Carter had never been overly fussed about birthdays, or in particular, the parties people had to celebrate them. As a child, his parents, particularly his mom, would always remind him that his birthday was coming up, and would ask what he would like to do, and who he would like to invite. One memory stuck out in Carter’s head, of his fourth birthday. It was the furthest back he could properly remember, and he recalled sitting on a rope swing they had made in the yard, when his mom had come out with lemonade. His dad had been home, but working on numbers at the wooden table on the patio with a colleague.
“It’s your birthday this weekend, Davey?” she had said, or something similar, “Is there anything you want to do? Shall we get the kids in the block over? Hmm?”
Carter had been struck by indecision and he didn’t remember what he had answered. Whatever he had said, Millie went ahead and organised a block party. Quite a lot of people had turned up, but he didn’t remember that too clearly either. There had been red, pointy hats and party-bags. He knew that he had found the red whistle from one of the party-bags down behind the sofa years later, when watching television after school.
Later, he found himself more and more disillusioned from the idea of having his birthday. He enjoyed other people’s parties, mostly, and always got caught up in the annual countdown to Christmas and Easter Sunday, but he would somehow forget about that date on which he was born. It didn’t really seem relevant. At high school, he remembered overhearing girls getting into huge fits of blushing and laughter at the thought of an upcoming birthday, and that had really confused him. One time, he had said as much to Arms.
“The fuck is she on?” he had said to his friend. Arms had shrugged.
“Her birthday soon, I guess…”
“What’s the big deal? Just the day you were born. Seems a strange thing to get sucked in by. What a tool, right?”
“That’s what I thought, then my pops got me an air-rifle last month. Went and took out a sparrow, right between the eyes. September’s a special month, brother.”
Carter had enjoyed getting gifts on his birthday, like any kid, and would be very grateful, but he would always feel guilty on the inside that someone had gone to so much trouble when he hadn’t really done anything. It wasn’t really a special occasion to him, so why did everyone else have to treat it like one? It made him feel funny to be receiving presents, having not bought any gifts himself for those who gave. Another thing that always confused him were birthday cards. Okay, they were a fine way to give someone cash, with a clever message or whatnot, but hadn’t email and mobile telephones made that redundant? And there were secure ways of sending money through the post, or cheques. Didn’t most people just get vouchers anyway? It wasn’t like they were worth anything. Why did anyone go through the trouble of picking out or even making a card? If it was a special occasion, presumably you would see the person to say ‘Happy Birthday’ anyway, or else what the hell kind of pal were you?
The only parties Carter ever saw the point of were ones organised by the guys at high school; where they chose who would come in and who wouldn’t. Perhaps a group would go play football or go paint-balling or go-kart racing; all of which were an option in Greenbury Park. Perhaps they would catch a movie, get some fast-food and laugh. But best of all were the house-parties, where the kid’s parents would head out and leave the ‘birthday-boy and his friends,’ or perhaps they would hide somewhere upstairs until the carnage was over. In his earlier years, Carter had gone round other kid’s houses to play video-games and watch films. As he got older though, into his adolescence, this was quickly upgraded to getting drunk, fooling around and then getting laid. This period of behaviour coincided with the happiest periods of his youth, after any of the intimidation of high school had long passed, and he was settled with a firm group of pals and a host of chicks to aim at. This latter point must have been important, because Carter found after he entered his first serious relationship with Shanade that he enjoyed house-parties less, because they meant he had to spend time with people who weren’t, ultimately, Shanade. Also, he got scared about her sneaking off with guys and doing drugs. He couldn’t give a fuck what drugs and alcohol did to his organs, but her’s were far too precious to be harmed and often he got over-protective, which often made him embarrassed in hindsight. He could almost see Shanade’s patronising eyes, still.
The last one he remembered that he had actually enjoyed had been something of a requiem to a lost part of his life, which was probably why he recalled the details so clearly. It had taken place at the house of a girl in his year, who had had an odd name, Terrier or something, and lived on the edge of the park about ten blocks from Shanade’s. It had been her birthday, and her parents had gone out to a movie for the evening so that their daughter could have her little social without them spoiling it; something Carter thought was incredibly trusting. The girl wasn’t exactly the best advert for discipline. He recalled her once turning up for school with her uniform skirt dyed pink, and then refusing to change it, to much laughter and many wolf-whistles. She had probably been suspended after that too.
