"There's this memory I keep going back to.
It's summer, the one before sophomore year, I think, and I'm sitting in the passenger seat of my brother's truck, a cigarette tucked between my fingers with my head hanging lazily out of the window. Haven is asleep beside me while Verde and Shale are passed out in the back. Mac is awake, of course, singing along to some pop song that's on the radio.
What song—? No, no. That doesn't matter. It's 12:57 in the morning and the world feels endless. That's what matters.
My brother glances over at me, grinning in that devil-may-care way of his; you know, where his lips pull tight and you feel like you're balancing on the wrong edge of a knife. And he says, "Perk up, buttercup! We're almost there."
There meaning a party by the docks. I can't remember who's it was now, but Joey had been obsessed with it. He kept calling it the "party of the year" as if he didn't say that about every party he dragged us to. He was ridiculous.
"Don't call me that," I snap, flicking my cigarette just a little too hard. The cherry flies out and I curse. Goddamn menthols. "You know I fucking hate it, Joey."
And I did hate it. It made me feel so small, like the moon in the shadow of the big sun. I hated it so much, that feeling of insignificance. Like a child tagging along in hopes of acknowledgment. I wasn't, dammit. I'm not.
I didn't even want to go out that night. I liked being alone back then. I hated the weight of everyone's eyes as they stared, which was always a given when you were with Joey. Joey Castillo and his universal charm. I think a part of me resented it.
Does that seem stupid to you? I know. It does to me, too."
Like most things in Kohl Castillo's life, it starts with a fight. No dramatic awakening or sad realization, just a stupid fight.
It doesn't start with much either, just another punk talking shit, his obnoxious grin only fueling the fire. It's nothing Kohl hasn't dealt with before—he's not the most well-liked guy in this city—but it is irritating, and he's already six shots deep. It's more than enough to awaken destructive thoughts, enough to send him spiraling.
"Your Jarhead brother is dead. Why don't you kill yourself, too?"
He loses it, but can anyone blame him? It's not hard to understand, is it?
Poor sucker doesn't see it coming when Kohl launches his fist across his jaw. He sees blood rush up to the surface, a jarring crimson seeping through cracked flesh, feels the warm trickle of his own blood down his forehead as the loudmouth gets a hit in. It goes on like that, brutal and dirty—nothing fair about it at all as they come at each other. Kohl's face is probably bruised and swollen but this guy—it's so much worse, all red and puffy and wet. Demolished is the word he's looking for. Dark satisfaction blooms in his chest.
"You still feel like a funny guy, asshole?" Kohl spits, tasting the blood gushing from his lip. "Is this still funny to you?"
He dives back in, shoving the ruined boy to the ground, following soon after with a feral snarl he didn't know he was capable of.
"Kohl, stop it!"
He doesn't listen. When does he? Instead, he keeps going, right arm flailing forward even when his sister's nails dig into his other arm, acrylic plastic stinging. The sting is bearable; the rage coursing through him is not. He can't stop, not when there are scumbags like this piece of shit walking around—living—while Joey's gone. Joey didn't die for this, for them. He couldn't have. It makes no sense. Why do they get to live while Joey went across the world, crawled and fought and died in the hot desert sand for a war that wasn't even his? It isn't fair, and Kohl can picture it perfectly in his mind: Joey flat against the dunes, the hot sun coaxing beads of sweat down his face, skin blistered pink and it's painful, but so is the wound in his belly and his friends are calling out but he can't answer because he's—
"You're killing him!"
"Kohl, just—please, oh my god—"
Someone finally yanks him back and he finds himself face first in the dirt, accidentally breathing in damp soil. He coughs and it quickly gives way to something akin to a sob. He tries to get back up because he isn't done goddammit but his body rejects every attempt. The adrenaline is gone and so is his fight. He's just numb, stuck in his own head again, and it's lonely. So lonely.
Joey's gone. He's gone, he's gone, he's gone, and God, it hurts.
