The sound of my name broke through the silence like a split in a windshield.
My best friend Danny stood in front of me. I would recognize that grease stain on the side of his favorite jeans any day. Since I was seated on the sofa, I craned my neck to look up at him.
I felt myself frown as I glanced at the glow-in-the-dark clock on the wall. “It’s not even ten.”
“I meant last night, genius.” Danny smacked the side of my head.
“Oh.” Last night. Right.
I shrugged and looked away.
Danny, never able to take a hint, plopped himself down next to me and stretched his legs. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him pull a red cup to his mouth. When he finished, he made a smacking noise with his lips, lifted the cup into the air and shouted, “Waiter! Another!”
No one paid any attention to him. The small campus house was packed full of people, loud music thudding against the walls, high-pitched laughing drowning out any voice that dared to talk.
“You’re not yourself today, Ace,” Danny said, looking out into the crowd. A woman in a short denim skirt walked by. Danny’s gaze followed her ass.
He was right—I wasn’t myself today. Or maybe I wasn’t myself the other 364 days of the year. I didn’t know anymore. I wasn’t sure I cared, either.
“Well?” He turned toward me, forcing my eyes to his face.
I grinned as I bounced the empty can of beer on my knee. “Well, what?”
“What did you get up to last night?”
The honest answer to that simple question would brew a cauldron of trouble all on its own. So, I lied.
“Bullshit. You look like you went on a bender with David Lee Roth.”
“So, what the hell did you get up to? Probably stayed up all night having a freaky three-way with those two chicks from Sociology 101 who can’t get enough of that blond hair of yours.”
This time my grin was genuine. “Oh, yeah. No one can resist this face.”
Danny snorted. “Yeah, sure. The only reason women ever talk to you is because you hang out with me. We both know I’m the hot one.”
I rolled my eyes and he shoved me, laughing.
Danny was probably right. I’d been told more than once that I gave off an unapproachable vibe, whatever the hell that meant. Besides, Danny was good-looking. He had dark mahogany-colored hair and one of those infectious smiles that drew people to him.
“Aw, don’t pout.” He ruffled my hair. “It’s not that people don’t talk to you because you’re not hot too, it’s just because everyone thinks you’re a serial killer.”
“Why are you getting a degree in business? You should be a comedian.”
“A dad joke—nice. You should meet my dad. You two could prank call folks and ask if their refrigerators are running.”
I flipped him off while smiling.
“But seriously,” he continued, “what are you doing for Thanksgiving? Do you want to come home with me?”
I choked on the beer I’d just cracked.
“Not like that, you perv,” he said. “Just for the week. I’m heading back, and god only knows you’ll probably go on a crazed murdering spree without me around to keep you in line. You should come with me. Some fresh air will do your mopey ass some good.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
It wasn’t entirely true. I’d already thought about it and decided I’d rather stay on campus—alone. This time of the year was never easy on me, and even though I knew Danny was joking when he jabbed me about it, it was obvious that he thought I felt down.
I wasn’t down.
I was worse than down.
And I wouldn’t drag Danny and his family into the pit with me by tagging along. The damaged kid without a family to go home to on the holidays.
“What’s there to think about? Mountains, fresh air, turkey dinner, and, uh, moose, I guess. Maybe some deer wandering around. Probably some beavers because—hey—it’s Canada.”
“I hear beavers run wild in the streets there.”
Danny nodded. “It’s true. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.”
I began to say something when a young woman stopped in front of us. She was short and pretty, with light brown hair and a green T-shirt that matched her eyes.
“You guys are in my calc class, right?” she asked.
Hell if I knew. Those classes were huge, and I didn’t exactly spend a lot of time memorizing the faces of all the other students.
“Oh, yeah!” Danny chimed in, sitting up a little straighter. He nudged me with his elbow. “We both are. I’ve seen you there.”
“He has,” I said, standing. “He told me he thought you were hot.”
Total bullshit, but what were best friends for?
The woman giggled, a blush rising from her neck to her cheeks. “I’m Amanda.”
“I’m Danny.” He outstretched his hand to shake hers.
“I’m going to get a drink,” I said.
Slipping away from them, I pushed my way through the full crowd of people toward the kitchen. Lined up against the walls were rows of students laughing, touching, smiling. Everyone looked happy, enveloped in each other. A group of people jumped around in the middle of a cleared-out space in the wide living room. A string of Christmas lights hung along the corner of the ceiling, leading to a flickering strobe light spewing out every color of the rainbow.
