At this point, we're still setting things up- the characters, relationships, etc. Bear with me. It'll pick up.


In the first moment I ever had with Cole alone, a hazy evening spent sitting in Miney-Moe waiting for Shea to finish getting ready so that we could go out, I'd ended up teaching him how to play poker. It happened because he asked me how I liked everyone in the group, and when he got around to what I thought of Nolan, all I let myself say was "I bet he has a good poker face."

He confessed that he didn't actually know how to play, as the many other projects that he'd thrown himself to with equal enthusiasm were of the time-consuming sort. However, the dogged desire that suddenly possessed him to learn dragged me down as well, because what kind of teenage boy doesn't know how to play poker, and wouldn't be just swell if I taught him, pretty please? I relented after he'd showered me with insincere compliments and presented me with a dozen cherries on top, mostly because I liked him and I wanted him to like me too, the way I wanted all Shea's friends to like me. Then Shea herself came out, looking windswept and wild and wonderful, with a deck of cards in hand, and she and I sat scrunched in the passenger side opposite Cole, playing on the console until he knew, or at least had an inkling of, what he was doing. By the time he was satisfied, sweaty summer darkness had fallen, and we decided it was too late to go to the mall, anyway. I didn't mind, and neither of them seemed to mind either, because apparently these little distractions were a regular thing.

Naturally, after that Cole decided he wanted to be one of those guys on the TV with the beer bellies that sat around and played professionally. We were all in Nolan's mom's apartment when he spilled that doozy, looking for support. Instead, he got Derek and Nolan howling with laughter, and Monroe biting her purple-stained lip.

"Cole, I'm sorry, but odds are you're a shitty card player." She said it because it was better for him to know than to fall into his star of a dream only to find it was a cloud instead, one he could fall straight through.

"Oh, I am, am I?" he said indignantly, pounding his fist on the kitchen table so that our glasses clinked. "How bout you play me right here and now, Marilyn?"

The group, over the course of that summer, eventually crafted a million and more different nicknames for the mysteriously first-named Monroe, but most often we used Marilyn, Moe, or Mini-Moe, the last one Cole's doing because he just loved his car that much. She detested all of them and came up with plenty of foul but insincere nicknames for us in return.

"Wait, wait, wait," Derek pacified, with that malevolently marvelous gleam in his eye that was already growing familiar, one I sometimes saw in Shea's. "If we want to make this an official challenge, we have to make it a little more interesting."

"How?" was the question.

And Derek replied, crossing his arms and smirking proudly, "Nolan plays him instead."

There was a silence as we all considered this. Nolan, looking humble, agreed, and the cards were dealt. It was decided that the game would be more theatrical if the rest of us were not seated, so we stood up, dimmed the lights, and crowded around the guys at the heads of the table.

"I'm sorry," Nolan said to Cole as he reached out to pick up his hand. Shea had dealt, bangles jingling.

"For what?"

"Beating you."

The boys both looked at their hands. Cole, being Cole, made a face at his, thinking he was being sly.

"Cole," I scolded. "What did I tell you?"

He shushed me exaggeratedly, and picked up a card.

"When I win, your money's going straight into Miney-Moe's gas tank."

"That's where it goes anyway," Nolan replied shortly. He and Derek were the only ones with a job at the time, but we didn't exactly count Derek's because it wasn't strictly legal and he liked to pretend that he didn't know we knew about it. Nolan worked at a brake shop, and since Cole was always blowing his money, he was generous enough to make an occasional contribution to our transportation fund.

It was a relatively quick game, punctuated by Derek amending his various bets on how badly Cole would lose. Which he did. Nolan annihilated his meek eight pair with a legitimate flush.

"I really thought my strategy was going to work."

"You had a strategy?" I asked.

"Yeah. Pretend I had a horrible hand at the beginning- hence the face you so rudely pointed out- and then blow everybody away when I trumped Nolan in the end."

"But Cole," Shea said, giggling, as she had been perched over his shoulder the whole time, passing as both the devil and the angel alike, "you did have a horrible hand."

Cole threw his hands in the air. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. But that's life, right? It's just a shitty hand of cards. But then maybe somebody pulls out an Ace, and somebody else gets a four, or a ten. It's all in the draw and how you play it."

As he said this, I felt Nolan's eyes on me, and I met his stare. We held eye contact for a moment, maybe more, and then he looked away. He did not blush or smile, just scooped up the cards on his table, aligned them, and joined with his glass of water the toast Shea led in honor of Cole's monologue. Then, not thinking I was looking anymore, I saw him watch Shea, too, longer that he should've.

Right, Cole, right. That's my life. One shitty hand of cards. Because I never really know what the other person has in theirs. I could be winning or losing the whole time, and I'd have no way of knowing.

No way of knowing until they bets have already been made.

And I knew that nobody was betting on me.