Chapter 31: Charlie

We went "home" for spring break; that is, to Mikey's home. I hadn't seen my father since the day we left for university, and I was in no rush to see him again despite the fact that it would be a thirty-second walk from the Lincolns' to our old house two doors down.

"Hello, boys, how are you?" Mrs. Lincoln crooned as we stepped through the door. "Where's Bridget?" she said after giving us all a motherly hug, her plump arms adequately smothering us all.

Mikey said, "She's studying for finals."

"Really?" Madison said. We laughed and confirmed that it was true. Bridget had slipped below an eighty average and had to get it back up before graduating.

We sat down in the living room and filled her and Daniel in on all the latest news since the Christmas break. We told them all about Ed's death – that is, Desmond and Mikey told them and I tried not to throw up at the mention of it. I recalled the aftermath, rather clean and simple. They'd found traces of cocaine in our dorm room, and attributed his death to that. Not ruled as a murder.

"My goodness, I didn't realize you knew him," Madison said worriedly, her face going pale, "I heard about it in the news, but I never realized."

Mikey dropped a further bomb on her, much against my will: "He was Julius' roommate."

She looked devastated, reaching for Daniel's hand in shock. "Julius, honey, that's terrifying, are you alright?"

"I'm okay," I said calmly, though that was far from the truth. I'd started having Gordie/Vaughn/Mom nightmares again, with Ed as a new guest star. But I obviously couldn't say so. "Honestly, we weren't close or anything. Actually, he was kind of a jerk."

"But still!" she said.

Mikey only made it worse: "Yeah, only a few years after that professor died, too."

"Mikey," I muttered. He looked at his grandmother, seeing her distraught face.

"Sorry."

She stood up and headed into the kitchen. "I'm making you some tea," Madison said. Desmond, the only one of us who seemed unaffected by the topic of conversation, having never personally met Ed or Vaughn, got up to help her.

Daniel gave us a reassuring look. "Don't worry, she'll be fine, just a bit of a shock is all."

Mikey nodded. "I didn't mean to make her upset. It's just... first Gordie," my heart skipped a beat, "then Vaughn, now Ed. Seems like someone's out to get us or something." He saw my face. "I mean, you know, obviously not, since Vaughn and Ed died naturally – I mean, not naturally, I guess, but..."

I swallowed, willing him to shut up. "Yeah." I hadn't been worried until that exact moment. How stupid had I been, thinking that people wouldn't notice the three deaths, how they all related to me?

It was okay, I reasoned. As long as they weren't investigated as murders, there would be no way that they would find me. I was too good. I tried to hide a grin that suddenly washed over me at this notion, and the shudder that ran down my spine a second later.

Unfortunately, the Lincolns had taken up the irritating hobby of watching the news, and I found myself dropping whatever I happened to be doing at the time whenever the story of Ed's death would come on, which was more frequently than I would've liked – or expected.

"... because of the relation to the death of East Athena University Professor Mark Vaughn three years ago and the traces of illegal substances found in Bardsley's dorm room on-campus, authorities have authorized an investigation..."

"... though originally thought to be a delayed reaction to overuse of cocaine, officials now believe the cause of Edward Bardsley's tragic death to be unrelated to drugs – details have yet to be released, but an autopsy has been ordered..."

I heard more reports from different sources of the same nature, which slowly lead me to freak out silently over the course of the break. I wished like hell that I could've been alone so I could get away from the Lincolns' and my brother's ideas about what had happened.

The connection between Vaughn's and Ed's deaths was made on nearly every story of the investigation – another thing I couldn't stand. If they found some way to relate the two, it was only a matter of time before they called it a murder. Before they found the cyanide. No, I told myself, Vaughn had a heart attack. They wouldn't have any reason to call that into question. They'd just call it a coincidence. And cyanide is almost impossible to detect. I'd used such a small amount, too. It would be untraceable.

I wasn't sure if it was the power of suggestion, but I became physically sick with worry, to the point where I threw up nearly every time I thought about Ed. Everyone was at a loss as to what was wrong with me. So was I.

"Autopsy reports confirmed this morning that East Athena University student Edward Bardsley's died of respiratory failure. The exact cause of the respiratory failure has not been confirmed, but officials have, in fact, ruled it a drug-related death, contrary to the initial study by coroner Juan Cruz..."

I heard this report from the Lincolns' guest bed, from which Madison refused to let me move until I was "better". I felt relief course through me. I relaxed immediately at the fact that no one had found cyanide in his system.

After this, I stopped getting sick. I was completely at ease about it, and I was fully convinced that I'd gotten away with it. Unfortunately, this also made me fully convinced that I'd get away with it again, too.


