Pyro

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Chapter 8

Modern Day; October 3rd; Cleveland, Ohio; Beth

I waited until my father had gone to the store before I put on the nicest jeans I had—which still had holes in the knees—along with a white blouse and my favorite shoes: a pair of black Keds. Then I left to go to the school play with my best friend, Liza. She lived across the street from me and James Garfield High School was the next street over. When I got outside, she was already standing at the end of her driveway and scrolling through the Internet on her cell phone, her right leg bent with impatience.

“Hey!” I called, running over to her.

She looked up from her phone at me, raised an eyebrow, and curled her upper lip—disgusted.

“What are you wearing? You look like a hobo.”

Just like most conversations with Liza, I instantly felt embarrassed. I didn’t think Liza realized how close I was to being homeless, even though we had been friends since childhood.

“It’s the only thing I could find that worked.”

“You call that working? Well, we should go. We don’t want to be late.”

She started fast walking down the street and I jogged to catch up with her. The reason why she was so impatient was because her crush, Brent Perkins, was playing the main character in the performance. She most likely wanted to get the best seat possible so that she had a clear view of him the whole time.

We got aisle seats in the third row and Liza seemed extremely pleased by this. She flipped through the program excitedly until the lights dimmed. Then she dropped the piece of paper and glued her eyes to the heavy velvet curtains as they began to open slowly.

Even though he was the most involved with theater of everyone in the school, this was the first production in which we had seen Brent, my science partner. It turned out that he was actually a very good actor. By the end of the first scene, I was fully convinced that he was a middle-aged man suffering from midlife crisis. I didn’t have anything against Brent or against theater, but I found my eyelids drooping before long. It was just because I hadn’t been getting very much sleep lately. It was hard to with the nightmares before and after I fell asleep every night. Living with my father was a nightmare. There were times when he seemed to become that monster that everyone fears.

Eventually, Liza realized that I had drifted off—probably when she looked over to see if I was laughing at the same parts as her—and elbowed me so hard that I started awake. Upon opening my eyes, I saw that Brent appeared to be staring right at me from onstage. I could’ve been wrong, but this suspicion was enough to keep me uncomfortable until intermission.

Liza had to go to the bathroom after she finished schooling me for falling asleep and I was left to guard our seats. Bored out of my mind, I started looking around the room for anyone that I knew. To my relief, I spotted my next-door neighbor Melissa with three of her friends. I recognized two of them as foreign exchange students—at least, I assumed they were because of their accents—but the third one was unfamiliar. He had spiky blond hair that caught my eye from across the room and made me curious. Surely if he went to our school, I would have noticed him at a school assembly or something. Maybe he went to a different school?

I walked over to the four of them, not really caring that I was disobeying Liza’s orders. Even though we were best friends, sometimes she really annoyed me and I kind of wanted her to go fuck herself rather than hang around me.

“Hi, Beth,” Melissa said when I walked up.

“Hi.”

I looked at her when I said this, but then I turned and made eye contact with the other three, letting my eyes linger a second longer on the one with spiky hair.

“Are you enjoying the play?”

I was immediately struck with embarrassment. It was as if she knew I’d fallen asleep. I prayed to God she hadn’t seen.

“Oh. Yeah. It’s really interesting.”

I risked another peek at the guy with the spiky hair, who was staring at me.

Melissa must have seen this, since she said, “I’m sorry. This is Willow, Cierra, and Felix. Guys, this is Beth.”

“It’s very nice to meet you,” Cierra said with a sweet smile.

“A pleasure,” said Willow, nodding his head.

“Enchanté,” Felix said, and he reached out to grasp my hand with a warm one.

I was so surprised at his greeting that for a minute I didn’t know what to do, but then Cierra, Willow, and Melissa all started laughing and I did the same. I could feel myself blushing when I pulled my hand away.

“So, uh, what do you have planned for the rest of the weekend?”

“I don’t know,” Melissa responded. “Tomorrow I’ll probably do homework, but we were talking about maybe going for ice cream or something after the play.”

“Oh. Fun.”

“Do you want to come with us?” Cierra asked me.

