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The room is warm, and i’m falling half asleep in my chair. The chair is wood, and it's backed up against the wall of the living room of whoever’s house this is. The living room and the dining room aren’t really disconnected, there’s no door separating them. All there is is a large rectangular hole, cut out of the wall, allowing anyone to pass freely from room to room. The way my chair is positioned, I am looking directly over the living room couch and into the dining room.
The living room is empty except for me and some kid muttering and fooling with the stereo, but the dining room is packed, with girls in neon skirts, boys yelling and waving around stoges and spliffs, a bored looking couple, and one hulking figure named Rodney, who has striking green eyes and always looks on the verge of tears. He looms at least a half foot above most of the other males, and completely dwarfs some of the girls. He’s looking around slowly, and when his eyes pass over me I wave slightly and he nods back but he doesn’t move. I don’t know him that well, but I wish he would come over here. I don’t know where my ride went and I don’t really know many of the people here. The walls of the living room are only illuminated by the light coming out of the dining room, casting, slanted shadows on the pale orange walls. I watch a girl in a tight, neon green skirt and a loose black tank top devour a cupcake, her blonde hair swinging around the frosting but missing it. I realize how hungry I am and think about getting up and asking her where she got the cupcake, but I’m too tired and nervous to talk to a stranger.
To the right I see a small ball of fire flash as someone I didn’t notice before lights a cigarette in the shadows of the living room. They don’t emerge, but warm smoke drifts over me lightly. Paired with my empty stomach it makes me feel slightly sick, but it’s aroma is comforting.
The bored looking couple wanders over, the boy looking around and sniffing. He turns to me and says, “Is that your cigarette?” I open my hands to show him I don’t have one, and the girl he’s with, a slender blonde girl, hits him playfully and says, seriously, “You said you weren’t going to smoke those anymore!” he laughs and she says, playfully this time, “Sta-cy!” elongating the vowels. He’s almost as tall as Rodney, his hair is blonde brown, his eyes are dark brown. I recognize his name, but I’ve ever met him.
Then Rodney comes over, and at first I think he’s coming to say hi to me, but he stops behind Stacy and the girl and just stands there. The three of them have boxed me into my spot in the living room. Again I wave at Rodney, and he says “Hey Gabriel.” and nothing else. The girl looks at me. “I love that name.” I notice that she’s very pretty, with blue-green eyes and light freckles. Her body is thin and delicate looking, but she moves gracefully. “I’m Sara,” she says, energetically, “and this is Stacy.” Stacy says hey, but doesn’t look at me and keeps sniffing. “I saw the cigarette over there,” I point, and he nods and looks over there but doesn’t move. He’s wearing slim fitting tan jeans and a loose plain black t-shirt. His hair is brown-blonde, his eyes dark, and his face is subtly strained, like he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Sara mutters something and he says “What?” without looking at her and she doesn’t repeat it. He looks at me, not at my face but just in my direction, and says “F***. Where is Eli?” Rodney says that he called him an hour ago but he thinks he’s out somewhere. He looks at Rodney. “You want to go get a burger?” Rodney agrees, and Sara says she wants to go say goodbye to some friends first and they both follow her back towards the dining room.
There’s another flash of fire in the corner and I look over in that direction and stare, waiting for whoever’s over there to come out. I’m incredibly bored, and I want to sleep, but i’m worried that if I do someone will draw on me or rob me. I tip my chair back, so its on its back two legs, and push those legs forward, away from the wall. the farther back I tip, the farther forward the legs go, and I keep pushing until I think I might fall. I pose like this in the chair, my legs stretched out slightly to balance my self and my arms ready to save me should I fall. Then I hear a giggle from the corner, and a few little streams of smoke float up towards the ceiling. I slam the chair down on all four legs and get up to see who’s over there. My legs are stiff from lack of movement, and I push them out as straight as I can with each step, straightening them. It only takes a couple steps for my eyes to register who’s in the corner, and it’s a girl, about my age, wearing jeans and a plain white v-neck. It’s a stark contrast to the usual semi-raver get up, and it fits her sexily. I don’t smoke often, but I ask her for a cigarette. She doesn’t give me one, instead taking a long drag off hers, not inhaling, but dragging it into her mouth so that it floats out in thick opaque reams, floating over her face and blocking her eyes. She moves her lips only slightly as she asks me, “Are you friends with Stay and Rodney?”