We stayed at Desmond's on the weekend and drove down to see Bridget on the Saturday before we would have to go back to school. Surprisingly enough, it turned out that she actually had been studying her ass off all week and not partying like we'd all assumed. But, she informed us, she was in much need of a break, so she coerced us into going to a club with her. Despite our frequent nights out at bars, we'd never been to a club. "It's basically the same as a bar," Bridget said, "but with loud music, sweaty people and a dance floor." She'd said it as though this would entice us further.

So we sat in her dorm's rec room for forty-five minutes, watching TV and waiting half-patiently for her to get ready. It was weird, being in a different university – we almost never came to Southern. A few kids we didn't know walked by us, staring at us as if we were aliens.

Bridget entered the room dramatically as she tended to do when she was all dressed up. This time in a strapless pink affair, some sort of layering thing going on with the fabric that I couldn't understand. She had her newly-blonde hair back in a ponytail and wore lots of black eye makeup. Mikey avoided looking at her as we headed out to the car.

Of course, the topic of conversation as Mikey drove and Bridget and Desmond smoked was Ed Bardsley.

"So it's officially because of drugs?" Bridget asked to no one in particular. We knew what she meant despite the lack of introduction to the discussion; I'm sure Mikey had been keeping her up-to-date on the whole thing. "That's bullshit, nobody dies the day after they do coke."

I tried hard not to get worked up over it as I said, "It's rare, but it can happen, I guess."

"What else could it have been?" said Mikey.

Bridget scoffed. "I don't know, but I'd bet my next tuition check it wasn't drugs."

"Well, they've already shut the books on it," I said, hoping we could do the same before I started panicking.

"Yeah, whatever," Bridget said, ashing her cigarette out the window, "'The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible'." We waited for her citation, but she just looked at us expectantly for a moment. "Oscar Wilde? Hello-o? I don't know what it is you're learning in that lit class of yours, but here, we do it properly."

We laughed at Bridget's makeshift English accent and thankfully stopped talking about Ed. We'd gotten there rather early for a club, according to our walking encyclopaedia entertainia, so we walked right in after only a few minutes of standing in line. Bridget got in for free, which I thought she might contest as sexism, but she let it go. I noticed the sign: "Uppercase", all in uppercase letters. So clever, I thought, mentally rolling my eyes.

There were a lot of people in the club despite the early hour. Loud music assaulted our ears and made our chests thump wildly, the bass nearly popping my veins it was so low and gritty. Bridget led us over to the bar – there were a few, for some reason unknown to me – through the purple-tinted darkness with the odd green light splashing across the dance floor. It must've been the first time that I stepped into a building and didn't find it five degrees too cold, because I was already nearly sweating. Most noticeable of all was the fact that I felt extremely out-of-place, and one look at my male friends told me they felt the same.

There was a bit of a line at the bar, but we didn't talk much while we waited simply because it was too goddamn loud. This one girl in front of us seemed to be already drunk and kept yelling at her date, who looked like he wanted to leave almost as much as I did. When we got to the bartender, I realized that Bridget was apparently a regular here, and knew the bartender by name. She ordered for all of us because he gave her a discount, and she said we could pay her back later.

We sat down at a booth on the other side of the room and sipped our overpriced alcohol for a few minutes before Bridget declared that we were all to come and dance with her. Desmond weaseled out of it by saying he'd save our table and watch our drinks and Mikey and I were left to slouch after her onto the dance floor.

Bridget, suddenly in her element, started dancing effortlessly. She caught my eye and smiled, moving her arms around her head and sliding her feet aground the floor back and forth. When she noticed Mikey and I swaying with incredible awkwardness, she playfully took our hands and tried to get us to dance better, but neither of us was having it.

"Oh, come on," she said loudly, jumping up and down, unbelievably hyper, "have some fun!"

Mikey scoffed. "I'm not nearly drunk enough for any sort of fun."

I chuckled. "Okay, I'll dance," I said, "but you lead, I have no idea what I'm doing."

Bridget beamed and stuck her tongue out at Mikey. He rolled his eyes as Bridget led me deeper into the thick of the crowd as one would drag an unwilling child away from a toy store.

She pointed to a couple a few feet from us, the guy's hands on the girls hips as she ground against him shamelessly. I blushed and wished I hadn't agreed to this, but Bridget just found this amusing.

Bridget placed my hands on her hips and danced like the other patrons, if one could call it dancing. After a few moments, I managed to get over my embarrassment and tried to simply have fun like she'd advised, but I still felt my face burn when Bridget shimmied downward, grinding her ass against me.

