Mascot Girl

Brie Merritt is the small town girl who can’t cry. With a dark past and a damaged mind, she seeks self-reinvention in California. Brie dives head first into Greek life without even knowing the most basic things about pledging. She is recruited by the ‘leftovers’, a sorority that doesn’t fit into the perfect, wealthy, Californian box. Brie is forced to be the sorority’s Mascot Girl, a secret title, with peculiar responsibilities. Despite Brie’s new found glory and friends, her childhood best friend is never far from her thoughts. Piece by piece, a love triangle unfolds, and things couldn’t possibly be more complicated. As Brie unfolds the wings of destiny, she is tormented by blood-stained memories of the past.

In a journey of love, masks, destiny, friendship, and scars, Brie must face her demons to be reborn. Brie uncovers the answer to an ironic riddle: ‘Is there is no place like home?’

Happy Reading.

 

mascot girl

(chapters 1-10)

A Blog Series

Written By: R.L. Lib

Chapter 1

Painted Faces

Every time I close my eyes I see Dad’s the back of Dad’s head as he exits my dorm room. Reality hadn’t sunk in until that moment. I thought that I was brave. Maybe I’m not. At least I can’t cry.

“Just hold still,” Leah demanded as she glided her spongy eye shadow applicator across my closed eye. “Your eye is twitching.”

“I’m trying.” I raised my eyebrows and held my breath. This should help, right? I wasn’t meant for this.

“Ugh, girl, whatever,” Leah huffed. “This is as good as it gets. You can look now.”

I opened my eyes and gasped. There, in the full length mirror, was a girl who looked exactly like a familiar photograph. That one portrait that hangs in my grandparents’ spare room. I remember lying on the stiff twin bed during my summer visits and having imaginary conversations with that girl. I would speak, and she would answer me in my own thoughts. I would never tell anyone about those moments where I allowed a sliver of insanity to take the wheel in my mind. I almost believed it was real now and again. Like I was really talking to her.

Leah had applied a layer of thick, creamy, foundation, which made my skin feel like porcelain. She said that it was expensive. It covered up the spatter of freckles I was accustomed to. I ran my fingers over my smooth cheeks.  I blinked my lashes, noticing the new heaviness of mascara. I couldn’t believe the twenty minutes Leah spent on my face could transform such a blank page into someone else.

“Don’t touch, you’ll mess it up.”

I glanced at Leah, who had her hand resting on her wide hip. She flipped her thin hair over her shoulder and did a single nod of approval. The curls she spent hours spraying into place had already fallen out. I didn’t want to tell her.

“You are good at this,” I commented, admiring the way the gray metallic shadow enhanced my ice-blue eyes. “Your makeup looks amazing, too, by the way. You look so pretty!” Just don’t look in the mirror. Your hair looks like shit, I added in my mind.

“Thanks,” Leah said with a sideway grin.

“I only do gloss and powder normally. When I was in plays in school, I just had costume people do it. But stage makeup is way different than this, I just, I don’t know. I had no one to teach me this stuff, growing up.”

“Oh I know, honey.” A look of sympathy flashed on Leah’s face. I get that look a lot.

“I guess I lucked out rooming with an art major,” I said fluffing my hair.

My hair was almost dry and much more blonde. Leah talked me into dying it from my dish water natural color, to pale light blond. She said I should do anything possible to stand out from the other pledges. I wondered if my dad would recognize me. For that matter, would Nash? I bet he would know it was me, but give me a lot of crap. My lips curved at the thought.

“Well, you know that you’re going to have to learn how to do makeup yourself. If you join a sorority, there will be a lot of reasons to have to wear dresses and makeup.” Leah gave me a wink and walked over to her closet, which was right next to mine. She slid clothes down the bar, and clinked them together, mumbling about how she had nothing to wear.

I arose from the floor and sighed. Thinking about that picture made me want to curl up for a bit and think. There was nowhere I could go to be alone, and at that moment, I craved solitude. Our dorm room was tiny; just a bunk bed, two desks, two closets, and a window. We were waiting for her parents to buy her a new television since hers cracked on move in day four weeks ago. I didn’t have a television to bring, but Leah said not to worry about it. We didn’t decorate much, like some of the other girls did on our floor. I noticed that other girls had mini fridges in their rooms, but not Leah and me. Leah said that it would be too tempting and that she’s counting weight watchers points. That was fine by me; I was in no need of a mini fridge. Food and I have quite a relationship.

“I don’t know how I’m going to do this,” I said peering out of the smudged window. “I don’t have money for a sorority. They have to be expensive. Plus, I don’t have dressy clothes.”

“I would lend you some of my clothes, but…” Leah trailed off and giggled looking at herself in the mirror. She yanked on her black leggins and pulled down her gray cotton dress. She sighed. “They wouldn’t fit you. Ugh! My hair looks like a rat’s ass.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t do this,” I mumbled, lowering my head. I stared at my scuffed sneakers. They never looked the same after Nash threw me into the river. I should nag him to buy me new ones.

“Brie, now come on, girl. If you don’t want to join, then don’t. But at least experience rush week!”

“I want to,” I said looking back up at Leah, “but I don’t know if I can. Even if I make it in, I probably wouldn’t be able to pay dues. I can’t buy any makeup, and I can’t even apply it!”

I knew that my eyes should swell with tears because of how pathetic I sounded. Alas, my eyes were as dry as bones. At the funeral, I cried. I cried a lot. And screamed. And vomited. I was humiliated. I’m not sure why I cared what other people thought, but I did. There was nothing I could do, I was out of control of my emotions. My dad let me borrow his sunglasses to hide my red swollen eyes. I wore them indoors. Even at night. Sunglasses never left my face for a good six months. I haven’t cried ever since the moment I took them off. Then one day, I realized that I couldn’t cry. Not real tears, anyway.

“Brie, listen, I told you that some sororities have scholarships and you could apply. If all else fails, my dad could help. He’s always sponsoring some kid or other for this or that. Why not you?”

“No, I couldn’t Leah.” I shook my head.

“Don’t be so proud,” Leah said crinkling her nose. “If people want to give you something, take it.”

I tucked my lips inside of my mouth. Leah had no idea what it was like to take hand outs. But I held my tongue.

“ I just want to do this together, it would be so fun.” Leah said, struggling to button a fuzzy pink sweater.

“I know, I want to do it, too. It’s just, um, there are so many things working against me right now.” I bet Leah didn’t hear the word ‘no’ a lot, as her face was flushing red.

“When I am pledging, I won’t be here in the room a lot,” Leah stepped into two ankle boots. She looked at me and shrugged. “You might get lonely. But it’s up to you. I’m leaving in like five minutes, with or without you.”

I stared at the brick wall that was coated in thick white paint. “Okay, Leah. Okay. I’ll see what Charlene has that I could maybe borrow. I’m not going to go in these fugly sneakers.”

Leah made a sound of excitement and turned on her heel. Her shoes clicked into the hallway. I guessed she was going to ask Charlene for me. That’s just how she is.

Chapter 2

shoes

First Rush

My cheeks hurt from smiling and my teeth were dry from being exposed so much. I didn’t know that that was possible. My feet screamed with each click of my borrowed heels. They were blistered from walking sorority row. I looked at the last house on our list: Theta Gamma Nu.

It was constructed with large cylinder blocks and painted steel gray. There was a large balcony, held up by four pillars which had vines winding around them, blooming with vibrant pink flowers. It was like a fairy’s castle. As we walked up the few stairs, there was a sugary aroma. It must have been coming from the flowers that were sprinkled in front of the grand porch. A white banner was hung with a silk ribbon above the door and had a hand-painted “Welcome”. After Fifteen sororities, they were all starting to look the same. This house was like a diamond among rocks.

A girl with rectangular glasses was standing in front of the door. I wondered where all the other pledges were. It was quiet.

The girl greeted Leah, Char, and me with a large smile, revealing a gap in her front teeth. I felt my tense muscles relax at the sight of her. She was different from the straight spine models that welcomed us in the other sorority houses. This girl had rosy cheeks and crinkles next to her eyes. I found myself smiling back at her. The real kind of smile.

“Welcome, ladies. I’m Caroline Stevenson. Come in!”

Caroline opened their large red door and escorted us inside.

“I’m Leah McCloud.”

“Nice to meet you, Leah! And what are your names?” Caroline placed her hand upon my upper back and guided us into a formal living room. Normally, I don’t like to be touched. But I didn’t slink away. It was as if I had been there before and Caroline and I had known each other since kindergarten.

“I’m Brianne Merrit.”  My mouth was dry from repeating my name so many times. I cleared my throat. “I go by Brie.”

“Welcome to Theta Gamma Nu!” Caroline guided us to an antiquated couch with velvety pink cushions. I sat down and heard the springs squeak. I glanced around. In the center of the large squared coffee table was a vase of lilacs, which offered a calming perfume to the air. There was a chandier in the center of the room that was painted in gold and had dangling crystals. The day light cascaded through the crystals, emitting miniature rainbows on the wallpaper.

“I’m Charlene Crane. Char is fine.”  I could hear Char practically roll her eyes with her words. I glanced at Char and raised my eyebrow. She ignored me.

I saw a cluster of pledges walk in with, what I presumed, was another member of Theta Gamma Nu. I wondered why there were fewer pledges streaming through the door. The other sororities were much busier.

“Okay, girls, I’ll make this short and simple. I’m sure that your brains are swimming with info and we’re usually the last on people’s lists because we are the last house on the road. Let’s do a quickie overview, okay?”

I leaned forward and nodded. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Char sit back on the couch and sink down. Leah mumbled ‘sure’ and peeked at her cell phone.

“Okay, so, out of all the sororities, we are the most diverse of the lot. We do have a lot of Fine Arts majors, but we also have business majors, anthropology, gender studies…Just a little dash of everything. We embrace diversity; it is one of the most important things to us. Does that sound like something you might be interested in?”

“Yes,” I said giving Caroline and grin.

Leah gave a weak ‘mmhm’ and Char didn’t respond.

Caroline eyed Char and said, “Okay, we are looking for pledges who embrace that concept, first and foremost. We also are the kind of people who enjoy giving back. We do a lot of volunteering in the woman’s shelter and other things like that. Not because we have to, but because we want to. We are the bleeding heart type here. Does that sound interesting?”

There was an awkward silence. I didn’t know what to say.

“I do stuff like that at home with my parents,” Leah offered.

“Good! Well, you would fit right in.”

“I’m sorry, Caroline; I haven’t done that stuff before. I didn’t have much time in high school, I was stretched thin,” I admitted.

Caroline nodded her head. “Oh, that’s okay! Were you in lots of clubs and things?”

“I mean,” I continued, “I had to work part-time when I turned sixteen to save for college. I didn’t spend any of it, so I was able to save up enough for living expenses for the first year. I have a scholarship for my tuition.”

“Oh really? What kind?”

“Um, it’s not all that glamorous,” I said, rubbing the back of my neck. “It’s actually a financial hardship scholarship. I had to write an essay, so, based on some of the circumstances of my childhood, they picked me. Full ride to Baylor U.”

“Oh,” Caroline answered, with a sheepish grin. “Shall I give you ladies a tour of the house?”

We followed Caroline through the foyer, passing the dark redwood grand staircase. There was a chandier in the foyer, like the one in the living room, only much larger. There had to be at least twenty light bulbs illuminating thousands of glittering crystals. I glanced at the door and imaged myself returning from class and walking into the stunning foyer. It would take some getting used to that is for sure. Have I saved up enough money to afford this? When did we get to talk dollar signs?

A few hours later, I was back in my dorm room. I was lying on my bed, the top bunk, when Char knocked on our door. It was already open so, she slid inside.

“Hey,” Leah said from her bed below me.

“Hi. Brie, are you done with my stuff?” Char tapped her foot.

“Oh ya,” I said shimmying down off of my bed. “I put them on my desk. Thanks again for letting me borrow. Holy hell, I’m not wearing heels in at least five years.”

“I can run in heels,” Char said. I handed her dress and shoes.

“I can’t wait to be a sorority sister, already,” Leah said to no one in particular. “I wish there was a way to move into the houses next semester. How are we going to wait a whole year?”

“Who are you going to put as your top three, Leah?” Char asked.”I already know mine. I’m sure I’ll get into Pi Delta Xi.”

“I don’t know, I’m still thinking about it. I liked so many of them! Especially Omega Sigma Sigma.”

Char snorted. “Ya, good luck with that one. That is like the hardest sorority to get into. Everyone wants to be an Omega. I heard even legacies get turned away, sometimes.”

“Well, you never know! My dad does know the vice president’s dad. We talked about it, so I felt that connection.”

“I definitely liked Theta Gamma Nu the most,” I said.

“What?” Char shrieked.

“You can’t be serious; I’m putting them last on my list for sure!” Leah said sitting straight up.

“Huh?” I crossed my arms. “Why?”

“I’m not putting them on my list at all,” Char shook her head. “That’s like, the reject sorority. Everyone makes fun of them. They call the girls ‘The Leftovers’ because it’s essentially a house full of girls that didn’t fit anywhere else. Diversity, my ass. That was a nice little way Carla described it. Even she knows the truth.”

“Her name was Caroline, actually, and I liked them a lot.”

“They liked you, too, Brie,” Char said with a sneer.  “I bet no girl as pretty as you has ever stuck around for all the phases of the tour. I got out of there as quickly as I could.”

“You have to be kidding, they were so real. So laid back. I would never have believed they were ‘the leftovers’ or whatever you called them.”

“You got it right,” Char said, her eyes locked into mine. “They are the leftovers.”

“You really are from Kansas, aren’t you, Brie Merritt?” Leah said with a voice dripping with condensation.

“Rivertown, Kansas. Yes,” I murmured. I knew where this was going.

“Well,” Char snickered. “You know what they say. ‘You aren’t in Kansas anymore’, darling.”

Char and Leah giggled as I reached up to my bed to retrieve my phone. I flashed a tight lipped smile and headed for our floor’s common area.

Gee, that is so original, Char! Please tell me where you get all that cunning wit, I thought to myself. I shook my head as I scrolled through my contacts.

I held my phone up to my ear and ginned when I heard his voice. He sounded just like home. No hip southern California accent, no fake happiness, no patronizing.

“Merritt! What’s up, beeotch?”

“James Nash. How are you?”

“Fine. Same shit, different toilet.”

“What does that even mean?”

Pause.

“I don’t know, Merritt! I think it means, I’m still working at the shop, still going to night school, still drinking with the guy’s at Billy’s parents’ house. It’s only been, what, a month since you left? Nothing has changed.”

“Is it fall break yet?” I said with a moan. What I would give to crack open a beer and warm my feet by a Billy’s bonfire at that moment.

“Break? You just got there!” Nash chuckled.

“Ya I know,” I said as I found a couch in the corner and crashed down on the cushions. I curled my legs into my chest and gazed out the window at the gray sky. Streams of rain water drizzled down the glass. “But I live in an entire dorm full of girls. Girls, Nash! Girls.”

“That don’t sound too bad to me! Tell me more. Midnight pillow fights keeping you awake, or something?”

“Eh, I walked right into that one, didn’t I?”

“Shutup, I’m giving you a hard time. Man, that must suck, you’re used having your space. I guess you now know how it felt for me sharing my room with my brother. And that’s much worse than girls, Merritt, trust me. He smells like farts and garbage.”

“No, I mean, I’m not really, like, a girl who understands girls. I don’t even have that many girlfriends at home. Just you, the guys. Oh and Tabitha. How is Tabitha?”

“Oh, shit!” Nash yelled. I had to pull the phone away from my ear a bit. “I forgot to tell you.”

“You have busted my eardrum, idiot. Oh and speaking of destroying you totally owe me a new pair of shoes, by the way. I look homeless in the ones I have, you destroyed them pushing me into the lake.”

“Brie, shutup, I forgot to tell you. Tabitha and I broke up.”

My phone slid from my fingers and fell on to the couch. I grabbed it and just stared, wide eyed,

window. A streak of light sliced through the gray and a rumble of thunder followed, making the couch vibrate.

“W-what?”

06d5efdf45c852ba7d1d5a188520209e

Chapter 3

The World is a Stage

The cafeteria smelled like fish today. My stomach turned and twisted in a loop at the scent. I walked over to our normal spot and plopped down. We had a routine for dinner, the Valentine Hall girls of floor number 3. I dreaded our pseudo family dinner most of the day. In front of them, I had to eat like a normal nineteen year old girl, who is fashionably watching her weight. Good thing I was an actress.

I reached into my pocket and retrieved my phone. A few taps later, I pulled up my calorie tracker app. I was already at 500 calories. That damned bagel! On Tuesdays, I got 900 calories, Wednesday 1,000 and so on. What could I eat for 300 calories? I felt my nerves tingling.

“Hey Brie,” Leah said as she sat down. “How was class?”

“Oh, class was class. I had to act like a dolphin in Theatre Acting 3132. My throat still feels gruff from it.”

Leah’s forehead wrinkled. “Girl, how do you do that? You seem so, I don’t know.”

“Reserved?”

“That’s the word.”

“Well, it’s easy because I’m not me,” I said fumbling with my wallet. What was I going to go buy to eat? “I’m a dolphin.”

“I would be mortified,” Leah said with a chuckle.

“Oh I love it. Drama club in high school was like an oxygen tank to me. I got to hide in plain sight. People saw me and heard me, but it was always someone else.”

“Okay, dolphin girl, let’s go. I need to see what 10 weight watchers points can buy me today, because I am hungry!”

My heart sped up as I entered the cafeteria. There were ten different windows, all of which offered different things. Tacos here, hot wings there. I didn’t like to eat meals. I liked to nibble throught the day when no one was watching. Eating in front of others was like being naked. My dad never forced us to do the family dinner thing. I think he mostly ate toast and oatmeal in front of his TV in the den. He never bothered to learn how to cook after the shocking death of my mother. I guess I was supposed to do that, right? Oops.

We walked back to the table and I set down my plain salad with light honey mustard down next to my unsweetened iced tea. Char and the others were already there, talking all at once and all excited. There were fifteen girls from my floor. Why are the only two available seats by Char and Krissy? I think I could guess the reason.

“Can you believe that tonight is top three?” Krissy Ferro, Char’s roommate asked. Krissy ran her fingers through her shoulder length, thick blonde waves. It looked like she had gotten her highlights done and a french manicure. I wondered what it was like to go to a salon.

“No, I’m still a little confused,” I said drizzling my honey mustard on my salad. “I’m not sure how it works.”

“They gave everyone a packet at sign up,” Char said as she bit into a garlic cheese fry, “did they teach you how to read in Kansas?”

Krissy giggled and whacked Char’s arm. “Charlene, stop being a bitch. It’s okay, Kansas, I’ll explain it to you.”

Oh no, my brain screamed. For the love of God, don’t let the nickname Kansas stick! I left that state for a reason.

“You know,” I said stabbing my lettuce, “my friends back home call me Merritt. I actually don’t mind that nickname. It’s kind of cute, like–” I trailed off. I didn’t know how to politely correct someone. Was there a way to do that? I flashed a toothy smile.

“Um, okay,” Krissy said, exchanging a look with Char. “Anyway, there are nineteen sororities. The way that B.U. does their rush is simple. You do the meet and greet, that’s what we did yesterday. I hope you went home and listed your sororities in order. Number one would be your favorite, and so on. The next day, which is today, you go visit your top three and let them kind of get to know you more and display your interest.”

“I’m so excited! I just want to be a sister. Like right now! Ever since I was a little girl and now it’s happening,” Leah said with starry eyes.

“ So, I’m definitely going to Omega Sigma Sigma first!” Krissy said holding up her hand and crossing her fingers.

“Thanks for explaining that,” I said. I took a big gulp of water. I needed two more before my next bite.

“Anyway, so, after top three, you submit your formal list to the Sorority Life Campus Committee, the SLC.”

“I get it, I do. I just don’t get the bidding process. I mean, how the sororities vote.”

“They have their own lists of favorite pledges,” Leah explained. “So the SLC matches everyone based on mutual ’likes’. Almost everyone will get into something, because you have to compose your list of all nineteen sororities. So at least one out of the nineteen will make a bid. And since you had to list all of the sororities from favorite to least favorite, you might even get stuck with your nineteenth choice.”

