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“Mix. Mingle. Try to look like you’re having fun,” Paisley had said before disappearing into the crowded kitchen.
She’d abandoned me in record time, even for her, and I was left standing in a sea of half-drunk people with the vague feeling that I had some totally off-putting and incurable disease, like smallpox. Honestly, people might have preferred that. At least with smallpox they could host a fund-raiser. As far as I knew, there were no bake sales for the chronically sad.
I stuffed my hands into the back pockets of the dark-wash skinny jeans Paisley had insisted I put on instead of the old faded pairs I’d grown accustomed to wearing. It was either concede to the jeans or let my best friend wrestle me into a miniskirt and I most definitely wasn’t ready for anything as flashy as a miniskirt. I scanned the room, trying to remember whose house this was anyway. Whoever it was, I didn’t envy them. There were too many nice things combined with too many people. It was a parental disaster waiting to happen.
I meandered farther inside, being careful not to make eye contact with anyone. These people sure did like plaid. I stepped over a set of tartan throw pillows that had been pitched to the ground to make room for a group of girls to smash in together, one girl’s legs thrown over those of her two friends, a casual message to the rest of the room: We are best friends. I knew because I used to speak that language fluently. But now I sought out somewhere to hide in plain sight. I found it in the living room, next to a piano, a furniture piece with enough heft to create a more comfortable, less populated perimeter. I picked up an unlit candle sitting on top, brought it to my nose, and sniffed in the scent of wild sea grass. Okay, so I had to turn it over and check the label. I had no idea how wild sea grass smelled. I had a theory about candles, actually. I was convinced that the world’s candlemakers only manufactured, like, three different fragrances—fruity, fresh, and baking ingredient—all the other supposed “perfumes” were just marketing disguises designed to make us feel like we were purchasing something worth fifteen bucks.
I glanced over my shoulder. Nearby there was another group of girls huddled together that looked vaguely familiar—maybe sophomores—but none of them looked as if they wanted to discuss my candle conspiracies. That was honestly too bad. I might have been into that conversation.
I gingerly set the jar down on the piano and picked up a gold frame. In the photograph a smiling man and woman wore fedoras and held frozen drinks with little umbrellas in front of a glimmering pool. They looked so happy it made my joints ache. Paisley would probably scold me for snooping around their belongings. Hell, I would probably scold me. The old me would anyway. I sighed and replaced the frame.
A couple of the younger girls that I’d noticed earlier were casting furtive glances in my direction and whispering to each other. They were pretty, with long hair that fell past their shoulder blades and necklaces that matched their shoes. I stood there in no-man’s-land, letting them whisper and stare. Even with my not-so-invisible cloak of doom and gloom, as captain of the cheerleading squad, I was still popular enough to be intimidating, although now with all the rumors about me—face it, many of them true—I was probably a little scary, too. Hence the whispering. I doubted any of them would have the guts to come right up and talk to me. Good, let them be scared, I figured.
I’d been at the party for twenty minutes and so far I’d managed not to talk to a single person since walking through the door. I felt weirdly proud of this. Like maybe I should keep it that way. An entire party without opening my mouth to speak. Or to make out with boys.
Getting drunk and kissing definitely fell within the realm of old me.
I squeezed past the group of girls and noticed as they fell silent the moment I came close. Subtle, ladies, I wanted to say. Only I didn’t because I was anti-conversation. Anti-party. Anti-everything.
Instead, I observed. I glided out of the living room, feeling like a ghost of my former self, and into the kitchen. The back doors opened onto a patio where my classmates were spilling out into the night. I spotted Paisley’s blond bob, bowed forward in concentration over a game of flip cup taking place on the breakfast table. Beside her, two girls from our cheerleading squad, the Oilerettes—Ashley and Erica—hailed her on with whoops and squeals.
I jumped at the feeling of a cold hand tugging on my elbow. “I heard a rumor you were here.”
I jerked around to see Ava. Startled, my mouth fell open, but no words came out. I just blinked at her. She was a fellow junior on the Oilerettes, who’d made the squad for the first time this semester. Ava had a penchant for adding a personal flair to her clothes. She’d cut the neck opening of a black T-shirt, so that it now hung casually off one shoulder, blending with the shiny strands of her jet-black tresses.
I tightened my lips into something that I hoped resembled a smile.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.” She looked me over. “Geez, it’s a party, Cassidy.” She playfully grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me as though she could shake free whatever piece had broken in the past few weeks. “You look more like you’re at somebody’s funeral.” Her hands slid from my shoulder and she pinched the bridge of her nose. “Right. Sorry. God, bad choice of words.”
