“Aww, did you come to party with the kiddies too?” Nicole teases.
“I have spent half of the day training these little shits at the high school. I cannot comprehend another spell or potion to save my life,” Nicolas says, taking a big gulp of my drink. He slams the empty cup down and holds a finger up. He comes back with two filled cups and another round of shots.
Nicole grins, her cheeks and neck flushed a deep cheery red, and I know she’ll be far gone after a few more drinks. We really shouldn’t be drinking, but my stress says otherwise. I don’t want to think anymore. I want to have fun and relax.
“Ladies,” Nicolas raises his shot glass, and I reach for my own. “To Astrid, for bringing us together at this moment.”
I raise my glass a little higher in agreement. “To being cursed and having some psycho bitch out for my head.”
We turn to Nicole, but she’s already downed the liquid and laughing, “Cheers!” she hollers and claps her hands. Nicolas and I clink glasses and shoot them back. The burning sensation goes down my throat, and I already feel some tension lift off my shoulders.
Everything is a blur after that. The three of us dance and sing with our new witch friends, and it doesn’t surprise me that Nicole has become the life of the party. A warlock challenges her to a keg stand, and she happily accepts. Nicole raises her hands in the air and howls when she completes the challenge. Minutes later, she collapses onto Myra’s couch and falls asleep, entirely stone-deaf to the rowdiness.
Somehow Nicolas drags me to the living room and convinces me to be his partner for karaoke. We sing a sloppy, drunken version of the spice girls, and it is terrible. Nicolas is butchering the lyrics, and I’m not doing any better with my clumsy dance moves. But no one judges us. Instead, everyone is cheering us on and signing the lyrics.
I look out at all the smiling faces staring back at me and think…wow, this is happening. I’m partying with witches and warlocks who’ve been my friends for less than a couple of hours, and it’s one of the best nights I’ve had in a long time. Sure, my family and friends throw some wild parties, but these people have a specific energy that is warm and welcoming. I feel like I’ve known them my whole life.
Nicolas takes my hand and spins me. I throw my head back and laugh when he sings, ”If you wanna be my lover,” and then dips me. Looking upward with my hair falling freely, I spot a couple kissing in the corner, and my heart tugs. Nicolas pulls me up, and the dizziness and emotions hit me at once.
I miss Arlo.
He should be here with me.
What is taking him so long?
“You alright?” Nicolas steadies me with his arm as I almost lose balance.
“Yeah,” I smile, pretending. Nicolas hesitates for a second before he goes back to his lousy singing. I join him, pushing my feelings aside. I wouldn’t want to show my new friends this side of drunk Astrid. Red-faced, crying hysterically, drunk Astrid.
At the song’s ending, Myra and Carson finally show their faces. I’m not stupid. They’ve been gone since we’ve arrived at the party and that could only mean one thing. But something seems odd.
I give Carson a pointed look, but he crosses his arms and smiles mirthlessly. I find Myra, her eyes sad and glossy as she flirts with another boy. Oh, no. Even if I sing and make silly gestures, Carson remains in his spot solemn faced. He certainly doesn’t have the I just scored the girl smile. Something is wrong.
I hand the microphone off to some girl and shuffle my way through the sea of bodies. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Carson says, and I swear it’s the most serious I’ve heard his tone. He’s usually full of jokes and laughter, but he says nothing more as I stand in front of him.
“Yeah,” He mutters, glancing in Myra’s direction. “Crowded in here.”
Myra is now full-on making out with the boy she was flirting with moments ago. I expect to see jealousy written all over Carson’s face, but he looks…okay with it? Weird. I totally thought they were feeling each other. I nod and take his arm. “Let’s talk outside.”
In the midnight air, we both take a seat on the porch steps. It’s freezing outside, but I get the feeling Carson needs to get something off his chest, so I don’t complain.
Carson digs through his pocket, pulling out a carton of cigarettes. He lights one for himself and then offers me one. Usually, I don’t smoke, but I’m too drunk to decide against it, so I take the stick and press it between my lips while he lights the end.
We both sit in silence, watching the thick puffs of smoke disappear into the cold air. I flick the ashes off my cigarette and look at him. “Spill it, Carson.”
“Don’t what me,” I say, narrowing my eyes at him, “You look like someone just ran over your new puppy. And you haven’t made one wisecrack all night. So, spit it out. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
He exhales a deep breath, contemplating his response. “I don’t…she…Uhm,” he’s at a loss for words.
“Does your non-coherent babble have anything to do with Myra?”
I rub the red tip of the cigarette on the concrete, my forehead wrinkling with confusion. “I saw her kissing that guy inside. Did she not want to…”
Carson laughs before I can finish my sentence. “Rejection is far beyond the problem. It’s quite the opposite. Not to sound cocky, but she’s been trying to get in my pants for years. I’m the one who doesn’t want to start anything.”