“Or no one bids on you at all,” Char added. “Then you won’t get into a sorority.”

“Don’t say that!” Leah said, slapping her hand on the table. “Girls, I’m out of here, I can’t even be around this kind of negative talk. Not get in? That is like my worst nightmare.” Leah got up and made way for the door, leaving her tray. I don’t think she knows that she should take it to the garbage. I always end up doing it for her.

“Don’t worry about it,” Char yelled, calling after Leah. She gave me a wink. “That’s what Theta Gamma Nu is for. Leftovers!”

Krissy whacked Char again. “You are so bad!” They both giggled.

“Well,” I said getting up and stacking my tray on top of Leah’s. “I hope we are all placed with the right people in the right house. Good luck tonight girls.”

The rest of Valentine Hall Floor 3 girls gave me smiles and thank yous and you toos.

“Good luck, Brie,” Char said with a thin lipped smile.

“You too,” I said heading for the garbage can. You nasty little bitch, I added in my head. I threw away our trays and stared into the slimy garbage can. This would make a perfect house for Char, my wicked little thoughts joked. Sigma Garbage Pi. Home of the thin bitches with crooked noses.

                I laughed out loud and I caught curious glances from the table next to the garbage. I wondered how I must look, laughing while looking into a garbage can all by myself.

I suddenly wished I could be a dolphin again.

A few hours later, I was walking up the steps to the fairy tale castle. This time with less makeup. This time alone. I felt my heart racing under my hot pink Baylor University sweatshirt that my grandma bought me when I was accepted. It still smelled like her house, a little, and a wave of homesickness followed when I thought about it.

I was annoyed that I had to wear my smelly lake sneakers. It was a little bit chilly in November for flip flops. That’s all I had. Lake shoes and Old Navy flip flops. Damn it, Nash. As if on cue, my phone vibrated in my pocket and I heard the muffled melody of Spice Girls Wannabe coming from my back pocket. I reached back and yanked out my phone. It was a shame that I had to answer and put a stop to my ring tone. Mental note, listen to Spice Girls when I get back. Leah had to know my amazing taste in music at some point. I slid the green button over.

“Hey Tabitha!” I said, strolling back to the side walk. I was early, but even if I wasn’t, I was waiting for this call all day. “How are you? How’s New York?”

“Rainy and smelly,” Tabitha said. Her familiar monotone, low voice made me smile.

“Sorry to hear. But hey, what the hell happened with you and Nash? I talked to him yesterday, but you know boys, he didn’t really didn’t explain anything. Not that you, I mean, you don’t have to explain to me or anything. I just thought I would know right away, but it still says ‘relationship’ on Facebook. I had no idea.”

“No that’s okay, that’s why I’m calling you. I got all your texts, but this is a phone conversation.”

“Oh boy,” I said twirling my silver heart necklace around my index finger.

“Yes. It reminds me of you and Jesse’s break up.”

“Nash did not cheat on you with Natasha Springer!”

“No-no,” Tabitha paused. “Not that part of it. That part that you told me about. Like you just felt like extremely close friends, like, there was no romance anymore. I am so busy here at school, it’s only my first semester and you saw how long it took me to return your call.”

“You felt like you feel out of love and into like with him? Why didn’t you tell me? When did this happen?”

“Well, I wasn’t going to tell you, when I couldn’t even tell myself. We both felt it, and me moving away, it fizzled out faster than I ever thought possible.”

“Aw!” I said, kicking a stray pebble on the sidewalk. “Tabitha, you were the couple that we all thought would make it. You were the homecoming King and Queen. Wait till this gets around town.”

“It’s a good thing that I’m not there. I have kind of unplugged from social media as well, so ya. I do feel bad for James.”

“Oh, he’ll be alright. He’s never cared what people think, that’s part of his homecoming king charm. Right?”

Pause. I could hear the background noise of New York City traffic from southern California through my phone. I felt a twinge of embarresment.

“I guess so.”

“Sorry, Tabitha. Damn, that was a dumb thing, I just really don’t know what to say here.”

“I completely understand that, Brie. We were so close. The three amigos. This must be very strange for you.”

“I was supposed to be your maid of honor and his best man in your wedding. Billy Neilson was going to be the flower girl.” I smiled at the memory of our long running joke.

Tabitha snickered. Then pause. More New York City traffic. Then a sniff. A sob.“Brie, I miss you. I miss the guys. My cat Pickles. I miss Rivertown, I really, really do.”

“Tabitha,” I said staring at the bubbling fountain in front of Theta Gamma Nu. “You were never meant to only stay in that town, settle and marry Nash, and have a bundle of Nash-juniors. You are a star. Never forget who you are. Okay?”

“Thank you, Brie.” Tabitha blew her nose. “As much as I miss Kansas, I know I’m in the right place doing the right thing. Adjusting to the city is hard, but I know I can do it. I’m so happy. I’m scared at how happy I am, you know.”

“No, not really. Allow yourself to be happy!”

“I feel guilty. It’s like, I should be more devastated about the end of my first love. The guy who took me to dances. Gave me my first kiss. Carved my name into a tree. He did that you know! That’s like from a movie, or something, but that James when he wasn’t around his buddies. We danced under the stars on my birthday. He saw me sick and ugly as hell and didn’t care. I should miss him, but I just really miss you and my cat.”

I laughed even though I felt like a sharp rip in my heart. Why did it feel like Tabitha was breaking up with me? Maybe, in a way, she was.

“We are both where we need to be right now.” My eyes were fixed on Theta Gamma Nu. “There is always summer. We will have so much to catch up on and–”

“That is, if I come home for summer,” Tabitha interjected.

“We will keep in touch,” I argued.

“Ya,” Tabitha said. She wasn’t such a good actress.

“Well, I need to go, I have this sorority top three thingy tonight, so. Call me soon!”

“Brie, you know that you’re the real star, right? Not me. But thanks for saying that earlier. I really needed to hear that today. But it’s not true. I may have been the queen of Rivertown High, but you were the star. You have more talent in your pinky than the whole school put together. You’ll have to remember the little people from Rivertown, Kansas when you get your first Oscar.”

“Wow, thanks.”

I heard the phone click. I looked down and it said “call ended”. I wasn’t sure if one of us lost service or if Tabitha had decided, at that moment, that the conversation needed to end.

I walked toward the red, welcoming door of Theta. Maybe one door was closing with Tabitha, but I watched as the door was physically was opening for me.

Caroline sashayed out and waved. Her short, wavy hair bounced as she waved. She was holding a clipboard and had a number 2 pencil tucked behind her ear. She was cute. There is no other way to describe her. She was just so cute.

“Brie! Welcome back, so happy to see you.” Caroline threw her spare arm around me and I felt warmth radiate through my heart.

“You remembered my name.” I said as I walked into the foyer. I gleamed at the clusters of strangers who all waved at me, as if they had known me forever. “I forgot to wear that name tag. And sorry I didn’t really dress up. Everyone looks so nice, I just had such a packed day of classes…”

“Of course I remembered your name. I’m sure we all do.” Caroline wrapped her arm around my shoulder and stood on her tip-toes to whisper in my ear. “You were our top bid. But don’t tell anyone I told you, I’d get in such trouble. I just don’t want you to worry. I remember being a nervous wreck.”

Caroline pulled away and gave my shoulder a little squeeze. Someone put a glass of champagne in my hand and a few of the sisters came to greet me. I looked around. I couldn’t understand how Delta’s were the leftovers. They looked as Caroline described it: diverse. Different nationalities, different, sizes, different styles of clothes. Some girls had percings and tattoos, while others wore heels and pearls. There was one girl who had a streak of blue hair, tattoos and heels with pearls.

The energy was relaxed, like an invisible calm, trickling river was flowing through the house. Maybe these were my people. My best friends were the queen and king of the school and my other drama best friends were the only trangender girl in Rivertown.

No one could define Brianne Merritt. She was a Cosette in Les Miserales, Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray, and yes, the cliché Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.( I could never let Char find out about that last one.) But as an actress, no one saw the real me. I was a shell. That was safe and cozy for me. I let only closest friends saw glimmers of the real me. But it was only the tip of the ice berg.

I had so many secrets. Some dark, acidic, puss-oozing  ecrets. I took a sip of my champagne as I made small talk with the sisters and other pledges. I felt my stomach growl as the dry, bubbly, liquid poured down my throat.

I told my stomach to shut up.

An old Ford farmtruck abandoned in a field in western Kansas.

An old Ford farmtruck abandoned in a field in western Kansas.

 

Chapter 4

I heard snoring from the beat up plaid couch. Dad sounded like what would happen if a pig and a trumpet crossbred somehow. On my tiptoes, I crept past him. I snuck up the stairs and creaked open my door. I kept my lights off and walked to my dresser, stubbing my toe on my chair. I fumbled for my battery powered lantern and switched it on.

I sat dresser and peered into the mirror. I adjusted the lantern on the dresser’s surface so that my face lit up. My face looked pretty, I thought. Leah graciously gave me a bag full of hand me down makeup. Of course, I couldn’t put it on the way that she did, but I was trying. I was beginning to enjoy taking a little more time to primp. Besides, my therapist suggested that self-care be more of priority. Plus, it made me look like her. And why wouldn’t I want to look like her, if given the chance? She was stunning. She always would be, too. Now all that is left of her are pictures and a pinch of ashes that I keep in my heart shaped locket. Mrs. Rosalee Merritt was forever young. Like Marilyn Monroe. My heart panged at the comparison. I shoved my thoughts back where they belonged.

I cleared my throat and closed my eyes. They reopened and I saw fire burning within blue irises. I can do this, I instructed myself.

“What’s here?” My face lit up with shock. “A cup, closed in my true love’s hand? Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.”

I stared into my own eyes. Water, dammit! I demanded. Professor Rintswill won’t give me a part in the final if I can’t produce tears. Everyone can produce tears, for Christ’s sake.

“O churl, drunk all, and left no friendly drop to help me after?” My face twisted in pain and my neck sprouted red splotches. “I will kiss thy lips. Haply some poison yet doth hang on them, To make me die with a restorative.” Dry eyes.

Just then, I heard a crash in my room and I jumped from my chair, knocking it over. My hands flew to my mouth and I screamed. I spun around.

“Good evening, Juliet Montague,” Nash said. He was no more than a tall shadow by my window in my dimly lit room.

“Nash!” I growled. I stomped towards my door and flipped the light switch. “You scared the shit out of me. How long have you been there?”

I squinted as my eyes adjusted. Nash had on his favorite camo baseball cap and his distressed jeans. Unlike my new Californian friends, his jeans weren’t torn and faded purchased from a designer store, they were like that from horseback riding and four wheeling.

“Just a few. Did I scare you?”

I stared at him for a moment, hands on hips. He was wearing that famous James Devon Nash smile that made all the girls in Rivertown bat their eyes and giggle.

“Yes, clearly, asswipe. Hence the scream!”

Nash raised an eyebrow. “Hey. You look…weird.”

“Gee thanks,” I said shifting my weight to my other foot. I smoothed down my lightened hair. I forgot that he hadn’t seen my makeover yet.

“Oh, man,” Nash said. “Sorry, I sometimes forget you are a girl and have feelings and shit.”

“No I don’t!” I lied. “So, you know, there is this thing called a cellphone.”

“I know. I lost it.”

“Again?”

“Shutup, Merritt! So I saw your light on and I wanted to sneak for old time’s sake.”

“Well, you almost killed me with your nostalgia.”

“Your sarcasm is killin’ me.”

I made a face and held my lips together. I couldn’t let him see me smile.

Nash reached down next to his foot and I heard a crinkling sound. He lifted up a plastic bag.

“Here,” he said, coming towards me. “I saw Trina at the pool hall and he…damn, I’m sorry…she told me your size.”

I opened the box that had Nike written on the top and pulled out two hot pink running shoes that had a bright teal Nike sign and lining. I felt my jaw drop a little.

“Woa these are so cute!” I immediately pulled out the stuffing and slid my bare feet inside. “You picked these out?” I ran in place a few times to test them out.

Nash removed his cap and raked his fingers through his dark blond hair. He replaced the cap and gave me a weak smile.

“I felt bad about your other ones. I know that mud at the bottom kind of stains. I hope it came out of your clothes.”

“Do you remember what I was wearing?” I said with a smirk.

“No, are you serious? I was drunk.”

“I was wearing your tshirt because Tabitha spilled her entire cup up beer on me. Remember? In your basement?”

Nash laughed and shrugged.

“Speaking of beer…” I said wondering what the crew’s plan was for the night.

“Do you want to go to Selma’s? There are a bunch of people back on their fall breaks. I can give you a ride. I’m not drinking tonight, last night was rough.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I guess I made out with Natasha Springer.” Nash made a sour face.

I contorted my face into an exaggerated response of disgust. Inside, I felt a twinge of anger. I couldn’t control what Nash did, but if he was going to man-slut after his breakup, he should know better than to screw my high school rival.

“Did you go get your rabies vaccination today?”

Nash gave my shoulder a playful nudge. “Funny.” He guided me towards the window.

“Oh, hell no!” I said, rooting my feet to the ground. “I’m a grown ass woman, I’m not ‘sneaking out’.”

Nash wrapped his arms around my waist from behind and lifted me up. I kicked and struggled, but I weighed 115 lbs and he was the wrestling state champion. He plopped me down in front of the window and yanked it open. A nippy breeze tousled my hair.

“Nash!” I said as he slid out of the window and climbed out onto the massive oak. I couldn’t contain my laughter; I hadn’t done this since I was sixteen.

After a ride in his recently waxed Ford, we walked into Selma’s Bar and Grille and everyone turned towards the door. Nash got a roaring ‘hey!’ and a few of our friends met him by the door. It took a few minutes for them to realize I was there. Or, maybe they didn’t recognize me with my hair and makeup. They invited me to the bar with them, but I told them I would in a little while.

I rolled my eyes as I watched Nash shake hands with a few guys sitting at a table before he could even make it to the seat that was saved for him.

Such a celebrity, I thought to myself as I scanned the room, hoping to see a table of drama geeks.

“Brie!” A throaty, familiar voice yelled. I made eye contact with Trina Lubble. Formally Thomas Lubble.

Trina had finally enough length that she ditched her wig, so I hardly recognized her at first.

“You look phenomenal! Your boobs are so much bigger than mine, now,” I added with a fake pout. I flung my arms around her and squeezed as hard as I could. Trina Lubble…the girl who once saved my life. My best friend.

“Aw, Brie, sweetie, look at you,” Trina gave me a once over. “You look like a beauty queen! Are you wearing makeup?”

“Yeah,” I said allowing Trina to guide me to her table. She was with a few members of my old club. They gave me squishy hugs and someone filled me a glass from their pitcher. I love coming home from being away at school! I thought.

Trina crossed her legs and leaned forward. She batted her almond shaped Hispanic eyes at me and chomped on a piece of gum. “You came with Nash?”

I took off my jean jacket and hung it on my chair. I shot Trina a look. “So?”

“So did he tell you the scoop on him and Tabitha?”

“Um,” I glanced over at Nash, who was sitting at the bar talking to Billy. “Yes, but that can wait. I wanted to tell you about this sorority I’m probably going to join.”

“Brianne. Rosalee. Merritt.” Trina leaned over and ran her fingers through a chunk of my hair. “Makeup? Sororities? Look at you, sweetie!”

I felt my face flush. “Ya.”

“I’m happy for you, but, none of them bitches better replace me. You hear?”

“Oh trust me. That’s impossible, no one compares to you,” I said, taking a sip of beer. It was Saturday and I had 500 left.

“Now that we put down some best friend ground rules… Spill!”

“My roommate, Leah, is this really rich girl from Las Angeles. Her parents are like millionaires. She is so spoiled and kind of annoying. But she’s really nice at the same time. Kind of pushy. And so way out of touch with responsibility, like, I throw away her tray at lunch and like, I had to show her how to use the laundry room. I guess she’s always had someone doing everything for her.”

“Wow,” Trina said taking a swig of beer. “No offense, but, woa. An heiress and a Rivertown girl living in a 20 by 20 dorm room. Is MTV filming this? They should.”

I opened my throat and allowed the entire glass of beer slide down my throat. I slammed my glass down and wiped off the foam with my forearm.

Trina’s eyes widened and she poured me another glass. It was so full that yellow streams trickled down the side.

“Girl, you drink. You just drink.”

I giggled. “Thanks, Trina. Anyhoo, Leah told me about the Greek system at Baylor and the way she talked about it made me want to join. I want to try new things now that I’m finally out of this shit hole town. You know?”

“I wouldn’t have pegged you for a sorority girl, but I’m sure you can always quit if it’s not yourthing.”

“That’s just it,” I said shaking my head. “What is a ‘sorority girl’ anyway? I found this house that put me as their number one choice. They are the chilliest sorority on campus, but I guess some of the stuck up girls think that they are weirdo losers. I don’t know, I feel like, Coralvalley, California is this ritzy area so most sororities must act like, I don’t know, up and coming socialites. But Theta Gamma Nu is different.”

“Sounds like a great house!” Trina reached over and held my hand. She gave it a little squeeze.

“It is. I will get my official acceptance as a pledge when I get back from fall break. So glad I got these shoes to wear when I’m pledging. I bet I’ll be busy.”

“Did you say shoes?” Trina reached down and pulled up my foot, placing it on her lap. “Sweetie, these are not shoes. They are like… Jesus. You are wearing Jesus on your feet.”

I laughed so hard that I choked.

“Did Nash get you these? Was this why he asked me your size?”

“Yes he did.”

Trina raised her perfectly sculpted eyebrows.

“What?”

Trina gave me a knowing look.

I glanced over to where Nash was at the bar. He had his long flannel rolled up, revealing his full tattooed sleeve. He gazed around the bar and our eyes met. Then, eyes locked with mine, he lifted up his middle finger and laughed.

I lifted up both of my fingers.

Trina looked over and Nash and then me. “Sweetie, if you don’t snatch that sexy man up…”

I giggled. “Me and Nash? Please. Ew.”

I glanced over at Nash to find him looking at me again. I covered my mouth with my hand.

I couldn’t let him see me smile.

drinking-alcohol.711.474.c

Chapter 5

“Nashed Potatoes and gravy, where are we going?” I heard myself slur.

“You are going home, drunky,” Nash said, shooting me a smile from behind the wheel of his truck. I was belted in, and my cheek was resting on the cold passenger’s window. He started the engine and a gust of heat from the vent blew into my face.

“Noooww? We just got there. In the bur, I mean, the bar.” I sounded like I had cotton balls stuffed in my cheeks. What the hell? Talk normal! My mind screamed.

“You are shit faced. You fell like five times. Were Trina and company feeding you shots?”

I looked out my window. Rivertown was spinning. Oh no! I thought. Act normal.  Control. I sat up straight and cleared my throat.

“No shots and I’m not drunk. Just buzzed. I haven’t had much alcohol since our camping summer binger, so it kind of hit me all at once.”

“What?” Nash flashed me a smile. “You haven’t partied since summer? You aren’t doing college right.”

“I only had two beers. I’m drunk. Damn it, I mean, I’m not drunk!” I kicked the glove compartment and cursed.

“Calm down, Merritt.”

“Your teeth look like dentures,” slipped out of my mouth. Why did I say that? That was stupid.

Nash chuckled. “I hope so; my father is a dentist.”

“Want to know a secret?” I said, focusing on consonants and vowels, shaping them the best that I could. Alcohol is not my friend.

Nash sighed. “Lay it on me.”

“I look like my mother.” I let out a snort, followed by a fit of side splitting laughter.

It was like having an out of body experience. Part of me was completely aware of what was happening and mortified. The other part couldn’t give too shits. It was just Nash. He’s seen me psycho before.

Nash was quiet. He glanced in my directions a few times. Me. Road. Me. Road. Finally, in a flat tone.“Merritt.”

“Whyyy sooo ssserious?” I asked, trying to sound like Heath Ledger’s Joker. I giggled.

“How much have you eaten today?”

My eyes widened. I was doing well, which meant I was doing bad.

“Why?” I narrowed my eyes.

            “Because you got sloppy drunk on two beers.”

You’re sloppy.”

“I’m driving you to McDonalds. I’ll buy you whatever you want, but you need to eat. Even if it’s only a salad.”