People seemed to start arriving early, around eight, but Carter figured he hadn’t got there till after nine, when a crowd had already formed in the yard. Terrier’s brother, a mean-looking punk called Darrel, had stopped every jock at the gate with his fist, smiled to every girl and then let people through. He appeared to have been employed as a bouncer, which suited his intellect. However, when Carter, in black jeans and a shirt, rolled up with Shanade on his arm, he had stood back, as if awestruck. It was the impression Shanade had had sometimes, leaving men envious of Carter and girls envious of her. Carter visibly saw the dilemma in Darrel’s head. If he bothered Carter, then Shanade would think less of him, but then look at how smarmy he is, the lucky bastard… Carter probably exacerbated this hatred by chucking the keys he had had made for Lakeman’s Vette at him, catching him off guard so that he fumbled them and only just managed to grab them before they fell.
“Easy on the throttle, buddy, she’s low on gas. Thanks.” Carter ached of regret, remembering what he had said, how he had spoken as if to a valet. What a dick she had turned him into.
“That’s so cruel,” Shanade had said, although she had smiled with her eyes. She had always liked that kind of joke, being something of a bully herself, “Oh, there’s Terri! I’ll catch you in a bit, David…”
“Okay, baby.” Carter kissed her and she ran up to greet the girl who’s birthday it was. Figuring he would get a chance to talk to her later, Carter scanned the crowd for anyone he recognised and went up to Bradley Candle, now slightly regretting wearing his best shirt. It was likely that Candle would get him involved that night in something involving flames and spray-paint, which could get messy.
“Yo. Hey, Brad…” Candle half-turned, spotted Carter, and relaxed.
“About time, Cart. Where the fuck you been? I’ve been talking to this tool for ages.” Candle indicated the guy next to him, who went to retort, then thought better of it. Carter gave the guy a look and he edged away.
“S’up man, you seen Viticus or Arms?” Carter asked. He spotted an ice bucket and grabbed a Bud. There was no sign of a bottle-opener.
“Here.” Candle took the bottle and in an instant opened it with his teeth, with no apparent effort. Carter nodded, impressed, and took back the bottle.
“Thanks bro. So you seen them?”
“Naw, like I said, been stuck here with dickwads the whole time. Haven’t seen you all week, Carter? I wanna hear what you been doing…” Candle looked over Carter’s shoulder, towards the spot where Shanade was talking with her friends, “or is that a stupid question?”
“Ah, sorry man. I been busy. This relationship stuff is heavy, you know what I’m saying? But Shanade is gonna be like, with her friends tonight, so we can go smoke some pot or whatever. Catch up a bit. Try and find the others.”
“Sweet.” Candle swigged his beer and Carter followed suit. A couple of girls waved at Carter as they entered past Darrel, who again shot an evil look at him. The girls giggled once they had passed.
“Hello,” Candle muttered, giving Carter a nudge he didn’t need, “think they fancy a piece. What do you say, Cart? Bit of cheating won’t do no harm. Besides, only Levi has the number of the pot-guy and he ain’t here yet. C’mon Carter. I fancy the blonde.” Carter had expected this, and had his excuses ready. But he doubted they would do him much good. ‘No’ was not an answer Bradley Candle understood. Carter watched him as he followed the two girls with his eyes, as if choosing from a buffet. If he fucking looked at Shanade like that…
“Man, Shanade knows like damn-near every girl in this place. I got no choice but to behave, son. She finds out, I’m toast.” Carter knew as he said this that Candle would not accept it.
“I been meaning to tell you this, Cart. Bit of advice. Levi and Arms think so too, you see. What we mean is, fuck that bitch Carter. Not literally, I mean, fuck that bitch…” He pointed after the two girls he had referred to before, “but you gotta quit while you’re ahead with all this Shanade stuff, pal. You’ve had a good run, you’ve had your fill, hell, I say you’ve played your cards pretty fucking ace, know what I mean? But a bang is a bang. You know, right? You understand what I’m talking about. Guys like us, me and you, buddy, we could have any girl we want at this party, or at Danton. Why stick with just the one? Makes no sense in the long run. Lot of wasted opportunities, in my opinion.”
Carter steeled himself, taking another sip of the Bud. There was no way he could argue with Candle. Once his mind was set on something, it was easier just to follow and hope for the best. But Shanade was Shanade. The hold she had over him was more powerful than anything even an intimidating guy like Candle could ever muster. Even when Candle was right, damn him. He had done it. He had got her! This was where he backed off and moved on. But something had changed. He had changed.
“I like her, Brad. I hear what you say, and you’re right. Of course, I know you’re right. But I really like her man. I don’t get it. I just… don’t want it to end,” Carter said, rather tamely in the end. He had waited and waited for the inevitable Candle explosion. But it never came.
