Chapter 7: Swing Set:
At first, a few of Parker’s friends- senior boys sporting leather jackets and plaid flannel shirts -were the only members at the house. They lingered in the living room, standing beside the high end stereo tinkering around with CDs and whose playlist on whose phone to blast. But as soon as Richel made a couple more phone calls, a flood of people began to pull into their driveway. They were cramped in the entryway and hallway and idling by the kitchen cabinets or laying on the sofa with their feet propped up onto a table. No one was using a coaster for their drinks. A Passion Pit song was blaring and a huddle of girls were singing along, their red cups lifted in the air. What was most startling, however, was the fact that people I weren’t even aware attended our high school kept walking up to me and greeting me as if we were long lost friends.
“Awesome party, Nina!”
I was living in a different world, one that I had never entered into before. It was a mix of MTV and cheesy reality shows and those romance comedy movies. I was still thinking back to how I got here, leaning against the staircase. After enduring about twenty minutes of Parker’s reckless driving skills, by the time we arrived to their house Richel marched me up the stairs to her bedroom and gave me my usual loose gray T-shirt back but begged me to at least wear a leather black skirt and studded biker boots with it.
“You’ll look hot, trust me,” she had insisted as I’d watched her rack through her closet for something she herself could wear.
“I just don’t get why I have to change,” I’d muttered, sitting on my knees on her bed. “Or why we have to have this party…”
Richel sighed, running her fingers through her hair. “Because, Nina, even though Parker and I don’t get along, he’s right about celebrating. This day deserves to be remembered. Imagine: by tomorrow, you’re going to be a beauty pageant contestant.”
“How do you know that? There were sixty seven girls that auditioned. Only twenty will be accepted. Those girls have been pretty their whole lives.”
“And you haven’t?” she shot back, placing her hands on her hips. I shook my head, and she sighed. “Well, fine, believe that if you want. But if you haven’t noticed, you’re pretty now.”
“Am I?” I asked, falling back onto her pillow. I held the black leather skirt in my hands, noting how short the length was. “Am I pretty yet?”
She rolled her eyes, shaking her head at me. “I would think so since Harrison is obviously slowly becoming into you.”
“No, he’s not,” I snorted. “He’s still with Leslie, also known as your cousin, in case you’ve forgotten and bonked your head underneath a coconut tree.”
She wrinkled her nose at me in distaste. “FYI, I haven’t forgotten. And BTW, I know how a boy acts when he starts liking a girl. Hello? I live with one. My twin is a boy. Just watch.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Sooner or later, he’ll be breaking up with Leslie.”
“That’s horrible; don’t say that,” I snapped, irritated.
Now, in a skirt that wasn’t mine wearing shoes that felt odd on my feet surrounded by this sea of people who were all looking at me and talking to me, I felt out of place. Yet strangely… I also felt alive.
Parker stood by a cooler that I was pretty sure stocked a few bottles of Corona beneath the Diet Coke cans, which I assumed had just been placed there for show. Richel was nowhere to be found; last time I had seen her, she’d been talking to one of Parker’s friends, batting her eyelashes. I swirled the Diet Coke around in the red cup my fingers were gripping onto, watching the bubbles fizz. A different song was blaring from the stereo in the living room, and girls were grinding on boys. The bathroom door had been locked for about an hour now, which was never a good sign. I was surprised the cops hadn’t shown up yet to file a noise complaint. I wished Faith was here, but she was being force fed by her perky PTA mother at a family dinner downtown. Harrison was probably somewhere on a date with Leslie, having the time of his life. I was far from his mind; I didn’t believe a word Richel said. It just didn’t seem believable. Harrison falling for someone like me? I squeezed my eyes shut, frowning.
Someone knocked into me, spilling their drink all over my shoes. I gasped, my eyes opening quickly. In front of me stood Parker, a very drunk looking Parker. His smile seemed a bit lopsided, and his eyes were a dull green, not as bright. He swayed in his step, leaning his hand against the kitchen counter. His eyes honed in on me.
“Nina,” he slurred, laughing and swinging an arm around my neck. “Nina, Nina, Nina. You’re the only girl I know named Nina, Nina.”
I sighed, patting his head. “I believe you. I also believe that you’re so drunk right now, you won’t remember saying my name six times in one sitting.”