“Why did you make out with that trashy bitch, Natasha?” I blurted.

Silence.

“You know that she got Jesse into pot and then they slept together behind my back for six months. You know that!”

“I’m sorry. I don’t remember making out with her, that’s what people told me. Without you or Tabitha around anymore, there is no one to kick me when I’m drinking too much.”

“I thought you were my friend.”

Nash ignored me and drove through McDonalds. He ordered a chicken salad with honey mustard a small fry and an unsweetened iced tea. My favorite. He pulled into a parking space and parked. He passed me the food.

I felt my lip tremor. Was this it? Was I going to cry for the first time in ten years over a salad and a slut?

Nash’s face melted as he watched me unravel. He unbuckled his belt and scooted down the bench seat. He wrapped his strong arms around me and I nestled my head into his chest. I breathed in his cologne.

“I don’t like being drunk.” I whispered. My fingers tingled and my heart raced.

“I know.”

“I don’t like eating in front of people.” I still wasn’t crying.

Nash caressed my back with the tips of his fingers. “I know.”

With his other arm, he dug into the bag and stuffed some fries into his mouth. Then, he pulled out a few more. He held them too my lips. “I’m not watching.”

The next day, my eyes fluttered open. I was in bed facing my off-white bubbly popcorn ceiling.  I groaned and rolled over, stuffing my head in my pillow. Nash must have carried me up stairs, taken off my shoes, and tucked me in. The last thing I remembered was the sound of his heartbeat and forced french fries. I felt around for my cell to send an “I’m sorry” text. Then I remembered he lost his phone. Again.

“Hey sweetheart,” my dad said from the door frame. “Nash came by early and dropped off some stuff.”

“What?” I said sitting straight up. “Oooh my head.”

My dad chuckled. “Yes, he said that you might have a case of the brown bag flu.”

“Did he leave?” I asked reaching for the bag. I crossed my legs and placed it in my lap. I pulled out a box of coffee grounds, a bottle of ibuprofen, a travel mug, and a package of banana nut muffins.

“Thank you, sweet baby Jesus,” I grumbled, tearing into the package of pain medication. I swallowed four pills dry. “This is why I don’t drink that much.”

“Good thing he brought that,” my dad said running his hand over his comb-over, “I ain’t been to the store.”

I rolled my eyes. My dad didn’t have much of anything. He simply didn’t take care of himself well. Or me. Sometimes I blamed him for all of my problems. Other times I understood why he’s messed up. We both went through extreme trauma. I dealt with the aftershock in my own crooked ways; he dealt with it by not working, whiskey, neglecting his daughter, and living on disability. But he does try. Sometimes. He never missed a school play and dragged me to therapy. So there was that.

“Tell me more about school, I, er, sorry I fell asleep on ya last night.” Dad sat on the foot of my bed.

“Sure. The best part is that no one knows what I witnessed. Or any of my other…stuff.”

“Good.” Darkness flashed in Dad’s eyes. He rubbed his face and nodded. “Friends?”

“Yes, I’m joining a sorority.”

“Oh. Hey, doesn’t that cost?”

No it’s free, Dad. Freaking idiot, I said to myself. “I’ll figure it out.”

“Good. You know, that Nash is a nice young lad. I’m glad he looked after ya last night, and all. He chatted with me for a bit this mornin’ and told me about his split up. I got to thinkin’ maybe you two should go on a date.”

“Ha,” I pursed my lips.

“Well, why not?”

“You’re forgetting he’s been my neighbor for eleven years. He knows what a wreck I am.”

“Brie, sweetheart, you ain’t no wreck. You’re so smart and pretty and you’re off at college…”

I stared at him with a blank face for a moment. “Dad!  I’m a fucking mess. He knows what happened that day, when Trina Lubble found me–”

“No!” My father jumped up. “I, um, we ain’t talkin’ about that.”

“You want the truth Dad? Fine. I’ve always loved Nash. Always. How could I not? But I’ve loved him in a very realistic way.”

“I’m sorry I said somethin’,” My dad mumbled, cheeks flushing red.

I folded my arms. I was going to make sure he didn’t bring it up ever again.

“ I’m not like him, Dad. I’m broken and he’s perfect. The reason he befriended me in the first place is because he felt so damn sorry for me. Did you know he used to sneak in my room just to make sure that I was alive?” You wouldn’t have known in your whiskey stupor if I was bleeding out in my bed. He knew that. I added, inside my head.

Dad’s head fell and he retreated back towards the door. Over his shoulder he said, “If only ya saw what I see in you, Brianne. I’m sorry.”

I heard dad trample down the stairs. I knew I wouldn’t speak to sober dad for the rest of the day. Part of me was relieved.

I stayed in my room all day until Nash finally called on his new phone. I apologized in every way I knew how for being so rude and annoying. Nash said he didn’t mind. He said that he rolled me on my side in bed and tied my hair back because I kept saying that I was going to throw up. Thankfully, I never did. I asked him what else I blabbered when I was black out drunk and he said nothing.

I knew he was lying.

c38e07f78818166dc6bc39e7c5ec02f6

Chapter 6

Theta Gamma Nu

Fall break was a blur of Trina, Nash, and the crew at Billy’s and when it was time for my flight back to school, I could hardly believe it. Everyone looked so sad I was leaving and I pretended to be sad with them. But I wasn’t.

As much as I loved my dad and friends, it was like pain actually lived in the air there. I could barley breathe. I guess I hadn’t realized how free moving to California made me feel until I left.

I actually hugged Leah when I saw her. We were both surprised that I did that. We sat in the middle of our dorm, crossed legged and swapped stories about our breaks.

“Show me a picture of him already!”

My jaw clenched. I was at B.U. to reinvent myself and leave Kansas in Kansas. I unlocked my phone and pulled up a picture of him on Facebook. I braced myself for the reaction.

Leah gawked at the picture and then met my eyes. “You have got to be fuckin’ kidding me, Brie. Are you sure that’s your friend, and not Channing Tatum?”

I pressed my lips into a hard line and shoved my phone in my back pocket.

“I’m so used to him, I forget that he is, kind of, ya.”

            “Girl, I can’t believe it.” Leah said shoving a shelled peanut in her mouth.

“And I still can’t believe that you eat the peanut and the shell. Who eats the shell?”

“Shells don’t have any points, duh. Stop circling this around to me. Mr. Tatum likes you. He bought you shoes! And if he fits, you better wear him.”

“Nah. He’s always bought me stuff, even when we were little. At first, I refused his gifts, so he would just leave them in my house. It was funny because neither of us would mention it. Things like school supplies, snacks, and candy.”

“So he’s taken, huh?”

“No. Single. He was dating this girl, from, like, sixth grade until the summer after senior year.”

“So now he’s up for grabs!” Leah grabbed my arm.

“No way,” I scrunched my face,” it’s not like that.

Leah raised her eyebrow. “He took care of you and bought you shoes. Open up those blue peepers, girlfriend.”

“Okay, I’ll admit it, it does sound that intimate. Honestly, it did feel different now that things have changed.”

“What do you mean?” Leah tilted her head.

“ Damn, Leah, this is hard to explain. Tabitha was a safety barrier between us. It was always, like, not even weird Nash and I were insanely close because we all trusted each other that much. Now that she’s not even in the picture…I think both of us are trying to feel out the edges of our boundaries.”

“Shoot, girl that is complicated as hell!”

I shook my head. “I don’t want it to be complicated. I just want him to be my friend.”

“Now you can let rush distract you.”

“Yes, rush. Can we please go back to you, now? I really don’t like talking about myself.”

“Ya, I’ve noticed.” Leah toyed with a lock of her hair. “But I like to hear about you.”

The corners of my lips curved into a smile.

It was close to midnight and I was in my top bunk in the empty space between dreaming and wakefulness when a commotion in the hallway shocked me away. Fucking drunks! On a Monday? I thought. I put my pillow over my head and caught a glimpse of my phone. A text from Nash.

Nash: Hey loser. I’m a little worried. You suck for moving to California. You wouldn’t tell me if you were not eating enough or if there was some douche giving you a hard time.

He had a point. I was in the middle of wondering how to respond, when I saw Leah rise from her bed and open the door.

My heart leapt in my throat when I saw them.  The singing was for me.

I spotted Caroline in the cluster of girls and she gave me a thumbs up.

 

In your happiness we will cheer

In sadness we will share your tears

From now until forever

Our hearts will beat together

Friendship, love, and sisterhood

To our house we will be true

We are fair, honest, and wholly good

We are Theta Gamma Nu

 

I climbed down from my bed and slid into my slipper. I beamed at the Thetas when they stopped singing. The sisters wore light teal robes with heels in were in full hair and makeup. They were holding flickering candles. A few of them had tears glimmering in their eyes.

The girl in the center was one that I had yet to meet. I certainly would have remembered her.

“Brianne Rosalee Merritt,” the girl with golden tan skin and long, dark blond hair said. “Do you accept this candle, as a symbol of your commitment to Theta Gamma Nu’s pledging process?”

I nodded as I reached out and accepted the candle. I was speechless. The girl tilted hers and touched her flame against the wick. With a quiet sizzle, my candle was lit. I admired the Greek letters, ΘΓΝ, that were on the side of the candle in vivid teal. My chest felt warm, as if I just drank hot tea. The whole unannounced ceremony was simple, yet I had never felt so accepted. So liked. My cheeks ached from smiling.

“Leah Marie McCloud,” the Theta sister said.

I gasped.

Leah stood straight up and her eyes bulged.

“Do you accept this candle, as a symbol of your commitment to Theta Gamma Nu’s pledging process?”

Leah’s hands flew to her mouth. I couldn’t tell if she was mortified or excited.

“Y-yes,” Leah accepted the candle. “Yes I will.”

I saw a single tear slide down her round cheek.

At that moment, I completely understood what it was to be a sorority girl. It wasn’t like anything that I thought. It was better.

“Congratulations,” the pretty girl said, “and welcome. We are so excited to get to know you more and we have a lot of fun things planned for you. And I mean it when I say fun. We absolutely do not believe in hazing. We believe in gifts, bonding, and wine.”

There was a collective giggle.

“Without further ado, allow me to introduce myself. I am Lauren Cunningham. President of Theta Gamma Nu, Baylor University Chapter. Our sorority believes in fairness, so the president does not participate in recruitment to negate any unfair biases during bidding. From now on, I will be available to you and support you both through the pledging process.”

“Nice to meet you, Lauren,” I said holding out my hand for a handshake.

Lauren looked and my hand with a confused expression. She blew out her candle and then my own and wrapped her arms around me, giving me a firm hug. Her hair smelled like strawberries.

“Nice to meet you, Brie.”

We were shuffled into cars, with quickly packed overnight bags. The sisters drove us to the house and were led to the informal living room. I was surprised to find a party waiting for us. A pajama party. Wait until Nash hears about this, I thought, as scanned the living room looking at every young man’s fantasy.

The seniors left again to get more recruits and left Leah and I with the sophomores, juniors, and a handful of other new initiates. I heard two of the sisters whispering by me. If they were trying to be secretive, they weren’t doing a good job.

“Are you sure?” A girl with red, untamed curls asked the sister wearing short shorts and fuzzy pink bunny slippers.

“Yes, shh! Don’t say anything. She just got here, she doesn’t know.” Bunny slippers said.

“I’m sure they already told her,” curls replied.

I was pretending that I wasn’t listening to them, so curls tapped me on the shoulder.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Brie.”

“Oh, we know,” bunny slippers said.

They giggled.

What the fuck is going on here? My mind barked. Something felt weird.

“So, did you get a chance to meet Lauren yet? Our Mascot Girl?”

“Um,” I said, rubbing the back of my neck. “Yes I met Lauren she introduced herself as the president.”

Slippers shot curls an I-told-you-so look.

“What’s a Mascot Girl?” I asked putting my hands on my hips.

“Nevermind!” Curls squeeled and they both dashed off.

I nudged Leah, who was acting quiet, completely out of her character.

“Leah, what the hell is a Mascot Girl?”

“Um, I don’t know.” Leah bit her nail; her eyes darted around the living room.

I took a gigantic breath. As soon as Lauren Cunningham returned, I was going to have to ask her myself.

beautiful-coffee-girl-morning-favim-com-994518

 

Chapter 6

Coffee & Lauren

I sat up and cracked my neck. Floors are meant for walking, not sleeping. But that’s where we all crashed after the welcome pajama party. Leah was next to me and like everyone else, her eyes were still shut. I stretched my arms over my head and yawned. My arms crashed back down on my favorite oversized, gray sweatpants.

Just then, a memory tip-toed across my mind. It was hazy, like trying to see through morning fog. I ran my fingers over my sweats and felt my cheeks lose their color.

I remembered Nash bringing me up to my room that night. He laid me down in bed, like I was made of china. Then, he took off my shoes and jacket. He tucked my legs under my old worn and torn comforter. The same blanket I’ve had since I was a little girl. .

“Waiiittt!” I tore off the blankets and unbuttoned my pants. I grunted while I shimmied them off. It was quite a task, while wasted. I rolled them up in a ball and threw them across the room. Nash was a statue; his face the color of a tomato.

“I need my sweatpants.”

“Oh,” Nash let out a breath, “Where are they?”

I pointed to my dresser. Nash opened and closed every drawer before he found them. He turned around.

My memory went blank. What the hell did I do next? I wondered.  I laid back down on the floor and pulled my blanket over my head. Maybe I would just stay under there for the rest of my life. I felt my face burn as I replayed striping my pants off in front of Nash. I didn’t remember what kind of underwear I had on that day, but I prayed that they weren’t too ratty.

I heard footsteps passing through the hallway and I peeked out. It was Lauren. I threw off my covers and climbed to my feet. Last night, I didn’t have the chance to ask Lauren about the term Mascot Girl. She was speaking with other pledges and I found myself more bashful than usual.

“Lauren, wait up,” I said in a screaming sort of whisper. I tiptoed around slumbering bodies and then scurried to the hall. “Lauren!”

She turned around. When she spotted me, the edges of her lips curved. The moring sun that seeped through the massive windows in the foyer gave Lauren a glowing halo. She wore a white knee length cotton dress with a sunny yellow paisley pattern, and a buttercup button up sweater. Her hair was down and straight, and she put a small, messy, French braid across the crown of her head. She had blackish roots showing. It was strange how she could pull off roots so that I wanted roots of my own.

“Good morning, Brie.” She looked like she wasn’t wearing makeup. She didn’t need makeup.

“Hi,” I said, feeling that sheepishness from the previous night return.

“Hungry? I can show you to the kitchen. I was just headed that way.”

“Um, ya,” I said.

I followed her to the kitchen. We were greeted by the gurgling of brewing coffee and a hazelnut mocha aroma.  I scanned the kitchen in awe. There dozens and dozens of white cabinets which hung over a glass mosaic backsplash and gray granite countertops. The room was so clean that it sparkled. There was two of everything. Two stainless steel refrigerators, two stoves, two sinks. I couldn’t remember the last time that my stove at home worked. I forgot what I wanted to ask Lauren.

Lauren poured two cups of coffee and asked how I liked mine. She was surprised that I took it the same way as her: cream only. She went to the refrigerator and retrieved a small, white glass jug of cream. I wouldn’t dare tell her that I usually used powder, and only had the luxury of real cream a handful of times.

“Do you want something to eat?” She asked.

“Um,” I fumbled. I typically never wasted calories on breakfast. “Do you have fruit?”

“Oh ya,” Lauren waved at me to follow her. “We have a lot. Unfortunately, we end up throwing a lot of it away.”

“You won’t if I live here,” I said. She lead me into their formal dining room. There was a lengthy, dark wood, table on top of an oriental rug. I couldn’t believe the size of it.

“Wow. Does everyone fit here?”

“Yes.”

I grabbed an apple from the wicker basket in the center of the table and took a seat across from Lauren. I sipped the warm, rich, coffee and couldn’t help but release an mmmm.

“Glad you like it.” Lauren smiled. Her teeth reminded me of Nash’s.

I took a deep breath and released my lungs slow. “Can I ask you something?”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“I heard a few sisters last night muttering about some Mascot Girl, or something. They were acting kind of weird around me whenever the term was brought up.”

“Oh Lord,” Lauren said taking a slurp from her mug. “I guess we should have clarified to keep some things quiet during the first sleep over. That is an oversight on my part. Sorry, Brie.”

“No-no,” I said holding up my palms. “I didn’t feel like, weird, or anything. I was just really curious.”

“Good,” Lauren nodded.

We sat for a few moments in silence before I realized that she wasn’t going to explain anything to me.

I crunched into my red apple. My fingers tingled. 90 for the coffee, 70 for the apple. That was a lot to begin a day with.

“Did you have any other questions for me?” Lauren asked. “I was going to get some yogurt and go back up to my office. I have some planning to do for our family night event.”

I fiddled with my wrist and felt the outline of my old scar. I wanted to ask her why she was so nice. Popular girls aren’t supposed to be that way, and it was clear that Lauren is queen of Theta Gamma Nu. I wondered if I should feel suspicious.

“Okay, Brie,” Lauren said getting up. “Nice to have some coffee with you. I’ll see you in a little bit.”

“Lauren, I just really want to know.” I said, squaring my shoulders. “If it were just a term, that’s one thing. But I kept hearing it over and over last night in whispers behind my back. One sister said that you were the mascot girl.”

“Which one?” Lauren asked. She looked calm enough, but I saw her ears turning crimson.

“Oh, I’m not sure of her name. She had on daisy duke sleep shorts and these big slippers.”

“I’m sorry, Brie. I shouldn’t have put you in that position to ask you her name.”

“Oh no,” I said raising my brows, “I have no problem pointing out who she is, it’s just I really don’t know her name. They didn’t have name tags on.”

Lauren twirled a strand of her hair. “I’ll have to remind them to wear them. How quickly they forget what it was like to be brand new.”

“It’s fine.”

“To be candid, we all assume that each you will become a sister. We really do. But we don’t just rattle off house secrets at the beginning of the pledge year.”

“I completely understand.”

“I will tell you everything you need to know about Mascot Girl. Trust me.”

“I do trust you,” I said, feeling sucked into Lauren’s charm.

Lauren stared at me for a moment and sighed. “I trust you, too, Brie. Look, you can’t tell what I’m about to say to any of the pledges or anyone. Even boyfriends.”

“I won’t, I swear,” I said leaning in.

“We have a huge ceremony where you swear to keep our chapter secrets. We even ask that you sign a contract. It’s both spiritual and legal commitment, of sorts.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling my shoulders sag. Maybe she wasn’t going to tell me until then.

“Yes, I am the Mascot Girl.”

I stared at her blankly, with my lips stapled shut.

“And you will be the new Mascot Girl.”

heart2

Chapter 7

Scars

I headed towards our table in the Cafeteria. My plate was overflowing with carrots and a jar of hummus on the side. A couple of carrots rolled off and plopped on the floor. It was one of those days where everything kept falling. I spilled my coffee on my jeans, I tripped walking into Intro to Psychology, and I was asked to cry in Theatre class. I wanted to go to bed and wake up and just try again.

I sat down and was the first one there. I stroked my hip. It still hurt from earlier that day. It had been a few years since the last time. I didn’t remember if I took my pills or not. Damn. Darkness was rolling in like a black fog and wrapping around my mind. I drowning and I needed a lifeboat. I picked up my phone and typed Therapist into Google with my long winding list of mental health issues. Maybe there would be a specialist. I crossed my fingers. I was a special kind of fucked up.

I looked at the time. It was almost 6pm and I was still alone. I shook my head. Over the last few weeks, all of the sororities reached out in their own unique invitations to their pledges. Valentine Hall Floor Three wasn’t the same ever since. Our family style dinner was shortened, awkward, or sometimes skipped. Even though I thought I didn’t enjoy our floor’s daily tradition, I missed it when it was gone. That’s a theme in my life.

My phone buzzed. I swirled my carrot around in the hummus and took a crunch. With my other hand, I slid the green phone symbol over.

Trina: Guess who I saw at the bar with this new hoe?

Me: I have no idea. There is a new girl?

Trina: Ya, Jessica Fabian. She’s a senior. We have Health and Safety together.  Gag me.

Me: You don’t like her?

Trina: I haven’t talked to her.

