"Is there a reason why you had to park so far away?” Seth muttered as he got into the truck.
The taste of alcohol was on his lips as he kissed me. He’d always been able to hold his liquor well, but drinking only increased Seth’s anger. I’ve been to parties where he kicked over tables before.
“No reason,” I said, quickly starting the engine and driving off. I checked behind us to make sure that no one was following.
It was silent. Seth put the radio on and nodded his head to the beat. He turned it up louder and louder until I could barely hear myself think.
Over the cacophony I asked, “Do you want me to take you home?”
“No,” Seth muttered. He folded his arms and let his head rest on the back of the seat.
“Are you drunk?”
“Jesus, Nora,” Seth pounded his fist against the window. “Get off my case!”
“Are you drunk?” I repeated, queitly this time.
“I may have had a little tequila,” Seth shrugged. “Why? What does it matter, Nora? You think I’m going to screw somebody else again? Is that was this is about?”
The tears began to lodge themselves in my throat. I felt like there was something pressing on my chest. I tried to swallow but found that I couldn’t.
When I didn’t answer, Seth said aggressively, “Jesus, Nora, I don’t need to get drunk to do that.”
I hated Seth when he was like this. I hated how he could talk about that like it was no big deal.
Seth, my Seth, was better than that.
“Just take me home, Nora,” Seth muttered. “Just take me...”
Two minutes later and Seth was passed out in the passenger seat, his head slumped against the window.
I turned the radio down and let one stray tear escape.
To his unconscious form I said, “The next time you want to be an ass, Seth Lawson, please warn me first.”
I knew he’d say sorry in the morning. And I knew I’d forgive him.
He was only human afterall.
As I pulled up to the Lawsons’ house I realised that their car wasn’t here. I exhaled a deep breath in relief.
No car equalled no A.J.
For a brief moment I simply stared at the house. The road it was on was one of the nicest in town. Seth’s father worked for the council as a local magistrate. From all accounts, Seth’s mom had left when he was very young. His dad had coached elementary and middle school football for years now. It was the reason Seth was so good.
The house was dimly lit. It was white-washed, with large windows and two balconies: one facing the road and the other facing the garden. The swimming pool was round back. The front lawn was practically emaculate.
From what Seth had told me, I knew that his father ran a pretty strict household. He expected the best from his sons, especially Seth. Performance and appearance were everything.
Lugging Seth across the front lawn was no easy task. The guy weighed so much, and it didn’t help that he kept falling onto me.
As we reached the front door, I searched around for the house keys in Seth’s pocket. The door opened with a soft creek.
The Lawsons’ entrance was pretty spectaclar. In fact, it kind of resembled a musuem. There was a chandaleir in the front of the open space; the floor was marble. To the left was the spacious living room, and following on from that was the kitchen and the back patio. To the right was Mr Lawsons’ study. In front of us was an arched staircase.
I took the stairs one at a time, dragging Seth by the arms as I did so. I really hoped that I didn’t injure him. If I did, I reminded myself that it was Seth’s fault for not being able to walk properly.
The landing was white carpeted, and I quickly slipped off my shoes before stepping on to it. Mr and Mrs Lawson’s room was to the left, Seth’s was in the middle, and A.J’s bedroom was to the right and round the corner.
I entered Seth’s bedroom and groaned internally. He was feeling heavier and heavier by the moment. I chucked him on the bed, noticing absently that he hadn’t even bothered to make it today. Dirty laundery lay scattered across the square room. He’d left the TV on.
I didn’t really mind the mess though. I had an older brother. I was used to it.
“See you in the morning,” I whispered to Seth, planting a small kiss on his forehead.
I left the door open and stepped away from the room.
I should have left right then. I knew that. But despite by best intentions, I found myself moving further down the landing. I turned the corner and in a ghost-like fashion, I opened the door to A.J’s room.
Nothing could have prepared me for how clean it was, or how empty it was.
