The PresentNat walked down the hallway towards my locker, a gleam in his eye. “Alex, you’ll never believe it. I asked Annemarie to the winter formal and she said yes!”
“Annemarie Williams?” I said dubiously.
“Yeah. Why don’t you sound happy? Be happy, the world’s filled with love and magic and obese butterflies that sing!” Nat laughed giddily.
“I am happy for you, but I thought you were asking Jocelyn Reyes.”
“I did. She rejected me in front of all her cheerleader friends.” As I winced on his behalf, Nat continued. “That made Annemarie pity me enough to accept my invitation!”
“Well,” I laughed, “that’s one way to get a date.”
“Hush, Ms. Steady-Boyfriend-Since-Sophomore-Year. Speak of the devil, has Royce asked you yet?”
“No, but he’s gonna. He’s been dropping hints like mad.”
“Awesome! We can double to the dance. You catching a ride with him or mooching off me?”
“Mooching, of course. Ready to roll?”
“Let’s hit the road, Jack.”
After Nat dropped me at home, I went to start working on my portfolio, but was surprised with a text from Theo letting me know she and Zoe were stopping by for dinner. Since they’d left for college (the same one, naturally) they’d hardly graced us with their presence. Mom would be thrilled with this out-of-the-blue meal together.
“Yo, Alex!” Petra hollered. “Did Theo text you too?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t feel the need to scream about it!”
“Bully for you. I made plans with Gage tonight,” she said, appearing in my doorway. “D’ya reckon I should cancel? Who knows when Theo will be back again.”
“Zoe wouldn’t come without making plans with her family. You can just crash that.”
“Good advice. Thanks a million. Bye!”
I heard the door slam after my disgustingly cheerful little sister and listened for a moment to the creaks and sighs of our elderly house. Satisfied I was alone, I slipped on my headphones and busted out my pencils. A few hours later, I emerged from my self made world and found myself eye-to-eye with a portrait of Nat. I swore softly. Every time I tried to make a portrait of someone, it turned out like crap or Nat, which could be astoundingly similar sometimes. Sighing, I heaved off of my bed and went to see if anyone else was home yet.
I padded down the stairs and pushed open the kitchen door. A strangled squeak emerged at the sight of Theo and Zoe, kissing in a clearly romantic fashion. My mind raced at this new, but not entirely unexpected development. After a few seconds, I said, “Oh, get a room,” scaring the living daylights out of them.
“Holy crap, Alex! We didn’t think anyone was home,” Theo sputtered.
“Hey, if you want to play tonsil hockey in the house, maybe choose a room with a lock,” I smirked. “I was working on my portrait. It turned out as Nat again.”
“Can we talk about the elephant in the room?” Zoe said awkwardly.
“No offense, but I kinda figured out you were gay. The level of closeness exceeded the norm, and whenever one of you had a boyfriend, it didn’t last longer than a week and the other spent the whole time super moody.”
“Really?” Theo said, looking surprised. “Here I thought it would be as much as a shock to you as it was to me.”
“If it makes you feel any better, only me and Petra are in the know. Mom and Dad are still clueless.”
“Clueless to what?” Mom said, walking in from work. “Oh, Theo! You’re home.”
She hugged her prodigal daughter and they did the social niceties thing.
“Well, Ma, this isn’t exactly how I’d planned to tell you, but...Well, you see...The thing is...Oh, I’m making a botch of this,” Theo moaned.
“”Theo’s gay, Ma. She and Zoe are dating,” I mumbled around a mouthful of cookies.
“Oh,” Mom said as Theo glared daggers at me. “Well, took you long enough.”
“What?!?” Theo, Zoe, and I exclaimed in unison.
“Well, darling, you could see it from space.”
“Okay, then. And you’re okay with it? It doesn’t...rub you the wrong way?” Zoe asked.
“Darling, you’ve always been a fourth daughter to me. I just want you girls to be happy.”
Theo and Zoe both looked bemused. “Good,” I said. “Now that that’s taken care of, Zoe, will you come take a look at my latest stuff? Put those semesters of college art to good use.” Shaking her head, Zoe followed me up the stairs.
“Alex, your stuff is good. I really like the abstracts and fractals. The way you use colors to reflect the change is brilliant,” Zoe said, leafing through my sketchbook.
“Thanks,” I said, blushing. “But I sense a ‘but’ coming.”
“Yeah. BUT your portraits show a bit of a breakdown. Technically, they’re sound, but they don’t have any depth. Who are these people, anyway?”
“Strangers. If I try and draw someone I know, I screw it up.”
“Show me the screwups.”
“Okay,” I said, pulling out my abandoned sketches. “Here’s...Petra, and Theo, and Royce, the mailman, but no good ones. A couple times I got frustrated and stopped halfway through.”
“What about the one the bottom?”
“This?” I said, pulling out my most recent sketch of Nat.
“This is the one, Alex. He looks like he’s about to tell one of those jokes we smack him for, and enjoy doing it. You’ve gotten past the physical and into the emotion of it.”
“Yeah, but only when I draw Nat. And I don’t want to submit one of him with my portfolio. DAFA posts the art of the people they accept on the school’s website.”
“Alex, I’m going to tell you a story.”
“Oh, goodie! Storytime with Sister Zoe!”
“Shut up and don’t be a brat. I’m trying to help you. As I was saying, when I was first starting, I couldn’t draw people to save my life. I practiced over and over again on Theo, the only person who would sit for me, and one day, I got a decent picture. That was the first day I drew her after our first kiss. It was like I couldn’t draw her until I admitted to myself I was in love with her. I’m not saying it’s the same situation, but think about, okay?” With those words of wisdom, Zoe went to join Theo and Mom in the kitchen.
I sat back, ruminating. Hearing Zoe speak so frankly about Theo for what was probably the first time was touching, but it also made me think. Zoe couldn’t mean that I was in love with Nat, was she? Sure, I loved him, but how you would love an annoying brat of a brother, because that’s what he was. And it was totally different anyway. Zoe couldn’t draw Theo, her love, until she admitted that Theo was her love, and I could already draw Nat fine. It was everyone else who was the problem. Did I need to reach some inner conclusion about loving everyone? “Argh,” I groaned, flopping. Zoe was being way too mysterious for a Friday. Mysterious words of wisdom about inner serenity is really more of a Tuesday thing.