Soon enough, she caught the attention of some blonde guy with a douchey smirk and thanked me for my time as if I were a hooker or something. I laughed and told her to have fun, incredibly glad to be done with that bit of nonsense.

As I made my way back to our table, I saw her doing a similar dance move with the blonde guy but with a little less inhibition. I hoped Mikey wouldn't see.

I sat down next to Desmond and took a sip of my gin and tonic. "Having fun?" he said cheekily.

I rolled my eyes, but smiled. "Loads. Where's Mikey?"

Desmond pointed to him, standing across the room, talking to a blonde girl that I might've mistaken for Bridget if I hadn't known better.

"And what about you, just gonna sit here all night?" I asked, only realizing how dickish this sounded when it was out of my mouth.

Luckily, he didn't take it the wrong way. "I'm not actually sure about what you're supposed to do at a club, y'know?"

I laughed. "Me neither."

He gestured to his empty beer, then to the bar. I nodded, downed the last of my own drink, and we went over to it, if only for something to do. While we waited for the bartender, a middle-aged guy – he could've been younger, but the fact that he hadn't shaved in probably three days made him look older – started coming onto Desmond.

"Hey," he said, turning around in the line to face us after having watched Desmond out of the corner of his eye for a while.

"Uh, hi," Desmond said, clearly not understanding what this guy's sleazy smile insinuated.

He ran a hand through his slick, brown hair. "Can I buy you a drink?" He leaned on the bar with one elbow.

"Sure," Des said casually.

"I'm Charlie, by the way," he said, flashing his too-white teeth. I pegged him as too "classy" to be at this type of club – that is, he thought himself classy. I hated him right away, but I kept my mouth shut, because I didn't want to embarrass Desmond.

My brother told him his name and they talked casually about their jobs. It took nearly until we got to the front of the line before Charlie realized I was there.

"Who's this?" he said, suddenly sounding worried.

I cleared my throat. "Julius."

"Boyfriend?"

Desmond's face seemed to have caught fire with how red he was. Finally, he seemed to understand what this Charlie fellow was up to, but he didn't say anything.

"Uh, no. Brother." I did my best to cover for Desmond's surprise by giving Charlie long-winded answers to even the simplest of the questions he asked me. Tom would've been proud. He offered to pay for my shot of rum, but I refused, not wanting this to go any further than it had already.

Desmond remained silent as the guy followed us back to our table and sat down. I was unfortunately still locked in a conversation I couldn't find a way out of.

"I-I'll be right back," Desmond stammered out, "bathroom." He left hurriedly. It dawned on me that Desmond was so shy that, if I hadn't been here to help, he probably wouldn't have said a thing to Charlie about not being interested until it was too late.

When he was out of earshot, I leaned across the table and said, "Sorry, uh, Charlie, but he's a little socially awkward... he's not interested in, uh, y'know..."

Charlie seemed taken aback, and for a moment, I almost expected him to get mad at me. "Oh." He laughed awkwardly. "Sorry. I suck at reading people sometimes."

I shook my head. "So does he."

He looked at me for a moment, then sighed. "I take it I have no chance?"

I almost said "no chance at what?" but I'd gotten it. "No."

Charlie gave me a smile. "Well, thanks for being honest, Julius." He stood up and started to walk away. "Have a good night."

I barely had time to be thankful for his leaving before Mikey came over and sat down. "Who's the guy?" he said, gesturing in the general direction Charlie had gone.

"No one." I snorted. "Tried to come onto Des."

Mikey laughed. "I'm sure he must've liked that."

"He didn't realize."

"Huh."

Desmond returned, sitting down and downing half a beer in one gulp.

"Thanks," he said, sounding exhausted.

"No problem."

Des sighed. "Why does everyone think I'm gay?"

Mikey roared with laughter and clapped my brother on the back, who didn't seem to see what was so funny. "Don't worry. I had one guy ask if I wanted a drink, I turned around, he saw I wasn't a girl and practically ran for it," he said, gesturing to his hair. This seemed to cheer Desmond up a bit, at least.

I did my shot, nearly puked, and washed it down with a sip of Mikey's screwdriver, which really didn't wash anything down, but tasted a hell of a lot better than spiced rum. I groaned, beginning to wonder if I was losing my ability to drink.