The room was square, just like Seth’s. The bed was in the centre. A very neat bookcase stood over to the right. In it I found collections of literature that went way beyond school requirements. The windows on both sides of the room were open and the white curtains moved slightly from the wind. I rubbed the sides of my bare arms; it really was cold in here. Opposite the bed and next to the door, there was a desk. Folders and books lay neatly stacked and there was a calendar stuck to the wall in front of it.
Something about the room felt so characterless, but then I remembered that Alex’s father was a military man. He’d grown up learning how to make his beds and how to be on time for things. I similed slightly. It was funny how Seth was always late.
I sighed and took a deep breath. I couldn’t believe this was where Alex Carter had lived all these years.
I’d never even known.
My fingers ran across the wall until I found the quirkboard. On it, I saw a number of photographs: Alex and his mom at their first football game, Alex and his father teaching him how to play baseball.
With my hands, I traced every image until I came to the very last one. The photo looked worn, as if it had been held too many times. There were creases on the sides from where it had been folded.
I took a step back in shock.
There were were: Eleanor and Alex. We couldn’t have been more than eight. The photo was of us running down the road to his old house. Mrs Carter, or Mrs Lawson, as she liked to be called now, must have taken it when we weren’t watching.
I looked at us with our wild hair and our toy story backpacks. There was mud on our shoes from where we refused to stick to the sidewalk. I was half a metre in front of him when the picture was taken.
I touched the picture, just to make sure it was real.
Alex Carter hadn’t forgotten about me either.
“I mean, the guy’s a total ass,” I said through a mouthful of my toasted bagel. I wrangled a buttered finger at Jace and Wren.
Wren slurped her ice tea and gave me a reprimanding look, “I told you not to go after him. That boy is trouble, Nora.”
Lilovre coffee shop was a quirky establishment just across the street from Crescent school. For a Monday morning, it was unusually busy. We’d barely been able to get our favourite table: the White-washed one in the right corner.
“My friend at Northview, says that A.J is actually a pretty cool guy,” Jace countered. He took a sip of his expresso and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
Jace worked far too hard. I could tell that last night had been a late one. He had a very important AP Calculus exam this morning.
The reason we’d started these early morning coffee meetings was because of Jace’s urgent need for caffeine before school started. No matter how hard we tried, Jace refused to break his unhealthy study habits.
“Nah,” I took another bite out of the bagel. “He spent our entire conversation trying to hook up with me.”
Jace blinked rapidly.
“I mean, I know things about the guy that nobody should know,” I continued, not even bothering that I was talking with my mouth full. “The guy wet the bed until he was seven, and don’t even get me started on that ridiculous underwear his mother used to make him wear.”
Wren snorted and began her infamous cackling laughter.
“What did Seth say when you told him?” Jace queried.
A leaden pulse began in my veins. I’d almost forgotten about that.
“He didn’t say anything,” I said sombrely.
When both Jace and Wren looked at me as if rainbows just came shooting out of my mouth, I sighed. I loved my friends so much, but they tended to judge my decisions harshly.
Granted, that was because they were stupid ones.
I closed my eyes and braced myself. “He didn’t say anything because I didn’t tell him.”
“What?!” Their protestations began at the same time.
Wren’s voice, however, caught my attention. “Nora, you need to tell Seth before he finds out from somebody else.”
I tried to placate her. “Wren, he was so upset on Saturday night, you should have seen him. He passed out on me before I could tell him. And besides, it’s not like I’m ever going to see A.J again. The guy is a jerk. A total jerk.”
A sadness set over me. I’d been searching for Alex Carter for so long. Now that I’d finally found him, I didn’t like who he had become.
I levelled a look at Wren and explained, “The boy I grew up with is gone. Wren, I promise you, I want nothing more to do with Alex James Carter, or A.J, or whoever the hell he is now.”
Wren’s face softened a little as I finished my speech. She looked at Jace and he gave a silent nod.
“You haven’t been on Facebook have you, sweetie?” she asked.