In case anyone was wondering, it wasn’t kosher to mention the words death, funeral, dead, dying, or kill in front of me. Not after my boyfriend, Adam, accidentally killed Paisley’s on-again, off-again romance, Knox, just as I was being crowned Homecoming queen. Or after Adam had likely suffered a similarly gruesome fate at the hands of Hollow Pines’s resident serial killer. Of course, all of this occurred once Adam had very publicly cheated on me with a high school nobody, so perhaps even the word “boyfriend” was generous.
Not that this wouldn’t be enough to make anyone’s greatest hits album for Worst Year Ever, but those parts of the story that people knew, the ones that made them whisper and look at me funny and apologize for making a stupid offhand comment that even I knew they didn’t mean, those parts didn’t amount to half of it.
I had a gaping hole in my chest so wide I found it shocking that the whole world couldn’t see right through it. And the stone-cold truth was that Adam wasn’t the one who put it there.
I caught myself staring off into space. Or rather, I caught my reflection in the dark circles of Ava’s eyes, which were busy searching my face for signs of life. Sorry, no signs here, I wanted to tell her, only it felt like it’d take an exorbitant amount of effort, so I didn’t bother.
I was actually relieved when Ashley bounced away from the game of flip cup to join us. Her cheeks were flushed with an early buzz. I remembered the feeling I got after the first few drinks, when my blood felt warm and gooey in my veins, every muscle in me relaxed and I loved everyone that I met. Especially the boys that I met. Those were the days when I didn’t see any harm in a little kissing. But I knew now that the warm, gooey feeling was the same one that left girls with gaping holes in their chests.
“The Billys are on their way with wine coolers,” Ashley said, referring to the guys on the football team, William, Billy Ray, and just Billy. I’d kissed William twice and Billy Ray once last year. Paisley had made fun of me for being easy, but in my personal canon of ethics I wasn’t easy as long as I kept all contact above the waistline.
Still, I wished I could take it all back now.
Ava leaned closer to Ashley. “Paisley showed me those pictures of that sophomore, by the way. I’m actually mortified for her. First, she was stupid enough to send pictures to William in her underwear and, second, she wears cotton instead of lace.”
With Ava and Ashley occupied, I took my opportunity to leave. I shrugged and pointed over my shoulder in a vague direction that could have meant I was getting a drink or going to the restroom. Ashley gave a quick smile and waved her fingers.
The restroom. Now there was an idea. I could kill at least fifteen minutes in a bathroom. Completely alone. I’d committed to an hour at the party. Enough to make the skinny jeans worthwhile.
I trudged along a carpeted hallway that looked as if it should lead to a bathroom and quickly ran up against the back of the line. Even better. I could probably kill twenty minutes now.
I waited, taking dutiful steps forward every time someone else shut the door behind them. I thought coming to a party would help, but looking back, I wasn’t sure what. My mood? My outlook on life? My solitude? The invisible gaping wound festering in my chest? Those felt like lofty goals for a house party.
It’ll be good for you, I replayed my friends’ words in my head and sighed. Give it a chance.
I was finally the next person in line. No one had tried to talk to me the whole time I’d been standing here. A small part of me was put out by this. The old me would have chatted to people in line. Actually, the old me would have never ventured to the bathroom alone. Paisley and I would have gone into the bathroom arm in arm and taken turns fixing our hair while the other one peed.
The door opened and a skinny boy wearing a starched fishing shirt and holding a red plastic cup exited. I slipped in and closed the door shut behind me. Someone had left the hand towel off its hook and a bottle of shower gel had been knocked off the edge of the tub, but other than that, the bathroom looked relatively clean for mid-party.
I turned and pushed the button on the lock. It didn’t stick. I tried again, only to find that the door didn’t lock at all. Great. I blew hair from my eyes. Well, at least there was a line. People had seen me walk in, so I should have a modicum of privacy.
Moving away from the door, I decided to kill time by snooping through the owners’ belongings. I still had no idea whose home we were destroying. I slid open the first row of drawers beneath the countertop. Blue goo oozed from a toothpaste bottle onto a dirty hand mirror. This bathroom must belong to a boy.
I found an electric razor resting in the second drawer and eyed it with interest. I turned it over, testing the weight in my palm. I’d never used one before. I eyed my long brown hair. The old me would never have left the house without styling it into loose curls to frame my face. Now, it was plastered on either side of my head. I leaned toward the mirror and swept a handful of hair away from my ear to see where I’d begin shaving. If I did begin shaving, that was. Which I wouldn’t because that was crazy. Wasn’t it?
My fingers felt twitchy, trigger-happy.
I hadn’t been completely honest. Yes, there was the old me, the one with the wavy curls and miniskirts, the toned abs and the long list of doting boys. But then there was the old-old me. That version was a chubby girl who was good at math. That version had been invisible. Nobody even knew her name.
I switched on the electric razor and felt it vibrate in my hand.