Dinner ended up being my dad asking a bunch of confused questions as he tried to catch up to what everyone else already knew. “So, Theo, you like girls, not boys?”
“And Zoe, you also like girls, not boys?”
“Yes, Mr. Bryson.”
“And you two are in some sort of relationship?”
“All right, all right, I think I’m beginning to catch on. Just to be clear, one more time.”
Rolling my eyes, I excused myself and went to my room. I pulled out my phone and texted Nat.
just a headsup, Theo&Zoe came out of the closet -alex
wowzers, am i shocked. *sarcasm font* -nat
IKR? they were more surprised at how we weren’t surprised. well, except for dad. he actually was shocked. -alex
he’s kind of behind on a lot of stuff, huh? -nat
tell me about it. but t&z are having dinner at your place tomorrow. i don’t know how cool your parentals will be with the news. -alex
me either. i think they’ll be cool, but they don’t handle shock that well. at least gage and i will be behind zoe. and your parents will support her, right? -nat
man i hope so. i don’t think either of them could handle losing their family. i don’t think any of us could handle losing them either, so it should work out fine. -alex
fingers crossed. hey, wanna hang tomorrow night? -nat
can’t. royce is taking me to dinner. maybe sunday? -alex
ooh la la. bf takes precedence over bf. -nat
i realize in hindsight that was unclear. the first bf is boyfriend. the second bf is best friend. -nat
english giving you issues again, natters? -alex
shut up. it’s just text that gives me problems. -nat
well, chico, i gotta go. seesters are departing. -alex
bye, chica. -nat
I rolled off my bed and landed on the floor with a thump. I dragged myself to the door and bid a fond farewell to Theo and Zoe before immersing myself in the “bliss” of sleep. That night’s tale of terror had the usual cast of characters. A faceless, nameless menace had Petra tied up and terrified, mocking my fear. She morphed into Theo into Zoe into Mom into Dad into Gage into the mailman into Royce into Nat. When the thing had Nat, it laughed a horrible, grating laugh and shot him. I woke in a cold sweat and swore. “That’s the third night this week. Damn night terrors.”
The next day brought mucho homework. Apparently, senior year is the time to start piling it on. Teachers are crazy. Around six o’clock, I took a much-needed break and started preparing for my date with Royce. After I’d showered, I threw on my nicest jeans, no holes, and a t-shirt featuring the Justice League. Date clothes if there ever were any. My phone buzzed with a text from Royce.
dress nice. we goin fancy tonight, girl. -royce
well, only because i like you. i just put on my date clothes. -alex
was it dc or marvel today? -royce
dc, obvs. they are superior. -alex
let’s not start this argument again. -royce
even though marvel as the creator of spiderman is way cooler -royce
ha! silly boy-man. i shall crush your spirit later. now i have to put on nice clothes. -alex
see you in thirty, babe. -royce
Rolling my eyes at Royce’s endearment and wrongness in superheroes, I shrugged off my preferred outfit and put on a dress I had gotten for the dance before the white/gold/black only dress code came out. It was the same green as my eyes and set off my dark hair and olive skin nicely. Petra came in and wolf-whistled. “Geez, Alex. Are you planning on watching Royce stutter all night?”
I smirked. “Shut up, Tray. Apparently we’re going out somewhere nice, so I’m dressing to the occasion.”
“Don’t call me that. You look good, sis. Can I borrow your purple jacket?”
“If you return it clean and if you leave me alone.”
“Deal. Bye!” she said, taking my jacket and leaving. Mumbling rude things about younger sisters, I finished getting ready and went downstairs to await my date. When I answered his knock on the door, his jaw did indeed drop. If Petra had been there, she would’ve said, “I told you so.” Royce regrouped and walked me out to his junker, opening the door for me.
“So where are we going?” I demanded.
“It’s a surprise,” he said mysteriously. Ten minutes later, we pulled up outside Leo’s, the nicest restaurant that admitted teenagers in town. I looked askance at my beau, but he just grinned and ushered me inside, where a table on the back wall had been reserved for us.
“So, Alex, I’m sure you’re wondering why we’re here instead of Greasy Ray’s Pizza Pizzaz,” Royce said halfway through dessert, cutting off the small talk my distracted mind had been producing.
“Well, obviously. Although Greasy Ray’s is more my dress code. Put me out of my misery and tell me what the hell we’re doing here.”
“Eloquent as always. Alex Donella, would you do me the honor of being my date to the Winter Formal?” Royce said, mock-serious.
“Well, obviously, dummy. We’ve gone together for the past two years. I’ve already started looking for a dress.”
“I would say to wear that, but I don’t want other girls killing you out of jealousy.”
“Aw, you’re sweet. But I couldn’t wear this anyway. It’s green, not white, gold, or black.”
“Oh, is that a thing?” Royce said, surprised.
“It is indeed.”
We talked and laughed for another half hour or so, then Royce paid the bill and we left. After he dropped me, I changed into pajamas and fell asleep, nightmare free. Mostly.
Before I knew it, it was the second Sunday of December, when my family always went with the Brysons to get our Christmas trees. We would drive out to this place in the sticks, cut down our own, then hit the family-owned restaurant in town for lunch. I loved the ritual, but I was nervous. It would be the first time we were all together since Theo and Zoe’s big announcement.
We met at our house, like always. “All right, kiddies. Who’s going in the truck and who’s going in the van?” Mrs. Bryson said cheerily.
Nat and I exchanged glances. Ever since Zoe got her license, we’d had the van for the kids and the truck for the adults. “Mom, I think I’ll drive the van again,” Zoe said.
“Dibs on bucket!” Nat and I yelled simultaneously.
“Aw, you guys always get the bucket seats,” Gage whined.
“Well, young short-legs, this is the way of the world,” I said in my best master-of-the-universe voice.
“Alex, I’m taller than you,” Gage pointed out.
“Wait, what? No fair! Where do you come off on growing past the perfectly reasonable height of five six?” I said indignantly.
“Gage, my man, I think that age is more important in determining seating arrangements,” Nat said sagely.
Gage glowered, but clambered into the back anyway. Nat glanced meaningfully behind me, and I subtly-as-an-earthquake turned and saw the truck containing our parents at the end of the street waiting for the light. The squabble we’d started had convinced them that they needed their adult time. We high-fived before claiming our seats.
