Chapter 11 - Nate
“Dude, where the fuck is your head at?” my buddy Kyle asked, shoving me in the shoulder so hard I nearly spilled the carton of milk I was absently raising for a sip.
I use the term “buddy” loosely. Kyle lived in a trailer park out on the edge of town and he and his old man made a living pushing drugs. Prescription drugs, specifically. Oxy, hydrocodone, that kind of shit. Opioids were the driving force that had torn my life to shreds, and deep down I hated Kyle almost as much as I hated Tim.
Why, then, did I sit with him every day at lunch, smoke cigarettes with him between classes, and refer to him as a “buddy”? If you have to ask that, you’ve probably never had the privilege of hating yourself. Kyle was a loser, sure, but so was I. It only made sense that we be friends.
The only exception to my keep-to-your-own-wretched-kind rule was the source of my distraction.
Alex sat in a corner across the cafeteria, picking at a brown-bag lunch and scribbling notes while she read from some text book. Our conversation from the hallway had scared me more than it hurt me. She was spiraling hard, and I felt like the only person in the world who was trying to save her. From what little she’d shared with me, lately, her father had retreated into his bubble of guilt and work, her friends had largely moved on without her, and Tom had become little more than a source of stress. With her father checked out she had taken the brunt of responsibility for taking care of her brother.
She needed help, and I was woefully unqualified to give it to her. Hell, if I tried to shrink her brain I’d probably end up hurting her more than I helped.
“Nate!” Kyle shouted in my ear, punching my arm so hard I nearly fell off the edge of the bench. I recovered my balance and slugged him back. His hand was on his tray, so my punch sent tater tots scattering over the table. The teacher on lunch duty straightened at the commotion, glaring at us from her position by a column in the center of the cafeteria. I lowered my face and helped Kyle gather up his scattered food.
“Sorry, man,” I said without a lot of remorse.
“Fuck you,” Kyle said with a parallel lack of anger. “Where are you at, though? You’re staring at Aly Winger like you wanna fuck her or something.” He slapped my shoulder with the back of his hand, laughing. “That prissy bitch doesn’t put out, man, everyone knows that. I get your interest, but the pussy isn’t for sale. Although,” he said with a sick hint of amusement in his voice, “if we work together, maybe we could steal it--”
A primal growl formed, deep in my chest, rumbling, powerful as a building earthquake. My fists clenched and my breath came hot and fast, heart thundering in my ears. I blinked and found myself on the ground with Kyle, his legs still tangled with the bench as I pinned him down. My muscles worked independently of my mind, raining down punches that sent his head snapping from side to side, blood spraying from his mouth and nose.
As suddenly as it had started, it was over. Deb got between us, fake nails digging into my shoulders as she pushed me back. She was the only person brave enough to interfere. We’d been in foster care together for nearly eight years. She was well-acquainted with the storm that lived inside me, and she was one of few people who knew the only way to tame it.
“Nate, stop!” she said, cigarette-breath fanning my face as she leaned in close, the pitch of her voice and her soft, feminine features effectively dousing the fire and dropping me back into my senses. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I’m good,” I croaked, shoving her hands away and pushing myself up. Kyle lay at my feet, groaning, rolling his head from side to side as he fought his way back to consciousness. We’d drawn a crowd, but it was already dispersing as teachers and our school’s lone security guard pushed to the front.
Deb disappeared, replaced by stern-faced adults who split between me and Kyle. I was escorted from the cafeteria. I’d likely face suspension, or even expulsion, and a sound beating when I got home. Despite my grim near-future, the only thing I regretted was that I hadn’t finished my pizza.
* * *
I was stretched out on my bed, nursing a splitting headache, when Deb found me. My vigilante justice against Kyle had cost me a week of suspension. They’d called my “parents” to come pick me up, but Tim was the only one around because Marsha was out of town on a bowling trip. Tim was pleasant with the administrators as he picked me up, and silent on the drive home. The second we walked through the door, judgment day arrived.
The good news was, I won the fight. With the kids at school and Marsha gone, there was nobody to interfere. For the first time, we fought to the end of the line, and I learned that, where Tim still had the advantage in strength, I had the advantage in stamina. The fight ended when, winded and weak, he found himself pinned to the ground, unable to even lift his hands to defend himself as I pummeled the shit out of him.
I stopped as soon as I felt the victory. That fight wasn’t like the one with Kyle. There was no passion in it, or fury. I was calm and collected and I almost-- almost-- had fun with it. With nothing at stake but my own well-being, I found I liked the thrill of the battle.