Just as quickly as he was pushed down, he's pulled back up, tucked under someone's arm until he's pushed into the backseat of a car. It smells weird, like old fast food burritos but Kohl ignores it as best as he can, curling up into himself.
A hand presses against his forehead, calloused yet gentle against his warm skin. Kohl can't bring himself to pull away. It feels comforting, something he's not really used to anymore.
"You'll be okay, Kohl," someone says. "You'll be okay."
It's a lie but Kohl doesn't dispute it, just tucks his face further into the seat.
He doesn't remember much after that.
The thing is, no one has told him how to deal. They've told him how he should have faith, how things like this get easier, how his brother is in a better place and he's such a hero you should be proud, but no one has told him how to deal with this gaping hole, this heavy weight that sits in his stomach like a sickness.
He thought he knew grief when Joey first told him he was enlisting for the Marines. He had sat on their stoop under purple sunset skies and thought but what about me? over and over again until he forgot how to breathe. Haven had found him then, clutching at his hair, trying not to scream. He thought he knew then. Turns out he had no fucking idea.
Sure, Joey's a hero, but he's also dead, and where does that leave Kohl? The king of fuck-ups who never sleeps, smokes too many cigarettes, drifts into moods where all he wants to do is stare at the snowy static on the television. No mother, no father, no brother.
No brother. It's been almost a year since Joey was killed in action. For Kohl, it feels more like a week. One week—year—and everyone wants him to move on. Why? How?
All in all, it's a recipe for disaster.
The morning after is excruciating.
There's a pounding in his head and a little voice telling him he fucked up again. His body aches, his mouth feels rough, a metallic tinge coating his throat.
He isn't surprised, just miserable.
Kohl rolls out of bed and shivers as his feet hit the cold wood floor. It's early for him, probably nine or ten, but once he's up, there's no falling back to sleep. Instead, he takes a hot shower and stares at the wall in an effort not to puke. He's only somewhat successful. Brushing his teeth is even worse. By the time he makes it to the kitchen, he feels like he's been up for years.
His recollection of last night is a bit hazy. He's not entirely sure how he got home, but he does remember getting to the party. Mac had been especially excited, lashing out like he was in a mosh pit in the backseat despite Haven and Shale's push for music that was less "emo." Kohl hadn't cared, focusing on the blunt he was rolling in his lap while Verde drove next to him, but he does remember all the yelling. And the booze. So much booze. It had felt like drowning, submerged away from all the bad thoughts. It was nice. Until that douchebag started running his mouth. If it's not one thing, it's another.
Now he's sober with a headache and a lot of bad thoughts. He's eighteen and fucking useless with each drink, each cigarette, each fight. He never used to be like this but it's true what people say about death changing you, and just because he hates it doesn't mean he knows how to stop.
(God, he wishes he could stop.)
"You look as lively as ever," someone says.
Kohl nearly shrieks—nearly—before spinning around to the source. He scowls. "What are you doing here?" he asks, because Nicholas Summers is lounging on his sofa, texting away, and Kohl is eighty percent sure he wasn't there last night. "Did you break into my house?"
House isn't quite the word for it. It's a small penthouse apartment, on the nicer side of town because while Kohl doesn't like to broadcast their family's wealth, his twin sister has no problem with it. Haven decided a long time ago that if their parents were too busy jet-setting around the world then they should at least get something out of it. Kohl just smiles and waves, hiding in the corner with a flask at every obligatory event.
Well, he did. He hasn't been in a smiling mood lately.
Nick scoffs. "It's not breaking in if the door is unlocked," he says. "Have you eaten?"
