Authors: Lisa Aldin
Tags: #One of the Guys
Emma beams. “And we all live happily ever after.”
“Yep.” I wobble over to the mirror and check myself out. Embarrassed at what I see, I glance back at Emma. She's leaning back on her elbows on the bed and swinging her legs back and forth, staring at the ceiling. She looks so hopeful like that, lost in her own thoughts, her own dreams, her own romances. I think we might be, like, friends.
A nervous itch sprouts up on my right butt cheek.
I hope I don't screw this night up for her.
REEN PASTURES AND VARIOUS
rose bushes border Ollie's beautiful ranch-style home. A gravel road leads to a small horse barn behind the house, where his mother keeps her prize possession, a Morgan mare named Goldie. Across the fields, navy-soaked mountains line the sky, a thought-halting sight, even for a seasoned veteran. I would take longer to admire the moonlight spilling onto the grass, but my legs are freezing.
“I'm going to get frostbite in this outfit,” I say to Emma as we make our way up the cobblestone steps, heavy bass music beckoning from behind the green door.
“Quit being such a baby.” Emma applies another layer of lip gloss before slipping it back into her tiny black purse. “You'll be inside most of the night. It's not like you're out trick-or-treating.”
As I reach for the door knob, Emma stops me. I feel my lips going blue as she places her hands on my shoulders and pushes them back.
“The entrance is everything,” she says. “Walk into that house like you own it. Don't hunch over.”
My teeth chatter. “Can you see my nipples through this shirt?”
She looks down. “Don't change a thing. You'll find a boyfriend by the end of the night with those things.”
I just want to go in, get warm, and hang out with the guys. I don't want to think about the future or college. I don't want to think about Winston. I don't care if anyone checks out of my legs or my nipples.
Inside, the smell of stale beer and body odor hits me pretty hard. While I'd like to turn around as soon as possible and bolt, Emma pulls me forward into the crowd. I can't believe this many people showed up. I recognize most of themâthe cop in the corner, the taxi driver taking a shot, the fairy with a purple wig, dancing. The fairy is Katie Morris.
But no one says hello to me. Do they recognize me? Was I ever important at Burlington?
Emma hooks her arm with mine and keeps guiding me forward. She moves her way through the warm bodies so confidently that you'd think she used to go to school with these people.
“Told you. You've got
,” Emma whispers.
“People are looking,” she adds.
I glance up. I've been transported to another universe, a universe where I'm not just one of the guysâI'm feminine and sexy. Weird. As Emma and I make our way into the living room, interested eyes dart from my neck to my hips to the cow garter tied around my thigh and then back again. Totally self-conscious, I hike up the tank top to decrease my cleavage.
Emma softly pinches my elbow. “You look great.”
In the living room, music blares and bodies pulse and dance. Oddly, I find Emma's words encouraging. I raise my chin, bubbling with a bit of confidence. A game of beer pong takes up the center of the room beside the stone fireplace, the same fireplace where I roasted hot dogs with Loch, Ollie, and Cowboy last winter. A crowd forms around the beer pong table, cheering and placing bets on the two vampires versus two werewolves.
Ollie plays the part of unofficial referee, cradling a crystal glass filled with brown liquid. He's dressed in a puffy lime green coat and black snow pants with a pair of matching goggles on his head. He leans against his sleek, dark snowboard and smoothly sips his drink.
When he looks over, I wave like an idiot because I haven't seen him in over a month. His hair keeps getting longer. Ollie waves back, smiling, and raises his glass to me. He then wraps his arm around a werewolf's neck and cracks a joke. The werewolf laughs. I squint. Who is the werewolf? I don't recognize him. It would appear Ollie has made a new friend.
How could we let so much time go by without hanging out? What have I missed?
Without Champ, I fear we're losing each other. Champ is the thread holding us together. If we stop believing in him, wouldn't we stop believing in each other?