“Stop fucking with me, old man,” I said as I climbed to my feet, leaving him sprawled on the living room floor. It took everything I had to stride confidently out of the room. He didn’t need to know he’d landed a couple hard blows that had my head pounding and my left shoulder throbbing angrily. That stupid shoulder was a damned inconvenience. I’d dislocated it when I was five and it had a tendency to slip in and out of the socket at the slightest touch.
So that was how Deb found me-- sprawled on my bed with a bag of frozen peas on my shoulder and a forearm pressed against my eyes to ward against the light coming through the window. It was a migraine kind of day.
I didn’t look up as she opened the door and stalked across the room, sitting on Ronny’s bed. I could tell it was her from the stench of cigarettes and the weight of her step.
“What the hell got into you, today?” she asked without preamble, her voice slightly slurred and tinged with a blissful inflection. Her words were stern and demanding but her tone was damned near giddy.
“Are you high?” I asked, arm still pressed to my eyes. I sensed her bristle.
“Fuck you,” she slurred. “I don’t need judgment from a psycho like you.” She giggled at her lame insult and I heard the springs creek as she dropped back onto Ronny’s bed.
“What are you on?” I asked, pushing myself up and studying her. She lay on the bed with her arms out to the side. She was wearing a mini skirt that rode dangerously far up her thighs and a tight white wifebeater over a hot-pink lace bra. Her dark hair was streaked with flares of pink and plantinum blonde.
Deb broke my heart. When we first met, she was a lot like Trish-- sweet and innocent. Quick to cry and laugh. Nearly a decade later, she’d become a living embodiment of the phrase “lost cause.” She was hard and mean with a temper nearly as short as mine. She had unprotected sex with every guy she could pin down, and I’d spent more money on Plan B than I had on food. Twice, I’d found her passed out in the bathroom in a puddle of vomit, and she’d been to the ER once for opioid overdose.
I loved her, though. She was the closest thing I had to family. Where parents and other siblings came and went, Deb and I had managed to stick together. I was the only person left on earth who knew the quality of Deb’s soul. The only one who remembered the little girl who loved to sing and tucked her mangy stuffed rabbit into bed every night, kissing it gently before she crawled beneath the covers herself.
Deb was a sweet little girl, which made who she’d become that much more painful. I’d let her down. Just like I was letting Alex down. Just like I would eventually let Trish down.
“What are you on?” I asked again when she answered my initial query with silence.
“It’s none of your business,” she slurred. “You don’t give a shit.”
“Deb, don’t be stupid,” I said, pushing to my feet and sitting on Ronny’s bed beside her. She sat up with a groan and we both stared at the opposite wall.
“I am stupid,” she said clumsily, her voice suddenly thick with tears. I swallowed a sigh. Deb on drugs was always a rollercoaster.
“You’re not stupid,” I said, nudging her with my shoulder. “You just gotta stop saying stupid shit, that’s all. You know I care about you.”
Deb shrugged, sniffing loudly and picking at her acrylic nails.
“You care more about her,” she said finally, her voice barely more than a whisper. My stomach lurched.
“Who is ‘her’?” I asked, cautiously shaping my voice into a tone of amused nonchalance.
“Nevermind,” Deb groaned, dropping back onto the bed once more. I knew I should press, but I was afraid to. What if she knew?
“So are you gonna tell me what you’re on, or not?” I asked, poking her in the leg.
“Just some shit Kyle gave me,” Deb said with a defeated sigh. “It’s good stuff.”
“Maybe,” she said listlessly. She dug in her pocket and pulling out a small baggy of assorted pills, eyeing them blearily through the dust-coated plastic as if to decipher the little symbols. I knew she couldn’t. Deb couldn’t tell the difference between Vicodin and Advil. She just knew what it felt like to be high. That was what she paid for. “He gave me a discount for pulling you off him.”
I snatched the bag out of her hand and pushed myself up, stalking toward the door and flinging it open so hard it bounced off the wall. Deb’s muddled mind caught up with her and she scrambled after me.
“Don’t you fucking dare!” she shrieked, tearing after me as I marched to the bathroom and slammed the toilet lid up.
“You gotta stop with this shit, Deb,” I said, shaking her off as she clawed at my arm, reaching for the baggy. I upended it, depositing the contents into the toilet bowl.
“You fucking asshole!” Her nails gouged at my arm, but I ignored her and reached out, flushing the toilet. Deb stilled as the water swirled, washing away her high. We both watched in silence, listening to the thirsty gulp of the toilet as it swallowed the pills.