“Ah, I see, you think there’s a bit more gas in the old tank, huh?” Candle answered, elbowing a relieved Carter, “Well, I respect you man, I respect where you’re coming from. But remember who you are, huh, remember you’re one of us. Its not the same without you, man. The old gang. We need your brains. You’re the guy who jacked Lakeman’s Vette, landed the hottest girl in school and are still driving her around in it a month later. Don’t let it get to your head, don’t forget who you are, Carter.”
“Nah, respect for that man…” Carter embraced Bradley Candle. It was something Carter had always remembered from his time at Danton, and was one of the most touching things anyone had ever said to him. And it was so strange and yet so typical of fate that it had come from the mouth of Bradley Candle, who would sooner set a guy on fire than tell him not to forget who he was inside. It made Carter all the more ashamed, given that he had been warned, that he still became alienated from his friends and became a changed person; something that had ultimately benefited him, but that had left a warmer, funnier and perhaps a more human side of him behind in the 80’s, where he sometimes imagined it still existed, with the young Levi, the young Arms and the young Bradley Candle, hanging around, laughing and smoking and living their friendship.
“Right, man, I dunno ’bout you, but I am hitting on that blonde.” Candle downed his drink, flattened his hair, and made his way over. Carter, who felt immensely close to Candle in that moment, followed him over, one hand in his pocket and the other clasping his beer-bottle.
“What are you, my chaperone?” Candle asked, perhaps more politely than he normally would.
“I got your back, man. You know I have a way with words. Thought you wanted to get laid?”
“See, this is why we need you…” Candle exclaimed, grinning. The blonde who Candle had selected turned out to be Terrier’s cousin, which was why they didn’t recognise her from Danton. The other girl, who Carter now saw was distinctly less pretty but more talkative, he engaged in animated conversation about some bullshit, while Candle made his move. The blonde giggled at something Candle had said in her ear, and the other seemed perhaps to catch on. Carter fought valiantly for her attention, but as the blonde took Candle’s hand and made to move away, she interjected.
“Hey, Kelly, where… where you going?” she asked, her voice catching a shrill note in her throat. Candle, looking the other way, rolled his eyes, and Carter had to fight not to laugh.
“Bradley’s gonna get me another drink. Be back in a minute okay?” The girl sounded annoyed by her friend and left quickly with Bradley, who Carter knew would have kicked off had there been further delays. His work done, he started to edge away.
“Hey, what were you saying? Something about the trains?” the girl tried, with a hint of desperation now.
“Yeah, something like that,” Carter muttered. He spotted Shanade through the crowd with a group of friends and she motioned to him. Inwardly thanking God for his glorious girlfriend and her immaculate timing, he turned back to the girl, who had tried a new expression on for size.
“Why don’t we head over to them bushes and see what we find?” she tried, in what she obviously thought was an alluring tone, but instead was one best described as sickening.
“What?” Carter exclaimed, with well-feigned surprise, “Hey, I didn’t mean to give that impression! I’m afraid I got a girlfriend, Madeline. What do you know, here she is…”
The girl saw Shanade approach Carter and link arms with him and cried out in shock.
“Oh my God! You’re Shanade… I’m sorry.” She had blushed bright red. A few guys looked around to see what had happened.
“Hello,” Shanade said, coldly, “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name. David, can I talk to you a moment?”
“I’m Madeline, Shanade! Madeline, Terrier’s second cousin, on her mother’s side. I didn’t know you were here! I didn’t know you and David…” She stopped, aware that she was murdering herself. The expression on Shanade’s face was certainly murderous, and Carter felt something under his jeans.
“Look, I don’t care what your name is, okay, but if you hit on my boyfriend I’ll actually kill you. Why are you even speaking to him?!” She turned on Carter, who was so in love he nearly swooned, “And why were you talking to her?!”
“Bradley was talking to the blonde girl she was with. But they went to get more drinks. You wanted to talk about something, baby?”
“Oh, that must be Kelly-May. She’s nice. Not sure she should be hanging around with that freak Candle though, and you shouldn’t have let her,” Shanade chided, “even if you did used to be friends with him.”
That had hurt, despite Shanade’s dominance of his conscious mind. Never had he suggested that he had stopped being friends with Bradley Candle. The thought of it, after what Candle had said a moment ago, made him feel terrible. But he couldn’t bring himself either to disagree with Shanade.
He settled for a shrug, and said, “I guess they’ll be back in a bit. What did you want to talk about?” Shanade opened her mouth to answer, then noticed that the other girl, Madeline, was still there, gawping slightly. She gave her a look so piercing it should have turned her to stone, but instead she turned tail and fled inside the house.