Me: Then why is she a hoe? lol

Trina: I get a bad vibe, I don’t know. Lmao.

Me: Why?

Trina: Not sure. So, according to the whispers in the hallways, she’s originally from the UK. She’s a fucking model. Literally a model. Her family bought the Carson’s farm so she’s lives pretty close to your house.

Me: Why do I care? Rivertown is a hopeless dump; it needed a new Tabitha.

Trina: Are you psychic? That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Nash was with her at the bar, with his arm dangling over her shoulder.

I felt as if Trina just hit me in the chest with a baseball bat. After a few seconds I wondered where that feeling was from. Was the truth wiggling free from the locked cage in the back of my subconscious? My heart fluttered when I thought about him. I sighed. I would need to move that finding a local therapist thing up on my priority list.

Me: Good for him. Nice to see that he’s moved on.

Trina: If you say so. Have you talked to her?

Me: No. I texted her a few times but she keeps blowing me off. She canceled Facebook and Twitter.

Trina: That bitch.

Me: Ya. I’m a little hurt. I don’t like feeling abandoned.

Trina: Oh no. Do you want me to fly out there and stay with you for awhile, Brie-Boo? I can, you know. Fuck school.

Me: No I’m fine. Thanks, though. You stay home and enjoy senior year. I miss being in plays. I’m only in one acting classes, the rest are boring requirements. Enjoy it while you still can.”

Trina: I’m worried about you. Does anyone there know how to spot if you need help? How did I ever let you move so far away…

I couldn’t bring myself to respond. As much as Tabitha blowing me off hurt, I understood what she was doing. I almost wished that I had the guts to do the same thing. I wanted to start over and wipe my past away like it never happened. But I loved Trina. And I was addicted to Nash. I couldn’t cut the cord like Tabitha did. Not all at once, anyway. Suddenly, my carrots looked like they had maggots slithering around on them. I pushed away my plate and buried my head in my arms. I didn’t care if I looked like a mess to the other students. I was.

“Staying up late with your future sisters?” Krissy asked. I heard her plop her plate down on the table. It vibrated on my cheek.

I lifted up my head. I didn’t know how could stomach Krissy at the moment. I decided I couldn’t. “Yep. I think I’m going to get going and take a nap.” I arose from my chair.

“Sit! Sit!” Krissy grabbed my wrist.

Get your nasty paws off me, you fake bitch. I yelled in my mind.  I snatched my wrist back and hugged it to my chest. She was only an inch away from that raised silver line. Close call.

“Did you hear?” Krissy whispered. Her eyes darted around. “Charlene didn’t get into a sorority.”

I sat back down. I felt a swirl of pity and smugness in my stomach.

“What happened?”

“Okay, like, she did a ‘suicide’ with her list.”

“What the hell is that?” I scrunched my face. My heart picked up speed at the sound of the word.

“A suicide? You just pick one sorority. The sorority you pick knows what you’ve done a suicide and takes a long hard look at you. The bad thing is that if they still don’t like you, you aren’t in a sorority at all.”

“That’s an incredibly offensive rush term. They need to change that.”

Krissy shrugged. “It doesn’t offend me. You know, this freaky boy from my high school did it. Suicide. He hung himself off a bridge and his sister found him. How selfish can a person be to do that? So selfish.”

I felt my throat tighten. I visualized clocking Krissy right in the orange, fake tanned face. But I wouldn’t go there. I just needed to get the hell out.

I sprang from my seat, grabbed my purse, and scurried to the door. I heard Krissy calling back for me, asking what was wrong.

If she couldn’t figure that out, then she was a whole other level of stupid.

On my way back to the dorm Trina called me. I let it ring. I knew I should at least reassure her that I was fine. It just was an awful day. I just didn’t want to talk to her. When I trotted up old-school stairs of Valentine hall, I wished to myself Leah wasn’t in our room. Solitude sounded like pure bliss. I turned off my cell phone ringer.

I creaked open the door and heard sobbing. Leah was sitting on her bed next to a pile of balled up tissues.  In the door frame, I froze. I wasn’t sure if I should leave and give her space or sit next to her and ask her what’s wrong. What would Leah want?

“Girl, I’m sorry,” Leah said with a shaking voice. Lines of black mascara tears streamed from her chestnut brown eyes. I felt like I should sit down, so I did. I would need to activate my acting skills; I was never the warm and fuzzy type.

I put my hand on Leah’s upper back. “What’s wrong, Leah?” I stroked her spine.

“This is embarrassing,” Leah said blowing her nose. It sounded look a car honking.

“No, it’s okay. If you don’t want to tell me, I can just—“

“I haven’t lost weight in three weeks and I’ve been doing so well! It’s just not fair. My body hates me. I’ve been working out and doing my points!”

“Oh gosh, that sounds so frustrating, hun.” Was that okay?

“I wasn’t always fat, ya know? I was thin most of my life. That makes it worse, somehow. I’m not supposed to be that fat friend. I’m not!”

“Don’t listen to the number, I can tell you’ve lost weight. You are probably just gaining muscle.”

“Can I tell you something?”

“Sure, of course.” I tucked a piece of hair behind my ear.

“Don’t tell. Pinky swear?”

“Pinky swear.”

“My dad cheated on my mom when I was sixteen with one of our maids. I don’t know why he did that, I hated him for it. She was so ugly. My mom wouldn’t have known, probably, but he got that home-wrecker old maid pregnant.”

“I can’t imagine. I’m so sorry.” I gazed into Leah’s eyes. It was like a wave of her pain escaped them and crashed onto me. Such sad, pretty, eyes.  Poor Leah. I thought.

Leah blotted her eyes with another tissue. The black lines stained her rounded cheeks. “They were going to get a divorce and that’s when the depression set in. I was kicked off my soccer team because of my bad grades which was just a a manifestation of my depression. I locked myself in my room after school every day, with a ton of junk food and MTV.”

“I don’t blame you. You had every reason to be depressed.”

“Yeah, that’s what it was. Untreated depression. The weight just flew on my bones from sixteen to nineteen. My parents never ended up getting divorced. I was so happy. For a week. They should have gotten a divorce.”

“Oh God…”

“On the outside, we look like a picture perfect family. Wealthy country club philanthropists with a college bound daughter. When the doors were closed, it was an an absolute nightmare. I gained over a hundred pounds.”

“Wow,” I said fumbling for a way to respond. “I had no idea.”

“I’ve been on every diet, Brie. I learned how to do makeup so that at least my face would look pretty. But, it doesn’t matter. Guys don’t look at me. Susan B. Anthony is rustling around in her grave, after that one. I’m sorry. It shouldn’t be important but as a college freshman. It is.”

“Of course!”

There was an awkward break filled with sniffling.

I rubbed the back of my neck. “I can relate.”

Leah tilted her head. “In what way? Do your parents hate each other?”

“I have issues with food, too.”

Leah nodded. “Anorexia?”

“Not exactly,” I hesitated and then cringed as the words spilled from my lips. “Leah, if you tell anyone this, I will freaking kill you.”

“You have my permission to murder me if I tell.”

“ I have something called EDNOS. Eating disorder not otherwise specified. I’m on the anorexia side of things, but I am a healthy weight, so I’m not considered anorexic. I count calories and do weird things with food. I have my own list of rules. This is so fucking embarrassing right now. But you told me about your eating disorder, I just had to tell you. I’ve never known anyone with one. That has always been lonely.”

Dread swept over my body. Why did I just tell her that? I scolded myself. I had never told anyone that. Not ever. My father relayed the information to Trina when she was Thomas and Nash when he was Jimmy from next door, because he wanted them to make sure I was eating. Now I told another person. I felt naked. Yet, I felt a connection with Leah. Old war buddies, or something like that.

Leah let out a small chuckle. “Brie, I won’t tell a soul. If I do, you can tell all of Baylor U about my dad’s bastard and fugly mistress. And you spread a flyer, warning students not to be too sugary sweet to me. There is a chance that I might eat them.”

I giggled and Leah gave me a bear hug. Leah was such a hugger. It was almost my new norm to allow hugs. In the past,  I never liked touch because, according to Dr. Jones, it reminded me that I was “there”. And what my brain really wanted me to be invisible.

“So,” Leah said sitting back. “Do you mind if I ask you about it?

“Shoot.”

“Do you see yourself as fat even though you are not?”

“That’s part of it,” I said nodding, “but, honestly, the biggest reason I do it is for control. It’s like, if I control the way I eat and how much, my life is my own. It started as another symptom of PTSD.”

“Oh my God, what happened?” Leah asked, grabbing her pillow and hugging it to her chest.

I shook my head. “I can’t.”

“I understand.”

“So,” I said, eager to change the subject after brushing the surface of that memory. She would never get that story from me. “I never asked you what you think about house Theta.”

“Girlfriend, honestly? At first, I was a little disappointed, but I wanted to keep an open mind. Because, like, they chose me, you know? I didn’t feel a connection there and I actually put them as number 19. But of course, they don’t know that. Don’t tell anyone, okay?”

“I would never.”

Later that evening, Leah and I decided to drink some sour apple vodka with sprite and watch America’s Next Top Model. I felt a warm buzz in my chest after one cocktail. When I heard the soft grumbling sound of Leah snoring, I climbed up to my top bunk and laid my head on my pillow. I grabbed my phone.

Me: So. Who’s this new girl? 😉

Nash: Why haven’t you been answer me, you asshole? I’ve sent you a million texts. Called you, no answer. L

Me: I have this itty bitty commitment called College and this little activity called going Greek. Douche bag. I’m busy.

Nash: Mrs. Fancy Pants.

Me: Tell me about your new beau.

Nash: Please just text Trina. She went to the shop today to find me. She said she texted you and you said that you were upset about Tabitha ghosting you. Then she asked you if anyone knows about your issues at Baylor and then you never replied.

Me: Omg, she came to your work?!?!

Nash: Yes, it’s OK. I’m glad she did.

Me: I don’t like it….

My fingers were typing at a crazy pace and I felt the alcohol fire me up. I couldn’t believe that they were still trying to manage my life. I felt like I didn’t give Trina enough reason to freak. She was trying to manipulate me through Nash.

Nash: Okay. It’s 1 in the morning here, so I’m going to go to bed. I have to work tomorrow. Some advice… if you don’t like how Tabitha cut you off, don’t do it to Trina. She was really upset earlier.

Me: Omg, I didn’t talk to her for an evening. I’m such a bitch!

Nash: Whatever, Brie. Good night.

I sat up in bed. Nash never called me Brie. I was always Merritt. And I liked that. There were only two faces of Nash.  Sweet and goofball. This was a new face. Was he giving up on me? Maybe it was because I was far away and there was a new queen of Rivertown. He never answered my question about the girl.  I didn’t know Jessica, but I hated her. I fucking hated her.

I felt like a volcano bursting with magma. My face was burning and my heart was thudding against my rib cage. A little voice inside my head told me to control myself. I wasn’t far gone, it was only one cocktail. Then I remembered I didn’t eat dinner. My brain instructed myself to climb down the stairs, wake up Leah, and ask her to take my phone until tomorrow.

                My fingers typed so fast. I had to make Nash worried so that he would still take care of me. Maybe he would lose focus on the Jessica hoe and keep his thoughts where they belonged. With me. I knew it was sick. It was a twisted little game. At the moment, I didn’t care.

Me: Truth? I had a bad day. So I took my trusty old eyebrow shaping razor and carved a little slash on my hip. The shape of a heart, just like my necklace. I feel bad about it. Okay? I threw the razor in the trash. It’s been years since I sunk down to that level. I found the number to a therapist and I’m going to call tomorrow. My dad has been asking me daily to do it, but I have been so busy. I need to put my health first.

Pause.

Nash: Good. You need one.

Me: That’s all?

Nash: What else do you want? You sound like you have it all figured out.

Me: I don’t have it all figured out.

Nash: Nobody does. I have to sleep…

Me: You have it all together, Nash! You have are in trade school, you work at your uncle’s garage,  you have money, you aren’t fucking crazy, and sounds like you have a new piece of ass. So there you go. You are perfect.

Stop. Control yourself!

Nash: What a bunch of bullshit. I am not perfect. I’m too stupid to go to college for dentistry like my brother. Do you know what that is like? No. You don’t see past yourself.

What have I done! Fix this.

Me:…you are not stupid…

Nash: You are acting jealous. I am allowed to date. I’ve moved on. I know that it was always you, me, and Tabitha, since 8th grade. But we aren’t kids anymore. You are going to have to deal with it, just like I’ve had to deal with it. That’s life.

I had to read his words a few times. I couldn’t believe it. Tabitha and I had fought. Billy and I fought. I fought with Trina at least once a month. Nash? Never.

Me: I’m scared.

Nash: I’m not with Jessica officially. I’m not ready. Happy?

Me: No. I’m not happy.

Nash: And what’s new about that?

I could no longer handle that conversation. Letting a frustrated growl escape my lips, I hopped off of my bed.  I rummaged through my waste paper basket and retrieved my pink plastic razor. I never felt so ugly. Like I had spiders crawling all over my skin.

I snuck out of our room and headed for the bathroom with the razor tucked under my shirt. My mind swam. Did I just really get in a fight with Nash? My brain screamed.

Startled, I jumped when I heard a door open.

Char scowled when she saw me. She was wearing a light blue, men’s button up shirt and white boyshorts underwear. Her shirt was buttoned crooked and her short brown hair was a greasy mop on top of her head. She pointed at me.

“How’s the loser sorority?” She cackled. It was clear that she was either drunk or took a handful of pills. Maybe both.

“Fine. How’s your sorority?” I pretended to be surprised. “Whoops! I forgot.”

“Bitch, I don’t give too shits.” Char puffed out her chest. She was usually a jerk, but she was extra feisty that night.

“Ya, ya. Stop making fun of my house and I’ll lay off. Fair?”

“What’s under your shirt, Kansas? Looks like the outline of a needle. Doing a late night pokey-poke in the bathroom? I knew you were a fucking drug addict. You are so skinny.”

What was next happened like a blur. Char lunged at me and I held out one of my arms to stop her and kneed her in the abdomen. She let out an “oof” as the air left her lungs. She grabbed my hand that concealed the razor, tucked under my shirt.

“Let me see it!” Char demanding, sending drops of spit splattering on my cheeks.

“No! Get off!”

Char slammed me against the wall. She tried to rip it out of my hand, but I held on to the plastic part. Char recoiled.  I gasped and allowed the razor to fall from my hand. It clinked when it hit the tile.

A bright red line was slashed across Char’s palm and crimson droplets pitter-pattered on the white tile beneath our feet.

“Are you okay?” I grabbed Char’s hand and held it so I could see. It didn’t need stitches. And I knew a thing or two about cuts. “Listen, it’s going to be okay. I don’t want you to get in trouble for having a guy in your dorm and for…whatever narcotics you are on…so just go back to your room. I’ll be back with gauze–”

“A concealed weapon? Why, Kansas?”

“It’s not. It’s an eyebrow shaper, Char. I was going to the bathroom to do my brows.”

“I should call the police.”

“Go and call then, I don’t care! If they have video footage they will see you lunging at me. If they don’t, it’s hearsay.”

Char clutched her hand to her chest and bit her lip.

“I’m sorry. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“That’s what they all say.” Char’s eyes instantly welded with tears. “You’re all fucking liars! All of you!”

What is she talking about? I wondered.

Char dashed back to her room and I retreated to mine. Without thinking, I went to the window and tossed the razor out. There was no way I would find it now.

I gathered my hair up into a ponytail and twisted it into a bun. In the orange glow of street laps pouring through our dorm window, I could see my reflection in my full length mirror. I scowled at myself. I was losing weight I didn’t need to lose and gave myself a new scar. I told someone a secret that I wanted to hide, I pissed off Nash, and I hurt Charlene.

I wondered how many steps it was to the top of Valentine hall. It was 12 stories. That is tall. I pondered if the janitor locked the top door to the roof or not. Dangerous thoughts.

Brianne, shut up, you dumbass! I yelled at myself. My reflection rolled her eyes and shook her head. I knew that I would never find out how many steps it was or if the door was locked. I couldn’t make my final exit. Not now. Even if Trina and Nash were annoying.

I would never die while Nash was alive. My ghost would be restless. I would spend eternity trying to find him in the darkness of hell, knowing that he was destined for light. He was an angel.

I stared into my reflection’s eyes. The truth was bubbling up again. Maybe I would allow it to be acknowledged for a little while. It would be okay. I was in California. He isn’t around. He’ll never know.

“I’m in love with James Nash,” I whispered to my mirror. My reflection nodded slightly.

I usually act in front of my mirror to critique my facial expressions. I would have to remember my appearance for a love stricken character, if I ever get cast again.

Relaxed jaw. Soft brows. Pale cheeks. Miserable eyes.

“Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night; Give me my Romeo; and, when I shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night…”

Leah stirred and I scrambled back up to my bed. I felt my temples throb as I thought about the damage control I would need to do the next day.

Will I ever learn? Alcohol and insanity just don’t mix.

 

therapy

Chapter 8

Head Doctor

I loved how Dr. Jones required sweatpants and slippers during sessions. In his educated opinion, patients deserve to be comfortable while working through uncomfortable things. I was back in his office in Rivertown. Familiar yellowed wallpaper and partially wilted plants. A grape juice stain on the olive colored carpet. I still remember spilling that cup when I was nine. I didn’t need sweats to be comfortable. But I wore them anyway.

The only sound was me crunching on the salted pretzels Mrs. Jones packed Dr. Jones in his brown paper bag. I know all of his clients feel this way, but I think he likes me best.

Dr. Jones crossed his legs and scribbled his notepad. I never saw another man cross his legs like that; it always made me giggle inside. He peered at me through his large tortoise shell glasses. I didn’t feel like making eye contact today, so I stared at his feet. Dr. Jones didn’t mind. It was the end of December, and he was wearing socks and sandals again. I stiffed a laugh.

“How did you feel after texting honestly with Mr. Nash?”

I kicked my legs up on his chase lounge and sighed. I didn’t like reliving that night. That was the night that sent me into a tailspin. It didn’t help that winter was approaching, and Christmas was in a week. The most depressing time of year.

“I felt bad. Guilty. Embarrassed.”

“Mm,” Dr. Jones said scribbling on his pad. “Did any part of you feel relieved that you told him about self harm and how you expressed that you idolized him?”

“No,” I shook my head. “I wanted to take it back.”

“You should feel proud for being truthful. Maybe you said it the wrong way, but this was a break through day for you. Did you resent revealing the EDNOS to Miss Leah?”

I looked up at the ceiling. There was a brownish yellowed spot in the corner that looked like water damage. I focused on the spot. It sort of looked like a painting of a face with jagged teeth and beady eyes.

“No. I was nervous at first but we ended up bonding over it. She has her disorder, I have mine. We have been supporting each other ever since. She lost ten pounds in three weeks and I gained ten pounds. We joke and say she gave it me.”

Dr. Jones curled his thin lips into a smile. “I’m happy to hear it, you need support in school. And regular therapy sessions. This is a delicate part of your life, moving away, being in the gray space between girlhood and womanhood, and leaving all you’ve ever known. It’s a challenging time, especially for someone with your history. You need a support system.”

“I like Leah and the Theta girls. I don’t trust all of the sisters, though.”

“Everyone needs to earn your trust, Brie. That is a healthy defense mechanism. Yet, you can’t let everyone in right away. But you shouldn’t completely hide yourself, either.”

I laughed. “That was my main objective when I went to Baylor. I guess I can’t do anything right.”

“We’ve been over this,” Dr. Jones said, switching to him smooth but firm tone. “You can’t hide from the past. Or erase it.”

“I can’t tell him.”

“You wrote that essay for the Baylor U scholarship, and look how something dark and horrible turned into a beautiful opportunity.”

“I couldn’t have done that essay without you,” I admitted.

“The more you accept memories and feelings, the less power they will have over you.”

I rubbed my temples and shifted my eye’s to meet Dr. Jones’s. Those two dark brown eyes watched me grow up. Why couldn’t I just trust him and do what he said?

“Also, texting is not the best form of communication,” Dr. Jones said, setting his notepad aside. He made a tent with his fingers and switched his crossed legs.

“I’ve noticed.”

“What was the outcome?”

