Chapter Four

Dragging my attention from George, Luke scuffs his feet back into the room, threadbare socks clinging desperately to his feet. In one hand is a pack of cigarettes which he tosses above my head to Jeff. In his other is a grey swirled bong that almost shines silver in the lighting.

"Anyone?" he asks. He takes a rip, and I carefully watch every motion of his arms, his fingers, his mouth, before he hands it off to Annie. Leaning in close to me, he whispers, "Get them so high they fall asleep… Works every time…" He winks and exhales above my head.

From the corner of my eye, I watch Annie and Heather take a hit from the bong then pass it to Jeff who pauses.

"Don't blow into George's face again… Last time, I think he…she… I think…"

"Shut your mouth and pass that on. Don't hold out on poor Eli. He's our guest." Annie pouts at her boyfriend.

"No, that's okay," I speak up. When they all send me skeptical looks, I add,"I mean, I've never used one before. I don't… I mean, I guess I don't really know how." My cheeks feel hot.

The bong bubbles in Jeff's lap. Then Annie sighs.

"You need to loosen the fuck up, man. We're chill people. You can be chill with us." She straightens up onto her knees, using Heather's shoulder for balance while Heather texts, head bowed. "And it's not hard using one or anything… Luke will show you. Quick, Luke, school him!"

I glance back at Luke as Jeff holds the bong out to us. He smiles at me, the corners of his eyes crinkling. They're shiny from the sweat of the day and I look back to Jeff.

"Okay… I can try it, I guess." What's the worst that could happen? I could…drop it and break it, just spill the bong water somehow, get ridiculously high, or cough until I puke.

But they're chill people.

"That's the spirit!" Annie approves and I offer her a tentative smile that she returns just as readily as Luke's smiles.

His lips are even still curled up when he takes the piece from me and brings it up to the red smudge of his mouth. His eyelashes lower like pictures of people praying or the moment before a kiss and as his thumb turns the lighter, I watch the steady movements of his fingers pulling out the slide. Smoke clears from inside the glass while he breathes in.

"Manageable," he exhales, shrugs his bare shoulders. "Try it."

I try it.

My lungs fill with smoke, more than I'd planned for or realized I was taking in and I break into coughs, my chest burning, eyes watering.

"I did that too my first time," Heather says. "My friend had a slide without a handle on it and I always took too long trying to pull it out without burning my fingers… I accidentally took huge rips every fucking time."

"Now she just does that on purpose," Annie informs.

I wipe at my eyes and nod, trying to smile even as straggling coughs creep up my throat.

Luke leans forward on the couch to furrow his eyebrow toward me. "You okay? You want to try again? Want a drink? We have water, some orange pop, which might be flat by now… And I think we made Kool Aid last night too. Do you need anything?"

I shake my head.

"So want to give it another shot?"

Thinking about it just for a second, I nod. Chill people. "Yeah. Sure."

This time he cocks his head to the side and watches me, instructing me when to pull out the slide.

"Holy shit," I breathe as the smoke barrels into my lungs, almost without me even feeling it happen.

He chuckles, his breath warm wind on my face.

It's been starting to get warmer outside lately.

The smoke immediately curls fingers into the backs of my eyelids, yanking my vision in and out of focus. When I exhale, I get the urge to keep breathing out until I melt into a warm pile on the couch. Instead I sag backward, rolling my eyes upward till I see the bottoms of the picture frames on the wall.

"Hey, did you go to high school with us?" Annie asks.

My head, heavy, hefts itself back up long enough to squint one eye at her. She's idly twirling her hair around her finger, head cocked to the side.

"Uh… Yeah, I moved here from just about a half hour away and just changed schools before junior year."

"Huh. How old are you? I so don't know if I really remember you."

"Nineteen. But, I mean, yeah, I just kind of kept to myself in high school after the move. I only had two years so I didn't feel like getting too close to people or anything. It just seemed stupid." My teeth clack shut and my tongue tingles. I hadn't expected to say so much without even thinking about any of it. "So...what grade were you in while I was there?"

"Eighteen. I think I was too absorbed in high school drama during the years we went there at the same time to have noticed you." She glances to Luke. "You were finishing up your second attempt at senior year then, eh, Luke?"

He waves his hands at her, as if the slight stirring of air his fingers create will be enough to blow her away. "Come on, don't talk about that." The sharp cliffs of his shoulders rise and fall in a careless shrug. "I was young and stupid."

"Story of my life," Jeff comments from my right.

Annie laughs and crawls over to him, balanced on her knees and then settling between his to give him a quick kiss on the lips. I look away, to the bong that's made it back to me. This time is easier. Even smoother. I still cough, though, as I hand it on to Luke. His fingers twist around mine and my eyebrows furrow until I realize he's slipping the lighter from my hand.