“Ha, I love you baby. You’re so hot when you’re mean,” Carter said, quietly, aware that he was pushing his luck, but unable to stop himself.
“Oh, I haven’t even started being mean yet…” she muttered back, pouting. There was a shout as one of Shanade’s friends called to her.
“Right,” she said back, “David, me and some of the girls were going to go to the Pink Outhouse for a bit. They just said I should tell you. You’re not to let Candle do anything to Kelly-May, or you’ll have me to answer to!”
“Okay, sure you don’t want me to come?” the inside of Carter’s pants asked.
“Are you serious?” Shanade said, raising her eyebrows, “You not seen the Pink Outhouse?”
“Yeah, I’m serious. What’s wrong me wanting to spend time with you? In a pink bar.” He grinned.
“Sweet. But look, I’ll be alright, don’t be clingy. We’ll be back later, okay.” She kissed him lightly on the cheek.
“Okay. ’Bout time I caught up with the guys anyway. Don’t suppose you’ve seen Armand anywhere, have you?”
“Gay…” Shanade muttered, and Carter cuffed her playfully.
“Hey, the cab’s here Shanade! Oh, sorry David…” The voice went silent, along with most of the crowd. Plenty of heads turned to see Carter and Shanade kiss, and Carter couldn’t help but feel he was inside a movie or one of those teen dramas you saw on television. Like the prom king and queen. Which, incidentally, they never got the chance to become.
“I’ll see you later,” she muttered, and she was gone, already giggling with her friends as they piled into the back of a minivan from the local cab service. It revved away in a cloud of exhaust and the party resumed, slightly smaller, but with more people arriving. Carter found he was still holding his beer and, slightly annoyed, he downed the rest of it and chucked the bottle into the bushes. Then he spotted two people he recognised.
“Hey! Guys!” he shouted. Arms and Levi had been stopped by Darrel at the gate, and Arms was in the process of raising his fist. Levi had opened his mouth to shout something at the makeshift bouncer, but then he spotted Carter approaching.
“Yo, Cart! You seen this punk? What in the fuck gives you the right to stop us going in?”
“Were you invited?” Darrel grunted, eyeing Arms’ knuckles.
“Course we fucking were, or we wouldn’t be here now would we, son? Were you?”
“Get the fuck out of the way, dickwad.” Arms impatiently shoved Darrel out of the way and eased in, Levi behind him. A number of other guests took this opportunity to get in while the host’s brother was on the floor. Carter embraced his two friends and they made their way through the crowds into the house to get drinks.
“So where you been at, Cart? Candle’s been bitching something nasty with you not around. Says it gives him a bad feeling. You gotta spend all your time at that chick’s house?” Arms and Levi both looked at him. Neither had had any second guesses as to why he had not been hanging out with them so frequently.
“Yeah, I’m sorry, guys. Brad did say and I feel real bad about it. Shanade fucked off somewhere though, so tonight we can do whatever, right?” Carter grinned, secretly hating himself for placing his friends beneath his girlfriend. Levi was too bright not to spot it.
“Yeah, whatever man. Sorry to disappoint you. If we dress up all nice, put on some make-up and give hard-ass looks to every person who walks through that door; hey Arms, we could be Shanade for him!”
“Swell,” Arms muttered, darkly.
“C’mon guys, I didn’t mean it like that. You guys are my priority. Just… c’mon, you know what she’s like. Arms, you’re in her classes too. She’s so difficult all the time. But I can’t help it. There’s something about her that just sends me crazy,” Carter looked at Arms, willing him to understand. He could almost have been pleading with his friend. Levi cuffed him on the arm.
“Hey, c’mon man, we don’t mean you no beef, you still one of us whether you wanna be or not. You’re Carter, you just are. We just appreciate the pleasure of your company, brother. Providing you find us some drinks. ’The fucks all the beer?!”
“Here, man,” Carter found a bucket and handed bottles to Arms and Levi. Arms took his without a word. He often spoke the least of the gang, but there had been something different that night. A darkness beneath his eyes. Perhaps something in his pumped-up frame sensed that what was happening to his friend was a change, and an inevitable one, like tectonic plates shifting. When they were done moving about, the picture of Carter they would portray would be very different. He didn’t say anything about this though.
They had gone outside and drank and laughed as jocks tried to impress cheerleaders by climbing on each other and having wrestling matches. But they stood apart, when they could have joined in. Perhaps they had been mature for their age. Levi had broken a silence that had then formed.
“’The fucks Candle, he told me he was here?” he asked no-one in particular.
“Ha, shit, I forgot,” Carter said, “he’s getting laid. I think. Went off with some cousin of Terrier’s. I had to distract the ugly one. Haven’t seen him since.”