I shrug. “I just met Stacy, but I’ve known Rodney for a little while.” She responds by blowing out the rest of the smoke lining her maw, and then reaches around into her back pocket to get another cigarette, which she hand’s me. “I’ll butt-f*** you,” she says with humor, and sticks the cone of embers at the end of her stoge into the tip of mine. She holds it like that for a minute, making sure it lights evenly, and raises her eyes momentarily to introduce herself. “Ellie.” she divulges as she hands me the cigarette. I put it in my mouth, and while I inhale I open the side of my mouth and say “Gabriel, thanks.” I have to close my lips quickly as some saliva begins to slide out of my mouth. I don’t inhale strongly, but it’s enough to make the room spin pleasantly. My stomach turns vile, and I can feel its lining react through my blood and brain. But I continue to stand there with her and smoke, and she looks around, waiting for me to say something.
“Do you not like Rodney and them?” I ask.
“Rodney’s okay,” she says, “But Stacy is... Do you know his friend Eli?”
“They’re a little weird. Eli’s pretty much a psychopath.” She changes voices, into a mimicking tone: “Cut me or I’ll blow you!” She watches my expression and laughs. “Yeah, they’re freaks. Whatever.” She does another mouth inhale, and tilts her head back to watch it float over her, a wispily peaked mountain. She finally blows out all her smoke, wiping the shadows clean. I look up and notice a thin veil of smoke is coating the ceiling. “Who are you here with?” she asks.
“Jo-Jo,” I say, “But I have no idea where he went.”
“Oh!” She becomes excited. “I know him! He’s in art, right?”
“I don’t think so. He’s on the baseball team...”
“Oh. Are you on Baseball?”
“No.” She nods. “Are you driving?” I ask. She nods again. “Yeah, I am. I drove my friends. Why, do you need a ride?” she smirks.
“I might, if I can’t find Jo-Jo. You don’t have to give me one.”
“No-oh!” She responds quickly. “I’m kidding. It’s fine, I like meeting new people. I don’t want to go yet though, I want to wait till everyone gets drunk.”
I laugh, agreeing. Inside I am bile and red-eyes, flittering, convulsing.
I decide to find a bathroom. I wander towards the froth of my peers, many of them speaking too loudly. I push through them, one or two people recognizing me. I try to move patiently. Joy Division begins to play from the speakers, ‘Heart and Soul’, and I wonder who put them on. I like it, and as the lightbulb illuminating the dining room pops and goes out above my head I imagine the various lighters that shoot up are just floating balls of fire, bearing great surprises.
Then people begin to scream and I realize what just happened. Of course, the hall lights are still on so we’re not completely blind, but there’s a scramble for light and I feel forces pressing against me, compounding me slightly, and I hear a girl scream shrilly. A hole emerges in the middle of the dining room, bathed in a mellow orange glow. A boy stands up holding a young girl, a sophomore I think, and her wrist is visibly swollen. She’s crying, softly, and the boy is whispering to her lightly and holding her carefully. As they walk by people lose interest and as they realize no one is going to replace the bulb they begin to disperse to other parts of the house. The living room stays empty for some reason. It strikes me as explicitly bare, hiding nothing, as its only occupants are the television, a stereo system, the couch, and a tall standing lamp. The chair I was sitting in is from the kitchen.
No one turns on the living room lamp. Ellie is sitting alone in the room, with a new cigarette, with her clean white shirt and blue jeans subtly reaching out from the shadows. One of the windows is now open and her smoke trails steadily towards it, moving like a tide as the wind breathes. A golden leaf floats through the window and lands by the television. I want some water but I know that the bathroom is in the back of the house and will probably be impossible to access. I look at Ellie, who’s looking confident and warm. I open my mouth slackly, and then I say, “Can we go?”
We leave the house. As we walk along the path from the door to the sidewalk, I see a jack-o-lantern across the street with large a large, gaping mouth. It screams at us all the while we face it and I have to rip my eyes away from it when we reach the sidewalk.
She drives a silver Explorer with a cream colored interior. She puts out her cigarette before she gets in the car and smells me to make sure I’m okay. When we get in she turns on the fan and opens the windows slightly. The night is warm despite the season, and so I’m not uncomfortable. I notice that her back window has a couple of Matero stickers on it, signs of membership to school organizations and teams, but I can’t tell what they’re for. I ask her about them and she says, “They’re my brothers. Aren’t they embarrassing?” I tell her that I have a ‘Matero Woodworking’ decal on my car, and she laughs and says “Whatever.”
“So,” she asks, “What else do you do at Matero.”
“I dunno,” I say. “I hang out with Jo-Jo I guess. I don’t know a lot of people, I don’t really have much in common with most Matero-Olera people.”
“Olera sucks!” She cries.
“Olera is the same as Matero. There’s not even a real town border. Olera High is in Matero! I don’t really care though.”