“I’m not sitting. I’m standing,” he corrected, moving his palm up and down to gesture towards his legs which were very much upright. I smiled, shaking my head in amusement at him.
“Of course you are. I stand corrected.”
“I’m sorry about your shoes,” he mumbled, clicking his tongue.
“They’re Richel’s,” I said, in which he laughed loudly in return.
He tapped my nose with his index finger, then started giggling like a ten year old boy. A drunk Parker sure was an interesting sight. “Let’s go outside,” he laughed, already leading the both of us to the back kitchen door. We entered the backyard, towards a rusty looking swing set. The rest of the yard was bare, filled with simple greenery and dirt, not a single flower in sight. I always felt a bit hollow inside, seeing a yard without any blooming flowers rooted in the ground. I always felt an urge or an itch to race back to the flower shop, grab a dozen packets of seeds, and shower them along the soil. Flowers brought beauty and could light up an entire patch of dirt.
Parker stumbled towards the swing and plopped down onto the seat. “Push me!” he exclaimed, his grin goofy and wide, like a child walking through a Disneyland park.
“Alright, alright,” I said, quickly moving behind him and hoping he would at least hold onto the steel chains to prevent himself from soaring through the glass door. I couldn’t afford to repair a door, much less pay for a medical bill for a split open head. I pressed my hands into his back, pushing him forward with a huff. He yelled random nonsense, kicking his feet up into the air.
“I’m flying!” he whooped, letting go of the chains and extending his arms outwards, pretending to be an airplane or perhaps a bird. “I’m Peter Pan!”
“Peter Pan, not Peter Parker?” I mused. He chuckled, looking back at me. A sliver of the moon hung right above his head as he came sailing back down to me. I pushed him again.
“Funny,” he grumbled. “That should be your talent for the beauty pageant show. You could tell jokes.”
“Peter Pan versus Peter Parker jokes? Something tells me the audience might not catch onto it as quickly as you did. And you’re drunk.”
“I’m not that drunk,” he argued, frowning back at me. He wagged his finger at me. “I’ve been drunker.”
“That’s not a shocker,” I sighed, my arms beginning to hurt. Parker was a lot heavier than I’d imagined, but I figured it was all muscle since he didn’t have an ounce of fat on his body. My phone suddenly vibrated in my back pocket. I scrambled to pull it out and look at the caller ID. My mother. Shit. My thumb hovered over the Answer icon, but then Parker spoke.
“I only get drunk when they argue,” he said. “They’re so loud when they argue, Nina.”
I stopped pushing him, watching him fly upwards as he kicked his feet hard into the air. I blinked, appalled. “When who argues?”
The swing nearly knocked into me as he propelled backwards, his back knocking into my chest. I stumbled backwards a bit before steadying the swing, gripping onto the chains to stop him from swiveling. I stared at him. He stared back hard at me, his green eyes and my brown eyes.
“They used to argue all the time back where we lived,” he continued. “Once my mom even threw a knife into the table. It stuck straight into the wood, and Richel started crying. She hates it most of all when they fight. I’m just sort of numb to it.”
I was stunned and speechless. Richel, who was constantly bossing me around and telling me what to wear and how to act, was a crier. It dawned on me that you never really knew a person, even if you spent nearly everyday with them. You didn’t know their past or the obstacles they’ve had to face. The first time you met a person, they were a clean slate, and you filled in the gaps using your own judgment.
“We moved here because they’re getting divorced. Our dad is still back home because he said he needed space, but I think my mom knows that space means permanent separation.” He leaned the side of his head against the steel chain and his knuckles, closing his eyes. “I overheard them talking on the phone a couple of months ago when we had first moved here, talking about it.”
“Parker…” I said quietly, swallowing the knot that had formed in my throat. “I’m sorry.”
His eyes shot open and he pressed a hand against my mouth. “Shh! Don’t tell Richel! She doesn’t know yet,” he whispered. He removed his hand from my mouth, letting it slip to my cheek. His eyes moved down to my lips, and I gulped. He started to lean in, tilting his chin carefully towards my mouth. I blinked, startled, and put my hands up against his chest.
“Parker, you’re drunk,” I reminded him.