When my family moved from Phoenix, I’d done some quick mental math and concluded that life in a small Texas town like Hollow Pines would be a whole lot easier as the girl with abs and miniskirts. But now, I wasn’t so sure. My calculations may have been off.
My heart pounded as I brought the razor closer to my scalp. I could go back to that girl. If that was what I wanted, all it would take was a few swipes of the razor and then Cassidy Hyde, Homecoming queen, would be gone. I licked my lips, my mind buzzing with concentration, when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a gleam of silver in the open drawer.
I lowered the razor and took out a pair of scissors. These were better. Baby steps, I told myself. I pulled one of the front pieces of hair out in front of my nose, opened the blades, and held them at eye level.
My hands shook when suddenly the door burst open. Startled, I snapped the handles together and heard the short snip of the blades.
“Someone’s in here,” I yelled. A lock of my hair drifted down like a feather to lay lifeless on the countertop. My throat squeezed tight. I hadn’t meant to speak.
Anger roiled inside me as I whirled to see Liam Buckley pressing his back to the door.
His lips spread into a crooked grin. “Hey, Cass.”
“Hey, yourself,” I said. There was no holding back the words now that Liam and I were sharing a twenty-five square foot space. “You weren’t even next in line.”
He lifted his eyebrows. Liam dwarfed me at well over six feet tall. He had eyes as green as emeralds, tan skin, and brown hair streaked with natural shades of golden blond so beautiful you’d swear he paid for them at the salon. “Sorry, had to piss like a racehorse,” he said, pushing up the cuffs of his sleeves. His rumpled shirt was half untucked, giving him the casually privileged air of a prep school kid. “You mind?”
Before I could answer, he crossed the room, unfastening his belt as he did so.
My mouth fell open and my cheeks went blisteringly hot. Just before I heard the sound of his urine hitting the toilet bowl, I managed to spin back around and aim my eyes anywhere but the mirror.
“What is wrong with you?” I said.
His steady stream didn’t falter. “Bunch of freshmen and sophomores in the line so I jumped it.” Liam was a year older than me, a senior starter on the Hollow Pines basketball team. “Plus I needed someplace private.”
This entire scenario was officially mortifying. The only problem was that the person for whom it should be mortifying was him.
I listened to the zip of his fly and then the toilet flushed. I glanced up into the mirror. At least he’d remembered to put the seat down. Liam was grinning at me as he approached the sink. I instinctively scooted over to make room. Last year I would have died from joy to be stuck in a room with Liam Buckley.
He turned the faucet and stuck his hands underneath the running water. So, not a total barbarian.
“What are you doing in here anyway?” His gaze flitted to the scissors and the lock of hair. “Joining witness protection, Cass?”
I blinked. “What are you doing calling me ‘Cass’? You hardly even know me.” I recognized the voice of the girl with the gaping wound in her chest, the one that didn’t care to be sharing a room with Liam Buckley but instead would prefer to be left alone.
The left corner of his mouth curved up, puckering the skin below his eye to reveal a small scar that had been hidden there. “Easy,” he said, shutting off the faucet and shaking his hands dry. Drops of water speckled the mirror.
I chewed the inside of my cheek.
He turned away from the sink and rested the back of his jeans against the countertop. So, what, he was just going to stay now? He shoved a hand into his pocket. I watched him, reluctantly curious, out of the corner of my eye. He fished out a small, ziplock bag with a dozen or so pale yellow pills inside.
“I don’t normally do this,” he said, popping open the top of the bag. “But you look like you could use it.” He turned his chin over his shoulder and nodded at the abandoned scissors and the lock of my hair. “Before you commit a crime against fashion or whatever.”
“I’m not—” I began to protest.
“Seriously.” His green eyes bore into me. “You need to stop. You have really nice hair.”
My mouth snapped shut. Part of me wanted to laugh at how ridiculous this all was.
“Hold out your hand,” he ordered and, for some reason, I obeyed. He placed a single pill in my palm.
“What is it?” I couldn’t even feel the weight of it in my hand.
He selected another one for himself and closed the ziplock bag. “This,” he said, pinching the round pill between thumb and forefinger, “is Sunshine. I don’t tell just everyone I have this stuff, you know.” His smile was easy, his shoulders relaxed, like he’s showing me a rare quarter from his collection.
“What’s it do?” The minuscule button of a pill looked too tiny to do much of anything.
“It makes you feel like … sunshine. Like it’s the middle of the summer and you’re having the best day ever. Like everything is golden.”
I’d been to my share of parties and I was no stranger to alcohol, but I’d never so much as smoked a joint. I turned the pill over and stared at the identical back. I felt drawn in by the cheery yellow color of it. I thought of myself and of the gaping hole in my chest and wondered what I could possibly have to lose.
Just then, someone pounded the door. “Open up,” a girl yelled. “There are people waiting.”