I released a big breath. “Nash texted me the very next day and said he was sorry. I didn’t know, but he had retaken the SATs and he didn’t get the score he needed. He also had just gotten in an argument with his dad about the whole thing.”

“My, that is a bad day. Did you accept his apology?”

“Of course.”

“Mmm, yes. But you are still resentful.”

 Watch it. I growled internally.

“He hurt me.”

“Allow me to play devil’s advocate. He’s only human, entitled to occasionally say things he doesn’t mean…Correct?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t make it less painful.”

“His words spoken after a hellish day? Or hearing of his new love interest? Be honest with yourself.”

I sat up a bit straighter and felt a stabbing pain in my heart. Dr. Jones crinkled his forehead. He already knows, so why is he asking? I wondered. Sometimes I wondered if he was a therapist or a mind reader.

“He’s not supposed to be with her,” I said under my breath.

Dr. Jones cupped his hand behind his ear. “What’s that?”

“I love him!” I said, so loud, that I startled myself.

“Why are you hollering this to me and not him?” Dr. Jones didn’t blink.

“I won’t. Not ever. It would change everything when he tells me that there would never be anything romantic between us.” I folded my arms.

Dr. Jones shook his head ever so slightly.

“I used to have everything under control. It wasn’t this bad until Tabitha left!”

“Relationships only exist in a common world built by two people. Only two, Miss Merritt.”

Later that day, I locked myself in my room and turned off my ringer. I didn’t want to be social. Ever since I returned to Kansas for Winter break, I wanted to go back to school. Trina and Nash kept calling me and asking me to go out and I claimed cramps.

Pretty little lies.

I laid flat on my back and stared at the ceiling. The silence was so loud. Dad was out at Louie’s bar so I had no vehicle, even if I wanted to go out. Not that I would want to drive, it had been snowing for hours. I hated snow. Each flake was a sparkling crystal of death.

My brain screamed at me to watch television or play with my phone. Just to do something. Anything to drown out the screaming that was trapped inside a silent house. Dr. Jones’s words were on a broken record from hell in my mind. I needed to move, but I was frozen.

I heard a faint knock at my door. I wondered if my dad came home from the bar early to actually spend time with me.

Nash squeaked my door open. I could already smell his cologne.

“Hey stranger,” Nash said waltzing in and collapsing down on my chair next to my tall antique bookcase. It was my mom’s.

“You are getting snow all over my carpet.” I glared at his slushy boots.

“Astute observation.” Million dollar smile.

“What do you want, Nash?” I pulled covers to my chin. “I’m kind of busy being a hermit, as you can see.”

“Get your ass out bed, dweeb. Everyone is home and asking about you.” Nash got up and ripped open my closet doors. He ruffled through clothes. “I never saw this?”

I looked at hardwood flooring. “Hand me downs. Theta discovered that I’m as poor as a homeless mutt in an alleyway.”

Nash chuckled. “Nice visual.”

Nash pulled out a faded pair of form fitting blue jeans and a white peasant top. He muttered to himself while making his selections. He sounded as clueless as a guy should, while navigating through a woman’s wardrobe. I sucked my lips in; dying to laugh. He picked a royal blue sweater to wear over the blouse and brown leather cowboy boots, worn out by someone else.

“Here you go.” Nash threw the clothes on the foot of my bed. “No excuse.”

“My bed is so warm and it’s cold out!”

“I’m glad you grasp the basic concepts of temperature. But come on. This is your…shit part of your year. I’ll drive you again, but, Merritt, I swear if I have to stay with you until morning again…”

“Morning?” My voice cracked.

“Yes, remember fall break? You got drunk so I carried you upstairs. After I had to help you change, um, your clothes. Then you asked me to stay with you until morning. So I did.”

I felt my face skip red and go right to purple. Nash raised his eyebrows. “Oh come on, I’m just giving you shit. I didn’t mind doing it, that’s what friends are for, right?”

“That’s above and beyond the call of duty,” I mustered.

Nash looked confused. “What? Not to me. Come on, Merritt. Everyone is there. Billy, Rex, Zack…that new girl, Jessica.”

I sprang up. “Fine. You win.”

I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to meet miss UK model, Jessica Fabian. My arch nemesis.

7c70ddc13c7ab9f2f890f4855db66327

 

Chapter 9

Frienemy

We walked through the doors of Stella’s Bar and Grille and I was hit in the face with the smell of cigarettes. It was so loud, my ears rang.

Nash leaned in, his nose brushed my lobe. He put his hand on the small of my back and said, “Billy texted me, they are in the back.” Goose bumps sprouted on my skin, even though the air was stale and stuffy. It made me want to walk back to California right then and there.

Nash led me through the sea of bodies. Most everyone said hi to Nash some former classmates shrieked and threw their arms around my neck. I plastered the fakest smile. Nash looked at me and laughed. He looked at my face and just knew.

Nash’s hand was glued on my back as we entered the hall in the rear. The hallway was lit by a few orangish lamps with green shades on the wall. Half of them needed a new bulb. Even though I needed to squint to see, I was thankful the darkness. It was an unspoken agreement that no townie wanted to know just how dusty, crusty, and cob webbed the dive really was in day light hours. I felt bad for the unknowing out of towners. Stella’s was our night spot in the winter when bonfires and camping trips were out of the question. Stella’s didn’t bother to look at IDs. I wished that they had a place like that in Coralvalley. I was told, bouncers could spot a fake with their eyes closed. I just stuck with frat parties.

Nash opened the door and there were several pool tables, low hanging lights, and gray clouds of cigarette smoke wafting through the air. I scanned the room, my mind focused on finding the infamous Jessica Fabian.

Billy almost knocked me over in the doorway. He threw his long, lanky arms around me and lifted me from the ground. His sand paper stubble scratched my cheek. I flicked off his backwards hat and he picked it up and whapped me with it.

“Hey Merritt. You look like the California is rubbing off on you.”

“And you look like your hair line is receding.”

“Oh you sassy little sally. How I miss your verbal abuse!”

“Where’s the new girl I’ve hear so much about?”

“Who Trina Lubble?”

Nash and Billy had a good laugh at that jab.

“You are such an ass,” I said kicking Billy’s shin. I shot Nash a look. “Thomas has always been Trina on the inside. Some people are born like that… and some are born ugly, like you, Billy.”

Billy laughed so loud that Rex came over and patted his back. “Are you okay, buddy?”

“Hi Reximus,” I said. I missed my little Rex.

“Hey there. How was your flight?”Rex asked, giving me a gentle embrace.

“Long. Flying sucks. It’s boring and expensive.” I crinkled my nose.

“Damn. How do you pay for it?” Rex smoothed down his shaggy red waves.

“BU gave me a stipend for travel expenses as a bonus to my full ride. I also get student housing and a meal plan.”

“I’m going to visit you, Brie. This Spring, I think,” Bill said, wiggling his brows. “Got any single friends?”

“Billy, are you serious? No way, you aren’t visiting. If you show up, I’ll pretend like I don’t know you.”

“Hey,” Nash added, “take me with you, Billy, I want to check out BU. If I ever get a high enough SAT score, I might apply. That’s where my dad went for undergrad.”

I felt my stomach swish at the thought of Nash on BU’s campus. Those two worlds just couldn’t collide. “Guys, hell no! This is a not a plan. You are not coming to visit me!”

“What the fuck, Merritt?” Billy said taking a step back. “Too good for us now?”

Wow, it really did sound like that. I thought as my eyes darted from Nash to Billy to Rex and back again. There is no way that they would understand.

“No,” I held up the palms of my hands, “that came out the wrong way. I think that, as a freshman who is trying to adjust and going greek, you should come next year. Maybe. This spring would be a bad time.”

“How did you even afford to go to some fancy school close to L.A., anyway,” Billy said, his eyes shooting daggers.

“I wrote an essay about my life.” You rude ass, I added in my head.

“That must have been one hell of an essay.”

I smirked. “I had one hell of a life.”

Nash cleared his throat and threw his arm around my shoulder. “We’re all proud of you.”

“Seriously, Brie,” Rex said, beaming.

“Aw, shucks,” I said sarcastically bashful.

“What are you even majoring in, Merritt?” Billy asked, eyes locked on mine.

“What do you think?” I said throwing up my arms. “Theatre!”

“Oh,” Billy said with a smug smile, “you mean waitressing.”

I shrugged. “Touché.” I’d rather be a starving artist than a balding twenty year old. I thought to myself. Clearly you’ve had one two many and it’s only 9pm. Classy.

“Shut up, ass wipe,” Nash said shoving Billy’s shoulder.

I saw a vein pop out in Billy’s forehead. My heart raced, anticipating a scuffle. This wasn’t the first time joking around escalated to an argument between Billy and me. He was just like a brother. Nash and Billy have actually thrown punches about it.

“Come on, Merritt. I want to introduce you to Jess. She said she’s excited to meet you.”

“I’m sure she is,” I huffed.

“Be nice,” Nash said with a sideways smile.

Nash drug me to the pool table in the back corner and I noticed a slender girl sitting in the shadows.

“Hey, Jess. This is Brie Merritt.”

The girl jumped up and scampered to Nash’s side. Then, they were both staring at me with toothy white smiles. Like, I was some sweet little girl selling Girl Scout cookies.

“Oh, nice to finally meet you, Brie! I’ve heard so many things about you.” Jessica said, in her smart, sexy sounding English accent. She reached for a handshake, and her arm flowed down like a swan’s neck.

What kinds of things does this graceful bitch know about me? I wondered, fuming through my smile. I gave Jessica a stiff, eye contact hand shake. I had to gaze up, she was so tall. Her eyes were two perfectly symmetrical almonds.

“Are you asian?” I blurted. Shit. Was that rude?

Jessica covered her pink glossed lips as she giggled. “That’s awesome! Most people assume I’m latina. I’ve even gotten Italian. In fact, my one friend thought I was Italian her whole life, so I gave up and said that she could believe it. I’m half Swedish half Vietnamese. ”

Nash gave me a wink. “Do you ladies want a drink?”

“Oh sure. Can you see if they have wine? If so, I’ll have something a little dry and red. Not too dry.”

What a pretentious little twat, I thought. I rolled my eyes when she was looking at Nash. “A beer. Just a beer. Whatever is on special.”

Jessica snickered and grabbed my upper arm. “I really need to develop a taste for beer. My immaturity is showing…beer is so College. Come sit! It’s not too smoky over here.”

I sat down on the red plush chair that had stuffing peeking out of a rip. My muscles were all tense. Maybe if I clicked my cowgirl boots together three times and said ‘there is no place like home’ I’d wake up in my dorm watching MTV with Leah.

I unlocked my phone. I knew Jessica was going to grill me about Nash like dozens of girls have done in the past. Now I was without a handy ‘Tabitha card’. How was I going to avoid gushing over my best friend with his new, exotic, extremely hot girlfriend?

Me: I’m by the pool tables in Stella’s. R U here?

I saw Trina typing and stopping. Typing and stopping. Finally.

Trina: I actually am here, but you can stay and play pool. You haven’t called or texted once since you’ve been back. I guess you had better things to do.

Me: What? No. I’ve been in my room…. the anniversary of my mom’s death is soon. Snow always reminds me. Does Christmas have to come every year? L

Trina: I know that and I’m sorry. But just text me and I would understand!

Me: Sorry. I’ve been a shit friend lately.

Pause

Trina: At least you know that you are a shit J Just come over by the jukebox, the Thespian Society is here. They will flip out to see the legendary Brie. Did you come here with Nashy-poo?

Me: Dad’s at Louie’s with the car. So yes.

Trina: 😉 😉 😉

Me: Shutup!!! Lol He’s such a dork. I think I lost half of my brain cells inhaling all that cologne he put on. All to see his little twit who I’m sitting next to and ignoring as I type.

Trina: Maybe he put it on b-c he knew he was going to see YOU!

Me: I’ll be over in a bit.

I felt guilt snap my chest like a rubber band. In truth, I might not have texted Trina if I didn’t need an escape plan. I meant it when I said I was a shit. I was using her.

I went back and forth on whether or not I wanted to break free from everything Kansas. My dad. Dr. Jones. Even Nash. Probably not Trina. She saved my life once. I kind of owe her the say on when the friendship dissolves.

I just wanted to avoid Rivertown until I decided if I had the courage to change my phone number and find somewhere else to stay on breaks.

Avoiding Rivertown was impossible sitting in Stella’s. Next to Jessica. In a living nightmare.

“I like your phone case,” Jessica commented, crossing her legs. It was a little cold to be wearing a black skirt, but evidentially, not cold enough to bother Miss Fabian.

“Thanks,” I mumbled.

“Are you going to get one with your sorority letters?” Jessica leaned in with shining eyes. “Nash told me how you were rushing.”

I felt my muscles relax a little. “Perhaps. Or just throw a sticker on the case I have.”

Jessica’s eyes widened. “I would have never thought of that.”

“Things you learn growing up poor.”

Jessica nodded her head. No looks of pity. “I admire that.”

I shifted in my seat and wondered where Nash was with the drinks. He probably got caught in a conversation.

“Can you tell me about rush?”

“Um, okay.” I couldn’t hide my surprise that she wanted to talk about something other than Nash. Maybe she was warming me up. “It’s differs a lot from school to school.”

“Oh really?” Jessica looked up with a thoughtful expression.

“Ya. I think one of the universal things is that you pick your favorite sororities and they bid on the pledges.”

“That sound nerve wracking.”

“Going Greek?” My heart fluttered. Going Greek meant Jessica was going away for College. Away from my Nash.

“I will if I get a bid. Who knows if I’ll fit in? This foreign girl with a confusing racial background.”

I giggled. “Everyone fits somewhere. Well, except for this girl on my floor…”

“See? There is a chance I won’t get in. But I can see why they picked you. Everyone still talks about how you were the best actress to ever step on Rivertown’s stage. So cool. I actually just joined the Thespian Society here. I was too nervous when I first arrived, but I just sucked it and went for it.”

I felt a flood of warmth and fuzzies. What is happening to me? I asked myself. I’m not supposed to like her. Stop liking her!

“I think they are all inside. You should hang out with them and screw these hillbillies and their pool tables.”

“Oh, the theatre gang invited me out, actually. They probably just want to observe my accent for their own theatrical development.” Jessica snickered and flipped her thick ebony hair over her shoulder. “Honestly, I only came tonight because I wanted to meet you. Oh man. I just sounded like a weirdo.”

I wondered how someone like her could be so humble. Was this an act? Was I being fooled?

“Thanks, Jess.” I grinned. “So were you in a Thespian Society in your old school?”

“Oh yes.”

“Was it different? Or kind of the same thing?” Why do I care? I wondered.

“Well, the same in some ways. For instance, kind of cliquish. And rightfully so…I just hope they can make an exception for me.”

“Understandable.”

“It’s hard to be the new girl. I still can’t believe my parents did this to me during my senior year. That should be punishable by law.”

 “I’m sure they all like you. You seem so nice. Down to earth.” What is happening…

“Well, Trina Lubble doesn’t care for me, and she is top dog,” Jess said looking at her knees.

I waved my hand. “Don’t pay her any mind. I can tell her I met you and thought that you were nice.” I would?! My internal thoughts questioned.

Jessica stared deeply into my eyes. “Oh my gosh, thank you.”

I hardly noticed that Nash was back with our drinks. He set them down on the circular table that was up against the wall, in between Jessica and me. I took a little sip. Warm and flat.

The rest of the night was like dumping a bunch of paints in a bucket and swirling them around with a stick. Then, opening a silvered scar and pouring fresh blood in the bucket colors.

It becomes the shade of shit brown.

heels

Chapter 10

Runaway Girl

I allowed Jess to link arms with me on our way to the bathroom. Nash had told her so much about me; it was like she already knew me. I didn’t know her, but what’s not to like about a friendly, humble, beautiful, model?

After the bathroom, we went to the theatre table. There was a roar when the club saw me. All at once, the questions about majoring in Theatre rained down. I was happy to answer them; there is never a moment when I don’t want to talk about acting. Their captive ears and shining eyes made me feel like a celebrity. I thought I was a shadow in school, but I had left a footprint. I could literally feel my skin glowing with happiness.

Trina was surprised to see Jessica Fabian attached to my hip. Through nonverbal communication, I told Trina that Jess is okay and Trina told me to watch out. Then, it dawned on me. Trina and Nash are the only people who I can speak to without saying words. Was I really considering never returning to Kansas?

Trina bought me a beer. Jess bought me wine. Billy came inside and apologized for being rude by buying me a rum and coke. Nash bought me some nachos with extra cheese. Everyone was my best friend and every damn thing was funny. I was spinning.

For the first time in a long time, I forgot about calories. The last thing on my mind was my dead mother or my drunken dad. The more I drank, the happier I felt, so the poisonous liquid kept on flowing down my throat. At some point, Nash pulled me aside and asked me to slow down. I told him that my tolerance went up because of the jungle juice at frat parties. It was true. So he let me dance with Jess until we had to hold each other up.

“I am getting us more drinks!” Jess screamed over the music.

I swerved over back to our table, bumping my hip on a table. I winced in pain. I frowned when I remember that was the hip that I carved into a heart shape, like my necklace, a month prior. I shook my head. I was having a good time, no depressing thoughts. In a minute later, Jess returned with two whiskey stone sours. I felt my mood deflating like a helium balloon.

I hated whiskey. Looking at it, smelling it, tasting it. It was what my dad smelled like on school day mornings when I sat and ate stale cereal next to his passed out body on the couch. He was usually in boxers, a grubby tshirt, and had the crumbs of his late night bar food in the corners of his mouth in a mashed, spitty, blob. He smelled like stinking sweat and whiskey. At some point, I stopped eating breakfast.

Dr. Jones said my physical response to my neglect as child was my negative association with food. In fact, he traced a lot of my problems back to the way Dad raised me. He even suggested I moved in with my grandparents.

I couldn’t abandon my dad.

I wasn’t my mother.

But… Jess didn’t know all of that. She didn’t even notice that I didn’t take a sip, she just swayed to the music. Her hair billowed around her pore-less naturally tanned skin. I should hate her. But she would be away at college in just a few months. Away from my Nash. No way would they last. Nash dating Jess for a few months. I couldn’t blame him, she was sort of incredible.

“Bathroom break! Coming?” Jess asked.

I shook my head.

“Okay, watch my drink, please!” Jess set her glass on the sticky table next to countless empty bottles and glasses of melting ice.  “Be right back.”

I sat there for a few moments, alone. Everyone else had given into the dance floor. Even Trina, who usually was too stylish to dance in a bar. I groaned when three songs passed by and Jess wasn’t back. I had to pee. I bobbed up and down and waited and waited. I couldn’t leave Jess’s drink unattended, that was nightlife safety rule number one. I decided just to take both drinks with me to the bathroom with me. This couldn’t wait.

It was difficult to manage two glasses, but I couldn’t waste it. I knew I shouldn’t, but I sucked a bit of fruity bitterness up the thin straw. I prepared to be disgusted. It wasn’t too bad, not like I thought it would be. Dr. Jones would be so proud of my self-initiated exposure therapy. Still, there was something wrong about consuming whiskey, even whiskey in a clever fruit disguise.

I stopped in the bathroom and after I was done, I realized that Jess wasn’t there. I worked on my drink a little bit so I could combine the two, and just give Jess a full one.

I couldn’t find Jess on the dance floor, so I figured she was in the pool area. I finished enough to combine the two drinks, and abandoned the glass on an empty table. I started towards the hallway that leads to the back. My mind flashed to Nash guiding me back there. I giggled. I wondered what he would think if he knew what his touch did to me.

In the middle of the hall, I saw two silhouettes. It looked like they were leaned against a wall.  I squinted and walked closer. I stopped. The drink slipped from my hand and shattered into a million pieces. Whiskey stone sour splattered on the jeans Nash picked out. I felt droplets on my ankles.

Nash noticed me. His eyes locked on me while his lips were still on hers. His hands were nestled in her shiny, ebony hair.

Jess turned, looked over her shoulder, and her lips curved. I back pedaled, crunching over broken glass and ice. My back slammed into the opposite wall. I looked at Nash and our eyes locked. He frowned; pink lip gloss smeared on his lush lips.