An hour and a half of bad singing to annoying songs later, we arrived at the farm. Petra, Theo, and I rejoined our parental units and set off on the quest for the perfect tree. Unfortunately, our idea of a perfect tree was different. I wanted a tall fat one, Petra wanted an elegant thin one, and Theo kept trying to get us to take Charlie Brown trees, all scraggly and lopsided. “C’mon, guys! No one else is going to take this poor guy,” she pleaded.
“That’s because it’s got less needles than an abandoned pincushion,” Petra pointed out. “Guys, guys, we have this fight every year. Last year, according to the photographic evidence I collected, we had a Charlie Brown tree. The year before, it was tall and skinny,” I said.
“Not skinny, elegant!” Petra protested.
“Whatever. My point is, this year we get a tall fat tree.” I said, doing the evil plotting hands. “Muahahaha! I shall choose it, I shall cut it down, I shall carry it home, and I shall decorate it to my whims!”
“Really, Alex? You’ll carry your tree home?” Theo smirked.
“Shut up. I was caught up in the maniacal moment. Ooh, that one looks perfect!” I said, dashing towards a tree in the corner of the field. It was a beauty, six and a half feet tall, too big to wrap my arms around, and no bald bits. Theo and Petra helped me fell the mighty beast, and Dad dragged it to the little building where they put the net on. Nat was already posing for his picture with Santa, so once he was through with his personal tradition, we loaded up the van again and Zoe chauffeured us to the restaurant.
You know those people who pile into a restaurant and make a bunch of noise, tell bad jokes, laugh a bunch, and kind of take over the place, much to the annoyance of everyone else in the establishment? That was us. We had a giant table in the middle of the room, and we can’t help being loud. It’s our collective nature. Like, Zoe is quiet, but Petra is super loud, so the average is loud. When we finally finished eating and left, I imagine a cheer went up.
As I was waiting for Petra and Gage to get in, Zoe said, “Hey, Alex, I’m wiped. Would you mind driving home?”
I was taken aback at the break in tradition, but of course I didn’t want an exhausted person driving me, so I agreed. After Zoe and Theo both got into the back of the van, tossing Petra and Gage off the bench into the bucket, I had to grin. Ulterior motive, nice to meet you. I caught Nat’s eye and raised an eyebrow in their direction. He made a face, which made me laugh.
About halfway through the drive, I glanced in the rearview and smiled. Gage was reading, Petra was flopped against the window, and Zoe had her head in Theo’s lap. Theo was resting a book on top of Zoe’s ear, and she looked happier than I’d seen her in a long time.
When we finally got home, I ditched the siblings and Nat and I went for a drive. We have a long history (well, since I got my license, so like a year and a half history) of going on drives when we were sick of people. Nat could usually tell by my expression that I was about to take someone’s head off, so he would drag me by the arm to the car and off we’d go. Today, I sat in the passenger seat and reclined it all the way back. Nat looked over, but then put his eyes back on the road. He’d had his license for a month, but he drove like a scared old lady, something I usually teased him about. I wasn’t really in the mood, so I let it go.
“What’s on your mind, chica? You’re all distant and crap,” Nat said.
“Well, Mr. Sensitive, since you asked, I’ve got no clue. I just feel...off, you know? Like, today should’ve been awesome, and instead it was weird.”
“Weird how? I didn’t notice anything.”
“Well, did you notice how none of the adults said anything about Theo and Zoe? Theo looked like she was about to cry at one point. It’s kinda heartbreaking.”
“Give them time, Alex. They aren’t as resilient as us young folk.”
“Geez, Nat. When did you get to be smart?” I teased.
“Well, I traded this fairy my donkey and got some magic beans...” he started, laughing as I hit him. “Ow! Don’t hit the driver. I could crash!”
“Yes, and at our rip-roaring speed of fifteen miles an hour, it would be horrific,” I said, deadpan.
We bickered all the way back, and the familiarity was comforting.
A week later was the big night for some, and another irritating social event for me. I had finally found a dress-code-propriate dress, but it had taken some wheedling for Petra’s help. Sad as it was, my baby sister was much more fashion inclined than I, so I usually asked her help on big events like the winter formal. In my gold dress, I looked stunning, if I do say so myself. (and I do) Normally I abhorred things like styling my hair or wearing fancy shoes, or any shoes, but Petra threatened sibling blackmail to get me to wear gold ballet flats with lacy thingies to the knee. She did something to my hair that made it stay in some sort of updo without straightening or curling it. My baby sister truly was a wizard.
“Thanks, Tray. I really like this,” I said.
“Don’t call me that. And you’re welcome,” she grinned.
When Royce arrived to pick me up, my dad drew him into the corner for some sort of talk I couldn’t hear the specifics of before releasing him to take approximately ten million pictures with me. The way Mom was carrying on, you’d think it was my prom or something.
We finally got away from the camera monsters and to the dance, where the monsters were all wearing formal wear and pretending to like each other. I saw Nat and Annemarie arriving right after we did and waved them over to our spot in line.
“Hey, Annemarie. You look good. Hey, loser. You got a new tux,” I greeted them. Nat had had the same tux since he was an usher for a family friend’s wedding freshman year. Between then and now, he’d grown a solid six inches, so it looked ridiculous. His new one was downright snazzy, though. Classic black and white with a green-and-purple striped bow tie that almost ruined the effect. Annemarie had a little black dress of the kind oft described in self-help guides for women with low self-esteem, but she pulled it off.
“Hey, Royce. Hey, geek. Nice rags,” Nat answered. Royce nodded, used to our constant mockery, but Annemarie looked puzzled as to why two supposed best friends were insulting each other. This more than anything marked her as an only child.
We stood in the line, shooting the breeze as we inched forward. Once inside, Annemarie immediately dragged Nat onto the dance floor, where some pop song I didn’t know was playing. I went over to the tables set up on one side and sat down next to some friends of mine, Kyler and Charlotte. We’d gone to the same junior high, and they were one of those “always” couples. We talked for a while, and Char told this rip-roaring story about our English teacher, Miss Prentice. Once a slow song came on, Royce and I joined the dancing couples. He wasn’t the best dancer, so I usually sat out songs I liked to keep him company.
After a few songs and a couple squished toes, Royce excused himself to go to the bathroom. I went and got a drink and sat by myself at a table where I could see the dance floor. Nat came over and said, “So are you having a ball, princess?”
