Party-goers had realized something was up, and that it wasn't normal or good. Taylor swirled around frantically, trying to take everything in.. Winston seemed to be doing the same. More and more people were moving in a stream towards the front set of doors, the doors they had used to enter the party, earlier. Taylor tapped Winston on the arm to say they should merge into the crowd when a rough shake rattled him. He turned around and Phaedra Behrstable was there, looking nervously at him. The pretty girl tossed her head a few times, anxiously peering at the party-goers around them.
“You two should get out of here. Now.“ Phaedra said.
Taylor was shock from head to toes. Winston moved to stand next to him and one quick look showed Winston was experiencing the same shock. “Why are you helping us?“ Taylor started to say.
“No questions. Just leave!“ Phaedra snarled in a whisper she melded back into the crowd and was gone. Taylor shared a significant look with Winston and they moved as one into the crowd, towards the exit. Not fifteen feet into moving towards the exit Taylor was shaken again, this time much more roughly. Before he could even think clearly enough to react he was pulled out of the press of people and thrown against a wall, hard. Seconds later, the same was done to Winston.
Parker sneered as he pushed Taylor hard into the wall.
There was no sign of Philomena or Phaedra or anyone Taylor recognized except for the boy pushing Winston against the wall, Lil J. Lil J's face flushed with cruel excitement above the collar of his white shirt and sleek tuxedo jacket. A sideways cap on his head ruined whatever elegance his tuxedo might have endowed. Parker didn't seem nearly as excited, he had a more feral expression on his face, his upper lip curled and his eyes wide.
“I don't know why you think you can just keep fucking with me, pleb.“ Parker said, turning his head side to side before he leaning in. His eyes stared hard into Taylor's as his hands pushed Taylor's shoulders further back into the wall. Taylor struggled, but the boy was too strong. All the struggling only seemed to amuse Parker. Winston fared no better.
“Let. Me. Go.“ Taylor said between clenched jaws.
“Or what?“ Parker shot back. Taylor's breath exploded out of him. It took a second for him to realize Parker had punched him in his mid-section. A grunt announced Lil J doing the same to Winston. Winston bent over double, coughing. Lil J laughed and reared back to get another shot. A bustling commotion passed by them as more guards rushed by, oblivious to the altercation. Taylor couldn't have cried out for help even had he wanted. The pressure holding him against the wall let up as people moving towards the exit bumped into Parker, pushing him away. At the same moment he heard another grunt from the side.
Winston straightened up to dust his tuxedo lapels. Lil J was on his knees, both hands clasped hard over his crotch, his face flooded with blood, even more than before, his mouth hanging open in shocked pain. A deep, hard anger blazed in Winston's eyes, unlike anything Taylor had ever seen from his friend. It was frightening. But it passed.
“T, let's go!“ Winston shouted. They moved along the wall a few feet before nearing a corner, and a looming door marked EXIT. Winston slammed the released bar down and threw his shoulder into the door, which gave way and opened. He dashed through, paused only to look back and see Taylor still followed. Taylor fell through the door as a hand grabbed at him from behind. A quick glance over his shoulder showed Parker trying to grab at him.
He was through the door. Running, trying at least, Taylor know Parker was right behind him. Not two steps out the door and something caught Taylor's left foot and he crashed to the pavement. Winston shouted from a few feet away and as Taylor raised himself to his knees, which throbbed from where they had hit concrete, his side exploded again. Taylor smashed back to the pavement, this time on his side. Parker's foot drew back for another kick. Not knowing what to do; confused, hurt, and hardly able to breathe, Taylor closed his eyes and tensed, waited for the kick to break his ribs.
Seconds passed. No kick. Taylor's eyes flicked open.
Winston leaned down to help Taylor off the concrete. Struggling to breathe, Taylor barely got his feet under him when Parker, still near, but no longer looming over him threateningly, shouted his name angrily. But something spooked Parker because he moved away and was backed against the wall now. Coming down the dark alley, less than ten feet away, was Lou.
She moved gracefully fast, not quite running, her dress wouldn't allow it, but her fists were balled and her face enraged, lost in some animal fury. Parker looked uncertain, licked his lips and edged towards the door, but there was no handle on this side, no way to open it. He caught Taylor's eyes, snarled and ran towards Taylor. Instead of engaging, Parker shoved Taylor with both hands, sent both him and Winston into a car parked on the curb. He dashed past, running fast, not looking back. Taylor watched, stunned, until Parker turned a corner and was gone.
Lou didn't stop when she passed them, or even acknowledge them, she just ran faster, but Parker was long gone by the time she reached the corner. She wasn't panting as she stood on the corner, fists still balled, staring in the direction Parker had run. Finally, she shook her head and came back to the boys. Izzy appeared as well and Lou managed to look angrier, but only by a hair. “We have to go. Now!“ Izzy whispered.
Winston gave her a brave smile and Taylor coughed as he tried to take in more air. His side burned, his knees throbbed, and his hand still hurt from his attempt to punch Parker inside the party. Every breath sent a sharp spasm of pain through his chest. He felt the area tenderly. Nothing seemed broken, but if he pressed too hard the stabbing pain became intense.
“Are you OK?“ Lou asked pointedly, not looking at him. She was looking around, obviously still on guard.
“I think so.“ Taylor gasped between sucked-in breaths. Lou looked unsure but she nodded and walked in the direction Parker had ran. Winston put an arm on Taylor's shoulder and pulled him to follow. Izzy came behind. The party disgorging itself could be heard from behind them: cars moving, doors slamming, teens talking. Taylor clutched his side as he walked, it felt like he had run a few miles non-stop, but the more he walked, the less it throbbed.
Yet as much as his side and chest hurt, as hard as it was to breathe, he was now highly conscious of Izzy behind him. And he felt shamed. She had seen Parker manhandle him twice now, there was no way to make that any different, and it was bitter knowing. Worse, he had never gotten his chance to dance with her, and now, he suspected he never would.