“Legend,” Levi exclaimed, high-fiving him, “I wouldn’t mind a go myself, some of this be fine ass for the picking, know what I’m saying? Hey, Arms, what do you say loverboy here sets us up for the night too?”
“We’d much appreciate that,” Arms answered, sucking on his beer.
“Nah, c’mon Cart, we’re kidding. Look, I thought we’d be needing this, so me and Arms went and picked it up before. S’why we’re late, see. Have a sniff. Just flown in from Colombia, according to my brother Darius.”
“Bullshit,” Carter said, handing the baggie back to his friend, “that’s street if I ever saw it.”
“Shoulda been there man, the guy had cases of it. When you see it all vacuum-packed and stacked like that, it don’t look like no street stuff. We can show you, if anyone here has a lighter.” Arms dropped his bottle and grabbed a passing jock.
“You got a lighter there, boy?” The jock handed it over and Levi flicked it against a joint that he had taken from inside his hoodie. He inhaled and passed it to Carter. Arms handed the lighter back to its owner.
An hour later and they were sat against the wall outside in the backyard, talking in low tones. The noise of the party continued from inside, but it began to waver as the hour latened. There was the sound of people returning from the Pink Outhouse in the cab, but Carter did not get up to go and see. He forced himself to stay where he was. The fact that he had chilled out helped significantly. Soon, a figure stumbled towards them across the lawn and crashed down beside Arms. His pants were unfastened and there was blood on his jeans.
“What’s up, Bradley,” Levi said, “Get some of this.”
“Thanks, Levi. I need it, man.”
“Dude,” Carter said, sitting up, “is that blood on you down there?”
“Fucking bitch bit me!” he spat, inhaling sharply and sitting back against the wall. Arms looked at Levi and shook his head discreetly. Both of them smiled.
“Right…” Levi said, his head falling forwards.
“Its true, motherfucker. And don’t say it ain’t!” Levi fell silent, managing somehow to keep himself from laughing. There was more silence as they contemplated existence. The sounds from the party indicated the presence of more men. Different men. They must have come in the cab from the Pink Outhouse.
“You hear that, man? Load of fucking queers with your girl in there. You want her to catch some shit?” Candle spluttered, his voice lower now.
“She’ll live. She always does. Swear, it’d take an army of Armand’s with nine-irons to kill her. She’s nasty.” Carter took the joint from Levi, breathed in, and passed it back.
“Shit, dog, nasty how?” Levi sat up, suddenly alert, “like, S&M nasty? Domination nasty?”
“Something like that,” Carter said with a dreamy smile.
“Fuck…” Levi whistled, “you dirty cracker. I wouldn’t believe it, but I know you son, you lazy son bitch. I bet you make her do all the work, right?”
“Way its meant to be, man, way its meant to be,” Carter had answered, thinking desperately in his addled brain for some piece of controversial prejudice he could apply, “she cooks, she cleans, she does the laundry, she sucks me off.”
“There ain’t no way she cooks and cleans. Man, you live with her, you’ll be doing all that shit. On a leash,” Arms pointed out. Suddenly, he stood, stretching.
“C’mon guys, this place sucks, lets go get some more alcohol…”
Carter strolled into the local convenience store. There was a single man behind the counter, peering at a magazine. He approached, confident his attire would mask his age.
“Yessir,” the guy grunted.
“Yeah, hi, I’m here at a party with some friends who live round here. But thing is, I’m from Arkansas, right, and around there we have different laws, I think, for purchasing alcohol. Am I required to show you proof of I.D. here, pal?”
“Well, now that you mention it, yes, I suppose,” he answered, in a non-committal tone. Carter ignored the sound of the bell behind him and pressed for further details. The store guy eventually demanded he show his drivers license, but as Carter was reaching for his wallet, Arms, Levi and Candle all snatched two bottles of liquor each and ran out of the store.
“Son of a bitch!” the guy at the counter yelled, forgetting Carter was right in front of him, “I’m calling the fucking cops. This is the last straw!”
“What?” Carter looked around, “Hey where’d those guys go? They remember an appointment, perhaps?”
“They just grabbed six bottles while you were just talking. Whisky! And just fucking ran. Boy, if I caught them, I’d do things they couldn’t put in scary movies. It makes my blood boil.”
“It is pretty bad. What’s wrong with just paying?”
Five minutes later, Carter met the others round the corner in an alleyway, where Arms handed him a bottle. There was a grin plastered on his face that hadn’t been before.
“Just like old times, huh, buddy?”
“Yeah, man, just like old times.”