Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Magic of Missing Pieces: Missing Piece #1: The Ability to Have Fun at a Party

I slipped my hand into Teddy Mascon’s hair and laughed.

The drinks had nothing to do with it. I’d partied as much as anyone in my year. I could hold my liquor. There are those who would argue, like the chick I knocked into Dawnie’s pool, or the hot college guy whose palm I cut open when we were trying to slice up fruit for the drinks. Even Dawnie herself might disagree; she has witnessed more of my little accidents than a puppy trainer.

The point is, the courage was all mine. It wasn’t the fruity concoctions Dawnie brought for the girls, my favorite beer I’d bought for myself, or even the bright blue flaming shot I’d thrown back just to make Wayne shut up about my preference for softcore dance music—even though the roof of my mouth still stung and my tongue was still half numb.

I wasn’t used to courage. I wasn’t used to fear. Basically, I don't get emotional. Especially not for someone else. Why would you waste feelings on bullshit that's not yours? Why would you claim to feel on behalf of someone else? Empathy creeps me out. Teddy was managing to make himself an exception to my policy. He was the one who was drunk. He’d consumed so much alcohol within the last few hours, it completely saturated him. He blurred like a sketch in oil pastels. He hazed over between the dubstep beats, between the crisscrosses of laser beams spangling over the loft.

He’d always felt ghostly, maybe because I’d always watched him out of the corner of my eye. I would glimpse him when I was driving down the street or walking down the hall. Long ago, he’d shimmered past me on the bus. 

Each step toward him was like driving with my hands crunched into my jacket pockets, unable to  steer. He was hunched so far down, when I stood beside him, his dark reddish hair completely covered his face. So I decided to move it out of the way. I slid my hand into it and eased his head back so he faced me. He glared, but those eyes always glared.  Laser beams flickered over his nose and his chin. I wanted to wipe them off.

“Look up, dude. You keep looking down.” It was a problem I wanted to fix. He was the dampest piece of the party.

He swigged his beer again, his lips so severe on the bottle I wondered stupidly if they could cut it. It made my teeth hurt.

“The floor is cool,” he said.

I looked down at the plain black carpet. The room filled into place. The cigarillo smoke soaked the feeble light of the stained glass lamp swinging over the pool table. The smoke smelled almost like chocolate or strawberries. If I strained, I could smell the strawberry kiwi juice boxes I guzzled like an addict the summer he moved to the neighborhood, seven years ago.

“Don’t let her get into your head,” someone coughed behind me, patting my head. My skin groaned at the oppressive presence of Mike and his overwhelming body heat. The oily guy had haunted our parties for two months now, and being in the same room with him made me want a shower. “She gets touchy when she’s drunk.”

“Amongst my girlfriends,” I corrected. Dawnie and I sometimes pretended to go home together, like when some of the sketchier frat rats from across town started creeping and we needed a duck-out they wouldn’t care to stop. I wracked my memory once, twice. Apart from her, I couldn’t name anyone I’d snuggled up to lately. I kept searching and honestly, I couldn’t.

“He deserves a warning, sweetie,” Mike said. “You’re not quite the skank you act like.”

“Quite?” I snapped.

“Not to mention her blood circle,” Mike said.

“Bad PMS?” Some jocky friend of his sauntered up. We’d been introduced, but he was forgettable. He had nasty, greenish tortoiseshell glasses. He must have been wearing them to make fun of the attendant hipsters.

“The worst PMS,” he said. “A blood circle is arm’s length of the person holding a knife,” he said. He spun in a slow circle to illustrate, jabbing an invisible blade as he went.

“Shut up,” Dawnie said. “She doesn’t do any of it on purpose.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said with a wink.

I was getting irritated. He was showing no sign of leaving me alone with Teddy. This was a problem.

“Go away, Mike,” I said.

“Not a chance, sweetheart.” He looped an arm over my shoulders.

So I punched him in the face.

Overkill, right? I swear, I don't have anger issues—but when I see a problem, I want to fix it. Like, Dawnie and I both hate it when someone's hair is messed up, and we sit there stewing with the urge to reach up and flatten it back into place.

While he went to the bathroom to nurse his bloody nose, I looped my knees over the arm of the sofa and bounced my fluorescent orange sneakers under the blacklight, so I could stare at the laser patterns spasming over the ceiling until things died down. The party was moving out to the pond, anyway.

When someone shut off the music, I tilted my head back. Teddy seemed to tower upside-down above me.

“Not into skinny dipping, huh?” I asked.

He shrugged, motioning toward the crutches.

“If I complained, would you call me a hypocrite?”

He downed another gulp of beer. “No.”

“Hey!” I laughed, reaching up to smack his shoulder with the back of my hand. “That’s kind of an insult, you know.”

He cocked his head as if confused. “Oh. Sorry. I’m supposed to say I want to see you naked, because dignity isn’t something that exists these days.”

The words formed on the tip of my tongue: “Aw, come on, have fun.”

But what came out was, “Who the hell needs dignity? Who cares what people think?”

For a second I thought he might do the drunken guts-spilling thing. Maybe he needed to talk and I was determined to provide the perfect opportunity.

“Yeah,” he said, taking another swig and effectively dousing my hopes. His eyes were shinier than glass, but maybe he was just tired.

I sat in silence with him for a while. I couldn’t help checking for tears every ten seconds. Nonchalance wasn’t my strong point. I mean, I was upside-down.

And I didn’t want to leave him alone.

I swung my legs down to the floor and leaned back into the sofa, enjoying the head rush. Someone had switched off the laser, so a mix of blacklight and murky lamplight washed everything in not-really-orange and not-really-blue. I examined the cool carpet again. His feet shuffled, one nudging the other as he adjusted in his seat.
I slunk over to the pool table and slipped a cigarillo from a package, then fished a lighter out of the pocket of Dawnie’s jeans. When I flicked it open, of course it dropped as if someone had knocked it out of my hand. The cool carpet ignited.