“God, I fucking hate you,” Deb whimpered, clinging to my arm as she swayed, her knees half-buckling beneath her. I tried to support her, but she shoved me away. “Why are you so goddamn convinced you have all the answers?”
“I don’t!” I whisper-shouted back, worried that raised voices would pull Tim from his drunken stupor in front of the television. “But I do know that this is wrong and so would you if you’d pull your head out of the sand for five seconds. You’re gonna end up killing yourself, Deb. That’s the only way this ends.”
“Fuck you!” Her whispered words were punctuated by the crack of her palm against the side of my face. I staggered back a step, blinking away stars that were caused more by shock than the blow. Deb had never hit me. We lived by a code. A twisted, broken code, but still… there were rules. We’d suffered enough at the hands of the system, so we had vowed, years ago, never to hurt each other.
Deb left the room and, a few minutes later, I heard the front door slam. She was gone for the night-- off to seek comfort with a guy who would, if she was lucky, supply her with the high I’d just stolen.
My instinct was to be hurt. She’d broken a sacred rule. Our code had carried us through years of hardship and abuse. It was our foundation of faith-- a thread of good that reminded us through everything that there was something that would never betray our trust. Her slap hurt more than any blow Tim had ever dealt, because I didn’t expect it. We never -- never -- hurt each other.
Then again… I stared at the empty toilet bowl. Maybe I was the one who’d cast the first stone.
* * *
After Alex’s outburst in the hallway, I didn’t expect her to be at the spot. That didn’t stop me from sneaking out, though. I couldn’t bear the thought of her showing up, needing me, and being alone because I was too busy feeling sorry for myself to be there for her.
My heart leapt into my throat when I entered the clearing and saw her sitting there on the rock, leaning back on her hands, face tipped up to the sky.
“Hey, Al,” I said cautiously, hopping over the stream.
“Hey,” she said easily, still staring up at the stars. I couldn’t help but notice that she was dressed a little differently than usual. She seemed to be splitting the difference between daytime Alex and my Alex. She’d traded her dirty cargo shorts for cut-off jeans that left most of her legs exposed, shining in the moonlight. Instead of a t-shirt, she wore a tank top, the straps of her bra exposed, teasing me. Her hair was back in a loose braid rather than hidden beneath a baseball cap. Her feet were bare, heels drumming gently against the side of the rock.
“I, uh…” I cleared my throat, unexpectedly nervous. “I didn’t think you’d be here.”
“I had a lot of time to think, today,” she said, lowering herself onto her back.
“Come lay with me?”
Hesitant, I hoisted myself onto the rock and stretched out beside her. She shifted naturally into her usual position, canted a little sideways with her head on my shoulder. The faint, floral scent of her shampoo filled my head and my mouth grew dry with need.
“I’ve been a jerk lately,” Alex said.
“No you haven’t. You--”
“Let me finish,” she cut me off, her voice gentle but firm. I clapped my mouth shut and eyed the stars, trying to find a constellation. She’d showed them to me a thousand times but I still had trouble finding the shapes.
“I’ve been a jerk lately,” she began again, turning onto her side and pressing her hand to my chest. “I’ve been having a lot of trouble since my mom died, and I’ve kind of shut down. I’m sorry for snapping at you, today. I know you were just trying to help.”
Her hand slid slowly down to my belt buckle and began fumbling with it. I swear I nearly had a heart attack.
“What are you doing?” I asked, jerking away from her and hopping off the rock, putting as much distance between us as I could. Something felt terribly wrong. Of course, in a sense, something also felt incredibly right and my dick was screaming at me-- cursing me for pulling away.
Mostly, though, it felt wrong. Alex was bold, but she wasn’t unceremonious. Everything she did made sense. Every move she made fit like a puzzle piece into the dance we’d created together. There was a rhythm to it-- a heartbeat-- and her sudden, unexpected advance-apology combo was completely out of sync. It made my skin crawl.
“I want to have sex,” Alex said plainly, sitting up. I took a step back from the dead look in her eyes. No you don’t.
“No you don’t,” I said aloud, shaking my head. “What’s going on with you?”
“I want to have sex,” Alex repeated, hopping off the rock and stalking toward me until I stood at the edge of the island with nowhere else to go. She threw herself against me, her hands possessively groping at my ass as she pulled me tighter to her. I felt dizzy-- my mind and heart in violent disagreement with my body.
“No you don’t,” I said again, my voice muffled at the end as she reached up with one hand, her fingers gripping my hair hard as she pulled my head down and pressed her lips to mine.