"Oh. Sorry." A laugh crawls from my lips, lightheaded.

"No problem at all."

I feel my lips twitch upward, an uneven smile offered tentatively. When he lowers his head back to the bong, I look away - not liking the intimacy of seeing his fluttering eyelashes, his lips disappearing behind the grey glass.

Back on the floor, Annie and Heather are bent over Heather's phone, both of them laughing at something on the screen. To my right, Jeff is sifting through one of the piles of DVDs littered around the room. Even though everyone's doing their own thing, it feels comfortable. It feels like belonging instead of being the odd one out. I take turns watching them, eyes finally landing on Luke once more. His eyes are already on me and the almost electric zap that sparks when our eyes meet is enough to make me look away and close my eyes to slow the surprised hammering of my heart.

-0-

There's music and I'm floating on waves. Someone in the dining room says something. Two people and they're talking about something. About the rules in a game of beerpong. A girl's pointed black boots spring through the off-white carpet. I'm dizzy and warm and my whole body feels like it's on fire, like my blood's pulsing to the slow rhythm of the song playing.

-0-

My eyes flutter open and a sharp inhale. The lights are off, room dimly lit by the credits of a movie playing music on TV.

When I blink, my eyelids feel like they've been sprinkled with glitter by the Sandman as I slept. I slept. I glance at my watch. It's past three in the morning.

I tense, looking around the room. Heather and Annie are curled up in a different spot on the floor, Annie's head on Jeff's foot, Heather's phone in her hand. Jeff's fingers blindly push buttons on the remote. The place Luke sat earlier is empty, but the dining room light's on.
I sit up slowly. My feet are quiet as I pick my way into the other room.
Luke sits at the dining room table, head tilted back, facing the ceiling. From his chest, a low hum grumbles along to the song playing on TV. His left hand's fingers tap out the beat on his right pelvic bone. I wonder if it makes his whole skeleton echo.
I shuffle further into the room and he tilts his chin down, staring at me down the slightly crooked bridge of his nose.

"Hey there, Sleeping Beauty. Have any good dreams?"

I let out a small laugh and shake my head. "No... And I'm sorry for just falling asleep on your couch like that. I mean, I meant to stay awake and everything, but..."

"Man, don't worry about it." He stands up and stretches his arms above his head, rolling up onto his tiptoes and then landing softly back on his heels. I imagine I can see every muscle of his body strain with his stretch. I close my eyes again. When I open them back up, he's yawning and shoving his fingers through his hair.

"Did you want me to get back to your car tonight or wait till morning?" he asks halfway through his yawn, words garbled by the inhalation.

"You mean like...stay here?"
"Yeah, I guess. Exactly like that. We have enough couches. Or there's my bed if you wanted something more comfortable."

I blink at him, rubbing my eyes, still heavy with smoke and sleep. I open my mouth, unsure of what to say, unsure of what he's suggesting.

He reads my uncertainty and smirks. "I would sleep on one of the couches if you wanted to stay over and sleep in my bed."

"Oh! Oh. No. I mean, thanks, but I can take the couch. If you don't mind bringing me back to my car in the morning. If you're not doing anything else."

"I wouldn't have offered if I was planning on doing something else." He yawns again. "I can get you some blankets and a pillow though. And if you're hungry or thirsty or anything, help yourself." Luke gestures to the fridge but I shake my head.
When he leaves the room to retrieve bedding for me, I cross my arms tightly over my chest and glance around the room, at the concert tickets taped along one wall, the corn stove burning in the corner of the room, the paraphernalia littering the tabletop. Away from the living room - away from Annie and Heather and Jeff and Luke - it feels foreign being here. Almost like I don't belong.

But when Luke comes back in, sporting a blue quilt and a pillow with a Thomas the Tank Engine pillowcase holding it, the feelings fade. I uncross my arms and reach out to take the blanket and pillow from him.

"Go ahead and pick a couch," he invites. "I'm going to head upstairs and go to bed." He trails ahead of me into the living room, opening a door in the wall and revealing a staircase crawling up above our heads. "Good night," he sends over his shoulder.

"Good night," I echo, and then the door is shutting between us and I'm left standing in the living room where Jeff's loading another DVD into the player and the girls still sleep.

Silently, I make up my bed on one of the couches, lie my head over Thomas's grinning face, and let myself sink back into sleep. -0- end chapter. Sorry for the absence and the absence of a chapter title. FP isn't letting me really edit things the way I need to. So. Sorry. Thanks if you're still reading. I'm lonely and would love to hear from you. lul.