Maybe it was the heart ache mixed with the smell of whiskey. Perhaps it was the frigid, wet on my ankles paired with the shock. I’m not sure. I never truly know what sets me off. I was eight years old again, in a pink flannel nightgown, with my Barbie tucked under my arm. I thought I heard a noise, so I crept to the living room. I tip-toed next to the Christmas tree and wiped the fog off of the window.

The moon was a glowing orb, and its silver beams reflected off of freshly fallen snow. The snow was like glittering crushed diamonds. It was brilliant. I strained to see. It looked like something was outside in the front lawn. My heart fluttered. Santa’s sleigh! I imagined what the kids in my class would think. Without a thought, I walked out into my front yard in my slippers. No boots or a coat, I didn’t have time. I could see my breath form into clouds as I walked towards the dark shadow. It looked like a sleigh in the curious trickery of moonlight. I slushed through the snow; my ankles began to burn from cold. As I got closer, my heart raced. The shadow was transforming to a monster. Then I saw it. Then I knew.

I needed to run back inside my house!

I raced to my house and knocked into a few random bar-goers who gave me angry looks. No time for apologies. I saw Dr. Jones’s face appear like a hot air balloon. Count Brie. 1, 2, 3, I ran to the table and crawled under. 4, 5, 6, I wrapped my arms around my legs and rocked. I was outside and the snow was falling, soaking my pink flannel nightgown. The bar’s music sounded like me screaming. I covered my ears. The flashing lights. 7, 8, 9, 10. They looked like police car lights.

My consciousness observed from a faraway place. Not real. Not real. Not real.

“Brie!” Trina’s head appeared under the table. “Oh Lord, sweet, Brie.”

I screamed as I snapped back. Reality took a hammer pounded me on the head. I was back in the bar, again. I looked around. My thoughts immediately went to Nash. I needed to cover this up. Fast.

“I-I’m ssorry, Tr-tr-trina.” I said, so traumatized that I shook like I was electrocuted. “He-he can’t. He won’t under-sstand.”

Trina nodded without any questions. “Stay there.”

Some time passed and I watched my chest rise and fall. Rise and fall. I breathing again.

I saw Trina again; she reached under the table and slid her hand into mine. She pulled me out and tucked me under her arm, as if she were coddling a bird with a broken wing.

“Hurry, he’s looking for you.”

I commanded my heavy ankles to jog to the door under Trina’s arm.

When we got outside, Trina didn’t slow down until we got by her car. She opened my door, sat me down, and clicked my seatbelt across my chest. She ran to the other side, switched on the car and peeled out of the parking lot, like we just robbed a bank.

Her car fish tailed on the ice, but Trina wasn’t the least bit phased.

“Stay with me tonight, sweetie. Impromptu slumber party.”

“F-flashback,” I replied. I was still shaking.

“Just focus on your breaths. It’s all over now. You are in my car. You are safe.”

“Y-y-ou sssaved me again. Th-thank you.”

Trina nodded. “Nash asked me about you and I said I thought that you were in the bathroom throwing up.”

“Did h-hee buy it?”

Trina shrugged. “Sweetie, he’s only a man. Men don’t catch on all that quick, they are an inferior species. That’s why they need us girls.”

We were almost at Trina’s when my violent shaking melted into trembles. She pulled into her driveway and put the car in park. She turned and faced me.

“I saw Nash kissing Jess. I knew he was dating her. Dating people kiss. I don’t know why that would trigger me into flashback.”

“Well, I know why,” Trina said shooting me a smug look. “Told you I didn’t like that little bitch.”

“I started liking him, again, over fall break.” I felt I owed Trina at least an explanation. The words tasted like bile in my mouth.

“Oh sweetie,” Trina wrapped her hands over mine. “You never stopped.”

“He picked Tabitha.”

“You never gave him a choice!”

“I was that scraggly, weirdo little girl who wore sunglasses day and night for six months. There was no coming back from that.”

“What?” Trina said, pulling her hands back and placing them on her hips. “You looked just like Dakota Fanning, you were an adorable little thing.”

“Did I ever tell you how I met Nash?”

“Probably…I don’t really remember though. Sorry boo.”

“I was on the bus to my new school. I sat all the way in the front and I could hear the kids whisper about me and my sunglasses. They said that I was blind. A freak.”

“Ooo, if I was on that bus, I would have smacked those lil fuckers upside their heads!”

A hint of a smile graced my lips. “I know, Trina. So I looked back and they were all staring at me. I remember one kid stuck out his tongue and asked what planet I was from.”

“Planet Phenomenal.”

My smile grew. “Right? So, that’s when I met Nash. He walked past all of those kids and plopped right next to me. He didn’t say one word.”

“Didn’t need to. Nash was the Lord of the Rings even back then. I remember.”

“After that, the kids just ignored me…no more taunting. I started to like being invisible. When I wanted to be someone again, I would choose someone else. I told Nash I wanted to be a movie star, like my mom. So for my birthday, he got my first Shakespeare. Eight years old and he knew to get a girl Shakespeare. Can you believe that he thinks he’s dumb?”

“He’s not dumb in general…he’s just a man, he can’t help it. He doesn’t even know you love him.”

“I never gave him a reason to think that I love him. Even while I’m drunk, I would never reveal something like that. I’m always in control.”

“Except for flashbacks, sweetie.”

“Except for flashbacks. God, Trina, I haven’t had one in years. I feel stupid and so much…shame. How can I think I’m back there on that night? It’s not a memory. I’m there.”

“Stop it, Brie. You can’t help it.”

“I’m no better than when my dad and I moved to Rivertown after I saw…you know…”

“You aren’t that girl anymore. You are a beautiful survivor.”

“But I am that little girl. She’s right here.” I put my hand on my chest. My palm felt the cold metal of my silver necklace. “She’ll never go away as long as I’m here. Somewhere in the Rivertown dump, my twin mattress is probably still there, saturated with my blood.”

“You are upset right now. Don’t let your mind go there.”

“Why not? I had a flashback, grabbed that razor, sliced open my wrist… if you didn’t find me…”

Trina grabbed my cheeks and pulled me inches from her face. Her eyes were shining with tears. Her nostrils flared. “Brie. You go. You run away and never come back here. Run!”

The next day, she drove me to the airport.

I ran.

rich tree

Chapter 12

Christmas with the McClouds

I followed Leah up the stairs. My heart beat against my ribcage like a boxer jabbing a punching bag. I took deep, slow breaths to calm. In and out. In and out. I felt a little bit like orphan Annie, checking out Dr. Warbuck’s mansion. Only I wasn’t a cute, singing red head little girl. I was more like a stray cat with gunk eyes and fleas. Probably ticks, too.

Leah McCloud put on her superhero cape and allowed me to stay with her for the remainder of Winter Break. I didn’t know what I expected when I arrived at LAX. Whatever I thought was wrong. It started with walking out of the airport and being welcomed by a reasonable temperature. No snow. Then, the chauffeur. Now, I was under the impression that private chauffeurs only existed in movies and for the President. I’m not even sure if I’d know how to correctly spell the word. We didn’t exactly need it in Rivertown.

Nevertheless, Leah and the McCloud family’s chauffeur picked me up from the airport with Leah in tow. I immediately felt guilty, knowing what that must have cost to get a driver with LA’s prices the day before Christmas. Leah assured me that Frank was salaried. It was then I knew that I crossed over the threshold into Bizarro World.

The roof over the grand staircase at Leah’s was comprised of clean glass. Warm sunlight beamed through white clouds, giving the stairs a bright, heavenly glow. They winded around and when we got to the top, I followed Leah down a hallway. I passed some art pieces I wanted into look into later. They looked like original pieces. Then, there were petite tables with vases of fresh flowers every few feet. In the hallway? I thought, scratching my head.

Leah opened a set of white double doors. “This is your room. Will this do?”

I opened my mouth but no words followed. I scanned the room. It was the size of the second floor of my house. It had warm redwood floors with a white and gold swirled oriental rug. The walls had gold and beige striped wall paper, that contained a hint of golden glimmer. There were two patio doors with heavy thick white curtains tied to the sides. I could see a modest sized balcony on the other side, with miniature palm trees in ceramic vases. I was glad my cardiovascular system was in decent shape, because I thought surely, my heart would stop.

“I get to sleep here?” I asked. I wondered where I would hide my beat up suitcase and dufflebag. I wanted to stash them right away.  It didn’t belong inside the luxury, penthouse suite in the Hilton.

“Yes!” Leah threw her arms around me and gave me a hug. I felt a few bones in my back crack and pop. “Girl, I am, like, so excited you are staying with us. It’s just like having a sister.”

“I’ve always wanted a sister,” I said. How old would my brother be right now? I wondered, doing mental math.

Leah’s eyes bulged. “Seriously? Me too! I guess now we have what, like, 80 sisters, huh?”

“Well,” I said taking my suitcase and stuffing it under the California king sized bed, “I am cautiously optimistic.”

Leah rolled her large, round eyes. “You are so in. Unless you suddenly move to France, you are in.”

“Well, who knows what I’ll do next,” I said, sitting on the bed. “I am officially a runaway. Never thought I’d do that.”

“Why did you runaway?” Leah said taking a seat next to me. “You told me you’d tell me when you got here.”

“I don’t feel like talking about it, really.”

“Nuh-uh, Miss Merritt. You tell me. I invited you to spend Christmas with me! We’re, like, in a pretty serious friendship now.” Leah snorted and burst into giggles.

I curled my toes in my Nikes. “Um, okay. My friend, Trina, and I didn’t think I was a healthy environment and needed to leave.”

“Environment, like, it was smoggy or something? Because it’s not any better here in LA,” Leah said.

I stared at her for a moment. I had to blink a few times. “No. Like, my mental wellbeing.”

“Oh,” Leah said nodding. “You and that boy? Nash?”

I pressed my lips in a hard line. “My dad has never been…. And my mother’s death happened on Christmas day, like 1AM or something. Then, as I’ve told you, Nash is newly single. Now he’s dating a girl who is way to pretty. Not saying he’s more than a friend, but–”

“Say no more,” Leah held her finger to my lip. “My boyfriend broke up with me three months before Freshman year. Then, I come back for fall break, and there he is. With all our friends, and some new thing on his arm who looks like Elvis. I know that’s a weird, but bitch looks like Elvis.”

I fell back into the bed and laughed for the first time in awhile. “Sorry, I know it’s not funny…”

Leah collapsed next to me. “Girl, yes it is!”

“Thank you so much for letting me stay here.”

“You know how shitty my family is,” Leah said, switching her gaze to the ceiling. “They won’t do it in front of you. So you’ve, like, spared me the drama this Christmas. Thanks for coming.”

“I get it. My parents fought all of the time,” I offered. “I remember sleeping in the closet.”

Leah buzzed up and headed towards the door. “Dinner is at 6. My aunt, uncle, and cousins will be here for our annual Christmas dinner.”

“Sounds like fun.” I said forcing a smile.

Leah turned back and rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry. You and I will get drunk afterwards to forget the stuffy boringness and excess calories.”

When I heard the door click shut, I kicked off my shoes. I snuggled under the sheets which just so happened to be woven by angels.

I heard Dr. Jones’s voice in my head. “How do you feeeeeel?”

Before I answered my subconscious therapist, my eyes closed and I slept like a corpse.

***

I rolled over and looked at my cell. My heart jumped. I scrambled out of bed and tore open my duffle bag. It used to be Nash’s wrestling bag. It still kind of smelled like him. I scowled. Even in LA, Nash was around every corner of my mind. I saw that he texted me ten times. This is getting ridiculous. I thought as I poured my clothes on my bed. Get out of my head!

I found a pair of black skinny pants that were a little bit fancier than regular pants, yet not too dressy. I wished I had at least asked Leah what kind of clothes their family wore. I slid into a plain white t-shirt with a low dipping V neck. I completed the outfit with a grey, oversized, button up sweater that sort of reminded me of my grandpa.

Without time put on makeup, I scurried to the door and ran for the stairs. I combed through my hair with my fingers, piled it on my head, and made a messy bun. Luckily, it always looked like I planned for it to look bed head chique. My bun trick disguised my hair-care laziness. Or tardiness.

I took three steps, but I wasn’t used to wearing those gray heeled ankle boots. I tumbled down a few more steps before I caught myself.

“Aye, dios mio!” A small maid yelled. She rushed over to me and helped me up. “Are you okay, mija?”

“Yes,” I said wiping my hands on my pants. “The only thing that is bruised in my pride.”

“Como?”

“Nothing, sorry. Can you point out where the family is having dinner? I’m late and this place is like a museum. Do you have a map, handy?”

The maid stared at me for a moment and then sniggered. “Aye, you are a funny girl. Yes-yes. I show you the room.”

The maid took her arm and linked it through mine.

“Your accent reminds me of my best friend, Trina’s mom,” I commented as we arrived to the landing. The maid guided me towards the rear of the house. “I’m Brie, by the way.”

I heard voices traveling down the hallway. My heart fluttered.

“I’m Sylvia. I come from Puerto Rico.”

“Yes!” I squealed. I had no idea why that was exciting. “So is Trina’s mom.”

“Here we are, senorita Brie.”

“Thanks, Sylvia.”

I walked into the dining room to find a lengthy table, draped with a stark white table cloth. There were silver platters in the center with food that looked like wax. I felt my mouth water at the smell. There was a massive candelabrum in the center with dancing little flames on top of red and green candles.

The family around the table looked just as picturesque. Ties and kakis, Christmas colors, little black dresses, pearl earrings. Their eyes were set on me with frozen smiles on their lips.

“Brie!” Leah got up and came to my side. She gave me her usual bone cracking hug. “Family, this is my college roommate and future sorority sister, Brie Merritt.”

I beamed a gigantic smile and a stiff wave. My hand crashed down to my side and I didn’t know where to put it. So I folded my hands behind my back. I leaned on one leg, hoping to look stylish, but casual.  I told Dad to sign me up for finishing school instead of equestrian club. I joshed to myself. I had to bite my lip to prevent a laugh.

Leah led me to the chair next to her spot.

“So sorry I’m late,” I said sliding into the red velvety cushion on the chair. I sunk in an inch.

“Girl please,” Leah left out a puff of air. “We all know you are jet lagged! It’s fine.”

“Thank goodness,” I said, knowing to put my cloth napkin on my lap. That is where my fine dining education ended. I leaned into Leah’s ear. “I don’t know how to act, like, with etiquette or whatever. I’ll just watch you.”

“Brie, we are the McClouds,” Leah whispered back, “not the Kennedy’s. Don’t worry.”

Leah gave me a playful shove and I sailed into the shoulder of the gentleman next to me.

“Oh, God,” I said, my ears burning hot.

“Hello, I’m Dillon.”

Dillon reached for my hand. I shook his hand, and after, wondered if I shook it too stiffly for a family dinner setting.

“You’re Dillion?” flew out of my mouth.

Dillon raised a brow.

“Sorry, it’s just, I remember Leah saying that she had a cousin at BU named Dillon.”

“Ah,” Dillon said nodding, “you were envisioning something else.”

I stared into two baby blue eyes. “Yes, I was. Although, you do look familiar.” Maybe I seen him before on campus?

            “He gets the dark hair from my aunt Lindy,” Leah said nodding at a lady with milky white skin and onyx waves. “Our fathers are brothers.”

My eyes darted from Leah to Dillon. They didn’t look remotely related. Leah was tall and round with thin light brown hair and honey brown doe-eyes. Dillon was almost opposite.

“So you are rushing Theta?” Dillon said crinkling his forehead.

“Yes. So?”

“Oh, nothing,” Dillon said revealing a dimple in his left cheek.

“It’s a really nice house.” I said. The salad was being passed around family style. Leah scooped the romaine lettuce and plopped it on my china plate for me. She passed the bowl to Dillon.

“Would you like a drink, Brie?” Dillon asked.

“Um, okay.”

Dillon asked for the merlot and poured me a glass. I sunk down in my seat a little.  

After the best meal I’ve ever had, the group of dinners moved to the living room. I met Leah’s mother and father who looked like Barbie and Ken at 45. It felt a little naughty of me that I knew about the demons that lurk below the surface. Luckily I didn’t have to talk with them for long. Leah and I sat down next to the 20 foot Christmas tree.

“That tree is out of this world,” I said, admiring the red velvet ribbons, strands of white beads, and twinkling lights.

“We others in the house,” Leah said taking a sip of her wine. “This is the best one.

I noticed the presents in silver shining paper with flouncy red bows beneath. A vivid memory flickered. That terrible night, I tiptoed to the front window. I was right next to my tree. It leaned a little, and anyone could see the pole. That didn’t matter to me, it was perfect.  Right next to my foot was a little present. I almost stepped on it when I decieded that I should go see Santa’s sleigh. I was relieved that I didn’t step on it. It was all I could get with my piggy bank money.

But I knew he would love it.

I glanced at the entryway. I could have gone back upstairs and visited that gift. It was in my suitcase in a shoebox of things I can’t part with. Part of me wanted to visit it and give it a good shake.

“I got you one,” Leah said.

“What?” I almost jumped when Leah pulled me out of my mind, back to her living room.

“I saw you looking at the gifts,” Leah said with a impish grin. “I got you one. I think my parents did too.”

“No,” I said shaking my head. “You’ve done enough. Absolutely not.”

“Just take it,” Leah urged with sparkling eyes. “I like giving gifts.”

“I just can’t,” I said with a weak voice. I knew Leah wouldn’t like that.

Leah threw up her arms. “Why the hell not? It’s paper. You open it. You smile and pretend to like what is inside. It’s not hard!”

“I don’t know what happened to my gifts under the tree the night my mom died. Presents just represent death, now. God, I’m such a bummer, aren’t I? So sorry, Leah. I think I’ll go back upstairs now, thanks for–”

“Don’t you think it’s time to open a gift again, Brie?” Leah rested her hand on my knee. “I don’t know what happened that night. Maybe one day you will finally tell me. But wouldn’t your mom want you to enjoy the fun of gifts at Christmas?”

“Thank you for the gift, Leah, you are so sweet.” I said, my soul twisting inside. “But I can’t. If it’s okay with you, I would love to donate it to a woman’s shelter.”

Leah pouted. “Fine. Excuse me,” Leash said as she got up and stormed towards the dining area.

Brie, you hard headed, ungrateful little shit-stain! I scolded myself.

I decided that the night was over. My head was pounding, my stomach was too full for my liking, and the wine made my mouth feel dry. Plus, my eyes burned for more sleep. I hadn’t slept much for 48 hours and I yearned to sleep in my borrowed, rich person, angel sheets.

When I reached the stairs I heard someone calling for me. I turned around.

“Brie, wait up,” Dillon said doing a light jog. “Where are you headed so early?”

“Do you see these dark circles?” I pointed to my eye. “This is not normal. Unless you are uncle Fester.”

“All I see are two, captivating, blue eyes,” Dillon said, looking even more familiar.

“Thank you Dillon,” I said, feeling my heart skip a beat. “I am seriously wiped. See you soon?”

“Where’s your phone?” Dillon asked taking a step closer to me.

“Upstairs.”

“Hmm, okay. Old school then,” Dillion said as he reached for the inside pocket of his sports jacket. He pulled out a silver pen. He grabbed my arm and flipped it, exposing my wrist. I ripped my arm away, afraid he might see my scar.

“What are you doing?” I asked, feeling my cheeks drain of color.

Dillon chuckled and yanked my hand towards him. He flipped over my hand. I closed my eyes. I just knew he would see and ask. I just knew it.

“Here’s my number, little miss jumping bean,” Dillon said when he was done scribbling on my palm. “Let’s hook up for New Years. Have you ever been out in LA for New Years Eve?”

I shook my head.

Dillon laughed and gave me a wink. “Then you haven’t lived yet. Let me take you out, Brie.”

“Um, okay, with Leah, right?”

Dillon rolled his eyes. “Leah and I don’t roll with the same crew. She probably won’t want to come. Say you will come.”

I stared into his eyes. Being pushy must be a genetic trait.

            “I’ll let you know.”

Dillion laced his fingers into mine and gave the top of my hand a small, wet, peck. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

“Goodnight, hun.”

Dillon spun on his dress shoe and made way for the living room. My stomach felt like a soup comprised of contradicting ingredients.