He winked at me, smiling. “I’m not that drunk,” he murmured, letting go of the steel chains and taking my hands into his. I could feel his heart beating, steady and unnerving. He was telling the truth. When someone is about to kiss you, you can’t not know. They’re leaning towards you and you kind of feel like those girls on MTV, the ones who finally snag the boy of their dreams, like the football player or the popular golden boy. Only this wasn’t that moment, I wasn’t that girl, and Parker wasn’t that boy. Not for me.
“Nina!” a voice yelled, making my shoulders jump in surprise. I quickly yanked my hands out of Parker’s grip and craned my neck to see the mysterious yelling figure. A frowning Harrison was marching past the glass door into the backyard, and a few people were peeping their heads out the window from inside the house, their curious eyes peering through the slits of open space in between the blinds. The first thing that registered for me was that Harrison was not in date attire, but rather in a navy blue Marvel T-shirt I had gotten him in the Eighth Grade for his birthday and gray jeans. His hair seemed a bit damp, and on his feet were a pair of worn out Converse. Everything about him seemed out of order and rushed. “Your mom called me; she’s been worried out of her mind about not knowing where you are. Be glad I live within walking distance from here.”
“How did you even know where I was?” I asked. He stumbled to form a sentence as his eyes flickered towards Parker, who was still sitting on the swing.
“Why the hell are you here?” Harrison snapped.
“I live here,” Parker replied, smirking. “Nina and I were in the middle of something, so can you come back later?”
“Parker,” I hissed in warning, glaring at him.
“No, I can’t come back later,” Harrison said through gritted teeth. He turned to me. “Come on, Nina, let’s go home.”
“Harrison…” I sighed, gnawing nervously on my bottom lip.
“What are you, her brother?” Parker snorted, standing up from the swing. He didn’t sway on his feet at all, not a single bit.
“Her best friend. Just sit back down and continue playing.” Harrison grabbed my hand and I felt a spark shoot through my heart strings, like an electrical current. I looked down at our hands, then back up at him with wide eyes.
“Nina, stay. We were talking, remember?” Parker pleaded, pouting. He stepped forward, taking my other hand and wrapping his fingers around it.
“Nina, I am not going to let you stay here with this dick wad-”
Parker threw the first punch, bringing his arm back and swinging it at Harrison’s face. I screamed, and everyone inside the house came rushing into the backyard, holding cellphones and shining them at us. I blinked against the harsh light, rushing over to Harrison, but he was already getting back up, swiping at his bloody lip. He punched Parker back just as hard, and I heard a crack of some sort.
“Stop it!” I screamed, pulling Harrison back. He staggered into my chest, looking down at me. His eyes were searching my face. “Stop. Let’s go home.”
He was breathing hard, and his lip was starting to swell up and leak more blood. Parker was on the ground, coughing and spitting. He flashed Harrison a dirty look. Richel came running to my side, her eyes growing wider by the minute.
“What in the hell happened here?” she asked, whirling around to look at Parker sitting on the grass, head in between his knees. She took me by the arm, pulling me towards her. “Nina, I’m really sorry, but you have to go.”
I swallowed, nodding my head. “I know. I’m sorry, too.”
“I’ll text you, alright?” she said, then took a look at Harrison. “Put some ice on that, stat.”
I dragged Harrison past the people who were still recording with their cellphones, and I ducked my head down. Harrison held his hand against his lip, groaning.
“I guess I should be calling you Punches now, hm?” I deadpanned, looping my arm through his as we weaved our way through a cluster of cars in the driveway. He groaned, spitting out more blood onto the pavement. Great. I was sure Richel’s mother would love to see a dried up splat of blood on their driveway the following morning.
Mr. and Mrs. Clarence jumped up from their seats on the couch as soon as Harrison and I walked through the front door. Mr. Clarence let out a whistle, and Mrs. Clarence’s hands flew to her face. She started weeping, heaving hiccup sobs before running towards Harrison, wrapping him into a hug. I stepped aside, my arms hanging awkwardly by my sides. I scratched the back of my neck. What was a girl to do in situations like these, anyway?
“Harrison, my poor baby,” Mrs. Clarence sniffled, pulling away to cup his face into her hands. “Who did this to you?”
“A senior,” he grumbled, folding his arms.
“Did you hit him back?” Mr. Clarence asked. Mrs. Clarence shot him a murderous look. He threw his hands up innocently into the air. “What?”
I smiled, biting back a laugh.
“I did,” Harrison proudly replied, then stopped smiling when his mom also shot him a death glare. She turned to me, sighing.
