“No. Go change. You look like a candy cane.” Vinh shakes his head with his eyes closed, pointing his finger toward my closet. I roll my eyes and follow his stern instructions. I don’t see a problem with wearing a white skirt with a red tank top, but I guess I don’t have the best judgment on this kind of thing.
We’ve been at this for an hour and I think I’m starting to sweat from wearing my own clothes. I stare at the massive pile of clothes I’ve created and sigh in resignation. I let myself fall face-down onto the mountain of fabric. “Ugh. Why don’t you just choose for me,” I groan into lavender mini skirt.
“Fine,” Vinh says as he stands up and dramatically stomps toward my closet, “But since you’re being a lazy bum with weird clothing choices, you have to wear whatever I choose. No arguments.”
I lift my head to raise an eyebrow at him, a gesture he ignores.
“So who’s it gonna be?” His question sounds like he thinks I already know what he means. Which I do.
“What do you mean,” I ask, avoiding eye contact. Instead, I stare at the pair of shorts he has hanging on his pinky finger as he continues searching the racks.
“You know what I mean,” he answers without looking, and when I don’t answer, he goes on, “Damon or Silas?”
“And why, exactly, do I have to choose one? They’re both great guys. Friendly.”
Vinh turns around and glares at me. “Don’t bullshit me. You don’t just suddenly have two new hot guy friends, when you clearly already have one to begin with.” He fans himself with his hand, holding his chin up and I giggle. He laughs along, but then his face was serious again and his tone composed, “Look, I know you don’t like to think about dating, but it looks like the clock’s ticking. Don’t you like either of them?”
I sigh. Vinh knew me more than anyone and he understood when I told him that dating has always been off my list of to-do’s. I just want to get through high school and college, get myself a decent job, and take care of my mom. I don’t need the distraction, especially hot distractions like these two boys. I can’t even think properly around either, so what would happen if I make some commitment to one?
“I don’t know. I care about them both, believe it or not, but I just don’t know if it’s worth it…” I stare at the black tank top lying inches from my nose.
Vinh sits beside me, with one knee up and the other bent under it. He rests an arm on the propped up knee and stares at the wall opposite to us. “It’s worth it, believe me. With the right person, you’re gonna feel like you’re floating in heaven. You’re gonna think to yourself, ‘why did I ever doubt this?’ and you’re gonna feel like it’s just the two of you, alone in your world.”
“Are you talking about Jeremy?” I ask and he responds with a weak smile. That was all I needed to know that he meant Scarlett. He’s still hung up on her, and it doesn’t help that they still run into each other all over school. He’s told me before that he feels conflicted about seeing her: he feels happy to be able to see her, but it reminds him that they aren’t together and he has no idea why. “You still miss her,” I state.
“Yeah,” he sighs as he lies his back on the carpet behind him. “I still love her and I never even got closure. I just don’t think it’s fair to Jeremy…”
I wince at how easily he says the L word. It makes me wonder how one could grow into a romantic sap like that.
“Anyway,” he diverts and throws some clothes over my head, covering my face, “Wear these with sensible shoes so you can shake some of that booty on Damon.”
We arrive early to a gym room filled with balloons and fog. The DJ was already set up and the lights that shot out from his booth through the heavy air along with the beats of the song.
From a distance, I could vaguely recognize the DJ, so I squeeze, hoping to get a better look. Elliot Le often worked small jobs to support his dreams of working in the music industry, and it seems he hit the jackpot when he landed this gig. Everyone in school follows his music playlists for a variety of events from house parties to study sessions. The guy just had a knack for music and he always knew the best melodies for the situation. Tonight’s gonna be awesome.
Half an hour into the dance, we were still a bit too early since most people show up later to avoid being seen sweaty in the daylight. I couldn’t care less. A crowd has already gathered in a cloud of fist pumps in the air and I’ve already danced my breath away with Vinh and Jeremy. It was actually more like being dorky and then laughing so much, my torso burned from the calories it was losing.
They always set up a snack bar by the back, where most people only buy water for their dried out lungs. I walk out to the cold night air and find my legs extra numb in the soft breeze. I hand the kid behind the table a dollar and gulp down an entire bottle of water.
“Whoa, you must have danced your ass off in there,” I hear a familiar voice and I turn around to find Silas towering over me. “I’m sorry I missed it,” he winks.
“Hey,” I greet him with a grin. For the past couple of days, we’ve gotten fairly friendly with all the note passing and the weird window visits. It’s like he doesn’t run out of questions and I never get tired of hearing his voice.
“Tired? Wanna just sit somewhere and chill?” He buys a bag of chips and offers me some after opening it. I shake my head and turn over to buy another bottle of water before walking around the back to find a decent place to sit.
From here, the beat of the music was faint and the night atmosphere was nothing more than a dark sky and some crickets. I tilt my head back to take another gulp of water, but hold my gaze at the moon, which looks a lot bigger than it should.