“Careful!” Teddy shouted. I tried to beat him to the little flame, but I was too late. He threw his knee onto fire.

“Holy shit,” I said. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” He kept a hand over the knee. He stood, wobbling, and fell the few steps backward onto the sofa.

“Let’s get some water on that,” I said.

“No. No freaking water.”

“Why not?”

“Mind your own damn business.” His eyes narrowed. “You smoke cigarillos?”

I let it go. “They’re yummier than cigarettes,”  I said, and to make it more impressive, I took a short drag and pretended it was actually full and deep, exhaling the smoke from my diaphragm, like a singer.

I ruined it by coughing a bit.

His eyes brightened and his mouth flickered with a silent laugh. I smiled, hoping the glimmer in his eyes was only smoke.

“I went skinny dipping in that pond last time I was here,” I told him. “One of the guys tried to, uh, get too close.”

His head tilted toward me, but he didn’t look up. “Let me guess. You punched him in the face.”

I replayed the line in my mind. Yes, his tone was accusing. No, his expression wasn’t a glare. “No, I punched him somewhere else.”

He snorted, swishing the contents of his bottle. “You think you can skinny dip in peace with a bunch of drunk guys partying around you? Are you an idiot?”
The accusation burned even worse than the smoke in my mouth. I pushed the feeling back down.

His eyes eyes locked on mine for the first time during the conversation. “Tell you what. Catch me sober sometime, all right? I’m too tired for this.”
I smirked. “I will, Teddy Mascon.”

He lifted the nearly empty bottle. “My goddamn pleasure, Moxie Nguyen.”
Just like that, we had acknowledged and abolished seven years of neighborly silence.    

A breath went out of me. I’d talked to him, and all but made a date. I was satisfied.
The inevitable wave of fatigue swept over me. I mashed the cigarillo into an ashtray and curled up on my end of the couch again. I made a show of yawning and stretching.
Sleep was coming at me hard, despite the music still pounding outside. Some girl kept laughing at an impossible volume, and the guys launched into mockeries of school chants.
Without warning, another noise stretched up over all of it—a wailing, painful sound. It rose from melodic into gritty. It was the type of scream that would rip your throat into sandpaper—no, a bloody cheese grater—within seconds.
I wrenched my eyes into focus. Teddy’s fists clenched, and his mouth was a severe line. His head arched back so far, it was against his spine.
He wasn’t alone. A dark figure crouched beside him. Its fingers dug so deeply into the arm of the sofa I thought it might pinch a piece of it off.
I fought into consciousness, into an upright position. “Stop it! Shut up, what are you doing?”
I couldn’t even hear myself, but the figure’s scream grated down to a ringing in my ears. It ducked to the floor and slipped around the corner like an animal.

"What was that thing? Was it a person?" I demanded.

Teddy's eyes slid to me. He unballed his fists, visibly trying to relax. "What are you talking about?"

I took a deep breath. "Are you okay? You looked like you were in pain. You still kind of do."

He looked away. "I'm fine. You're the one acting weird. Were you hallucinating?"

I dropped back onto the sofa. "I guess that would explain it. Oh my god. That seemed so real.”

The adrenaline pounding through me felt like a drug. I'd never been into experimentation—being out of control scares me—but I could recognize the symptoms of a bad trip.

"I haven't taken anything," I said. “Why would I hallucinate that?”

"Maybe someone slipped you something," he growled. "Come on, I'll walk you home."

He handed me his crutches at the top of the stairs. He took the steps one at a time, with deliberate movements. When he started to slip, he grabbed onto my wrist with a strength I didn't expect.

When he took the crutches back, I dared to voice my concern. "Are you sure you can walk the two miles to the neighborhood?"

"Watch me," he snarled.

"Okay, okay."

The partiers at the pond cat-called us as we left. A thrill ran up my spine, but Teddy gave them the finger.

The country road had no street lights. Teddy's crutches caught on the potholes and he nearly fell, so I used my phone as a flashlight. The adrenaline crept back into my veins, and I caught myself watching the shadows for the hallucination. I distracted myself by watching Teddy’s powerful arms do the work his left leg couldn't. The cicadas buzzed loudly enough to discourage conversation, but I couldn't resist.

"What's wrong with your leg?" I said.

"Mind your own business," he said.

That was about what I'd expected. "Was it a bomb that hurt you? A bullet?"


"What does that stand for?"

"Improvised explosive device," he snapped. "A bomb. They're all over the place in Iraq."

"Oh. It was probably the same thing that killed my mom, then."

He halted and nearly tripped again. "What?"

I shrugged. "She died in Desert Storm."

"I knew she wasn't around, but damn. What branch was she?"

"Army." Like him.

He nodded. "Huh."

His pace was brisk, so I hung back a few steps behind him and lit his way until we reached the mouth of the neighborhood. His parents' house was a beautiful stone one-story, a step above my Dad's and my brick-and-plank hovel. We reached his driveway, and I stopped. He kept going.

"This is your house," I said.

"No shit," he said. "I'm supposed to be taking you home."

"It's right there.” I pointed. “You could stand here and watch me go home."

He didn't stop. "Are you coming, or what?"

I skittered to catch up with me. "Are you going to kiss me at the door, too, Mr. Gentleman?"

He ignored this. When we reached the house, he stood at the end of the driveway and watched to make sure I could get in. I waved once I got the door open. "See you later, Teddy."

He grunted.

From the upstairs window, I watched him crutch back up the street. My heart dropped into my stomach when he reached his front door. I could have sworn he had an extra shadow—a shadow that crouched like a creature.

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