“Nina, get an ice pack from the kitchen, will you?” she asked. “I’ll call your mother. Harrison, sit down at the counter. Wesley, you’re grounded.”
“Me?” Mr. Clarence gasped, whipping a hand to his chest. “Whatever for?”
Despite the tension in the air, Mrs. Clarence slapped his arm, shaking her head. He sent me a shoulder shrug before following her into the living room, probably to calm down my mother through the phone, who surely would need some calming down from more than just Mrs. Clarence. If anyone was grounded here, it was going to be me.
I walked to the refrigerator, lifting my hand to the handle of the freezer door. I smiled fondly at the circular cut picture inside an apple shaped magnetic frame stuck to the exterior. A grinning Harrison, with braces on his teeth an arm slung around my shoulder as I held a fist up to his face, growling at the camera. I had a sports cap put on backwards on my head. It had been his, and he’d let me borrow it for the day. It was the first time I had ever come over to this house, and Mrs. Clarence had been in her picture taking phase which required every moment to be captured by a click and a flash.
“I didn’t know you guys still had this,” I laughed lightly, opening the freezer and digging past a pack of frozen chicken thighs for the white ice pack. Shutting the freezer door, I walked over to Harrison, who was leaning his chin against his knuckles, watching me. His eyes moved towards the picture on the refrigerator, and he smiled, then winced. “Does it hurt?”
“It just feels like it’s throbbing,” he replied, chuckling. I walked over and hesitantly pressed the ice pack against his lip. He sucked in a breath.
“Sorry,” I rushed, pulling it away, but he covered his hand with mine and led it back to where it was.
“It’s okay,” he mumbled, sending me a small smile.
“So, Punches…” I trailed off teasingly, and he rolled his eyes, sighing.
“Make fun all you want, but I call it self defense,” he explained.
“Really? I call it letting your anger get the best of you.”
“He threw the first punch!”
“So you’re obligated to throw the second one?” I asked, shaking my head at him. “Harrison, just because someone does something bad to you does not mean you have to do the same to them. Since when has violence ever solved a problem?”
“Says the person who punched me,” he reminded me, raising his eyebrows.
I sighed. “True. But you’re the only person I’ve ever actually punched, and I haven’t punched anyone since. I’ve never gotten that angry again. Even if I did, I wouldn’t physically hurt someone.”
“Are you seriously taking Parker’s side?” he asked, frowning. He pulled the ice pack away from his lip, pushing my hand away.
“I’m not on anyone’s side,” I argued.
“It sure sounds like it. You almost let him kiss you, for God’s sake.”
I felt my face heat up. I hadn’t even known he’d seen that part. “That’s not what it was,” I said. “Parker was just telling me…” I sealed my lips, knowing I couldn’t go any further. If I couldn’t tell Richel that her parents were getting divorced, it was an unwritten rule that I could not tell anyone else. This was the only unwritten rule I was actually good at following.
“Telling you that he likes you?” Harrison finished, his eyes narrowing.
“No!” I exclaimed. “No, he was telling me something that I’m not in a position to say.”
“Not even to me?” he asked, his brows furrowing. His shoulders wilted. “Now it really sounds like you’re taking his side.”
I scowled at him, slamming the ice pack onto the counter. “Ice yourself then and don’t listen to a word I say.” I moved to walk into the living room. I’d rather face the wrath of my mom through the phone then continue standing here with my supposed best friend who didn’t even believe me.
“Nina, wait,” he sighed, getting up from his stool and grabbing onto my wrist. I yanked it out of his grip, annoyed. I whirled around to face him.
“What?” I barked. “God, Harrison, I’ve always listened to you and taken your side for every situation in the past four years. Is it alright if, just for once, I take my own side? Not Parker’s, and not yours, but mine. I have my own opinion too.”
His eyes softened, and his grip on my wrist loosened but stayed, his fingers gently folded over my skin. “I know. I’m sorry. I overreacted. I shouldn’t have punched Parker, even if he punched me.” He sighed, letting go of my hand and shoving his own into his jean pocket. “I guess I’m just adjusting.”
“Adjusting to what?” I asked in disbelief, throwing my hands into the air.
“To you,” he blurted. My hands slowly fell back down to my sides out of astonishment.
“To me?” I mumbled, confused.