Mikey went off and danced with a few girls for a bit, and eventually Desmond and I joined him just to have something to do. Desmond was unsurprisingly even more awkward than us when it came to dancing, which we joked about amongst ourselves. I managed to look intimidating enough to stave off drunk people trying to dance with me and my brother, which I think Desmond was silently grateful for. Mikey dipped in and out of the throng of people, sometimes emerging with a girl, sometimes alone. We almost thought Bridget had ditched us, but we soon found her, still dancing with the blonde guy from earlier. She was really sweaty, I noticed, and her previously immaculate lipstick was now very smudged.

"Who's he?" Mikey muttered to me as they approached us.

I told him that I didn't know, but Mikey seemed too preoccupied with glaring at him to care.

"Hey, guys, having fun?" Bridget said, making it very obvious that she was smashed when she spoke. "Desmond, come smoke with me!" she said, throwing an arm around his shoulders.

"No thanks, I'm good."

"No you're not! Come on, Des!" Desmond looked at me in confusion, but followed Bridget outside nonetheless. The guy she'd been dancing with followed, stumbling slightly.

Mikey was so jealous he could hardly speak. We made our way out to the edge of the dance floor and stood there silently, drinking until Desmond and Bridget came back.

A few minutes later, they returned, without Bridget's nameless friend.

"I'll catch you guys tomorrow, okay?" Bridget said as soon as she came up to us, finishing the last of one of the daiquiris she'd been sucking back all night.

"What?" said Mikey.

Bridget leaned over to us and said, "I'm going home with Andy. Go back to Desmond's, I'll call you tomorrow."

Mikey nearly exploded. "You're what? No. I don't think so. You're too drunk, Bridget, c'mon, we're taking you home."

Bridget laughed as if he'd been joking. "Don't worry, sweetie, I'm a grown woman." She said goodbye and left before Mikey could fight her further.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Mikey shouted after her. But she was out of earshot. I tried to get him to relax, but he was positively fuming. Worried, I asked my brother if he was sober enough to drive.

He bit his lip and walked around a little, but he was nearly as bad as Mikey. "I don't think so."

"Fuck," I swore. "Fine, I'll drive."

"We could take a cab –"

"All the way back to your apartment?" I wished Bridget would've given us some notice on this whole "hooking up" business.

"Well, I guess not, but you're not good enough to drive either, Julius."

Mikey looked about ready to throw up. He was bitching under his breath, but I couldn't hear him. I looked between him and my brother and made my decision.

"C'mon, we're getting in the car," I told them, starting for the exit. I wasn't sure if they'd follow me, but they did.

Mikey got in the back and seemed to be falling asleep through his anger. Desmond got in the passenger seat and continuously voiced his opinion that this was a bad idea.

"I'll be fine," I kept telling him. I started the car and left the club parking lot. I immediately realized that Desmond was right, that I really wasn't fine, but, seeing no alternative, I simply put all of my focus into not getting us killed. It would only occur to me the next morning how ridiculously stupid I was being and how scared I'd made my brother. I took off down the street, heading for New Amsterdam City at one in the morning.

I managed to get us there alive, though it took a lot out of me and Desmond both. We parked outside Desmond's apartment and worked together to haul Mikey into the building, into the elevator, up eleven floors, into the apartment and onto the couch. I stood out on the balcony as Des smoked two and a half cigarettes in a row just to keep himself from throwing up all the alcohol he'd consumed that evening.

We went back inside and noticed right away that Mikey was mumbling in his sleep. We listened, trying to figure out what he was saying, but the only word I got was "Bridget".


Mikey, Desmond and I didn't get out of bed nearly all day Sunday, converging only for a half-lunch-half-dinner over which we called Bridget to make sure she was okay. Desmond drove us back to school and we skipped all our Monday classes to be hungover and feel sorry for ourselves. Desmond didn't stop telling me how much of an idiot I'd been to drive drunk, and I couldn't deny it. Even Mikey had given me a much-deserved scolding before reluctantly agreeing to not tell Bridget.

By the end of the week, it dawned on us that we were a month away from graduating, that we would all too soon be cut loose from East Athena. This realization also caused us to start studying for finals. Neither of us was close to failing, so studying was more of a formality than anything else, an excuse to converge with Tom, Owen and Zach those few last times before we would all go our separate ways. I tried not to think about it, to not care.

A few weeks before finals, we received a call from Bridget informing us that she'd been made a job offer at a publishing firm, translating books into multiple languages. It took us nearly five minutes to pull this out of her, because she'd been so excited she could barely talk.

This news made us more aware of the fact that, after April came to a close, Mikey and I would be unemployed. As such, we started putting out resumes all over New Amsterdam City, preparing for after graduation.

I started to worry about my future, about the future of the four of us, and no matter how much Mikey reassured me that everything would work out, I couldn't help being afraid.