“Oh, ouch. Bet it took you a long time to come up with that zinger,” I said. “But yeah, I’m having an okay time. I even wrangled that date of mine onto the dance floor for a few songs. How’s Annemarie?”
“I don’t think we’re really clicking. I think she’s, for lack of a better term, a swell gal, but every time I try and talk to her she’s all distracted and dismissive. It was almost a relief when she excused herself.” Nat, despite suffering from the occasional delusion that he should talk like his grandfather, was mildly popular with my gender, so I understood his confusion.
“Well, young padowan, you shall succeed or fail in love, but you will always have to entertain me.”
“Gee, thanks, master,” he said sarcastically.
“Hey, Royce has been gone for a while. I’m going to go make sure he hasn’t been mugged for his kidneys or something,” I excused myself.
I left the ballroom, then hesitated. I had no idea where the bathrooms were, and even if I did, guys tended to not appreciate it when I invaded their pee place. I started wandering aimlessly down the hallway, then realized it was the same hotel Nat had briefly worked at. (I had accidentally gotten him fired for visiting so much. His boss didn’t believe that we were just friends, and that when he’d spent an hour cleaning a room that we were just jumping on the bed and playing video games.) Armed with that knowledge, I turned down the surprisingly obscure hallway containing the men’s room. For the second time in a month, I came across unexpected people locked in a romantic embrace, but this time was far less pleasant.
“Royce? What the hell? Are you seriously cheating on me with my best friend’s date?” I said angrily. Annemarie blushed, but didn’t defend herself.
“Oh, like I’m not justified. The two of you make me sick, pretending you’re just friends, like you aren’t hooking up at every available moment,” he spat.
Now I was confused. “Royce, what are you yammering about? You’re the one who’s standing there with someone who isn’t your girlfriend.”
“I’m talking about your little friend Nat.”
“Nat and I are best friends and have been for the past decade, you idiot. Now here’s what’s going to happen. I am going to walk away, and I will not speak to you again. I will not answer your texts, your calls, your emails, your letters, your skywriting. I will tell everyone who asks that you cheated on me because of some imagined affair I was in. I hope you enjoy the rest of your life knowing that you lost the best person in the world. Asshole.” I stormed off, knowing that Royce probably didn’t even care. I went up to the place Nat and I had discovered during his brief stint as a bellboy/maid. It had probably been a break room at some point, but since the only point of access was the stairway to the roof, it wasn’t used anymore. Once there, I curled up in the old armchair we’d rescued from a redecoration and pulled out my phone. I dialed number one on my speed dial, then hung up because it was still my voicemail. “Crap. Been meaning to change that,” I muttered as I hit the button for speed dial two. It rang four or five times, then went to voicemail. “Hey, you’ve reached Nat. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you. Also, if this is Alex, I don’t want whatever you’re selling.”
After the beep, I said, “Nat, I need you. I caught Royce with Annemarie and had a fairly spectacular row. I’m in the old break room. Please come.” Hanging up, I grimaced at how needy I sounded to my own ears. I hated being the one who needed someone, because I was supposed to be the one everyone needed. I rested my head on the back of the chair for just a minute and was awakened by Nat opening the door. Upon seeing him, I gasped. “Holy s***, Nathaniel! What did you do, make a pro boxer angry?”
“You should see the other guy,” he quipped, grinning despite his cut lip, black eye, and swollen nose. “Besides, I’ve got ice.”
“Seriously, Nat, what did you do?”
“Well, if you must know, I slugged that sorry piece of work that used to be your boyfriend across the mouth.”
“You idiot. He’s got like twenty pounds on you and has four older brothers,” I scolded.
“But he insulted your honor,” Nat protested.
“And where do you come off defending my honor? I am fully capable of exacting my own revenge,” I said.
“Well, then I punched him because he kissed my date,” Nat said.
“I will accept this reason,” I said haughtily.
“So what happened, Ally?” Nat said softly. He was the only person allowed to call me that, but he almost never did.
“I went looking for Royce, and I found him making out with Annemarie in the hallway. Me being me, I started yelling at him, and he said he was only because I cheated first. Apparently, he’s thought you and I were having illicit meetings throughout the time we’d been dating. This made him extraordinarily bitter and kinda cruel.”
“I knew I was right to hit him,” Nat said. “I am sorry, Alex. That pretty much sucks beyond words.”
“I dunno,” I mused. “I can think of several words. Most of them would get you kicked out of Catholic school.”
“Hilarious. Now, I’m going to sit quietly in the corner and nurse my wounds. Feel free to help.”
Nat flopped onto the floor and held his ice up to his eye. I pulled out the alcohol swabs and gauze that we’d stashed here in case of emergency. I sat next to him and handed him the first aid supplies. Resting my head on his shoulder, I said, “Y’know, when I pictured high school dances as a kid, they usually involved fancy clothes and alcohol, but rarely bruises and supply closets.”
“Rarely?” Nat queried. I felt him wince as he swabbed his cut lip.
“I have an overactive imagination,” I informed him. “Some say it’s my hubris. Others say it’s my hummus because they’re idiots.”
Nat ignored the jibe at his younger self and kept quiet. “Another thing I never imagined was that mine and Royce’s relationship would end like that,” I said softly. “I wasn’t deeply in love, but I thought we were solid, you know? I was going to break up with him anyway.”
I felt Nat draw back slightly before he said, “Really? You never told me that.”
“I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t see a reason too. I wasn’t happy anymore. We maybe could’ve been friends, but we never should’ve tried to be romantic. It ruined whatever relationship we had.”
Leaning against my best friend, I started to cry. “This is stupid,” I said thickly, wiping my eyes. “I shouldn’t be upset by something I was going to do anyway.”
“Alex, you’re upset because something constant and dependable in your life isn’t anymore. It’s okay to cry. You don’t always have to be the strong one.”
“You don’t get it,” I said. “I’m s’pposed to be the one everyone comes to when they’re upset, because I’m supposed to be the one everyone can rely on, the strong one, the fixer, the listener.”
“Let me take over, just for a little while,” Nat urged. “Shut up and cry, okay? I’m probably the only one who won’t care, or try and make you feel better.”
I didn’t respond, just buried my head in his shoulder and cried. Nat put his arm around my shoulders and grabbed my hand, drumming a rhythm with his fingertips. I cried myself to sleep without meaning too.
