patted my shoulder, then proceeded to don on a heavy windbreaker jacket and wool beanie. "Anywho, little sister, I gotta haul myself to work now. I'll be seeing you for dinner tonight."
Whoever this man was, I thought, I already despised him.
The next day after class, upon entering my apartment, or more precisely, the downgraded corner where my unsightly unmentionables piled up like a mini mountain, I heard the shower running at full blast. Knowing that my brother had a full schedule that day, plus judging from a unfamiliar pair of Chucks by the door, I brilliantly deduced our "friend" had moved in.
I confess, a most sinister scheme impregnated my mind right there and then.
"Hello, stranger. Allow me to give you the hottest, smokiest welcome ever," I muttered underneath my breath.
Without wasting another cold breath, I snuck (don't ask me why I snuck around my own house) into the kitchen and set my plan in motion. I went right to cook.
Six intense minutes later, the two-bedroom house filled with smoke so thick I couldn't see my fingers even four inches ahead of me. Ever seen haunted houses come Halloween? Yeah, it was to a degree a scene like that except with thrice the smoke. The house smelled atrocious, too. It was just fiery, smoky, burnt charcoal of hell that used to take the shape of a lump of bread doused in oil. I stepped onto the kitchen table along with the blazing pan and lifted it straight up the smoke alarm. Within seconds, the warning device shrieked its head off so piercingly that it rivaled a two-year-old on steroid tantrum. Perfect.
My next move was to pound on the restroom door in, ahem, true hysteria with fists of fury.
"Hey, hey, in there! The house is on fire! We gotta get out of here now!"
A minute passed, then the door swung open, but I couldn't see the guy or his precious reactions. The smoke was practically wearing both of us like a blanket. My eyes began to water and my throat constricted. Maybe this wasn't such a great idea, real fire or not.
"Holy smoke!" I heard him say. No kidding. "What in hell?" He coughed.
"The exit is this way!" I cried, miraculously locating the doorknob to the front door. I felt a breeze rush past me, indicating he had dashed out. So did the smoke, which had wasted no time and found its way to freely pollute open air as it cleared out of the house.
Orwell's friend revealed himself to me for the first time. He was a huge man with dark teal eyes, well-built like a football player, and bare-chested. A blanket encircled or tried to encircle his waist. He had pinned it in position with a hand, otherwise he'd completely be wearing his birthday suit. I could see the beads of water that still clung to his body from the steamy shower. He stood barefoot in the front yard on the fresh snow, looking quite perplexed as to why a fire broke out. The arctic cold didn't even faze his naked body yet.
I stood at the threshold, analyzing him. Sure, he dazzled me a little, but I was over that delusional beauty quick. I began to laugh now.
"Ha! I got you good, didn't I? Serves you right. That's what you deserve for stealing my room!" I shouted, acting awfully mature for someone my age. Anger and understanding showed on his face as it dawned on him what lured him out of his haven. Boy, he seemed pissed. So I slammed the door in his face and locked everything. He could freeze and turn into a popsicle for all I cared.
Normally, dinner was my favorite meal of the day. That evening's meal was—what's the word—disastrous.
Our main dish was served cold with fury, which we passed around the table freely and helped ourselves to quite generous portions. It was also served with a side of awkward tension. The tossed anger, sprinkled lightly with annoyance, proved quite popular as well. I suspect it was because of the special daggers I poured into creating the dish. By the time dessert came around, we were quite satiated and couldn't handle one more bite of blame.
OK, seriously? As all three of us gathered around the too small, too intimate dinner table, I thought in how approximately many minutes would it take until all our inflexibility would incinerate the furniture into pieces. I wanted to be anywhere but near those two chaps.
We ate among the killer company of silence. My brother couldn't take his narrowed eyes off me. Throughout the meal, I can just hear the twisted clockwork in his mind: What have you done, Vinny. I am so going to dismember you. I was just as bitter at the two men beside me and made sure they got the evil message through my scowl. Spike, our no-longer-in-a-towel-but-dressed-in-Polo roommate, glowered around my direction since he was considerate enough to not pointedly stare at me.
"Good to know you made it here okay, man," Orwell bravely fought away the hush-hush. He threw me a low growl, but said nothing otherwise. "The shock I felt when I saw you standing naked outside my house! I apologize for my sister."
"It's alright. Crazier things have happened to me (Oh, really now?). So what's your sister's name?" Spike asked, his bluegreen eyes fixed on my dark ones. He attempted a smile, and two dimples unexpectedly surfaced. I even went so far as to notice his full head of natural curls. I blinked. Was this an attempt at civilized conversation? Or temporary peace talk? I wouldn't forgive him this easily.
"Vinny," I cut in Orwell. "Vinny is fine."
"Hi, Vinny," Spike extended a huge grip to shake mine. I felt my hand turn boneless after he constricted it like a boa would. I forced myself not cry out in pain. "Nice to meet you. I'm Spike Abel. Looks like we're going to be roommates for a while." His tone suggested some underlying roguery. Oh, curses. I also note he didn't offer an apology for robbing my bedroom. Nor offered to return it back to the rightful owner. Double curses.
"Well, at least I won't be worried coming home to find you screwing my half-sister," Orwell bluntly said. He wore a wicked glint in his eyes.
"Hey!" I protested. "Did you forget that I have a boyfriend, my high school sweetheart, back home?"
Orwell looked at me for a minute. "I wish I can forget that loser. What's his name? Cherry Grayer?"
"Charles! He's not a loser, either."
"Yea, right," Orwell said, without the least conviction that he gave a damn. "That guy collects bottle caps and figurines for God's sake."
I rolled my eyes and ignored him.
Before climbing to bed, or sofa, that night, I dialed Charles's number. In the dark of my corner, under my snug blanket, I counted the number of rings that went unanswered. He picked up after the fourth ring.
"Hey, baby." he greeted me. Hearing his honey voice made me almost forget the entire ridiculous day. There was an awful lot of noise in the background, though, and he sounded short on breath.
"What are you doing? Did I catch you at a bad time?"
"Oh, I'm at a friend's party. Just danced my way to stardom! I rocked!" he laughed. "How's it going there, Vinny?"
That was an invitation that allowed the floodgate to open. I proceeded to complain about Spike and my dilemma. He listened patiently without interrupting. Nor did he console me, to my disappointment.
"Charles, I miss you so much. I've only moved to college for a month, but I already miss you terribly."
"It's not my fault you chose to attend a college out of town while I stayed for a nearer school," Charles replied. "But I miss you, too, Babe."
"We talked about that. I want my dad to be proud of me so I chose the school he graduated from. Plus, Orwell's here, too. He'll take care of me." Yeah, right...
"Yea, yea. I understand."
"When are you coming to visit?" I ask, hoping for an auspicious response.
"About that, I'll have to get back to you. Listen, Babe, I'll call again, OK? I have to go now, don't want to be insensitive to the kind people here. Love you."
"Love you, too," I say, unsatisfied that the phone conversation left a larger void in my longing heart.