"Haven isn't here," Kohl explains, blatantly ignoring the question, which is fair. Nicholas is his sister's friend, not his. Not because Kohl dislikes him. Kohl doesn't care enough for that. It's mostly because Kohl has never known what to say to the taller boy. Nick is one of those guys that he has never understood—cocky and honest at the same time (as if that should be possible), wearing t-shirts for bands Kohl has never heard of, saying things like "yolo" ironically—and to be honest, Kohl has never bothered to understand it. Those kind of people are too confusing. But Haven dragged him under her wing, going to his little DJ events last semester until he was a permanent fixture in the Castillo household. Kohl had no choice but to make room for the annoying hipster. "And I'm pretty sure it's still trespassing."
"Shut up. Are you hungry or what?" Nick asks. He runs a hand through his obnoxious sandy curls then pauses, an unreadable expression crawling across his face as he finally looks up from his phone. "What happened to your face?"
"Nothing," he says quickly. It really is nothing. Kohl has experienced worse than a split lip and black eye. Nick doesn't seem to believe him. He has this weird constipated look on his face that might be concern but looks more like IBS. Either way, Kohl wants nothing to do with it. "Your face looks like an elephant shat on it."
And just like that, it's gone. Nick laughs and rolls his eyes, like Kohl didn't just insult his face. He does that a lot, laughs at things that Kohl means to be biting. It drives Kohl nuts.
"They're called freckles, asshole," he says, grinning. "Get your shoes on. Everyone is waiting."
Kohl narrows his eyes.
"Haven told me to scoop you," Nick explains, tossing over a pair of Kohl's sneakers. "They're all at the diner."
And—right. That makes sense. Of course, someone sent Nick to check up on him. They're not friends. Why else would he be here? Kohl ignores the strange twinge in his chest and shoves on his Vans before following Nick out the door.
They don't speak the entire trip, which gives him time to think. He picks at the nice leather of Nick's seats until Nick swats his arm away, forcing him to twiddle with the strings of his hoodie. By the time they arrive, Kohl can vaguely remember breakfast plans being made early in the night. He hadn't thought anything of it since people don't usually invite him to things before noon on the weekends, but that's exactly how he ends up squished between Nick and Haven in a worn-down booth, sipping on lukewarm coffee as he watches Mac shove an entire omelet down his throat with ease.
"It's actually impressive," Nick whispers in his ear. Kohl ignores him and the pang of jealousy that shoots through his gut. He's the one who gets to make fun of his best friends like that. No one else.
"I found an inflatable donut in my car this morning," Mac says between bites, which is weird because Kohl thought he managed to swallow the thing whole. Mac wipes a bit of grease from the corner of his mouth, blue eyes wide and incredulous. "How does that even happen?"
As if that's the weirdest thing to happen. As if Mac is not solely responsible for every Naked Mile to happen in beer pong, and everything crazy to happen after. An inflatable donut is where he's going to draw the line.
"Alcohol," Verde says, dry as dust. "That's how it happens."
Kohl watches his other friend tuck a strand behind Shale's ear before tugging her closer under his arm. The action would seem possessive if it wasn't so tender, like she's a prize Verde still can't believe he's won. That kind of love, that level of attachment—Kohl wonders if it's suffocating. He's not sure he has the capacity for it. Maybe before, but not now.
Kohl shakes his head, taking another sip of coffee. He's so melodramatic when he's hungover. Besides, the real question is how Verde can stand being with someone like Shale. The cheerleader's voice is enough to grate his nerves.
"Are you not going to eat?" Mac's question drags him out of his thoughts. He looks down at his untouched plate. The very thought of ingesting anything sends his stomach rolling.
"Nah, not hungry," he replies, pushing the plate Mac's way. "Have at it, champ."
Mac digs in happily, oblivious to the sudden silence that has fallen over the table. It's the first thing Kohl has said since walking into the diner and it's suddenly obvious that his friends have noticed. He hasn't even made a dig at Shale, which is weird in itself.
Kohl sighs, biting the bullet. "What were we talking about?"
There's a long pause before Haven takes the in for what it is. "I broke two of my nails last night." His sister pouts, dramatically holding out her hand for all to see. "I just got them done two days ago!"