In my dream, the faceless man was back. He had Theo tied up and was doing something with a hot poker that I didn’t really want to investigate. For the first time I could remember, he spoke, a deep, menacing, voice that sounded like several people speaking at once. “This is what you deserve,” he rasped. Theo turned into Zoe, who had knives embedded in her fingers. Zoe turned into Petra, who had a razor cut across her cheeks again and again until she was unrecognizable. Petra turned into Gage, who the faceless man hit in the leg with a monstrous mallet until his leg shattered. Gage turned into Nat, who had all of the above done to him before the faceless menace sliced his heart out.
I woke up shaking and crying. Nat was trying to calm me down. “Alex, it’s a dream, it’s just a dream, please wake up,” he pled.
“I’m awake. That was...a bad one.”
“Alex, I thought your nightmares stopped when we were twelve.”
“They came back a few months ago,” I admitted.
“Have you told anyone?” Nat said.
“No. It’s not like there’s anything they can do,” I said.
“Would it help to talk about it?”
“Maybe.” I recounted my most recent horror and Nat hugged me. He was about to say something when we heard footsteps outside our door. “Is it locked?” I whispered. Nat nodded. Through the door, we heard a male voice say, “Yeah, boss. There’s a door up here. You want I should see if that’s where the noise was from?”
“Nat, was I screaming?” I whispered urgently.
“Yeah, I couldn’t wake you. They’re going to kick us out, and they might call the police.”
“I can’t get arrested! What’ll keep them from investigating?”
“Much as I hate to say this, if they think we’re a couple of horny teenagers looking for a place to hook up, they’ll probably just kick us out,” Nat said, looking supremely uncomfortable. I caught his meaning, and as we heard a key scraping in the lock, I kissed him, mindful of his bruises. I expected it to feel weird, and at first it was, but it quickly became less of a distraction and more of an interesting encounter. Somewhere along the way, Nat had become a surprisingly good kisser. We were soon interrupted by the hotel employee. “Hey, boss, it’s just a couple of teenagers from the dance. I’ll shoo ‘em out and lock this place up tight,” he said into his phone. “Kids, you better clear out.”
We stood, feigning guilt, and I grabbed my bag as we scurried out. The guy insisted on escorting us to the door and watched as we got into Nat’s car. After we were out of sight, Nat started laughing, and I joined in.
“We did it, man! Survived the social event of the season without...” I paused, remembering my long-term relationship had ended and Nat had bruises all over his face. “Well, without dying.”
“You mean I’m not dead?” Nat said, mock-incredulous. “That explains so much!”
“So, are we gonna talk about how we made our daring escape, or not?” I said.
“How about not? We’re both exhausted, you’re emotionally drained, I’m working with fifty-fifty odds of a concussion, it’s just bad circumstances.”
“Okay, pull over. I’m not letting you drive,” I said with as much authority as I could muster. Nat obligingly pulled over on the side of the highway, deserted at that time of night. Every respectable person was asleep, and every disrespectable person was at the after parties for the formal. As I crossed in front of the car, I looked up. Nat joined me and we leaned against the hood of his car, watching the stars as only two city kids in the country could. I leaned on him and we stood there for a few minutes. Then we got back in the car and I drove him home. “Okay, concussed one. I’ll bring your car back tomorrow. I suggest sleep.”
Nat turned to face me. “Hey, Ally, thanks for being there.”
“Don’t get all mushy on me, Bryson. You’re the one who got his ass kicked defending my honor,” I said, sure I was blushing.
Nat hesitated, kissed my cheek, and went up the walk to his front door. I watched to make sure he got in, pressing my hand to my cheek. The tingling was a sign that things were going to be...complicated.
I let myself in, trying to be quiet. Mom was asleep on the couch, but she woke up when I came in. “How was the dance, darling?” she said sleepily.
“It was a little rough. Royce cheated on me, I dumped him, then Nat punched him and got his a-er, butt kicked. I had a surprisingly good time, though.”
“Oh. Okay,” Mom said, surprised. I gotta give her credit, though. She took it in stride. “Well, I’m sorry for your troubles. If you could check on Petra, she and Gage had some sort of fight as well. Good night, my lovely girl.” She trudged up the stairs to her room.
I groaned inwardly. Since Petra and Gage had started dating, they’d had a fight or a breakup on practically a weekly basis, but they were determined to keep screwing up until one day all their problems were magically solved. It was not the most successful method. Being the good sister that I am, I knocked on her door. “Tray, you awake?” “Don’t call me that,” she said half-heartedly, tears in her voice. I pushed open the door and sat next to her on her bed, mindful of the tissues.
“What happened this time, girlie?” I said.
“I don’t even know. It’s just like, we’re really good at being best friends. We always know what the other wants and how to spend time together, so we should be good at a relationship, right? It should be simple, but it’s not. We just don’t click as a couple. It sucks,” Petra said miserably.
“Well, sometimes friends should just stay friends. My advice would be to stop trying. You guys were friends, then you decided that you should be romantic, and itdoesn’t work. You don’t have any chemistry and trying to make some is going to make you miserable, ruin your friendship, and make you miss opportunities to meet other people.”
“I guess. Why is this so hard, Alex? I don’t want all the drama.”
“Kiddo, drama is part of life. You’ll figure it out eventually,” I yawned. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m heading to bed. I’m whipped.”
“Oh, I forgot to ask. How was your dance?” Petra said, cheering at the prospect of gossip.
“Well, Royce cheated on me with Nat’s date, I broke with him, Nat punched him, then Royce beat him up, then Nat and I got kicked out of the hotel,” I said, ticking them off on my fingers.
“Aw, pity. Well, now my plan can come to fruition,” Petra said a shade too innocently.
“Okay, I’ll bite. What plan?” I sighed.
“Something that will eventually led to a hybrid Donella/Bryson baby. Or, you know, not.”
“Petra! You don’t get to meddle like that,” I scolded. “But there was a moment of weirdness,” I confessed.
“Ooh, spill!” she said eagerly.
“I don’t want to talk about right now, so I’ll just say that to get out of a sticky situation we had to act as a couple and there were unexpected sparks, at least on my end,” I said, walking to the door. “Now good night.” I shut the door and went to my room.
After I changed into pajamas, I flopped facefirst onto my bed and fell asleep almost immediately. I guess I was nightmared out, because I don’t remember dreaming.