This took me completely by surprise. I tried not to notice that Melissa also seemed shocked at her friend’s suggestion.

“Sure!”

I didn’t do a very good job of masking my enthusiasm. Felix and I made eye contact and I got a weird feeling in my stomach.

“Awesome! It looks like your friend’s back at her seat. I think she wants you to come over.”

I turned around and saw Liza standing at her seat with her arms crossed over her chest, glaring in my direction. I rolled my eyes and waved goodbye to Melissa’s friends before hurrying back to Liza. Hell hath no fury like Liza when she feels abandoned.

“Thanks for leaving after I told you not to,” she snapped at me as I sat back down in my seat.

“I don’t have to do everything you tell me to, you know. I am my own person.”

“Oh yeah? Who were you talking to over there?”

“Melissa and her friends. I’m going to get ice cream with them after the play.”

“How nice,” she snapped.

I threw my hands up in the air, fed up.

“What?! I thought you would want to stalk Brent, or something. He’ll probably be hanging around for a while taking pictures with his aunt and uncle and grandma and cousin and everyone. You’ll have a good chance to see him and maybe even talk to him.”

“Talk to him?! Are you kidding?!”

“No, I’m not! If you want something, Liza, you have to try and get it. What’s the point of just moping around all the time, hoping for something to happen, if you’re not trying at all?”

“This sounds familiar. This sounds like Beth’s pity party that you’re always trying to get me to come to. The one where you complain about having to live with your abusive dad and having to put up with all of his drunken shit all the time.”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I got up and stormed out of the auditorium, squeezing past groups of people who were talking happily. Sometimes it seemed as if everyone was happy except for me. I went into the bathroom, which was a big mistake. It was so crowded in there, there was no chance of me having a moment of peace. But I had to pee, as it happened, so I stood waiting for a stall to open up. When I was done in the bathroom and walked out into the lobby, Felix was at the drinking fountain between the men’s room and the ladies’ room.

I stood up straighter just as he stood up straight and caught my eye.

“Hello,” he said to me.

“Hey.”

I didn’t know what else to say to him, since he was practically a stranger to me.

“Did you get in a fight with your friend?”

“Yeah.” I didn’t even care that he had noticed. “She’s a bitch. I can’t stand her.”

“Then why are you still friends?”

“I have no idea. We’ve just known each other for forever and it would be kind of sad if we gave up on each other now, after all this time.”

He smiled and said, “That’s the nicest thing I’ve ever heard. If only every person thought like that. People wouldn’t be so lonely.”

His smile was so perfect. It was wide and toothy and even his electric blue eyes seemed to smile. I noticed that he had the same kind of funny accent as Cierra and Willow. I was dying to ask him where he was from, but somehow now didn’t feel like the right time.

“You think all people are lonely?”

“Oh, definitely. Some people may seem like they have it all together, but inside they’re breaking about something. It’s sad, but from what I can see, it’s also true.”

“You might be right.” I looked down at the ground because I had started to tear up. I did that whenever I thought about my father. I really needed to stop doing that in public. I always seemed to do it at the worst times. “It’s certainly nice to think that I’m not the only one.”

“You’re definitely not. What was your name, again? I’m sorry. I’m awful with names.”

“Beth.”

“Beth. Right. I knew that.”

He said it in such a funny way with such a funny little smile that I couldn’t help but giggle. His smile grew at the sound of my laughter.

“I bet I can guess your favorite kind of ice cream.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes. You like strawberry with sprinkles, don’t you?”

I had to laugh because he responded with such confidence.

“Not at all! I like everything chocolate. Chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup, chocolate sprinkles. And sometimes, if I’m feeling crazy, on top of a chocolate brownie.”

I said this casually, because I was so desperate to sound normal to other people. In reality, I couldn’t afford to get ice cream on a whim. I had to plan for it.

“Chocolate is my favorite, too.”

We smiled at each other and then the lights flickered in the auditorium and the lobby where we were standing, so we waved at each other and went back to our seats. I sat next to Liza again, but we didn’t look at each other or speak to each other. I didn’t even care anymore because now Felix was in my mind and I could see he was going to stay there for a while.