I hated being called ‘hun’. Plus, he might have been mocking Theta. There is, also, the issue that his hair would stay still in a tornado. No man should use an entire jar of jell for one dinner at his aunt and uncles.

Nevertheless, my hand was still tingling from where his lips touched. I felt like giggling just thinking about that dimple. And, I could see the outline of carved pectorals and abs.

I grunted and went upstairs to my room. I closed the door and locked it behind me. I fell backwards on the bed, It was so nice not to worry about a stray spring ripping through the mattress and stabbing me in the kidney.

My phone buzzed.

Those 10 messages.

I knew I shouldn’t look, my mood was already way off. I sighed. I couldn’t take it any longer.

Nash: Merritt, I’m looking for U. Where did U go?

Nash: Did you go home? 😦 Y no bye?

Nash: I hope you are feeling okay. Trina texted and said you were puking and spending the night with her. I’m glad you are safe. Text me. Good night.

Nash: How is your hang over? Do you need anything?

Nash: Are you okay? Trina won’t answer her phone either. SMH

Nash: By the way, Jessica said that you are the most amazing girl she’s ever met. No one can take your place. I hope you know that.

Nash: Y no answer? 😦 U  Mad?

Nash: I can’t believe you left for LA! No goodbye?

Nash: OK, something is wrong. So, at Stella’s, I’ve been thinking and thinking. Before you went and barfed, you saw me kiss Jessica. Was it me and Jessica? I thought you liked her. What’s going on.

Nash: Fuck you, Merritt! Where are you? This is my last text.

 

I whipped my phone across the room without caring if it broke. I stuffed my head in my down pillow and demanded that my mind relax. I was working on my mediation and breathing, when my eyes poped open.

“Zack Efron!” I said to my vacant suite. “Dillon looks just like Zack Efron…that’s where I know him from.”

I felt butterflies flutter about my stomach. Aristocrat, Zack Efron’s doppelganger, roommates cousin wants to take me out on a date. I thought.

I stuffed my face in my pillow and allowed myself a much needed scream.  

Chapter 13

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What the BLEEP is Mascot Girl?

Christmas, the day of death, had arrived. I spent most of it in bed with the curtains drawn. It was a cycle of nightmares and restlessness. My phone rang when I was in my bathroom, vomiting the remnants of the McCloud family Chritmas Eve dinner. Since I can’t cry, sometimes I barf. Fun fun. I didn’t look to see who was calling me.

I heard a gentle rapping on my door. I rushed to my bed and pretended to be asleep.

“Miss Brie,” Sylvia, the kind, direction giving, maid, said, “you must have a drink, hija.”

I pretended to wake up. “I’m sick.”

Sylvia gave me that look. A pained, sympathetic, cherubic gaze. Leah must have told her about my mom’s eleventh death-aversary.

“I take care, senorita.”

“Sylvia, its Christmas. Can’t you go home? You deserve it.”

“I have no children. No husband. I do have a sick chica. I take care. Sit.”

I didn’t want calories today. But, there was no use arguing. I arose to a sitting position and winced. It is curious how the body can respond to emotional turmoil with physical symptoms.

Sylvia fluffed a pillow and placed it behind my back. She gave me a glass filled with a bubbly clear liquid, ice, and straw. I slurped up the liquid.

I crinkled my nose. 7UP. Whoever thought lemon and lime would make a good fizzy drink was smoking crack, I thought. I forced a grin that I’m sure looked like road kill trying to look happy.

“Dulces suenos, Senorita Brie,” Sylvia said, running her smooth hand over my cheek. “Sweet dreams.”

When she left, I staggered to the bathroom again. Sylvia was a stranger who cared for me. It was a crying moment with no tears. I wished that I wasn’t so broken.

My phone rang. Backstreet Boys- Incomplete.

“Hi, Dad,” I said into the phone. I scampered back to my bed and dove under the covers. I braced myself for a slurring train wreck on the other end.

“Hi, there, Brie.”

I couldn’t even say anything for a minute. He sounded clear-headed. “How are you?” I managed.

“Not too bad, not too bad. Does feel mighty strange without ya. Ya know?”

“Ya. I know.”

“I’m glad you are up in LA with the McClouds. But I-I just….”

“I miss you too,” I said. “And Dad…”

“Yes, dear?”

“Thanks for calling me. It’s nice to hear your voice. You sound, um, like you are well.”

“Thank you. We ‘ought to call more often. Ya think so?”

“Yes. Especially if you are…all clear to talk.”

“Sober.”

“Yes. I like sober Dad.”

“Me, too, Brie. Me too.”

Pause.

“Brie. I know we don’t give each other gifts or nuffin. Christmas isn’t our thang. But my gift to you is me tryin. I gone to my first AA.”

Just like that, my resentment towards my dad started to thaw.

“That’s all I could ask for,” I said with a crackling voice. “Just to try.”

After that conversation I slept for a long while. I woke up and it was 12:12 AM December 26th. I let out a huge gust of wind. I made it. A little package with silver paper and a red bow was on the foot of my bed.

I leaned over and read the note on the top.

 

Brie,

You can donate this.

Or you can keep it.

I don’t care.

I just want you to be a little happy.

At least practice opening it. It’s the first step.

Love ya, girlie,

Leah Marie

 

I stared at the gift. If my dad could try, why shouldn’t I? It took awhile to remove the ribbon. I almost had to hunt down a pair of scissors. I slid my hand under the paper and heard the ripping sound as the paper tore. I smiled. I remembered that sound.

I wondered what kind of makeup or handbag was in the box. Maybe it was a scarf from Macy’s. Or perhaps something more practical, like Theta gear.

My heart fell to my stomach. I pulled out a canvas that had an amateur painting of a long, winding yellow brick road, and a pair of shoes that had red sparkling glitter. I flipped it over and saw Leah’s signature on the back. I flipped it right side up. Some of the glitter sprinkled off onto my blanket.

There was a quote from the movie in sloppy cursive.

Everything you were looking for

Was right there with you all along. –The Wizard of Oz

 

My first thought was Nash. My second thought was that I felt like the cartoon Grinch when his heart grew three sizes. The gift wasn’t what I was expecting, it was better. I guess I had forgotten that gift giving was about the gesture, not the price. I made a silent promise to craft gifts for family and friends next year. I was shocked at my self-promise to participate in Christmas culture.

Friendship is everything, isn’t it? I thought. Trina gave me a set of wings. Leah pushed me from a cliff, knowing that I would fly, even if I didn’t know it.

 

***

One week later, our yellow taxi dropped us at Theta Gamma Nu. Leah and I struggled to free our luggage from the trunk.

“I’m glad I have an excuse to give to Dillon, if I ever see him again,” I said pulling my suitcase up to the sidewalk. “I didn’t think gallivanting around LA with a stranger sounded like a fun New Year’s Eve.”

“Girl, you should give him a chance,” Leah said, out of breath, as she struggled with her three humungous suitcases. “He’s  handsome, I think.  He’s my cousin, so it’s hard to tell.”

“He is hot,” I admitted. “I guess a getting a coffee sounds okay. New Years Eve was just too much.”

“You’re in big trouble, he probably sees you as a challenge now,” Leah gave me a nudge.

“It might feel nice to be sought after.”

“ You know, he is in Lambda Psi Tau. They are, like, the richest, hottest frat.”

“Really?” I asked as we walked up the sidewalk. “I don’t remember partying there yet.”

“We haven’t. I bet they don’t invite Theta pledges often,” Leah said through her teeth.

“Lambda doesn’t, but Sigma does?”

“Notice all the Star Trek posters and pimples at Sigma?”

“No, not really,” I said sifting through fuzzy party memories. “Well, now that you say it, kind of. Frat brothers look the same to me. I don’t know.”

I thought about Dillon. Then I thought of the Sigma guys that dissected the plot of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ with me until 2AM. I would sooner date a Sigma. Or then again, maybe not. It was hard to decide whether or not someone is dateable when your mind is all wrapped with the handsome James Nash. I just wasn’t looking. I needed to start.

“You really just don’t see stuff like that, do you?” Leah shook her head. “Like why we are called the leftovers.”

“Okay, look. Subconsciously, I know, right? I don’t fully consider it because I’m too busy not giving a shit about shallow categories and boxes and clichés.”

“Girl, this isn’t Glee the TV show. This is Baylor U. Not everyone is all ‘be yourself’ here. We are outside of LA, of all places.”

“I always thought of LA as a place for dreamers.”

“Girl, I grew up in LA. The scene is rich, plastic, polished. Be rich and famous or go home. It is what it is. Honestly, Theta’s are average. Some are ugly, a lot are plain Janes, a handful are pretty. But place us next to perfect, plastic Barbies…”

The red door swung open with Lauren on the other side. I cringed, wondering if she heard Leah’s words.

“Welcome home,” Lauren said, giving us each a butt-out hug.

“Thank you so much for letting us spend New Year’s Eve with you,” I said, walking into the foyer.

“The pleasure is mine,” Lauren said shutting the door. She folded her arms. “This actually works out well; Brie, I love to speak with you. In private.”

“Private?” I gulped. Lauren always made me feel as if I was a moment away from being in trouble.

“Yes,” Lauren said. “You girls can stay in the guest rooms in the basement. Follow me.”

We trotted behind Lauren. Behind her back, Leah mouthed “what the hell?” to me. I shrugged in response. After a few hallways and lots of downward stairs, we were in the basement. The smell of old house was pungent. It wasn’t like the rest of the updated, sparkling clean house. The basement reminded me of an old school building that was in need of a remodel.

“Here you go,” Lauren said, gesturing to two doors at the end of a hallway. “Put down your things, Brie, and we can go to my office.”

My stomach churned.

After I put down my things I followed Lauren, without words, to her office. I walked in and she shut the door behind me.

“You can have a seat,” Lauren said, gesturing to a large easy chair that was in front of her cherry wood executive desk. Lauren sat behind her desk and folded her hands.

I sat down and peered into Lauren’s hazel eyes.

“Brie, with the initiation ceremony next week, you are practically a Theta. Right?”

“Yes,” I said with a nod, wondering where this could be going.

“Well, I want to tell you about your role, so that we can make that announcement at the ceremony. It’s tradition that you know first. Okay?”

“Um, okay,” I said fidgeting with the button on my grandpa sweater.

“You agree that you will keep this secret?”

“I promise.”

“As you know, you will be our new Macot Girl. Mascot Girl symbolizes Theta Gamma Nu. She is our Miss America. She is our ambassador. She gives us credibility with the other houses at Baylor. She represents the beauty within Theta.”

“W-what? You want me to be that?”

“I’m not telling you what I want; I’m telling you what you already are. You are the ‘it’ girl.”

“Oh, I’m really not.”

“ Brie, you are naturally pretty,  got a perfect figure, confidence, a great personality. You know this. You don’t have to be humble, we are just stating facts.”

“Honestly, Mascot Girl t sounds a lot like you and nothing like me.”

“ I’d rather focus on my duties as the President TGN for my last semester, and transition out of this role. You will need lots of training and I will help you.”

“So, it’s mostly like, an honor.”

“No you’ll do a lot. Until you have reached your senior year, the elected social panel will give you your duties.”

“What kind of duties?”

Lauren sighed and rested her head on her propped up arm. I guessed that I was being more difficult than anticipated.

“Like, an example,” Lauren said, “if we need to communicate with another sorority, Mascot Girl makes that call. Social committee will be by you and tell you what to say when you call. If a group wants to go to a frat, Mascot girl walks in front and gets the Theta girls in. Things like that.”

I shifted uncomfortably. “So, you want me to be a puppet for the social committee?”

“You are an actress. When we reviewed you for this position, you were, like, the perfect person to do it.”

“But I’m not. I was just like some drama geek in high school. I was certainly not an it girl. You have me pegged out all wrong!”

“College is a place of reinvention. In high school, I was that fat girl who had to wear a back brace. When I wasn’t being awkward, I was playing the trumpet in band. The summer before freshman year, I lost weight and was able to ditch the back brace. The Theta’s recruited me as Mascot Girl. I felt like you do now.”

“There is no way you were that girl,” I said shaking my head, looking at Lauren’s effortless beauty. She had to be a cheerleader in high school.

Lauren scrolled through her phone for a few moments. I was about to think she was rude, when she flipped her phone so that I could see. There was a picture of a younger Lauren. She was a chubby girl in a marching band hat next to a heavy boy with greasy curls and circular wire framed glasses.

“That’s me and my ex, Rob,” Lauren said shuttering.

I covered my mouth.

“Yeah, I know, Brie. The old Mascot Girl taught me how to act. What to eat. How to do makeup. In return, the sorority house bought me clothes, paid my dues, things like that. It worked. I have Lambda boyfriend. I have, like, a million friends in other sororities. Theta got invited places because of me. It’s amazing. It’s all an act, Brie. Underneath, I am a band geek, back brace loser.”

My brain scrambled. “I thought Mascot Girl, was like a cheerleader or something. Like I’d have to wear a big bear suit and dance around at parties.”

“You weren’t too far from the truth. You will wear a mask of some sorts.”

“This is nothing like I thought. I don’t think I can do it, Lauren,” I said hanging my head.

“Yes you can.”

I lifted up my head to meet her gaze. “No, I’m saying that I won’t do this. As humbled as I am that you chose me, you’re going to have to choose someone else.”

“Then you aren’t a true Theta. A genuine Theta would do this for the sake of her sisters and her sisters’ social standing on campus.”

“What are you saying?”

Lauren licked her lips and folded her arms. “Either you are a Theta sister and our mascot, or you aren’t either.”

I stared at Lauren and felt every emotion swirl around like a hurricane in my heart.

I wondered if Dr.Jones  could get on Skype.

brie dress

 

To Theta or Not to Theta.

I don’t exactly remember descending the stairs or opening the guest room’s door. My conversation with Lauren had fried my brains.

My phone buzzed. I grunted and stared at the screen as I crashed down onto the outdated, floral comforter of the guest twin bed.

“Ouch!”  It felt like I fell on concrete.

I opened my texts…

Trina: Brie, I miss you boo! Call me soon, k? Love you xoxo

Nash: Hey stranger. I hope your Christmas was OK. Happy New Years! Remember to drink water and have an asprin b4 U go to bed. Helps the hangover. 🙂

Nash: BTW… pls C/M if you want to talk about anything….I wanted to text you on Xmas, but gave U space. Glad it’s over for the year?

I bit my lip. I imagined Nash’s eyes staring at the words he was texting me. His eyes were a mirage. From far away, they looked blue. It’s only when you are close you see that they were a dark, forest green with a blue band around the iris. Just the thought of being close enough to see the true shade of Nash’s eyes, sent shivers up my arms. I stared at the cinder block walls with peeling paint. The guest room was no better than a jail cell.

Me: Hey Nash. Sorry I have been MIA. I haven’t been in the best head space. Things are getting better, I think. I know it sounds pathetic, but I opened a Christmas gift. I think that is a step towards normalness. I hope you and the crew have a great New Years Eve! Tell everyone hey…. Except Billy. Give him a purple nerple for me, will you? 😉

I had to type, erase, type, and change my text a few times. I hadn’t talked to Nash since the night I had the flashback at the bar. In deep thought, I crinkled my forehead. I pressed send.

Leah barged into my room. I shrieked.

“Calm down, it’s just me,” Leah said, waltzing in and taking a seat on my bed. “Girl, shit, your bed is more comfortable than mine. Can we switch?”

“How is that possible? Mine feels like a block of cement.” I said shaking my head.

“So what did Lauren have to talk to you about,” Leah said as she leaned back.

I sucked in air. When I released it, I revealed my entire conversation with Lauren. Every word.

Leah fluttered her lashes. “That is so fuckin’ weird. Mascot Girl?”

“Shh,” I said, “you can’t tell anyone, Lauren would kill me.”

“Who is going to hear us in the dungeon?”

I snorted. “True. So what do I do?”

“Do it, Brie! What have you got to lose?”

“My dignity? Control? I don’t like being out of control in a situation. I’m sure you’ve noticed that. I would suffocate as Mascot Girl.”

“Well, don’t think of it like that. If they tell you to murder someone, would you?”

“…no.”

“Then pretend what they instruct you to do is only a suggestion. Because, really, it is. At the end of the day, you decide what you do. That’s just how you are. I’m like that, too!”

“Oh, I wouldn’t argue with you there. But, look, if they gift me clothes and pay my dues, then they are buying me. I don’t want to owe anyone anything.”

“Ya, I get that,” Leah said twirling a strand of her hair.

“Leah, I don’t know! This is all too strange.”

“Can I be honest?”

I nodded.

“You don’t come from money. Take this as your ticket out. With all that fluffing and training, she was talking about, you might land yourself a rich husband. Maybe he’ll have connections in Hollywood. Who knows?”

“Is this 1951? Do I have to find a rich husband? I’m nineteen!”

“Hell no. But I have money. It doesn’t make me happy, or skinny. But it doesn’t hurt. Come on, it’s not like you’re selling your soul here.”

“Why do I feel so icky about it then? There are so many red flags. Especially since it’s, do this and be queen of Theta, or don’t, and screw you.”

Leah rolled her eyes. “I’ve never heard of a designated popular person. Where I’m from, no one puts a crown on your head. You just snatch it!”

“Mmm, like Miss Philippians did to Miss Columbia?” I laughed at my own joke.

“Brie, you asked my advice, will ya listen to me?”

“Ok-ok.”

“Take the crown and run. Let Lauren and the social committee think that they are in control. You know the truth. I know the truth. You would never do anything you didn’t want to do.”

I smirked at the irony. “I would never do something against my conscience… besides become Mascot Girl.”

Leah jumped up. “Okay, Mascot Girl, I’m going to change into my black sparkle dress. It’s almost nine. Almost time to pre-game!”

I watched Leah exit my “jail cell” and I realized that I should gone with Dillon instead. When I asked Lauren if Leah and I could spend New Years with the Theta’s who didn’t go home for break, I never dreamed I’d be backed into a corner and forced to sit on some hypothetical throne.

In that moment, I knew that I was at a life-altering crossroads. To Theta or not to Theta, that is the question. 

I let out a ‘hmmm’ when my phone rang with an ‘unknown’ number. I almost was afraid to answer. After the Mascot Girl definition, I didn’t want anymore surprises.

I was curious. Should I? I wondered.

“Um, hello?” I said into the phone. If I were a cat, I’d be dead.

“Er, hi, Brie. This is Tabitha.”

“What? How the hell are you? Long time no talk!”

Tabitha cleared her throat. “Good, good. Sorry I’ve dropped off the face of the earth. I just, I’m sorry.”

“Believe me, I understand.”

“I changed my number when I knew that I had to do this. I wanted it to be on my terms when I talked to you.”

“Huh? Talked to me…specifically?”

“Yes. You specifically.”

“Okay,” I said. I sat down. This sounded like a sitting down conversation.

Tabitha sighed so loud, I moved my phone away from my ear.

“Brie, I never really loved Nash.”

“What? What are you talking about?” My heart sped up.

“I’ve known for awhile, sorry.”

“It’s okay, I guess. It doesn’t affect me, truthfully.”

“There is more…it’s just, I didn’t know when and where I could tell you. If I could even tell you this.”

“Tell me! For Christ’s sake.”

“This is way harder than they told me it would be!”

Tabitha was sniffling.

I took a few, cleansing deep breaths. “I’m sorry, Tabitha, I shouldn’t have yelled. I’ve just had a very…weird…day.”

“Oh no, this is a bad time then.”

In my best cooing voice, I said, “Whatever it is, I can take it.”

Long pause.

“I NeverLovedNashBecause…….IlovedYou!”

Tabitha let out a wail before a heavy downpour of crying.

I opened my mouth to speak and snapped it shut.

Is the universe playing a game on me? Am I sleeping? Am I dead? I squinted my eyes.

“Okay, Tabitha. Shh, it’s okay. You loved me, like, loved-loved me?”

“Yes. I’m gay.”

“Oh.”

“I’m sorry I made things weird between us.”

“Why are you sorry? You are what you are. I’m, um, flattered.”

Was that okay? I wondered. It was easier when Trina told me that she was Trina and not Thomas. I just gave her a whack and told her that I already knew that, what did she get on the Alegbra test. Tabitha’s outing was a shock.