The next day was off-puttingly peaceful. Theo came home for winter break, bringing Zoe with her. Zoe ran the Brysons’ car back for me. My dad made pancakes at two in the afternoon because that was the first time we were all awake. That evening, my English homework was interrupted by a text from Nat.
parentals not thrilled at my injuries. not allowed to go anywhere but school til break starts. -nat
wow, two whole days of grounding? that’ll be tough
well, i’m not going to be the one to tell them that’s nothing. you forget they’re inexperienced with misbehaving children. the most trouble zoe every got in was choosing to major in art. at a prestigious university. and don’t talk about on the two-day week. why couldn’t we just have last week be the last week? -nat
don’t even get me started on paragon older sisters. theo does nothing wrong in our parents’ eyes. and i know. the week’s stupid -alex
well, that means we have to be that much more awesome to top them and make petra&gage hate us. :) -nat
yup. did you hear the latest drama? -alex
no, what’d they do this time? -nat
had a fight. p and i talked, i think they’re done for good. -alex
it’s about time. this’ll be good in the long run. -nat
yeah, short run might suck. oh, and apparently petra has been plotting to get us together. crazy, right? -alex
nat? where’d you go? -alex
sorry, had dry the tears of laughter. that girl be cray. plain and simple. -nat
you’re telling me. -alex
well, apparently my grounding is also going to involve no electronics. i’ll pick you up for school at eight. at three after eight, i’m leaving with or without you. bye! -nat
see ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya -alex
I finished my homework and pulled out my sketchpad. I put on my headphones and started the soundtrack from Beauty and the Beast, one of my all-time favorite movies. So what if I know all the words to every song? Nat had a teddy bear til he was sixteen. I lost myself in the familiar music and began to draw.
I keep thinking I know myself, and then I go and do something unexpected like drawing a kickass portrait of the mailman, Mr. DeWees. It was at least as good as the ones I kept drawing of Nat, if not better. “Damn it,” I groaned. “Zoe was onto something.”
I put on my thinking hat. So, if I kissed Nat and am suddenly able to draw people, is that supposed to mean something? Stupid Zoe with her smartness and her ideas. I mostly kinda sorta liked the way things were before, except for the limits of my abilities and the relationship I was in. I didn’t want anything else to change, and if I started doing anything with Nat that wasn’t PG friend-y type stuff, everything would change.
“Argh,” I said, holding my head. “Why is this so complicated?”
“Why is what so complicated?” Theo said from the doorway.
“Nothing,” I said semi-sullenly.
“Liar,” she said affectionately. “You can tell me what’s going on, you know.”
“I don’t really wanna talk about it, Theo. Besides, it’s late and I’ve got school in the morning.” I regretted my words as I saw the hurt flash across her features, hidden almost instantly by a mask of indifference. It happened so fast I wasn’t sure I’d seen it, but then I wondered how many times she’d done that to be so good at it.
“Okay, Al. See you in the morning. Love you,” Theo said.
“Love you too, sis.”
Theo left, shutting the door behind her. I fell asleep and began to dream in what seemed like the blink of an eye. This was different than the norm. I was watching someone being strapped to a chair. I couldn’t tell who it was, just that she was a she. The faceless man was asking her questions, and she wouldn’t answer, just kept shaking her head. He took out a knife, and I tried to close my eyes, but nothing happened. Apparently I needed to see him cut very carefully into her skin, slicing things that were probably important. She’d probably never use her hand again, but I have to give credit where it’s due. The girl didn’t cry out once. In her place, I would’ve screamed like a baby. The man took out a lighter, and I grimaced. Before he even got close enough to do anything, the girl screamed, just once, and the man smiled, a horrible facsimile of a happy grin, and stopped. He’d been waiting for that. I woke up crying, because when the girl had screamed, it’d sounded just like me.
I was ready and waiting when Nat honked at eight the next morning. I yelled goodbye and dashed through the rain to his car. Shutting my door, I said, “Hey, Nat.”
“Hey, chica. You look rough.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said sarcastically.
“Alex, don’t deflect. Did you have another nightmare?” he said, concerned.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “It was rough, Natters. Really, really rough.”
“Do you want to tell me what happened, or do you want me to tell you a hilarious and distracting story?”
“Hilarious and distracting story, of course.”
Nat launched into some delightful ditty featuring Gage, two eggs, and an ice cube that had been left in the floor. “And I swear, Al, you haven’t seen funny until you’ve seen your freshman sibling frantically trying to keep egg from dripping into his pants.” I gave the requisite laugh and went back to worrying about what I would be walking into. News of Royce’s cheating and my dumping of him would be a hot topic, and I would probably catch some flak for it. On the other hand, Royce would probably have a fairly hellish day. Our school as a whole frowned upon cheating, and I had a good many friends. The thought cheered me immensely.
After Nat parked, he and I walked through the front door. I could feel people trying to watch without being rubberneckers, and it was making me antsy. As I was depositing textbooks in my locker, there was a swell in the usual noise of the hallways. I turned around to see Royce walking in with his arm around Annemarie’s shoulders. I saw lots of my acquaintances frowning and rolling their eyes, but no one was openly revolting. There was an undercurrent of tension in the hallway, which Royce exemplified by kissing Annemarie on the cheek and leaving her behind to walk to me.
“Well, how’s it going, Alex?” he said nastily. I turned, finished putting my things in my locker, and started walking to my homeroom. He sneered in my direction and went back to his new girl. I continued to ignore him, and Jocelyn Reyes fell in beside me. “Hey, Alex, I think I speak for pretty much everyone when I say, good for you. Royce was kind of a jerk, and Annemarie’s a little bit of a slut. They deserve each other.”
“Thanks, Jocelyn. That means a lot,” I said, going into my class. The rest of the day passed much like that, people coming up to congratulate me. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Conferring with Nat on the way home, he agreed. “It’s weird. I think Royce is planning something, Alex. Don’t let your guard drop, okay?”
“Well, dang, Natters. There goes my plan. I was just going to prance into school tomorrow and say, ‘Come at me, bro. I can take whatever you toss my way.’”
“That’s a stupid plan. It doesn’t even rhyme. Plans should rhyme,” Nat said affably. I rolled my eyes as we pulled up in front of my house. “Bye, Nat. I’ll pick you up at eight oh eight tomorrow morning, and I’m leaving at eight eleven,” I said sternly. I walked inside before he could start singing “Taylor the Latte Boy.”