The bass of the thundering music made my head ache.
The smiles on other people’s faces made my heart ache.
In the kitchen, the music wasn’t as loud. The lights were all on and only a few people leaned against the counters as they sipped their drinks and talked to one another.
One of Danny’s friends rented the house—not that you actually had to know anyone to show up at one of these parties. It was located just on the outskirts of campus housing and had a bit of a reputation for having parties every weekend.
I yanked the door of the fridge open. When I leaned in to grab a can of beer off the top shelf, someone bumped into me.
“Shit, sorry,” a voice behind me said.
I grabbed a beer, closed the fridge, and turned toward the voice. “No problem.”
The voice belonged to a guy a few inches shorter than me with rusty-brown hair and a piercing in the side of his nostril. When he caught my eye, he stared at me a few moments too long.
“You go to school here?” he asked, shoving his hands into his pockets. His jeans were so tight that I was honestly a little surprised he could perform the action so casually.
“Yeah,” I replied, cracking back the tab of the beer and taking a sip.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him watching me.
“What are you taking?” He licked his lips nervously.
Maybe Danny was wrong. Maybe I was the hot one.
“Business,” I replied.
“Oh, cool. So, you want to go into sales?”
No. Not even a little bit. I hated business. I hated every second I spent inside those classrooms. But I wasn’t about to tell that to the kid looking at me with ultramarine eyes and a nearly opaque shirt.
“Sure,” I said.
I almost felt bad for making no effort at all.
My heart just wasn’t in it. Especially not today.
“Maybe we’ll end up working together.” He flashed me a shy smile. “I’m going into advertising.”
“Advertising?” I invested a few seconds toward polishing off the rest of the can of beer and then tossed it into the sink. “But you look like you have a soul.”
He tossed his head back and laughed.
“Drinking tonight?” I asked.
He looked up at me through his long, russet-colored lashes. “Not too much.” Emphasis on too.
“I’ve got to tell my friend I’m leaving.”
Something hot flashed in his gaze, and I knew I’d made the right choice. Something pretty to get my mind off of everything—off of the date on the calendar. At least for a few hours.
“Okay. I’ll come with you.” He laced his fingers with mine—which I quickly untangled.
“It’d be best if we met out back in five.”
“Oh,” he replied.
That “oh.” I’d heard that sound too many times to count. The surprise in their voices, the dollop of pity mixed with a thin sliver of excitement.
“You’re not out?” he pressed.
Stone-faced, I looked down at him. “No.”
“But you do like men?”
“Do you want to find out?”
He gave me a slow once-over, starting at my Converse sneakers and ending at my eyes. “Oh, yeah.”
“Then meet me out back. Five minutes.”
I slipped past him without waiting for a reply. If he wasn’t there, I’d understand. I wasn’t good company.
People could see the storm cloud hanging over my head and the phantom at my back. They could hear the shattered glass clanking in my throat when I spoke, see a void in my eyes when my gaze met their own.
I was broken now, and I was utterly unfixable.
Someone turned up the music after I walked back into the living room. The crowd cheered. People screamed at each other about how it was their song. Someone grabbed my hand and said something to me I couldn’t hear. I smiled and slipped out of her grip.
My head buzzed.
My skin tingled.
Maybe it was electricity.
Maybe I was on fire.
By the time I’d reached Danny, the young woman from our class—whose name I’d already forgotten—sat on his lap. He whispered something into her ear and she laughed.
“Hey, Ace,” Danny said when I stopped in front of them.
“I’m heading out.”
“What? Already?” Danny got that look on his face that he had sometimes when he thought someone wasn’t having a good time. A people pleaser, Danny.
“Might’ve met someone.”
Immediately the distressed look on his face slipped away and he grinned. “Didn’t take you long. It’s that fucking hair, I’m telling you.”
“See you Monday?”
“Fuck that. I’m stopping by your room tomorrow to get all the gory details. And don’t give me any bullshit excuse about studying. We both know you study all the time.”
I shrugged. “Don’t come over before ten.”
Danny saluted me, huge grin on his face. “Aye, aye, Captain.”
By the time I had the pretty redhead under me, I’d almost forgotten what day it was. By the time I left his apartment, I felt like throwing up.
I would never be the same.