“You know what I just realized,” I start, turning over to see that Silas was already looking at me. He tries to turn away, pretending that didn’t just happen, but I giggle and he smiles along. “I don’t have any of the notes we passed. Where are they?”
“Safely tucked away where you can’t burn them,” he responds, tapping his index finger on the tip of my nose, “Bet you, you’re starting to regret telling me about that time you confused the words ‘prosecute’ and ‘prostitute’.”
“Hey! They’re very similar! Those lawyers should be smart enough to know that!” I protest, but laugh with him anyway. I like how he sounds when he laughs and how his eyes crinkle a bit on the sides. Sometimes, I pause in laughter because I’m taken aback by how powerful his presence is, and how beautiful he can be.
Just then, we hear someone yell for help from the other side of the building, where the trash containers stood. Silas and I follow the sound to find a man on top of a girl, Scarlett. Silas runs over to pull the guy off, and as his face comes into the light, I recognize him as Jeff Bradley. He usually keeps to himself, but everyone knows he exerts some sort of creepy vibe, like he would be the one you’d expect staring into your window in the middle of the night. I guess the vibes are correct.
Realizing that he had been seen, he runs off, but not before Silas pulls him around to throw a hard punch in his face.
I sit down beside Scarlett, who looks shaken up, but also numb to the situation. I know that face.
“Are you alright,” Silas asks her as he sits down on her other side. He is very careful not to touch her, knowing that a man’s touch is the last thing she would want right now.
“I’m okay,” she manages to squeak as tears start to well in her eyes. On her cheeks, there were large red handprints on them. He hit her. Hard.
“This isn’t your first time,” I state it as a fact, which then catches both Silas and Scarlett by surprise. Both pairs of eyes widen as the look at me. “I know that look. You’re desperate, but you don’t know how to get out of the cycle. Am I right?”
Ever so slightly, she nods and the tears that brim her eyes start to release onto her cheeks. Grateful that I was getting a properly honest response from her, I continue, “You have to speak up. You have to do something about it or he’s going to hurt other girls, too. Guys like that…” I purse my lips and tears start to burn my vision. “They shouldn’t be walking around doing this to girls like us.”
The world is spinning. I felt the air knocked out of my lungs as memories start pouring through my mind, attacking my will to live. I stare into Scarlett’s eyes, but I can only see pain from my own. I start gasping for air and I have to deliberately focus to remind myself to breathe. When I finally find a way to inhale normally again, I realize that Silas was on his knees before me, with his hands grasping my arms tightly. His eyes were filled with worry and his mouth falls slack. Another panic attack. Haven’t had those in a while.
“Girls like us?” Scarlett finally breathes. “You’ve also-”
I clasp my hands around hers and give her a knowing look. I nod slightly and give a sad smile, as if to say Yes, and I’m sorry this happened to you.
“When did this all start to happen?” I ask her, still maintaining eye contact. I’ve never had to straighten someone else’s thoughts about this. Just my own, but that was a long time ago.
“A few months ago.”
“So,” I start, “around the time you and Vinh broke up?”
“Scarlett,” I shake my head, “What really happened?”
“Jeff,” she pauses to hold herself together, “He kept stalking me, and then one night, he…”
I squeeze her hand, letting her know she doesn’t have to say that word. I hate that word. I hate hearing it said in vain by stupid kids and I hate knowing that there’s a culture out there revolving around it.
“When he was… done,” she winced at the thought and I understood.
When the all is done, the victim can’t help but feel like nothing more than an object. We’re just something to rub into for a minute or so and then throw on the street. It’s a whole other world, that this feeling brings on. Once you’ve seen yourself as nothing more than a toy to be tossed around, violated, beaten, and abused, you no longer see a way back to respecting yourself as a full human being. Half of one, maybe, but never full again. A sad empty bag left in the gutter. A cigarette butt in the corner behind the dumpster.
“He told me not to tell anyone. He said that he was strong and he had strong friends who could seriously hurt Vinny or even my parents and I-” her voice cracks and she takes a deep breath, “I did what he asked. He said he wanted me all to himself, so I had to break up with Vinny. He even had a schedule for it. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, he would find and he would…” She lets out a dark chuckle. “He calls it Jeffrey’s FuckFest.”
She looks down at her hands and something catches my eyes. I turn her wrist over, revealing a series of cuts, all vertical, all deep. My eyes fill with tears as I look up at her before I pull her in for a hug.
“Scar, no matter how much torture you get, never try to kill yourself.” I pull away only to hold her face so that she can only look at me. I stare into her eyes and continue, “We’re going to make sure you stay okay. He’s just bluffing, okay? Don’t react to his words. Today’s Friday, so we have to come up with something by Monday.”
I turn over to Silas, who had his sad, hooded eyes on me. He looks like he’s been crying. He nods in understanding.
“You need to tell Vinh,” I tell her and her eyes widen in horror. I shake my head. “I think having him by your side is the best thing you need right now. Please don’t hold back on him. He still loves you.”