Oh God, sweetie wasn’t a good thing. She only ever said that if I royally messed up. Like the time I accidentally peed in the boys’ restroom in Junior year.
My voice dropped an octave. “What is it?”
Jace opened his laptop. He offered me a sympathetic look before he angled the screen towards me.
It was a Facebook Campaign. The background to the page was a series of question marks and magnifying glasses. A small picture of the scooby-doo gang was in the centre. Below it were the words: ‘Find Mystery Girl.’
The campaign read:
I, A. J Lawson, Hawks’ Commander-in-Chief, am in need of your help. Searching for one spunky, frizzy haired, nice-assed girl who walked away from me without my number on Saturday night. She was obviously mentally deranged, or possibly blind.
Location: Macey’s dinner.
Time: 10:30 pm.
Would be grateful if anyone could return her to me. We have unfinished business. Message me if you know where she is.
“I’m going to kill him,” I said quietly.
Wren slammed the laptop shut.
“See, this is what happens when you don’t follow my advice,” she said smugly.
I put my head in my hands and groaned, “I am so screwed!”
“Yeah, Nora, you are.” Wren affirmed.
“I mean you’re practically trending right now,” Jace muttered as he reopened his laptop and scanned a few websites.
I began to burry my head into the table. Suddenly I was anxious of just how many people there were in this coffee shop. How many of them would notice the frizzy hair that I was getting straightened next week?
Maybe I could book an emergency appointment.
As I began to tie it up in a bun I asked, “And you guys didn’t think to tell me this until now?”
“We thought you wouldn’t come to school if we told you.” Wren replied. “You know I’m right, Nora. Remember the incident with Molly Harwen?”
I hid at home for two days last year because I accidentally rammed into her car in the school parking lot. It had to be towed away. Apparently she’s still looking for the culprit.
“Nora,” Wren growled. She tugged at the sleeve of my jumper. “Will you sit up straight? Nobody knows it was you.”
I ignored her and started to slump into my seat.
“Nora, you’re being ridiculous!”
Jace raised up a hand like we were in class. I rolled my eyes and said, “Yes, Jace, you have permission to talk.”
“What does he mean by spunky?” Jace asked, I could tell that he was re-reading the message A.J had sent out.
“Nora,” Wren exclaimed. It was just like her to jump to conclusions. “What the hell did you do?”
I took another bite of my bagel, hoping that the conversation would go on without me. I purposefully chewed slowly, assuming that the two would just forget I existed. That was what normally happened when I did something stupid.
“Nora,” Wren folded her arms and told me plainly, “Don’t pull that crap with me. What did you do?”
I flung my arms up in the air. In a loud whisper, I explained, “I don’t know. Normally I’m so quiet around guys like that. I mean, you remember how I was with Seth when we first started talking? Neither of us could look one another in the eye. We kept blushing. Hell, he almost missed my mouth the first time we tried to kiss.”
I paused. I knew I was babbling. The funny thing was, Wren and Jace actually seemed interested in what I had to say this time.
I sighed and made to continue. “Well, that didn’t exactly happen when I talked to A.J. It was strange. It was like I became a kid again and Alex was daring me to race him, or climb a tree, or something. All the years just passed away and I was that spunky, fiery kid who didn’t give a damn what people thought of her.”
I shuddered, “Totally out of character, I know.”
Wren and Jace were silent. To fill the space where their replies should have been, I kept talking. “And what does he think I am? Would be grateful if anyone could return her to me? I’m not a lost pair of keys.”
I took the last bite of my bagel, “And what is: we have unfinished business? I have nothing left to say to him.”
Wren and Jace stared between themselves. They then began to talk quietly. Their forms seemed to close in on one another as they sat opposite me. They were folding flowers, sharing a conversation that I couldn’t hear.
After what felt like an eternity, Jace and Wren turned back to face me.
“How bad is school going to be?” I asked tepidly.
Both Jace and Wren looked at me like I’d just invited the four horsemen of the Apocalypse for tea.
“Bad,” they replied together.