I shouldn’t have returned the kiss. I knew something was wrong. I knew she was up to something. There was something about the sharp pain of her fingers in my hair, though, that broke me wide open. I was a shaken-up can of beer and she’d just cracked the top. My need for her spilled over, and suddenly the tables were turned.
I kissed her back hard, plundering every inch of her mouth. I pulled the elastic out of her hair, shaking it loose, and buried my hand in the tangled locks as I walked her backward. When her ass hit the rock I lifted her onto it, following her as she tipped back. I left my left hand behind her, cushioning her head, and allowed my right to roam as I kissed her. I released the button on her shorts-- an unspoken promise for more-- before moving north beneath her shirt.
Her bra was a hindrance, so I lifted her up just enough to worm my hand beneath her back and unclasp it. As soon as it popped loose I let her back down, breathing a sigh of relief as I curved my hand over a breast. Alex sighed too, her back arching slightly, arms linked around my neck as if to hold me to her-- as if I had any intention or ability to leave.
“I love you,” I breathed against her lips, the words as involuntary as they were true. She moaned in response, her breath coming faster as I kneaded the soft flesh of her breast.
The sense of wrongness was still there, but we’d evolved around it. The clumsy misstep of her blunt forwardness had become part of our dance. We were being rough with each other-- rougher than we’d ever been. Her teeth grazed my lip as she kissed me, her legs wrapped around my waist, locking me in. Her hands gripped my shoulders so hard her nails bit me, even through my shirt.
I wasn’t sparing her, either. My weight must be driving her against the hard granite, scraping her bare skin against the rock. Her nipple grew hard against my palm and I rolled it between my finger and thumb, pinching. She gasped in pain and pleasure, her legs tightening around me, and a jolt of electricity shot up my spine.
Suddenly, Alex was pulling back, shoving me away. I stumbled back, equal parts frustrated, confused, and afraid. Tears glistened in her eyes as she sat up, and disgust at my own weakness turned my stomach over. I’d known it was wrong. I’d known she didn’t really want it. I’d let my dick act on my behalf, and I’d hurt her.
“Shit, Al,” I groaned, taking another step back. “I’m sor--”
“Shut up,” she hissed, ripping her shirt off in one smooth motion. Her bra, already unclasped, slipped down her arms and she tossed it aside. It landed half in the stream. Her watery gaze was fixed on mine as she slipped off the rock and shoved her shorts down her legs, kicking them away. She wasn’t wearing underwear.
“You talk too much,” she said, stalking forward, her body on full display in the moonlight. I swallowed hard, my head swimming with an uncomfortable combination of need and concern.
“Alex, just tell me--”
“We’re done talking,” she said, hammering her point home by throwing herself at me, tackling me to the ground.
We landed in a mess of limbs at the edge of the island, cold water licking at the back of my head and the nape of my neck. Alex straddled my waist, her hands tangled in my shirt as she bent down, pulling the protest straight from my lungs with a kiss that had me seeing sound and tasting color.
Again, my body took over. Something about being tackled off my feet flipped a switch inside me and instinct rose up, demanding that I find my way to a position of advantage. I rolled, pinning her beneath me without breaking the kiss, and she made no effort to stop me. The only sign she gave of realizing what was happening were her hands, which let go of the front of my shirt and found their way to the hem, tugging restlessly until I sat up enough for her to tug it up and off.
Cool, late-summer air brushed across my skin as Alex tossed my shirt away. I pushed my hands into the rocky ground, staring down at her. She lay pliant beneath me, her hair drifting and swirling in the water of the stream.
“Don’t think,” she whispered, reaching between us, working at the clasp of my belt and unzipping my jeans “Please just don’t think.”
I almost disobeyed. There was something about the desperation in her voice that set off alarm bells in my head. I opened my mouth to ask her what was wrong, but all that came out was a groan, as she chose that moment to slip her hand down the front of my boxers, wrapping her fingers around my dick.
“Fuck,” I gasped, dropping down to my forearms and capturing her lips with mine, trying to distract myself from the sensation of her small fingers milking me of every last shred of resolve. “Alex,” I breathed against her mouth. “You can’t--”
“Shut up,” she whispered, and when I tried again to protest, she bit my lip. Hard. “I told you to stop thinking.”
The wrongness was hovering, mixing its steps into our dance, tripping us up, singing a discordant, arrhythmic song that made my heart stutter and stole the breath from my lungs. I was a slave to its pull, following the whitewater current as it bashed me about until I couldn’t have told you which direction was up.