He laughed, and even with a cut up lip I still wanted to kiss him. “Yes, to you. You’re different now, Nina. I’m not just talking about physically different, but internally different. You’re speaking up more, and you’re standing taller with your chin lifted up a bit higher.” He took a breath, and I felt my heart on the edge of bursting, revealing all of its long hidden secrets. “You’re brighter.”
Right then, I wanted to tell him. It would be so easy, to just open my mouth and blurt out that I was in love with him. I was in love with him because he didn’t just state things in a simple manner, he used words like “brighter.” As if I was flashlight and someone had finally found double A batteries, placed them inside me, and flipped the switch. Things would be so much easier if we had the guts to say what we wanted to say, but a stupid little creature called Fear often gets in the way of it all. If anything needed to be punched in the face, it was Fear.
“Nina,” Mrs. Clarence called from the living room. Harrison slowly unwrapped each of his fingers from my wrist, letting them slide off. “Your mom is on the phone.” She rushed to the kitchen, taking the phone away from her ear and covering the speaker with her hand. “Be prepared for an earful.”
“That bad?” I grimaced. She nodded, handing me the black house phone. Harrison sent me a thumbs up, reassuringly pressing his hand into the small of my back before exiting the kitchen with his mom. I took a deep breath, placing the speaker to my ear. “Hello?”
“Nina,” Mom answered right away, breathless. “Is your phone on you?”
“Then why did you not answer it when I called you? I thought you said you only had your school activity until three o’clock today. You've been gone for much longer than three o’clock!” she exclaimed, sounding lost and forlorn. I felt tears pricking at the corner of my eyes and swiped away at them with the back of my hand.
“I know, Mom, I’m sorry. I just…” I just got caught up in a celebration party at my friend’s house for completing my interview for the Melway Beauty Pageant. Oh, by the way, I’m joining the Melway Beauty Pageant. “...was helping a friend.”
“Honey, I know Harrison got punched in the face at a party,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean you always have to be rescuing him.”
“He was rescuing me,” I explained, letting it slip out before I could even realize what would follow.
“So you were at the party, too?” she asked, her voice growing stronger and a tad bit angrier. “Nina, you told me you were attending a school activity.”
“The party was part of the school activity,” I insisted, although the tremors in my voice were surely not helping support my side of the story. I could hear her sighing and drumming her fingernails against her desk table. She was debating whether or not she should trust me or ground me. “Mom.”
“Come home and we’ll discuss your punishment then. Tell Harrison’s mom I say thank you for letting me know the whereabouts of my daughter.” Then she hung up. I groaned in misery, looking down at the phone and the resonating dial tone. Running my fingers through my hair, I walked into the living room, flopping down on a couch cushion beside Harrison. His lip didn’t seem as swollen anymore, but the cut was definitely still just as prominent and visible, and very, very red.
“You’re dead?” he asked.
“Not dead, just on probation,” I replied, setting the phone back in its holder with a satisfying click. “I still don’t know my release date.”
“Remember me when you get out of your cell,” he said, patting my knee. I looked at him, smiling, and again felt that jolt in my heart.
“I have to get going,” I said. “Where did your parents go?”
“Probably to their room to make out,” he answered honestly, and I wrinkled my nose in disgust, then laughed.
“Well, when they’re done making out, let them know that I left and said goodbye so that they don’t think I’m rude.”
“You, rude? Never.”
I stuck a tongue out at him and crossed my eyes. “Also, tell your mom my mom says thank you. She’ll know for what.”
“You just don’t want to say the reason out loud, do you?”
“Good night, Punches,” I called out from their entryway, and I could hear him snort in reply. I was tying my shoelaces nearby the foyer when he called out my name. I craned my neck so that my head was sticking out from behind the wall. I could see him sitting there on the couch, the ice pack in his hand, which rested on his knee. He was hunched forward.
“You should listen to your mom about not saving me so much. Let me save you more often from now on,” he said, his voice echoing off the high ceiling. I opened my mouth, then closed it, realizing a simple smile would suffice. Speechless, I rushed out the door, letting it shut behind me before leaning against it and falling to my knees in a crouch, burying my face into my hands. He really needed to stop saying stuff like that. I didn’t want to start breaking out into maniacal grins in front of him every time he said something like that to me. It was bad enough that I was already in love with him.