The next day, I pulled up at eight oh nine. Nat was standing at the curb, arms crossed, looking impatient. “You’re late, Donella,” he said while opening his door.
“Get over it, princess. I was thirty seconds off,” I scoffed.
“It’s okay. I forgive you,” Nat said, flashing a thousand-watt smile. I concentrated really hard on not blushing, and I’d like to think I succeeded.
The morning passed uneventfully, with teachers trying to keep us from destroying things and everyone wigging out with last-day-of-semester-itis. I walked out of fourth period on the way home (three cheers for half days), slinging my backpack over my shoulder. Going down the stairs, I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I turned, and there stood Royce. “Hey, Alex. I hear you and Nat are just getting along famously,” he said in a sing-song tone. I rolled my eyes and made to keep going on my way, but he grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. “I wasn’t done, Alex. I wanted to say-” I never found out what he wanted to say, because at that point I hauled off and slapped him. “If you don’t stop harassing me, I’m reporting you to the principal and the police, so just buzz off, Royce,” I said disgustedly. He stood there with his hand pressed to his cheek, a hurt look on his face. I walked away as fast as I could without running, stifling the shakes of a delayed fear reaction. Walking to my car, I drove to the restaurant where I was Nat, Kyler Lewis, and Charlotte Thompson. Going in to the table they’d claimed, I flopped onto the stool attached to the table that served for a seat. Kyler was talking about how his track team buddies had gone for a run in first period gym and not come back. “The coach pretty much said, ‘They’re going to get counted truant. Seniors gonna be stupid.’ I’m hard-pressed to argue.”
“Well, Ky, you could venture so far to say that the coach should’ve, I don’t know, stopped them?” I said.
“Jeez, Alex. Don’t think too hard for that solution, huh?” Nat said teasingly.
“Shut it, Bryson. ‘Seniors gonna be stupid’ is the worst excuse for bad behavior since ‘boys will be boys.’”
“But that one’s gotten me out of all sorts of messes!” Nat protested.
“Yeah, Alex,” Kyler said. “That excuse is the best thing since sliced bread, which, coincidentally, was invented by a bored young man during his rumspringa of the mind.”
“Is ‘rumspringa of the mind’ a euphemism for being an idiot?” Charlotte said suspiciously. The discussion devolved into an argument, as it usually did. Charlotte and I won, as we usually did. Kyler and Nat just couldn’t compete with our debate nerd skills. After we’d settled the bill, Nat transferred his various belonging from Kyler’s car to mine, and I drove to his house. As he unbuckled his belt, Nat said, “Hey, are we still doing our Christmas campout with Theo and Zoe?”
“I dunno if they’re going to come, but I’m definitely going to. I’ll ask Theo when I get home and let you know, ‘kay?”
“Sounds good. Happy break, Alex.”
“Happy break, Natters.”
True to my word, the first thing I did when I got home was seek out Theo. She was in her room, typing away on her laptop. When I knocked on the open door, Theo jumped a foot in the air and said, “Holy crap, cat-foot. Do we need to tie a bell around your neck or something?”
“Didn’t mean to scare you, sorry. Are we going to have our campout this year?”
“Of course! Why wouldn’t we? It’s tradition,” Theo said, surprised at the suggestion we wouldn’t.
“It’s been a weird year, man. I don’t even know why. It just feels all wonky,” I said.
“I understand. So, for the campout, we need to find the tents, check how cold it’s going to be, and get food. Can you think of anything else?” Theo said, mind already in planning mode.
“Nope. Sounds like you’ve got it covered,” I said, backing out the door. I went and sat in front of my slow-as-molasses desktop to check the application date for DAFA, as if I didn’t know it already. January twenty eighth, they started taking apps and portfolios, and by February seventeenth, they’d make the first round of cuts. If you got past the first round, you had an interview and a bunch of other hoops to jump through. Sighing, I pulled out my phone and shot some text into the cell-osphere.
theo says we’re on for christmas campout. -alex
YES! i’m disproportionately excited. -nat
actually, i think it’s proportional. this is gonna be awesome. -alex
i know! how’d this even get started? i don’t remember. -nat
i dunno. i think when we were like seven zoe and theo were backyard camping on christmas day, after presents and family and all that crap. -alex
oh yeah! then we crashed into their tent in the middle of the night and scared the living s*** out of them. next year they just invited us. -nat
proof that brattiness pays off. -alex
sure. that’s the moral of that story. -nat
for defs. what kind of smores are we making this year? -alex
i’m thinking cinnamon graham crackers, strawberry marshmallows, and white chocolate. -nat
ooh, sounds like pie. -alex
that’s the goal. pie is yummy. -nat
why yes, yes it is. -alex
i’m going to go make preparations. -nat
natters, you realize it’s tuesday? -alex
alex, you realize it’s tuesday the twenty third? -nat
really? those schooling bastards, making us go til christmas adam. -alex
yeah, it’s their fault. bye now. -nat
later, gator. -alex
I went to check the forecast for Christmas day. It was predicted to be in the teens and snowy. Lovely weather for the outdoors. I heaved out of my desk chair and crossed the room to my closet. I pulled out a few sweaters, thermal underwear, long-sleeved t-shirts, sweatpants, gloves, fuzzy socks, and various other winter paraphernalia in quick succession. Surveying my choices, I selected the warmest ones and shoved them in a duffel bag featuring Mr. Snowman and his many friends. I added some random things, like a flashlight, a coloring book, superhero playing cards, and five lucky pennies. It seemed silly to pack when I was just going to the backyard, but it was a whole lot sillier to have to run inside because you forgot your warm jammies. After I’d prepped my bag, I went to enlist Theo’s help in getting the tent out of our attic crawl space. The door was shut, but I’ve been told I have boundary issues, so I had no qualms about opening it.
Upon walking in, it was immediately apparent why the door had been shut. Zoe shrieked and dove under the blanket, and Theo turned bright red. “ALEX! What the hell is wrong with you? Closed doors mean privacy! Privacy means go away!” she shrieked.
“Theo, I’m way super sorry. Trust me, I’m as embarrassed as you are. I may never be able to close my eyes without seeing that again. How about I go back in the hall and knock this go-round?” I said, running a hand over my head.
“Forget it, Al. What do you want?” Theo said sullenly.
“I was going to see if you’d help me get the tents out of the attic for the day after tomorrow.”