I could hardly breathe as I pulled back, gently tugging her hand away from my aching dick.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Alex hissed, sitting up as stumbled to my feet. “I’m trying to give you my fucking virginity, Nate. Do you want it or not?”
“Of course I want it,” I hissed back, fumbling in my pocket for my wallet. My fingers shook so hard I struggled to pull the foil wrapper from its place, nestled in the lining. “Do you want an unplanned pregnancy?”
My jeans went the way of my shirt, and I tossed my wallet on top of them. I found my shirt in a heap a few feet away and shook the sand out of it before spreading it over the rock. Alex was still sitting on the ground when I turned around and tugged her to her feet, hand still clenched around the wrapped condom, I kissed her so deeply her back arched, nipples pebbling against the skin of my chest. Her hands were like twin brands, burning into the skin of my back as we drank each other in.
“You’re sure?” I asked, pulling back. Tears streamed down her face and the slithering, dissonant hum of wrongness crescendoed.
“I’m sure,” she whispered, nodding, and suddenly I was at war with myself. My hands lifted her up, carrying her to the rock, completely at odds with my mind which screamed at me to stop-- stop before I committed some terrible, irreversible wrong. My dick throbbed and twitched as her legs tightened around me, battling back my heart which had burrowed, trembling and wary, into my chest.
Stop, stop, stop!!! Yelled a voice in the back of my mind as I tugged on her ankle until she loosened her hold, letting me step back, appreciating every inch of her perfect body. My fingers shook as I reached out and brushed sand off her belly and thighs. Her muscles tensed beneath my touch, and her chest rose and fell jerkily as she fought to stifle her sobs.
“Alex…” I couldn’t find my words. I felt trapped-- caught between two horrible futures. In one future, I walked away. I put my clothes on and left her alone, just like everyone else had done. I couldn’t stomach that thought. In the second future, I took what she was offering and, for the rest of her life, she would think back to the night she lost her virginity and remember nothing but pain and tears-- frustration and anger.
“Just shut up,” Alex moaned, pushing herself back on the rock. She braced her feet to either side of me and let her legs fall open. I damn near passed out at the sight, but at the same time she let her head drop back against the rock, staring up at the sky as if begging the stars for guidance.
“Alex just tell me truth,” I choked, leaning over her, blocking her view of the sky.
Her eyes met mine and, in an instant, the wrongness evaporated. We fell back into the smooth steps of our dance and the music rang clear. Tears matted her eyelashes together and trickled over her temples. Her hands, suddenly gentle, came up to frame my face.
“I want you,” she whispered, and I could hear the truth in her voice. Her words weren’t stern or angry or desperate. They were deeply, achingly lonely. “I just want you.”
“Okay,” I managed, bending to press a kiss to her lips. She closed her eyes with a shuddering sigh, and I kissed her eyelids, too, tasting the salt of her tears. I kissed the bridge of her nose and the curve of each cheekbone. My clumsy tongue wasn’t capable of sweet words, so I worshipped her with my lips, because she had to know. She had to know that I wasn’t taking-- she was giving and she needed to feel the gratitude that coursed through my veins.
“Please,” she moaned, arching her hips against me, and I reached between us, slipping two fingers between her legs. She gasped as my fingers slid into her. She was slick and warm… ready.
I groaned, grabbing her hand and guiding it between her legs. She seemed to read my mind, taking over for me as I eased my fingers out of her. She stroked herself gently, her heels digging into the back of my thighs as I pushed away just far enough to shove my boxers down and grab the condom off the rock by her hip.
I tore the wrapper open with my teeth and made quick work of rolling the condom on, my eyes locked on her face as her own squeezed shut in pleasure as she kept herself ready.
I hated the condom. I’d never minded them before, but this was Alex. For some reason, it felt like blasphemy to deprive either of us of even those scant nanometers of contact.
I pushed Alex’s hand aside, smothering her moan with a kiss as I took over for her. “You gotta look at me, angel,” I whispered, stilling my fingers until she opened her eyes, glaring at me. “Are you absolutely sure?” I asked, reaching between us and guiding myself into place, nudging against her so she knew exactly what I was asking.
There wasn’t even a second of hesitation. Her hands gripped my hips, digging in painfully. Her lips parted and fiery eyes met mine, glassy with need. “Yes,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Yes.”
I didn’t think it was possible to love her more, but the second I entered her I learned what love really meant. She gasped and cried out, contracting around me, and I fell. I fell so fucking hard I forgot my own name. I fell and, to this day, I’m still waiting to hit the ground.