“I thought you liked Myra, though. I mean, she seems like a nice girl.”
“I do,” Carson admits. “Myra is a great girl. She’s nice and funny and so fucking beautiful. But she’s not the one.”
Ah. I nod in understanding. “She’s not your mate,” I clarify.
He flicks the end of his cigarette and steps on it, the ground staining black as he drags his foot. “Exactly. But some girls see me, and they look at me as if I’m like every other guy out there. A crazed sex demon full of raging hormones who is experienced and wants to put his dick in anything that walks but… I’m not ready. I’m not fucking ready!” He repeats, slapping his arms down on his thighs.
I blink and then pause, disbelieving. “Carson, are you a virgin?”
He doesn’t answer, but his silence says everything. He leans over and supports his head with both hands on his knees. “She felt rejected when we went upstairs, and I didn’t want to…you know. That’s why she’s upset and making out with that guy she doesn’t even like. I’ve tried so many times, believe me, I have, but it doesn’t feel right. I get nervous and freeze up, which makes it very difficult downstairs. If you know what I mean.”
I grimace and raise my hand. “Yeah, I got that. No need to disclose any details about your penis.”
Carson laughs at my discomfort, but this time, it’s genuine. And it makes me happy that I’ve made this a little less embarrassing for him. As a matter of fact, he shouldn’t be embarrassed at all.
“I don’t know, Astrid,” Carson muses, staring off into the distance. “Sometimes I feel like I’m broken. Like it’s not normal for someone like me to have these issues with women. I may play the part, but I’m not confident like my brothers or Nicolas or half of these guys here. I don’t feel comfortable with friends or strangers, and I just can’t sleep with someone who isn’t my mate.”
Okay, I’ve heard enough. I pull Carson’s hands away from his face and hold them in mine, forcing him to look up at me. Sadness. This kid really feels torn up over this, and for what? He shouldn’t have to feel peer pressured into losing his virginity just for the sake of proving his masculinity.
“First of all, you should in no way feel embarrassed about this. It’s completely normal to have those feelings. And second, you are not broken, Carson. If you’re not ready, then you’re not ready. So, stop comparing yourself to these guys or your brothers. You don’t have to compete with them.”
“It doesn’t matter how many women you have or haven’t been with. I think it’s sweet that you’re waiting for your mate and I’m sure when the time comes, she’ll appreciate it. Don’t ever doubt yourself, and never let someone else make you feel ashamed of the person you are. Because as much as you get on my nerves, I think you’re a great person. You sure as hell pulled me out of my funk tonight.”
Carson squeezes my hand and pulls me into a hug. “Thanks, Astrid. Your kind of helpful when you’re not cranky,” His voice muffled by my jacket. I pat him on the back twice.
“You’re welcome,” I smile but the sudden thought makes my stomach twist and I want a complete list of names to hunt down. “But how many girls has Arlo slept with really?”
“It doesn’t matter because he’s not your mate, remember?” Carson pulls back with a sardonic smile, and I want to slap him.
I don’t get the chance because the front door bursts open, and Nicolas walks out, towels in his hands, worry painting his face. “Erm, it seems your friend is drunker than I thought. She’s thrown up full-on exorcist style in Myra’s palm tree and the bathroom” -he pauses, and Nicole’s raspy heave travels from inside the house- “and now all over the stairs.”
“Shit,” I get up from the steps, prepared to get my hands and clothes dirty. I shouldn’t have let Nicole drink so much, but I wanted us to have fun. Now that I think of the vomit waiting to be cleaned, I’m not so sure it was worth it.
“Wait,” Carson stops me, “Nicolas and I will take care of her. Go start the car and cover the backseat. If she ruins Blair’s seats, we’ll all be dead,” he says, handing me the keys and towels.
I’m worried about Nicole, but he’s right. Blair would be pissed, and I’d rather not face her wrath when we show up with her car covered in vomit.
I hurriedly unlock the driver’s seat and start the ignition. The music blares through the speakers, and I wince from the suddenness. Making the car accident proof wasn’t a part of the plan, but I had fun while it lasted either way. Nicole and I needed a break, and we have Carson to thank for it.
The backseat is almost covered when a familiar shiver tickles my spine. The hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention, and my palms begin to sweat. I look over my shoulder, but it’s just me and the whispers of the wind. Whispers that know my name.
Astrid. Astrid. Astrid.
They’re calling out to me again, except I’m far away from the gift shop.
They followed me.
I try to ignore them, but they don’t want to be ignored anymore. When the voices become louder, I turn around, and it’s like a movie playing in front of my eyes. A movie scripted straight from a story that I know all too well.
A man stands at the edge of the trees, and a pregnant woman is curled up on the ground. She screams, and his mouth drips blood.