“Oh, geez. Is it Christmas Adam already?” Theo said, perking back up.
“Yeah, and if you don’t mind, I’m going to go so you can wrap whatever this is up,” I said, gesturing towards her bed, where she sat and Zoe was burrowed in the blanket. I hastily departed and shut the door. Leaning on the wall, I sank down to the floor and propped my head on my knees. “I’m not scarred for life, I’m not scarred for life, this will not affect the rest of my life in a negative manner, I will erase the image seared into my corneas,” I chanted under my breath, repeating it over and over.
Eventually, the door opened and Theo walked out. “Kay, Alex. Let’s go.”
I got to my feet and went to the pull-down stairs. Jumping up, I grabbed the cord and yanked. The stairs folded out, creaking like cicadas in the summer. We climbed up gingerly, testing each step before putting weight on it. Last year, we hadn’t been very careful, and I’d put my foot through one of the steps. Splinters are not very fun, especially in combination with sleeping bags. Theo rummaged around in all the junk that had accumulated over the years and finally extricated the tents. I dropped them to the ground, winced at the thud they made. We climbed back down and folded the stairs up again. I grabbed one tent and Theo the other, and we shuffled downstairs and set them by the door to the backyard. I hugged my sister and then collapsed in a heap on the living room floor. Apparently, I fell asleep, because next thing I knew, Dad was shaking me awake. “Alex, it’s eleven o’clock. Why don’t you transfer to your room now?”
“Sorry, Daddy. I didn’t mean to fall asleep,” I said, accepting his hand and clambering to my feet.
“No worries, sweetheart. Goodnight,” he said, kissing my forehead. I stumbled up the stairs and fell back asleep almost immediately.
The next day consisted of my family loading up the van and heading to my grandmother’s for Christmas Eve dinner. We used to go to Mass too, but then my dad defied his mom for the first time ever (to hear her tell the story) and now we don’t. Nonna and Papi were thrilled to see us. We kissed and hugged, exchanged stories about what had happened since our last gathering, then sat down to our Italian feast. We ate until we were bursting, then we had dessert. Tiramisu and pie and ice cream on top of the penne and meatballs brought on the oh-so-familiar food coma. Once everyone was coherent again, we sat around the Christmas tree and swapped gifts. I’d gotten Nonna lotion and Papi a globe, just like I did every year. Dad got a sweater and gift cards, Mom got the same, Petra was overjoyed by her makeup kit, and Theo loved her subscription renewal for National Geographic. Every year, Nonna asked what we wanted, and every year without fail, it was waiting under the tree for us. I wasn’t a bit surprised to get a new set of charcoal pencils, but I was happy, and I thanked my grandparents. After a few more pictures, stories, and pieces of pie, we headed back home, tired and content.
The next morning was basically more of the same. I got some slick new threads and a secondhand laptop. Adopting the Christmas spirit, I donated my old desktop to Petra. Theo and I were both jazzed because we knew the real highlight was going to be the campout. Zoe and Nat arrived around five thirty, and we got the tents set up right as it got too dark to see. Zoe set up the fire, and Nat unleashed his inner pyromaniac to light it. He knelt down, trying to get the kindling to catch. When it finally did, he stretched out and propped his chin on his hands, watching it burn. The fire glinted off his eyes, making him look like a madman.
“Burn baby burn,” I sang, off-key and tone-deaf as always. Nat grinned.
“Check out that flame, Alex. Man has conquered fire.”
“Hey, caveman, maybe you should check your shirt,” Zoe said as she rooted around for the bag of chocolate. Sure enough, a spark had popped out and landed on the tail of Nat’s shirt. I laughed as he frantically started slapping himself, trying to put it out. Theo and Zoe were murmuring to each other over by the food, and I made conscious effort not to eavesdrop. Instead, I grabbed the strawberry marshmallows and poked skewers through two of them. “Here you go, Natters. Try not to set anything else on fire, okay?” I said, handing it to him.
“But they taste best burned,” Nat protested. I rolled my eyes, but let him massacre his poor marshmallow. By the time we’d toasted ours, Theo and Zoe had joined us, and we swapped ghost stories and played cards around the campfire for a few hours. Not long after the last light in our house went off, I pled exhaustion and went into the tent I was going to share with Nat. I changed as quickly as I could, shivering when the cold air hit my skin. Once I had all three sets of pajamas on, I burrowed into my sleeping bag and tried to fall asleep. I lay still, counting sheep, then pigs, then dolphins, but nothing worked. I was too tired to sleep.
After an hour or so, I heard Nat unzipping the tent flap and stumbling in. He muttered a curse and then whispered, “Alex? Are you still awake?”
I didn’t answer, and I heard him sigh. Then came a series of rustles I interpreted as Nat changing. I listened as he climbed into his sleeping bag and rolled over onto his side. Nat never could sleep on his back.
As I listened, his breathing grew deep and even. “Hey, Nat? You still awake?” I whispered, mirroring what he’d said earlier. When I got no response, I continued. “This is probably going to sound crazy, which is why I’m not telling conscious you. The thing is, I think I maybe might kinda sorta be in love with you. I totally get it if you don’t feel the same way, but the beauty of this method is I’ll never know. No muss, no fuss, right?” My voice cracked on the last word, and I rolled to face the tent wall, glad I hadn’t said it to his face.
I curled into a ball and entered that half-sleep, half-not state that come before true sleep. Suddenly, Nat pressed his lips to my forehead. “I love you too, Alex.”
“Oh s***. I thought you were asleep,” I said, accusing.
“No you didn’t. I’ve snored since I was eight years old, a fact you remind me of constantly,” Nat said, matter-of-fact.
“Oh, yeah,” I muttered, glad I could avoid his gaze. Never had one person held so much power over me and my soul. With one action, Nat could make or break me and ruin our relationship forever. He gathered me somewhat awkwardly against him, and I leaned into his embrace.
“Took you long enough, Donella,” he whispered in my ear. I smacked his arm even as he flipped me over to face him. That first kiss had nothing on this one, I thought giddily. Pulling back, I said, “Natters, I really truly hate to say this, but I’m falling asleep in the time it takes me to open my eyes after blinking.”
“It’s okay,” he said, stretching like a cat. “We’ve got all the time in the world.”
My last thought before slipping into slumber was that I’d received the ultimate Christmas present, one that promised to have a use for years to come. And it did.