“Doesn’t he have a date?” She sounds sadder than before, if that’s possible.
“He’s trying to move on, but he can’t forget about you.”
I finally notice the vibration from my phone, and as I pull it out, I am bombarded by a series of text messages, some from Damon, who apparently could not make it tonight because his uncle needed to get to the hospital and he was the only one home, and many from Vinh, who needs to talk to me because he and Jeremy split.
“Do you have a ride home?” I ask Scarlett. She shakes her head. I turn over to Silas, who has been silent this entire time. “I’m going to take her home.”
He nods and takes my hand to help me up.
“You drive?” I hear her ask me as I hold her hand and pull her through the large crowd of dancing baboons.
At the front, Vinh stood with one leg crossed over the other, his back leaning on a pole. He looks up, shocked by what he sees. I grab his wrist with my other hand and continue walking toward the parking lot.
“Let’s go. She’ll explain everything to you in the car,” I inform him hastily without turning around to look at him.
“I am?” She squeaks, but I ignore it all. Everything is too messed up and I can’t hear from my right ear for some reason. My heart was pumping way too fast, but I can’t stop myself from rushing through this so that they can finally find some comfort with each other.
In the car, I offer to drive because I really needed them to sit together in the backseat. I don’t usually drive because while I’ve already been through the essentials, I don’t like borrowing other people’s cars and I can’t afford my own.
The car ride was quiet, and every time I looked back, I had to roll my eyes because they were literally just staring at each other awkwardly. As we arrived at her place, I urged for her to talk and when she did, everything poured out, including her heart, her tears, and maybe a little bit of snot.
I saw fury in Vinh’s eyes as he held her in his arms. I give him an apologetic look, as if knowing this a few minutes before he did should make me guilty.
When we finally got everything out in the open, he and I walked her in, all the way to her bedroom. I take her hand and look into her eyes before whispering in her ear, “Do you feel better now that you’ve told Vinh?” I feel her nod. “Are you home alone? Where are your parents?”
“They’re on a business trip. They won’t be back until Monday morning.” She has a cold sweat in the palm of her hands and I could tell she feels scared.
“Would you prefer it if Vinh stays here to keep you safe?”
I pull away to look at her, and she considers it before nodding with wide eyes.
I turn over to Vinh, who was looking at her bookcase. “Vinh, you need to stay with her. Just keep her safe.”
“What about you,” he asks before I toss him his keys.
“I’m literally a block from home. It’s not that late. I’ll make it.”
When I finally reach home, I hear some rustling from the back. I walk to the side only to hold back a giggle as I catch Silas climbing up the tree by my window. As he sees me, he almost falls but wraps both his arms onto the thin branch. I rush into the house and up to my room to open the window. By the time he got in and sat on my desk chair, he was panting.
“I thought you had to be at homecoming with Natasha,” I spit her name harshly.
“I was,” he responds, grinning, “Jealous, V?”
“Are you just going to call me V, whenever you tease me?”
“You should feel flattered. I don’t usually tease girls,” he says as he swivels in the chair from side to side.
“Oh, right,” I snort, “school playboy says he doesn’t tease girls.”
“I don’t, though,” he says, this time a bit more seriously.
“Oh, really,” I argued jokingly, “How about that Natasha?”
“She’s taken care of,” he answers with a devious grin.
“Seriously, what did you do to her?” I can’t help but be curious. If I were a cat, I’d be down to eight lives. He shakes his head. “Why won’t you tell me?”
“Plausible Deniability.” He grins.
“You learned from watching White Collar with us you dork face!” I lie down on my bed, facing the ceiling. He was quiet for a while, and I start to wonder what was going through his head. I turn over to face him, only to catch a conflicted expression on his face. “What’s wrong?”
“About what you said to Scarlett…” he swallows hard before he continues, “Is it true?”
I nod wearily. It’s not something I often speak of, but right here, right now, I just want him to know. I want him to know everything there is to know about me.
Maybe I’m just testing him, to see if he would leave after he learns everything there is to learn about me. I’m a pretty boring person and I stay within the lines. I don’t have many stories to tell or life lessons to give on being a jock in high school.
Maybe he’ll leave soon after learning all there is, and then I wouldn’t be so heartbroken when he does. Everyone knows the longer they stay, the longer you fall. And the longer you fall, the harder you hit the bottom.
“Will you tell me? I mean, you don’t have to, but I just want to know…” his voice sounds very strained and I can’t see his expression because he is rubbing both his hands on his face. “It just… It kills me to know that something like that happened to you, Lane. I’m so sorry.”
I shake my head and offer a small smile. “Alright, Kent. I’ll tell you, but,” I bite my lip, “only if you promise to stay around. I’m starting to like having your company,” I admit timidly. It was a hushed confession that brightens his whole face.
“I won’t. It’s you and me, Lane. I promise I’m not going anywhere.”