“One second,” Liam yelled. “That’s our cue.” He held up his pill as if we were clinking glasses. “Cheers.” He set the dose of Sunshine onto his tongue, cocked back his head, and swallowed.
Without another thought, I did the same. My mouth was dry and the pill stuck to my throat on its way down, but I managed and, once it was gone, I stuck out my tongue to show that I’d really taken it.
He squeezed my shoulder. “That’s my girl.” And even though only minutes ago, I’d scolded him for calling me “Cass,” this time, I made no smart remark. “Now, shall we go enjoy our night?” he asked.
I stared at the scissors and the dead hair and nodded, still skeptical that the word enjoy could apply to me. But my solitude had ended the moment Liam had barged in, so what else was there to do? The pounding on the door had picked back up. Liam casually opened it to greet a red-faced girl preparing to knock her fist against the wood again. “It’s all yours.” He winked.
The color drained from her face when she saw that it was Liam. “Sorry,” she mumbled before ducking between us into the bathroom.
Paisley was waiting third in line, next to Ava. She stood up straighter when she noticed me. “Um, hello?” Paisley snagged my elbow as I was following Liam back down the hallway. “I guess somebody’s feeling more like themselves.” She eyed me from head to toe. “You’re hooking up with Buckley?” She shared a look with Ava that I couldn’t read.
I tensed. “No, it’s not like that—”
Paisley smirked, bringing the rim of a wine cooler to her lips. “Right. It never is, Cassidy. Just remember, being easy keeps them breezy, know what I mean?” I did know, but then again, I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. Every boy in Hollow Pines could blow away in the wind for all I cared. “At least get to your fourth drink before you let him under your shirt, ’kay?” She patted me on the head.
Ava rolled her eyes and pushed Paisley gently with her shoulder. “Oh, shut up, Paize. Let her enjoy her night. This is the twenty-first century. Go get yours, girl.” She offered me a thumbs-up.
I cocked my head, studying my pair of friends. In the time we’d stood talking, my cheeks had grown warm. Liam was disappearing down the hall. I thought vaguely that I’d like to catch up with him. Paisley snapped her fingers in front of my nose, bringing me back. I knew I should be annoyed with her, but instead, I felt my mouth stretching into a grin.
“Thanks, Paisley,” I said. “You … look really pretty tonight, you know that?” And I was surprised at how sincere I sounded. It was true, though. A faint glow seemed to radiate from her blond hair. Her skin had a fairylike shimmer emanating from it. I squeezed her hand, feeling a rush of tenderness for my friend. “Isn’t this night great?” I said.
Paisley’s expression was a confused mix between a grin and a frown. “Yeah,” she said. “I mean, I guess so.”
There was a swelling in my chest, like a rising balloon, and it seemed to be plugging up the gaping hole that had been there moments earlier. “Okay, well, I’m going to go catch up with Liam. I’ll see you guys there? Come dance with us!” I didn’t know how I knew that Liam and I would be dancing. But it felt logical. I waved and trotted down the hall in the direction Liam had gone.
I smiled as I passed kids that I only sort of recognized from school. They smiled back. The interaction felt good. It felt right. My veins hummed with a molten warmth so pleasant that I felt as though I’d just had a weeklong spa trip.
I returned to the living room where less than an hour ago I’d sulked in the corner. There I spotted the back of Liam’s head, peeking out over the crowded space. I threaded my way through the throng of people, politely excusing myself as we bumped elbows or hips. From the kitchen a nineties boy band song blared through the speakers. The beat matched the thumping in my chest. I remembered this song from car rides with my mom when I was younger. It was one of my favorites.
I tapped Liam on the shoulder. He was chatting with one of the sophomore girls that had been sneaking glances at me with her friends earlier in the night. When Liam looked down to see me standing there, his face seemed to break open with delight.
“Hey, you,” he said.
I matched his smile watt for watt. “Wanna dance?” I asked. “I love this song.”
He cocked his head to listen and then began bobbing along to the melody. He offered me his hand and twirled me in place. Laughter gurgled up from deep inside me, spilling out into the room. I couldn’t believe how long it’d been since I’d laughed.
Liam and I threw our bodies into the music. Others joined us and before long, a circle had formed to watch the pair of us. I didn’t take myself too seriously when I danced and neither did Liam. I brought out all my dad’s dorky dance moves—the lawn mower, the running man, even the sprinkler. Tears sparkled in my eyes from all of the merriment. I’d forgotten how much I loved dancing, not for cheerleading, but for the fun of it.
Liam leaned close to my ear. His breath tickled and he smelled like coconut shampoo. “You’re the most fun girl at this party.”
And I believed him. Because all of a sudden it was as if the clouds had lifted and there I still was, shining again.
Copyright © 2017 by DiGa LLC