I exhaled a cloud of harsh smoke as I stubbed out the joint on the rooftop, before climbing back through my bedroom window—though I hated referring to the room I was currently using as “my room”. My real room was back where my mom and I lived, this is just my holding cell. My mind was inside a clouded bubble; the edge was taken off. I walked over to my desk and stared at the photography program information that was once again on my computer screen. I was like a cat, just staring not acting. I felt so stuck within myself. Instead of hitting submit, I closed the window.
I scooped up my collection of maps and tucked them under my mattress. My wanderlust and map obsession was all my own; I didn’t want to share it with anyone. I slid my arms into my green hoodie and zipped it halfway home. I slid my camera and phone into my pocket. Joan and Glen’s arguing poured into my room from down the hall. They started auguring over the phone as Glen drove us back to the house. I actually preferred it over the tense and barely existent conversation between Glen and me. Being close to him made me want to scream, “I wish it were you,” on top of my lungs. Another benefit, was that I got to turn my thoughts around in my head. Dr. Rainn’s explanation of how the mind processes grief. The technical steps didn’t stick, they never quite made it to my ears once they fell from his mouth. But, I got that I wasn’t losing my mind, I was just learning to deal with it. One sentence he said kept bouncing around in my head, “Grief isn’t something to get over, it is something to learn to live with.”
Something felt different. Kissing Lincoln that afternoon seemed like it happened a year ago. I was boxed in by memories and desperation to overcome what I was feeling. This was the exact opposite of being distracted. I quietly passed Glen and Joan’s room. Her hysterical words, “I hate you,” reached out through their door but barely touched me. Listening to them argue had no emotional effect on me once so ever. When he and my mom would fight, I would boil with hatred for him and sadness for her. But without my mom involved I felt nothing. This was one of the many things that nagged at my brain asking me if this was healthy. It would take me awhile before I could talk to Dr. Rainn about my concerns. I don’t know if I could ever quite trust him enough. I was relieved that living through Glen’s therapy demand wasn’t going to be as painful as I thought.
The walls and floors glistened with a clean shine. It annoyed me how spotless Joan’s house was when everything inside of it was so broken. The immaculate lawn and perfectly maintain flower beds were a lie.
Brian sat on the sofa reading a book. His feet were resting on Matilda, who was curled on one of the sofa cushions much like a cat. She lifted her head when I walked into the living room. Amelia sat in front of a high-pitched cartoon as she mashed play dough into her skin.
“Going to Pete’s?” Brian asked me looking up from his book. His inquisitive expression was a perfect copy of mom’s that unfortunately caused me some level of pain every time I saw it.
“Yep, I’m gonna take Matilda with me, okay?”
Matilda was fully locked onto me, staring and wondering what I was gonna do next.
“Of course, I’m going to bed soon anyway.” He shrugged. “Good night.” His eyes were back on his book. It hurt how grown up he seemed now that mom was gone. It wasn’t right.
I pushed out a thorny sigh. “Night.” Then patted my leg. “Matilda, walk?”
Her ears perked up, and she hopped off the sofa.
The night was in full effect; the sky carried an ominous emptiness along with a blanket of thick clouds. Day old snow collected in clumps there were stained black around the edges from cars passing by. The street glowed with Christmas lights that hung from almost every house. My nose burned from the nagging cold. My breath revealed itself to me in light gray puffs that could be mistaken for smoke. Matilda’s stocky body rubbed up against my leg as we made our way to Pete’s. I was carrying a sour sensation coated in guilt within me, and I didn’t like it. The last thing I wanted to was to do something that would damage our relationship. Which is why I should never kiss him. The sweetness of from the cold air mixed with the burning of multiple fireplaces. It sure looked and smelled like it was almost Christmas, but didn’t feel anything like it.
A man in a suit climbed out of a nice silver sedan. I watched as he grabbed his suitcase and rustled his hair, taking no account of me. Before the man got to the front door, it swung open. Two small kids came barreling out and hug-tackled him. A hearty and warm laugh traveled from their front porch over to me, boring another small empty hole in my chest.
My hand held the camera as tears filled my eyes. I forced myself to look away. I scratched Matilda’s head and cooed she was a good girl. We walked away from the happy family as my phone buzzed in my hoodie pocket.
I pulled my phone out. A number I didn’t recognize sent me a text message. I stopped walking and clicked on my phone and pulled up the message. It’s Lincoln. I got your number from Malachi. I told him I had a work question.
My stomach did summersaults.
I wrote: What is it?
He immediately wrote back: Don’t have one. I’m bringing some comics to work tomorrow for you to get you started.
I quickly typed, thank you, then deleted it just as quick. “Be cool,” I told myself. Matilda sat next to me as I gawked at my phone. I typed: Get started with what?
Lincoln: The Marvel Universe
I typed back, Cool, before I could have any inner debate about it.
Lincoln: Cya tomorrow
Me: Yep. Have a goodnight.
Air bubbles filled up my stomach before overflowing into other areas of my body—which had the ripple effect causing my mind to tell me to be ashamed. Then a very small voice, which belonged to only me said, “He likes me.”
When Matilda and I got to Pete’s house, I was surprised to find him standing in the driveway smoking a cigarette. His shoulders were a tense, high line.
When he saw me, he stopped pacing. He dropped his cigarette on the ground and stepped on it. “Hey,” he said to me, his voice cracked much like it does before he does a show.
Matilda and I made our way up the walk to him. Once I got closer, it was clear that he was upset about something. To the world Pete was cool and collected, to me, he was an open book and often conflicted. Even though I feared that this time it involved me, I asked, “You okay?”