“Gabriel, I’m surprised we haven’t met before. I feel like we could be really good friends, you seem really honest and I like that.”
I shift in my seat. “You’ve only known me for an hour or so.”
She laughs. “Jesus, you’re a downer. Don’t be such a downer! Do you like any of the girls at Matero?”
“Yeah, I don’t really like many of the guys. Or girls, for that matter. I hang out with like Zoe and them sometimes but I don’t really fit in I don’t think. They’re all into gossip and drama, I just want to get through the year.”
I shift again. I desperately want to sleep. The temperature of the car seems to be dropping by the second, and there’s a slightly eerie gray-green tint to the car from the streetlights and window tinting. In my mind I repeat what she just said and smile at the cliche. People always seem to say that to me. ‘I hate drama. I just want to make it through the year, through high school.’
But when I reply, I just say “Yeah.”
“Girls are the worst,” She continues. “Do you know Darcy Sellig?”
“No, not really.”
“She told all of our friends about... Look, you can’t tell anyone this, okay? She told all of our friends about how Tessa f****d like three guys in one weekend up in Tahoe, and some other grimy details, and pretty much got Tessa alienated from our group. I mean, I knew that Tessa had problems, like, her mom is pretty much an alcoholic, but I didn’t know she was that messed up. And I don’t think she should get punished for it.”
“Yeah.” I say slowly. Ellie’s gripping the steering wheel hard and I realize I haven't told her where I live. She hasn’t asked yet either. My stomach is still convulsing, so I scan the car and find a water bottle. I motion to it and she nods, says “Go ahead.” and as I drink she continues her diatribe.
“I mean, god, it just p***es me off so much. I hate the shallowness at our school. You know what I mean, right?”
“Yeah, I do. Everything’s about the surface.”
“Exactly! Totally! That’s it! You know, Gabriel, I think you’re the first person I’ve met who’s really heard me out about this and understands me completely.”
“Yeah, that’s cool. Where are we going?”
She opens her mouth, and then kind of explodes into a weird gaggle of snorts. “Oh my god! I got so caught up in myself! I’m so sorry! Where do you live, or where am I taking you?”
I laugh politely and wave it off. “I live near school, a few blocks past the senior parking lot and then up a hill. I’ll direct you.”
“S***, I gotta turn around.” She pulls of onto a side street and the into a drive way, then brings us back to the road we were previously on going the opposite direction. Her hair has absorbed the flat light tone of the car and although it hangs beautifully the color disturbs me.
“I really need to get out of Matero.” She continues.
“Yeah, of course.”
“Well I mean, talking to you has made me realize, no one at Matero really understands me. I can’t really discuss any of my personal problems with any of my friends, maybe one or two, like maybe Zoe, but obviously not Darcy or any of her close friends.”
I suddenly have a need to remove myself from this vehicle. I have a fleeting image if my body falling out of the car as it moves, or of Ellie yelling as I run away at a light. But I know I won’t do either of these things so I just grit my teeth and say nothing.
“Have you ever had one of those secrets that you need to tell a friend, but like, you don’t know who?”
I can’t recall one but I pretend to know what she’s talking about and nod vigorously and say “Yeah, totally.”
“Well, I guess it’s not really a secret. I dunno. It’s just like... Well, did you wonder why I wasn’t with any of my friends at the party?”
“I thought you didn’t like them.” I shiver.
“I don’t, not really, but I’m not like a natural loner. I also like to drink. But I can’t anymore because I might have a brain tumor.”
I realize the volume of this statement, and I know the proper reaction to it, but instead all I can think about is how heavy my eyelids are and the storm in my gut and how claustrophobic I have become in this car. Finally I manage words. “That’s probably really scary, huh. I’m sorry.”
“Well, they don’t know for sure, but I had a couple weird blackouts. It’s either a tumor or my sense of balance, my equilibrium, could have some problems, or a couple other things I guess. But there’s no nausea, so they think it’s probably a tumor. But they haven’t had a chance to check yet, and even when they do, what’s it going to mean? I have no idea.”
I nod, and try to look sympathetic. We’re finally near to my block.
I tell her to stop outside of my house, a one story adobe-style home low in a grassy dip. I get out of the car, and she asks if she can text me later tonight and I grunt a little and say “Sure.” as politely as possible.
I watch her car drive away, the back lights shining bright red. I look up at the sky and it’s streaked with fire and I’m sorry I stayed inside all night. I feel warmer outside than in the car.
Eventually I get out of the street and head towards my front door. As I do, I take out my cellphone and start a text to Jo-Jo. It begins “Do you know a girl named Ellie?”