The space in my heart grows wider. I stare at my feet and lose my breath for a minute, until Emma cheerfully asks, “So where's my date?”
Thank God for the mission. I need the distraction. I search the crowd for Loch, but don't see him. “Follow me,” I say, taking Emma's hand.
We head down the front hallway to the back of the house. The farther we get from the living room, the quieter it gets. Soon we arrive at the closed door to the study.
“Loch isn't a fan of huge crowds,” I say. “He could be hiding.”
Inside the study, we find Cowboy lounging in a tired leather chair, surrounded by walls of books. He's curled up with a textbook open on his lap. He hasn't worn a Halloween costume since sixth grade, when he dressed as a cowboy, the birth of his nickname. Tonight's no exception. He wears jeans and flannel. Nothing fancy.
I smile. “Hey, man. You're here.”
He looks up, grinning. “Hey. What are you supposed to be?”
I twirl, still high off the confidence boost from Emma. “A cow.”
cow,” Emma adds.
Cowboy's eyes shift to Emma. “Who are you?”
I smack my forehead. “Where are my cow manners?”
I introduce them. Emma waves hello, and Cowboy gives her a nod. He returns his attention to what I can now see is a chemistry textbook.
“And what are you supposed to be?” Emma asks. She's just so
. I wish I could be more like that.
“Myself,” Cowboy says. “That's hard enough.”
“You do realize this is a party,” I tease. “Not a study session?”
“Just getting a head start on my chemistry midterm,” Cowboy says, adjusting the book on his lap.
I perch on the armrest. “You wouldn't happen to be avoiding a purple fairy, would you?”
His jaw tightens. “Why would you say that?”
Gently, I close his chemistry book and say, “Because. Chemistry is a breeze for you.”
No one studies harder than Cowboy, not even me, but he's got natural smarts. Loch and Ollie were always satisfied with average grades, but Cowboy and I shared a common interest in achieving something a little more, a desire I developed because of my dad. When I was in middle school, Dad rewarded my good grades with these cute Tweety Bird stickers that I'd keep in a pocket-sized notebook under my mattress. I loved going to sleep each night knowing they were there, safe and sound, little rewards from my father.
“You saw her.” Cowboy stands up, all jittery now. “She looks amazing.”
“Please. Just talk to her,” I beg. “You'll feel so much better.”
Cowboy runs his fingers through his hair. “You might as well tell me to fly. Both impossibilities.”
“So who's the girl we're talking about?” Emma asks.
“Katie Morris,” I explain. “She's nice, actually. Super-smart. First in our class.” I shake my head, embarrassed. “Burlington's class, I mean. Cowboy's second. I have this theory that they have a secret competitive thing going on.”
Cowboy's cheeks bloom red. “Unspoken, unfortunately.”
“Come on.” I stand up and grab his wrist, attempting to pull him to the door. “Go bump into her.”
He pulls back. “Maybe in an hour. I need to do this reading first. Reading relaxes me.” With that, he sinks back into the armchair and reopens the chemistry textbook. I don't have time for this.
I sigh, brushing a loose hair from my eye, and turn to Emma. “Let's find your date.”
Back in the living room, among the loud music and many curious eyes, I land on a kind and familiar pair. My pulse quickens. I lead Emma to the kitchen doorway. Loch's leaning against the frame with vague disinterest. He holds a red paper cup in his hand as he surveys my costume.
“I'm a cow!” I shout. “See? I have a cow bell and everything!”
Loch says nothing. Just sips from his beer. He would've loved my original costume. Embarrassed, I fidget with the stupid garter thing on my thigh. Now the costume feels stupid. Why did I let Emma talk me into this?
Emma clears her throat. “What's your costume?” she asks him.
“A UVM freshmen,” he replies, gesturing to his gray University of Vermont T-shirt and torn jeans.
Emma laughs. “That's so lazy!”