"Wonder how that happened," Shale mutters but is quelled by Verde's sharp pinch to her side. The petulant expression remains pinched to her face as she regards Kohl with cold, green eyes.
Kohl smirks. While he has never hidden his contempt for the petite cheerleader, Shale is like a mannequin, contorting herself to please others, specifically Verde. Most of the time it's hard to coax out what Kohl knows lies beneath, a simmering ball of anger just begging for a spark, but today is different apparently. Today, he has all the fuel he needs.
So, he does what he does best. He instigates.
"What's wrong, Shale?" Kohl asks, sing-song. He leans forward with a grin, ignoring Haven's low, concerned hum. "Did you break a nail, too?"
"Kohl, drop it." Verde jumps in knowingly. "Just—"
Shale cuts her boyfriend off with a hiss, "What's wrong is how we're all just pretending nothing happened last night!"
Kohl watches her cheeks go pink in a way that would probably be adorable if he didn't hate her guts. Kohl knows he's a lot to handle, a hurricane of violence, an absolute dick in how he manages every one of life's situations, but Shale is even worse with her fake smiles and silver spoon mentality.
Kohl is an asshole, but at least he doesn't lie about it.
"And what happened last night, princess?"
"You're kidding, right?" Verde gives her a warning look but Shale presses on. "How about when you went completely psycho—"
Kohl laughs, sharp and bitter in his throat. Shale stops, biting her lip as she looks down at her plate.
"Psycho. I like that one."
"I—I didn't mean that," Shale backtracks. She looks uncomfortable, as if the conversation is going nowhere near according to plan, which it probably isn't. Not many people can back Kohl in a corner.
"Didn't you?" He glances at the others, a self-deprecating smirk on his lips. "Is that what I am now?"
"Oh, come off it," Verde growls. "You're not the victim here."
"I never said I was, Winston," Verde's real name scalds his tongue like a curse. He hasn't called him that in years. "But if you expected me to let some scumbag talk about Joey like that, you don't know me AT ALL!"
It's silent again. Deafening. He can feel everyone's eyes on him, even their waitress who looks ready to kick them out for his outburst.
Fuck, he didn't mean to let it get out of control. He's supposed to be the one in control here. He takes a deep breath, and then another, loosening his white-knuckled grip on the table.
He wants to hit something, to make someone hurt, but he forces the white-hot impulse down. He'll never lay a hand on his friends. Never. Friends are family, and you never hurt family. Joey taught him that much.
(But Shale isn't family, is she?)
"Kohl has a point," Mac adds quietly. Apparently, he's caught on to the tension, food completely abandoned as he catches Kohl's eye uneasily. Kohl swallows the lump in his throat. He knows how much Mac hates confrontation. "The kid was saying some messed up stuff before y'all got over there."
Another pause. Kohl looks around the table, at Mac's discomfort, Haven's panicked expression, the way Verde and Shale glare at him like he has personally assassinated the Pope, but his eyes linger on Nick, who's confusion and worry is palpable, and no, just no, he doesn't get to look at Kohl like that, not when Kohl's just barely off the edge.
"Fuck this." He stands abruptly. He can't do this, not today. He slinks over Nick, dropping a ten on the table before rushing out. His sister is calling after him, Mac chiming in just as loud, but he doesn't look back. He just walks and walks and walks.
He wants to be drunk. Or high. Both? Anything that will dull this prickling under his skin, like thumbtacks pushing through. He doesn't even know why he's so upset. It's not like he didn't know it was coming, didn't ask for it himself, didn't think ah, there it is as the harsh words came tumbling out of Shale's mouth. He knew it was coming, and he doesn't regret it, but—
Maybe it did hurt. Just a little bit.
A scab on his knuckle breaks open from clenching his hand in a fist. He immediately relaxes it, finally noticing the sting it brings.
He needs a drink.