As predicted, my mind kept wandering from the plot and dialogue of the play. There was something about Felix that was just so different. I liked it. It made me extremely curious.

Then the actors were all walking on stage together to take their bows and I realized that I had no idea what had happened in the play. But I clapped enthusiastically along with everyone else. Liza whistled when Brent stepped forward and I rolled my eyes at her. Of course, she ignored me.

The lights came on. I walked back over to Melissa, Willow, Cierra, and Felix, who were standing from their seats and stretching.

“Good show,” Felix said to me.

I nodded, trying to look knowledgeable.

“Oh, yeah!”

“Ready for ice cream?” Willow asked, looking around at all of us and rubbing his palms together excitedly.

“I was born ready,” said Melissa.

We all laughed and walked towards the exit together. Coincidentally, Felix and I ended up walking side-by-side up the aisle. I tried not to be oddly aware of the fact that our arms occasionally brushed together, but I couldn’t help it. We were out in the lobby when someone grabbed my arm from behind.

To my utter surprise, it was Brent, still in costume.

“Oh, hey! Good job!” I said to him.

“Thanks! I’m really glad you came.” I found myself hoping that he hadn’t seen me in the audience, since it would’ve appeared obvious that I hadn’t been paying attention. “I was actually going to ask you something tonight if you showed up.”

“No, I didn’t finish my part of the lab yet,” I said, thinking back to our chemistry homework. “I’ll probably have to stay up past midnight to finish that tonight.”

“Oh, yikes. That sucks. But that’s not what I was going to ask you. I was wondering if you would want to get coffee with me sometime. Or something. It doesn’t have to be coffee. Whatever you want.”

I had to stop and stare at him for a minute because I realized exactly what he was asking and I couldn’t believe it. If I hadn’t been angry with Liza in that moment, I wouldn’t have hesitated to answer him in the negative. However, I considered just how much I would hurt her if I accepted. It was tempting, after all the times she had hurt me. But, in the end, I decided to respond like the good person I was, deep down.

“Oh!” I looked into his eyes and could see the sadness in his eyes as it registered with him what I was about to say. “I’m really sorry, Brent, but I don’t see you in that way. I only see you as a friend. But you did a great job in the play and I hope you have a good night. I’ll see you in chemistry.”

I couldn’t bear to look at him then and I walked ahead towards the doors after grabbing Melissa’s left arm and Cierra’s right one and pulling them along with me.

“What was that all about?” Melissa asked me when we got outside.

“I just couldn’t be in there anymore. Don’t you ever feel like you need to just escape from everything?”

Melissa and Willow exchanged looks and said at the same time, “Yes.”

“So… Ice cream?”

“That’s the plan,” said Cierra with a smile.

“I’ll come with you guys, but I don’t have any money, so I won’t be getting anything.”

“Oh, I can pay for you!” Felix said.

I looked into his eyes and got that same weird feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had gotten before. I didn’t know what was. It was like I was feeling sick. I hadn’t eaten dinner, so maybe that was it.

“You don’t have to!” I said, but I was secretly pleased.

“It’s no trouble at all.”

“… Okay,” I acquiesced.

We all piled into Willow’s car in the parking lot. Willow and Melissa were in the front and I was squeezed between Cierra and Felix in the back. It wasn’t very cold outside yet, so Felix was just wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt. His bare left arm was pressed against me and it was so warm to the touch that it was all I could think about as we drove towards the ice cream place.

All four of them talked on the way, but I didn’t say a word. I was barely even listening because I was freaking out inside. Right now I was doing something I had never done before. I was doing something truly crazy and out of my comfort zone. For such a long time, I had done whatever Liza wanted to do and now I was finally doing something that I wanted to do. It felt good to get away from my father for a while and just have some fun, even if I did feel a little bit like I didn’t belong.

“Are you guys going to the Homecoming dance?” I said, finally surfacing from my thoughts.

“Um… I wasn’t planning on it,” Melissa said, but I saw her look over at Willow with a weird look on her face.

I didn’t think it was a strange question, but maybe it was the randomness with which I said it that made her react the way she did.