Loch spills a drop of beer on his lake monster shoes, but doesn't seem to care. I'm surprised he doesn't howl for a paper towel. Is he buzzed or something? No, but he looks tired. Must be all those work hours.
“Can you believe all this?” I ask. “Ollie? Throwing a party?”
“I know, right? Our little Ollie is blossoming, I guess,” Loch jokes, perking up a bit.
“He moves into this gigantic house and suddenly he's a party god,” I add. Ollie used to live on Newbury Lane with the rest of us, but a year ago his parents inherited a large sum of money from an obscure relative.
Someone comes up from behind and wraps an arm around my shoulders. The arm feels slick and puffy. I turn to see Ollie grinning at me, his small, straight teeth shimmering, his breath smelling of whiskey.
He slaps my back and says, “McRib! Thanks for coming! Who is your beautiful friend?”
Emma shouts her name over the music, adjusting her cat ears. “Are you supposed to be Shaun White?”
Ollie grins and sways and holds his stomach. His eyelids get heavy. I study him. I don't know Drunk Ollie. Drunk Ollie is a stranger.
“Are you okay?” I shout over the music.
“Better than ever!” He laughs harshly. I don't believe him. His laugh is too forced and artificial. Ollie hiccups, gesturing to the crowd. “People have been curious about my new house. Just dying to see the place. Soâ¦here we are.”
“Yes.” I step back. He reeks of alcohol. “Here we are.”
He places his hand on my shoulder. “Remember that time we mooned Principal Rogers?” He advances toward me and raises his voice, pointing at my face. “That stupid prank ruined my life,” he spits. “My parents think I don't take anything seriously now. Goodbye, snowboarding dream! Thank you, McRib!”
He sways, sways, sways. Well then. When alcohol is involved, the truth comes out. My stomach rolls over and my heart drops and I don't know what to say. That dumb prank ruined my life, too. Loch looks at me, sympathy in his eyes. Why do I get the feeling this isn't the first time Ollie has blamed me for his punishment?
Ollie stumbles off, waving at someone across the room. I stand there a moment, stunned, hurt, guilty. Ollie
been avoiding me. He's been lying, making up excuses not to hunt. On purpose. I'd been too distracted to pick up on it until now.
“Hey,” Loch says, gently touching my hip. “Don't listen to him, okay? He's going through some stuff with his parents. It's not about you.”
“Whatever.” I grind my teeth and watch Ollie laughing with a group of vampires across the room. My chest tightens. “I don't care.”
“Hold this for a second?” Loch hands me his full plastic cup and bends down to tie his shoe.
Foamy beer sloshes inside the cup. Ollie's now talking to Cowboy, who looks nervous, sick. He drinks from a crystal glass full of what looks to be whiskey. Ollie points to Katie Morris. She's standing just a few feet from them, her back turned, her purple wings bobbing as she dances.
My body warms and my stomach twists. I fight back tears. So much is shifting and I can't figure out a way to stop it.
I drink all of Loch's beer and let out a big belch.
Loch stands, impressed. “Nice one,” he says.
I wipe my mouth and hand him the empty cup.
He steps toward me and touches my hip again. “You feeling okay?” he whispers. “I know Ollie said some thingsâ”
“Peachy,” I interrupt. “Come on. We've got a job to do tonight.”
Emma leans into Loch. She adjusts her crooked cat ears again. “Thanks so much for helping me, Micah. I don't know how much Toni told you, but this means a lot to me.”
Loch looks as if he wants to have a serious talk with me but then asks, “So where's the boyfriend?”
Emma scans the crowd. Her glossy lips fall into a pinched frown.
“You sure he's coming?” I ask, beer churning in my belly. I probably should've eaten something.
“Kevin likes to pretend he has better things to do than show up anywhere on time,” Emma explains. “Right now, he's probably sitting at home, watching the clock, re-doing his hair a million times. God, he lives like five minutes away, too.” She applies another layer of lip gloss. “He wouldn't miss a public school party for the world though. Just wait. He's coming.”