“Yeah, just been a long couple of days.”
“It has been.” The weirdness between us was uncomfortable and only highlighted the guilt growing in my gut.
“Feel like rewatching Sword and Myth from the beginning?” Pete offered with the wide blue eyes I’m used to seeing.
I smiled. “That sounds great.” There was more I wanted to say; more that I should say, setting up camp on my tongue.
“You bring bud?” Pete raised his pierced eyebrow. “I picked up popcorn and gummy bears.” Binge watching tv shows and eating junk food was one of our favorite ways to hang since we were kids.
I playfully pushed his arm. “Do you know me at all?”
Our eyes caught, and I felt something I didn’t want to feel. Suddenly the moment was serious.
“I know you better than myself.” Pete’s words stuck to the roof of my mouth. Our hands were almost touching as we walked up the driveway and around the back to his basement entrance. Matilda stayed close, grazing my side opposite of the one Pete was near. Did I imagine this, because I felt bad about making out with Lincoln, or was this actually happening?
“So how was your first day on the job?” Pete asked as he pulled two root beers out of the mini fridge. The moment Pete moved from the small room next to his mom’s to the basement, he bought a mini fridge. Since then, it has been quite the teenage version of a bachelor pad. The fact that his band often practiced there only intensified the effect.
“It was okay,” I mumbled into my arm as I took one of the sodas from him. “Better than the group.”
Pete was looking away, his eyes clearly indicated he was thinking, weighing a choice of some kind. He pushed out a strained sigh, ran his hand through his product-free hair ( a rarity), then asked, “How was working with Lincoln?”
I wanted to puke, to tell him everything like the best friend he is. But the words wouldn’t come out. “Fine.” I shrugged.
“Okay.” Pete’s distracted voice circled me, trying to show me something. He plopped down on the stained and ripped sofa that I helped him pull off a curb last summer.
I sat down next to him as I chugged back the root beer. His eyes were such a clear blue they looked unnatural. People would ask him sometimes if he wore colored contacts which only aided him in his bit of talking about good-looking he was. A lot of girls usually ate it up.
Not much was said before Pete turned on the show. He kept fidgeting around in his seat; something was clearly wrong. Knowing Pete, he was still working up the nerve to talk about it. This only proved my feeling it involved me. I guess the fact that Lincoln and I were making out in the store room could have gotten back to him already. There isn’t a much faster way to pass stories around then through a string teenagers and their cell phones.
“How was your day?” I asked, feeling bit desperate to break the tension. I had enough of that in other places in my life; I didn’t need it with Pete.
Pete paused the show, turned to me, and said: “Why have you been avoiding me?” His eyes wide, but his mouth was in a tight line.
“I don’t know.” The honesty sat between us much like fog does between cars.
Pete rubbed his hands on his legs. “Something weird happened at the party I think.”
“I dunno.” I shifted in my seat beside him, uncomfortable and certain this conversation couldn’t go anywhere good. His face dropped. I instantly felt bad about being disingenuine. I tugged on a clump of my hair considering the best thing to say, blurting out that I kissed Lincoln wasn’t a good plan. “Okay, no I think you are right.”
Pete leaned back and folded his arms behind his head. His shirt folded up, revealing a tiny bit of his stomach. Something horribly human in me made me want to reach out and touch him. Why was I suddenly so attracted to him?
He saw me checking out his midsection and gently touched my arm, sending all kinds of signals to places I didn’t give them access to. I let me eyes close for just a second. “I think I know why you have been avoiding me the last couple days.”
“Oh yeah?” My voice cracked.
“The way I acted with Lincoln thing.”
I didn’t know what to say. Images of my lips on Lincoln’s and my hands in his hair flashed through my mind. An awkward noise escaped from between my lips instead of any clear words.
Pete cleared his throat before continuing. “I was kinda acting like a jealous boyfriend. Honestly, the idea of you with another guy kinda drives me nuts.”
His words punched me in the stomach. I stared at my feet. “I don’t know what to say to that.”
“That you felt the same way when Molly was flirting with me? Because I saw that.”
I crossed my arms. I didn’t feel like I should be having this conversation. I didn’t want to.
“There has been moments Elliot. Haven’t you felt them too?”
My heart fell into pieces as my head spun giving me the feeling I was on a carnival ride that only goes around in circles. Beautiful and ambitious Pete. My best friend Pete. Is he telling me he has feelings for me?
My heart started smacking around in my chest. This was too complicated. “I don’t want to break our friendship. I can’t.”
Pete nodded, but his smile indicated that he pulled something I didn’t intend from what I said.
Uncomfortable and desperate to defuse the moment, I said, “Hey, why don’t you unpause it.” I motioned the side of my head toward the television that sat on a stack of plastic milk crates topped-off with a piece of wood.
“Okay.” His voice was quiet but not defeated. Suddenly his poster lined concrete walls took the form of something unfamiliar. He extended his arm, hit play, then dropped the remote in his lap.
The characters blurred into panicked waves, but I tried to focus on their script rather than the thoughts peeling back corners I wanted untouched.
I was stumbling around in the dark.
Pete reached out, and gently grabbed my hand; he entwined his fingers with mine. Warmth and longing coursed through me, giving me ideas I didn’t want. Instead of taking my hand back, I leaned my head on his shoulder. Part of me felt like I was leading him on, but another part of me wanted to be even closer to him. I didn’t know what I wanted to except that I didn’t want to get hurt, but the was the one thing I was fairly sure was going to happen. As knowledge and desires pulled me in different directions, we sat there holding hands and watching a show we’ve seen a dozen times before.