“Oh, alright.”

I tried not to sound too disappointed, but I couldn’t help it. I had really been looking forward to the dance, but since my fight with Liza, I wasn’t going to have anyone interesting to hang out with. My other friend Joey wouldn’t be interested in going. I knew that without asking.

“Are you going with anyone?” Felix asked, turning his head to look at me.

I tried not to react too much to his question as I said, “I was going to go with Liza, but now that we’re in a fight, probably not. I don’t have a date, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I’m sorry.”

He sounded genuinely sympathetic and I smiled. We pulled up to the ice cream place and got in the line. I stared up at the menu, wondering what Felix was getting without knowing why I was so curious. There was something about him… Maybe it was the accent.

He ended up getting an ice cream cone with two scoops of chocolate ice cream. He had said that chocolate was his favorite and he wasn’t kidding, after all. Who would joke about chocolate, anyways?

“Go ahead, Beth,” he said, stepping aside and putting a hand on the small of my back to urge me forward. He said to the cashier, “She’s with me.”

I was so startled by this that I forgot what I was going to say at first and looked like an idiot when it took me half a minute before I finally said, “One scoop of extra chocolate, please.”

I looked over at Felix and saw him looking at me. I couldn’t help but blush. There was definitely something going on here, but I didn’t know what it was. After we waited and received our cones, we walked over to sit at a picnic table with Melissa, Willow, and Cierra.

“It was very nice of you to pay for Beth, Felix,” Cierra said.

He shrugged and said, “It’s no trouble at all. Anything for another chocolate lover.”

He winked and I looked down at my ice cream, having made the decision to focus on my delicious treat rather than the weird feeling that Felix was making me get.

“So, what school do you go to?” I asked him without looking up.

For some reason, they all burst into laughter at once. I felt my face going redder even though I didn’t know why they were laughing.

“I’m done with school. I’m twenty-three.”

“Oh!” I really hadn’t expected him to be that old. “Why are you hanging out with us, then?”

He laughed again and said, “Willow’s my best friend and Cierra might as well be my kid sister. Melissa’s pretty cool, too.”

He winked at her and I got a weird feeling in my stomach.

“How do you guys know each other? I mean… It sounds like you all have the same accent.”

“Yeah, we do,” said Willow. “We all came from… Iceland. We grew up together.”

“Iceland! That’s cool! What brought you here?”

“Er – school.”

“How do you like it here in boring old Cleveland?”

“Cleveland’s alright!” said Felix. “I think it’s quite beautiful, actually.”

“Beautiful? I’d rather be in a place like Iceland, where it’s open and you can look out at all the scenery and feel like you’re in a different world.”

“You sound as if you’ve been there.”

“I wish. No, I just happen to have done a project on Iceland in fifth grade geography class.”

“Really? I’d be interested to see that.”

I licked my ice cream and stared at him disbelievingly.

“You just met me. Are you really interested in seeing my old school projects?”

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

We all laughed and I noticed that his blue eyes sparkled whenever he joked. I knew then that I wanted to get to know him better. Whoever this guy really was, he was definitely a character.

“Oh shit,” Melissa said suddenly and we looked over at her. “My ice cream is melting like crazy!”

Crazy was a good word for it. Melissa’s strawberry ice cream was oozing over the sides of her cone at a ridiculously fast pace. It was getting all over her fingers and she was licking them furiously to salvage as much as she could.

“What is it doing?” I said. “Mine didn’t do that! Maybe there’s something wrong with it.”

“What could possibly be wrong with her ice cream?” said Willow with a frown.

Felix stood up, saying, “I don’t know, but I’m getting some napkins.”

For some reason, Melissa seemed distraught – more distraught than a person would normally be if their ice cream started rapidly melting all over them. I wondered if something was up because Cierra, Willow, and Felix weren’t laughing, but what could possibly be up? It was just a little ice cream!

After Melissa got cleaned up, everyone was done with their ice cream except for Felix and me so we all piled back into the car and Felix and I struggled to eat our ice cream while we drove into town. This time Cierra was in between Felix and I, which disappointed me a little.

“Where are we going?” I asked, even though part of me didn’t even care.

I knew my father would punish me for going out anyways, so I deserved to have some fun to make it worthwhile.

“I figured we could drive around a bit before we drop you guys off,” Willow said, looking between Melissa and me.

“That sounds good to me. I really don’t want to go home.”

“Why?” said Felix.

“Oh, just my father. He’s not a very fun person to be around.”

“What about your mother?”

“She left when I was nine. It’s just been me and my father ever since.”

“Oh, Beth! That’s terrible!” Cierra said.

She and Felix looked at me with sad eyes.

He said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. I don’t want to pry.”

“It’s okay, Felix. It is what it is. I hate my life, but I’ve accepted it.”

“I’m sorry you hate your life. That’s really sad,” said Cierra.

She was still making a sad face at me, but I didn’t regret my words. It was only the truth.

“I feel like we all do, to a certain extent,” Melissa said. She was staring straight ahead in the front of the car, but I wished I could see her face in that moment. “Everyone wants something that they don’t have and they’re left desiring that something until they have it. And then they find something else to want.”

“That’s a depressing thing to say, Mel,” said Willow.

“I feel like there’s a big difference between wanting something and desiring something,” Felix said.

My stomach was churning, but it was probably just because of the ice cream I was eating.

Melissa turned on the radio and said, “Maybe.”

I sat up a little straighter when I heard that “Numb” by Linkin Park was playing. Linkin Park was my favorite band of all time. Liza had burned me all of their albums and I knew all the songs by heart.

“Yes! I love Linkin Park!” said Felix.

“Ah! Me too!”

We leaned forward to fist bump each other across Cierra’s lap.

“You guys have way too much in common,” said Melissa. “It’s kind of hilarious.”

“Yeah, what are the odds…?” I said, but I leaned back in my seat and smiled to myself as I looked out the window.

We all started singing along to “Numb” except for Cierra, who was the only one who didn’t know the words. I was so happy in that moment; happier than I had been in a very long time. By the time Willow pulled up against the curb between my house and Melissa’s house, I was loath to being parted from them.

They all called out “Bye!” and Felix said, “It was really nice meeting you, Beth! Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Definitely. Thanks for the ice cream!”

I had a smile on my face as I walked up the driveway to the small one-story house in which my father and I lived. The smile didn’t last long. It vanished as soon as I heard my father’s low voice from the living room.

“Beth? Is that you?”

“Yes,” I said with a sigh, closing the door behind me. “I’m sorry I’m home so late.”

“Come out here.”

I took a deep breath and tried to sum up some courage as I slowly walked into the other room. Stephen Winfried, my father, was the balding man I faced. He was sitting in his recliner with a frown on his face – that frown seemed to be permanent, these days – and a beer bottle clenched in his right hand. He pressed his feet down sharply to close the recliner when I entered the room.

“I’m sorry,” I said again.

If there was anything I had learned in the past eight years, it was that saying “sorry” more than once didn’t do a thing, but I did it anyways.

“Good. Because you disobeyed me. I was very clear with you that you were to tell me where you were at all times and never go out without my permission. It’s also way past your curfew.”

“It’s Saturday night, though! Everyone else I know gets to hang out with their friends if they want to. But you never let me! I had no choice but to go without asking.”

“Maybe I would let you if you weren’t such a bitch all the time.”

He drained his bottle and dropped it; it shattered on the floor with a high-pitched clink that made me flinch. He walked over and grabbed me by the arms roughly, shaking me. I gritted my teeth and tried not to cry, but I could feel tears forming in my eyes. I tried not to let him see any weaknesses, but sometimes it was impossible.

“Let go of me!”

I struggled in his grip and he slapped me across the face.

“Are you crying?!”

“I can’t help it!”

I was glaring at him now through my tears. He shoved me and I collided hard with the wall behind me. I grimaced and yelled out in pain.

“Oh, stop whining like a little baby!”

I crumpled to the floor and said, “You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?”

“It’s none of your business if I have!”

“Yes it is! You’re my father!”

The sad part was that I didn’t really need him to respond. I always knew the answer.

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