“I can’t speak for Nash. But. I think our relationship revolved around you because we were both so in love with you.”

Now this had gone too far.

“I’m sorry, I can’t take this…” My thumb hovered above the red end call button.

“Stop. Listen. I don’t know how we got to that place. I’m not even sure I knew what was happening until I removed myself from the situation. I’ve gotten some new friends here in New York and a lot of clarity.”

“Have you told Nash?”

“No, but he’s next on my list.”

“Do me a favor, and don’t tell him you think he loved me.””

“Why?”

Because I loved your boyfriend while he loved you and you loved me in some weird, twilight zone scenario. Now I still love him and he’s with Jess who I super hate but super like. 

“Just don’t. But thank you for feeling comfortable enough to tell me your feelings. Like I said, I am flattered.”

“Thanks, Brie.”

“And, I hope that this helps you. You know, getting this off of your chest.”

“Oh, God, it does. I felt like I have been hiding behind this pretend version of myself, who was a homecoming queen and cheerleader and dating the star wrestler. You have no idea what it’s like to just, have to be someone else. Someone that others want you to be.”

Yes I do! That’s exactly what Lauren wants! “Ya , Tabitha. You’re right, I don’t know what that’s like.”

“Okay, I gotta go. Shawna’s calling. Happy New Years!”

“Happy New Years.”

Click.

I let out a frustrated squeal.

The conversation had already started to replay in my head. I sighed. I grabbed my suitcase and zipped it open. My little box of keepsakes caught my eye. I remembered putting all the My Little Pony stickers on it like it was yesterday. Sometimes, on New Years, I rummage through the box and remember. This time, the box would remain shut. Anymore emotion,  Leah would have to scrape my body parts off basement walls.

My phone lit up. I ignored it.

I shook out my hair and threw it back over my shoulders. I decided, right then and there, to have a goodnight. I did deserve it after a flashback free, scar free, starving free Christmas. I even opened a gift.

I slid into my Goodwill 50% off sale, life changing discovery. A rose-gold sequined form fitting dress. I happened to have black nylons from a school play, and a pair of scuffed jimmy-choo Leah hand me downs.

I looked into the mirror hanging over my dresser. It had a large, crooked break. The crack made my face appear to be split into two. I stared at my double face. After Tabitha just told me about how difficult it was to wear a mask, I was almost positive that I couldn’t be Mascot Girl.

But if I am not a Kansas girl, or a Theta, who the hell am I? Nobody. That is okay. That’s been Brie Merritt so far… an empty vessel who hides behind roles. But maybe I don’t want that anymore. I don’t know, and neither does the mirror. I thought.

I tilted my head, and gazed at my double reflection. I ran my fingers through my pale blonde locks. My lips curved into a smile. In that goddess dress, I did look like an ‘it’ girl. Maybe I could be her if I tried.

I carefully walked next door to Leah’s room. The heels were death stilts. I knocked and turned the knob.

“You look hot!” Leah said as she fastened her diamond earrings in her lobes.

“Thanks, you too. So Sigma? Stay in?”

“Who cares.  We’re doing a shot! Grab the malibu!”

Leah already had two shot glasses sitting next to her bottle. I carefully poured to cups of delicious, tanning lotion smelling, poison.

Leah held up her tiny glass over her head. The Malibu sloshed over the edge a little.”Here’s to friends, here’s to foes, here’s to sweethearts, here’s to hoes. Dancing on tables, No song unsung, tonight is the night we are forever young. Cheers!”

“Cute! Cheers!” I clicked Leah’s glass and threw back the shot. I slammed it on the dresser.

“Now that you are all relaxed…” Leah said flashing a stiff smile.

“Oh God, now what?”

“What?”

“Well, my ex best friend from high school called me. Came out of the closet. Was madly in love with me. Then all the Mascot Girl shit. This better be good, Leah McCloud.”

“She what?” Leah shook her head and poured more malibu in my shot glass. “Here, girl. You need this. That is so crazy!”

“I always thought she loved Nash…and you kind of know that I like him, so you can see how this is like: I can’t even right now.”

Leah poured another shot. “Here, drink this one, too.”

“What do you have to tell me?”

“Nothing bad! It’s just, I didn’t think it was a big deal. When you never called Dillon, he texted me, asking why you didn’t call. I said why don’t you ask her, and he said, ‘oh, she’s playing hard to get’?”

“What?”

“Mmmhm. So he asked about your New Year’s Eve plans. I honestly didn’t think anything about it. At all. Whatsoever. So I told him that we were coming to BU early from winter break to party with the Theta’s.”

“So what?”

“I guess he thought that was my way of hinting to him to come back to campus. Because he’s here. He said he has an two hundred dollar bottle of champagne, a box of Delafees, and a bouquet of lilies that he dropped infront of the house with your name on it. I didn’t know about this, he texted when I was changing!”

“Holy shit…what is happening. What’s Delafee?”

“Um, these Swiss chocolates…nevermind. You don’t want to know.”

“He’s not upstairs anymore, is he?”

“No. But he invited us all to Lambda. All of us! Brie, we got to go. The other Theta’s will be pumped, I swear, these guys are like, fucking Greek Gods. Think of all the brownie points!”

“Nope. I can’t think. Not anymore. I’m going upstairs and getting that champagne. Right now, it’s all about the champagne and delafoo.”

“Delafee.

“Pshh, fancy-schmancy. They probably have gold in them or something.” I rolled my eyes.

Leah winced.

“Leah! Do not tell me they have fucking gold in them!”

“Gold-leaf.”

I made an bizarre growl laugh that I’m sure made me sound insane. I turned on my heel and stomped up stairs.

I rolled my eyes when I saw who was standing at the front door with the wicker basket filled with King Midas’s snacks.

Lauren raised an eyebrow as she passed the basket to me. A few other upper classmen sisters were half ready, in cocktail dresses, fuzzy slippers, and curlers. They were whispering excitedly.

I couldn’t help but sneer when I accepted the basket.

“The cards says…Dillon McCloud?” Lauren said, her face awash with I-told-you-so.

“Ladies,”I said with a thin smile. “Who would like to accompany Leah and I to Lambda house? Mr. McCloud extended us an open invitation.”

“Seriously?” Aaloka said. She was the Indian immigrant with dark, lustrous skin, unfortunate pot belly, and uneven teeth. “I haven’t gone there yet! Lauren never got us all invited!”

Lauren met my eyes and gave me a curtsy.

I started back to my room and fought a smile. I hadn’t been on a date since my ex-Jesse, who cheated on me while becoming a burnout. Even then, the most he ever bought me was movie tickets. This Dillon guy sure aimed to impress. And if I can click with him, maybe I could be ‘it’. Mascot Girl.

A whispering voice inside my skull reminded me about spontaneous flashbacks, obsession, food, cutting, a blood-soaked mattress in Rivertown’s dump…. I reached inside and pushed my skeletons inside the closet and locked the door. Just for the night. I needed a break. I earned it.

I opened a fucking present!

glass_slippers

Chapter 15

The Wrong Shoes

“Just call him,” Leah said, pushing her phone on my ear.

We were standing outside, because while tipsy, Leah smokes. The evening wind nipped my bare flesh. I buttoned my black, form fitting sweater.

“Fine,” I grumbled with my champagne courage. I tucked my blowing hair behind my ears.

I held the phone. It was already ringing.

“What?” Dillon yelled over eardrum shattering music.

“Um, hello to you, too. It’s Brie Merritt.”

“Oh, damn. Brie? Wait a minute, I have to go someplace to hear you.”

I tapped my foot.

“I apologize for my lack of manners, you are calling me from Leah’s phone.”

“That’s how you answer the phone for your cousin?”

I shot Leah a look. She shrugged and blew out a cloud of gray smoke.

“It’s a family-thing, I was just kidding.”

I doubt it, I thought.

“Okay, just so you know, the Theta girls and I are accepting your invite.”

“Perfect. I am sending you a limo,” Dillon said. “I had a few reserved.”

“Seriously? You were that sure we’d accept?”

I glared at Leah and she gestured for me to keep going.

“I assumed Leah would talk you into coming. She’s been nagging me for a spot on the guest list since she got accepted to BU.”

“She did.”

“Good. Then, I thought, if you didn’t want to go out in LA, then I’m going to bring LA to you. Everything top of the line.”

I swooned a little. “Thank you.”

“How many limos, princess?”

“Oh, just one. It’s like, ten of us. That’s all.”

***

Before I knew it, we were in front of Lambda Psi Tau, in the back of a long winding line to get in. I gawked at the white mansion with three towering Greek letters in the center.

My face flushed when everyone in line turned around to see girls arriving in a limo, dressed like disco balls, to a college frat party.

Lauren linked her arm into mine. She gave me that mega-watt smile. “Brie. We don’t wait in line.”

I felt a pang of guilt walking along side the line to the door. I felt the stares slice through my skin. When we got to the door, two pledging Lambda’s in dress shirts were sitting behind a card table. They each had clipboards in hand.

One of the pledges gave Lauren a sheepish smile, revealing silver braces. His eyes darted back and fourth between us.”Good evening ladies, go right in.” He didn’t even check the guest list.

“Well thank you, sir,” Lauren said giving him a little wink. “What’s your name?”

“Um, Todd.”

“Thank you, Todd. Can you tell us where Dillon McCloud might be? This is his date, Brie Merritt.”

Todd shot out of his chair, knocking it over. His face looked like Lauren had pulled a pistol out of her purse and pointed it to his head.

“Right this way, Miss Merritt,” Todd squeaked. He put his arm on my shoulder and guided me to the doors.

I looked over my shoulder at my future sisters who just stood there, frozen. I mouthed ‘come-on’.

They rushed behind Lauren and me. I noticed that they huddled close, almost like we were going through a haunted mansion. I glanced over at Lauren, whose head was high, shoulder’s squared, and wearing a ‘I am the shit, bitches be gone’ expression. I did my best to imitate her.

We were led through the house, which was overflowing with students clutching red plastic cups. There was a DJ in the middle of the grand living room. All of the leather furniture, lamps, and breakables were roped off to the side, with a red velvet rope.  Their living room reminded me a little of Theta’s; they must have had the same architect. Yet, everything was masculine. Even the chandelier was made to look like antlers.

Then, I saw him. He was laughing with a gang of model-looking frat brothers, in an unbuttoned dress shirt. I skipped the butterflies, and went straight to lightheaded. He didn’t notice us at first, he was telling a story and buddies were clinging to his words like a fish on a hook.

Dillon did a double take. His dimple came out from hiding when he saw me.

“Welcome to Lambda, Brie Merritt,” Dillon opened his arms wide and walked my way.

He wrapped his arms around me, like he’d known be for years. I rested my cheek against his chest and fastened my arms around his solid waist. His shirt felt like silk. The warmth of his body and and handsome smelling cologne made me want to linger in his arms. Thanks to the champagne. I did.

Dillon leaned back a little and he stared into my soul with his eyes. “You look amazing.”

“Thank you. And you’re no slouch, yourself.” What the fuck did I just say? What the fuck is a slouch? 

Dillon threw his head back with a laugh. Good! He’s mistook my dorkiness for comedy. 

“You are adorable,” Dillon said, in a voice coated with delafee chocolate.

He combed my locks back with his fingers and the tingling sensation of hair play made my mouth water. Perhaps it was the bubbly flowing through my veins, or maybe I was more open to the idea of dating. Whatever it was, he was so hot.

“Todd, did you get Brie a drink?” Dillon barked.

“Ugh, no, not yet.”

“What are you doing? Get her,” Dillon paused and looked at me, “2007 Nappa Valley Chardonnay.”

“No problem, sir. Um, I think I need a key for the liquor cabinet for something like that.”

Dillon grunted and dug through his pockets. He unearthed a miniature key and flung it at Todd.

I, finally, let go of Dillon and took a few breaths. “These are my sisters.” I gestured to my cluster of arms folded, legs awkward, shifty eyed sisters.

Dillon nodded. “Good evening, Ladies. Lauren.”

“Hey Dillon,” Lauren responded.

“Let me show you around, Brie. Lauren’s our house sweetheart, she can fend for herself.”

“I’ll show the girls the game room. There is probably a waiting list for beer pong game, huh?”

Dillon shook his head. “Not for you, Lauren. Just tell them I said you go next.” He winked at Lauren.

I felt my eye twitch. Do Lauren and Dillon have a history? If so, hell no. I am so over love triangles! 

Dillon guided me around the house, pointing out the key features of every room. His fraternity pride practically oozed out of him. I didn’t know what to make of it.

Todd found me with the best wine in the world and after a few sips I found the balls to do it.

“Dillon, did you and Lauren ever…she said she dated a Lambda guy. And she’s the sweetheart, what is that?”

Dillon chuckled. “Yes, I took Lauren on a few dates when I was a freshman. It hardly counts, hun. The guy she was referring to is probably our vice president, Bradley Owens. We eat a lot of popcorn watching their drama play out.”

“Oh man.” I felt my ears warm.

“A house sweetheart is a girl that the frat votes for. Lauren won that title the last two years. It’s just a girl who helps us out, supports us, is friends with the guys.”

We walked up a winding stairway and down a hall. Dillon opened a door and we stepped into an over sized bedroom.

I felt panic grip my throat. Bedroom? Do I look like that kind of girl?

Dillon interlaced his fingers with mine and lead me to a set of double doors. He flung open the doors and I gasped. There was a spacious stone balcony. Thousands of white lights on strings were wrapped around the ledge, emitting a romantic soft glow. There was a small dinnette set in the center.

Dillon pulled out a chair for me from the dinette. I couldn’t hide my smile.

“Wow, this is freaking beautiful,” I said, my eyes scanning the lights.

“Yes, the pledges did a good job.”

Dillon picked up a bottle of champagne that was ice chilling in a stainless steel bucket. I jumped when he popped the cork, and the white foaming bubbles rushed over the bottle neck. He poured two glasses.

“This is a really nice room.”

“It’s nice. I bet you can’t guess who’s room it is.”

Well, there is no way it’s yours. “I’m going to guess it’s the president’s room.”

“Yes it is the president’s room. It’s also my room.”

I furrowed my brows. “You’re the president? No way, Leah never told me that.”

Dillon shrugged. “Maybe she doesn’t know. We aren’t exactly close.”

“So you’re a senior?”

“A junior.”

“How the hell are you President?”

“Because I’m me,” Dillon pulled out a cigar from the inside of his pocket. “Mind if I light up a cuban?”

“Not unless you don’t share.”

Dillon chuckled as the end of his cigar turned orange. “I never met a lady who smoked Cubans.”

“Well, I should warn you,” I shifted a bit in my seat, “expect a lot of surprises when it comes to me.”

Dillon blew out a plume of dark smoke and passed the chubby brown cigar. “I look forward to solving the puzzle that is Brie Merritt.”

I took a puff. “When you do, could you let me know? I want to peek at the answer key.” I passed back the cigar.

A bottle of champagne later, Dillon got up and took my hand. He escorted me to the edge of the balcony, which overlooked that backyard. I peered over of the edge and felt my chin drop. There was a giant stone water fountain in the center of the yard with two Greek inspired male sculptures.

“Pretty,” I commented.

Without a word, Dillon swooped me into his arms. I melted into his broad chest.  Dillon slid his fingers under my chin and tilted up my face. When I met his powder blue eyes, I felt my heart bash against my ribs.

Dillon lowered his head with leisure and brought his lips to mine. My eyelids slid closed. I felt his lush lips stroke my own with a small, gentle peck. It ended way too fast. I kept my eyes shut when he pulled back. My legs felt like noodles, I was glad his strong arms held me steady.

“Before I forget,” Dillon said, reaching into his pant pocket.

He revealed a tiny globe on a key chain. He took my hand and placed the globe in my palm. He closed my fingers around it.

With his eyes unblinking, he said. “This is for you.”

“Wow, thank you,” I said with a confused grin.

Dillon smoothed back his silky black hair. “If you date me, the world is yours.”

I uncurled my fingers and stared at the tiny blue sphere.

“Please excuse me, I will b right back,” Dillon lifted my hand and planted a small kiss on my knuckles.

As I watched him leave, I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. Is this real? Is he a real person? 

I dangled the key ring from my finger and held to my face.

A memory waltzed into my mind. I asked it politely to fuck off, but it didn’t honor my request.

I remembered when we were in eighth grade. I saw Nash staring at a sheet of paper when it was time to line up for the bus. His nose was all red and his eyes looked glossy. Rude pre-teen me grabbed the sheet out of his hand, and he snatched it back so fast, I got a paper cut. When Nash saw what happened his eyes rounded and he let go of his paper to clutch my cut hand in his. He apologized again and again. That’s was before he knew that I took a sick pleasure in ripping my skin, so the paper cut was no big deal. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that there was a huge red ‘F’ on a Geography test.

Later that day, I went home and rummaged through my things and finally found my beach ball that doubled as a globe. I blew it up and taped up the holes. Without mentioning the test or grades or even the word ‘geometry’, I went next door to Nash’s with the globe beach ball under my arm. I talked with Nash about the countries we learned in class. Learning things from paper came to me, like memorizing a script in my plays. But Nash’s brain was different. It was unique, just like him. The hands on method was the only way Nash could retain factual information.

I think we stayed up, looking at the countries in Africa, until his parents kicked me out. When Nash thanked me, I did my best confused look and asked what he was thanking me for.

After that, I found ways to help Nash learn. We never even acknowledged what I was doing, just how we never discussed the bags of necessities he left around my house.

My mind returned to the balcony of the handsome Dillon McCloud. I looked around at the lights and the empty champagne flutes. I wasn’t supposed to be there. Or was I?

It was one of those emotional moments best expressed by tears. My eyes were stone. The contents of my stomach sloshed around and I knew that I would be losing some water weight that night.

I wound my arm back and tossed the globe keychain as far as I could. I aimed for the fountain, I’m not sure if it made it.

I shuffled into the master suite and decided to ditch the shoes. I needed to leave as fast as possible, before the eruption. My feet sang when I flicked off the death stilts. I jogged out of the room and made way for the stairs. I had my phone and a few emergency dollars tucked in my boob, if I could make it to the street somehow, I could call a cab. As long as Dillon didn’t see me sick, I didn’t care.

I groaned when I realized that Dillon would return to find a pair of scuffed, basic, ratchet, Jimmy-Choos.

I can’t be his Cinderella, I don’t have the right shoes. 

Chapter 16-May I call you Nash

I reapplied my pink shinning lip gloss one more time, for good luck. I cleared my throat. It was just me in the dorm, no distractions. Another glance at the clock, and I felt bubbles in my belly. 5:00 sharp. It was time for FaceTime. I tilted the screen just right and opened the app. I flipped my hair over my shoulder as it rang.

“Hey there,” Nash said, with a wave.

I spotted a tall pile of laundry on his bed behind him. He could have move that out of frame, I thought to myself. But why would he? It’s only me. He had his worn baseball hat on. I never understood why I love baseball hats on men. Maybe because of Nash.

“You answered fast,” I said. I tried to focus on him, and not judge the little squared me on corner of the screen.

“Damn, it’s been a long time.”

“I know,” I dropped my eyes. His eyes were piercing green over video chat. Or, maybe I allowed the details of his face fade in my memory. For sanity reasons, of course.

“So what’s up, Merritt! How have you been?”

“It’s been okay. My Theta Gamma Nu initiation was a week ago, so I am officially a sorority girl. Exciting times.” Sarcasm dripped from my words.

Nash chuckled. “The devil’s gonna have to wear his winter coat tonight.”

“Hardy-har.”

“Seriously, though, congratulations.” Nash beamed at me with a twinkle in his eye.

“It’s not a big deal,” I scoffed. “So, they asked me to take on this special role, and I had to accept. So now I’m in training for that. It’s taking over my life. I barley sleep in my dorm, I have to like, almost live in the guest jail cells.”

“What is the role?” Nash raised his brows.

“If I told you,” I darted my eyes around for dramatic effect, “I’d have to kill you.”

“Good luck killing me through the computer.” Nash leaned back and threw his arms over his head.

“I wouldn’t let my guard down so fast,” I said, curling my lip. I leaned into the screen and whispered, “my eyes shoot lethal daggers.  They can penetrate through the screen. Oh by the way, I need you to dump a body for me. I was FaceTiming Billy earlier…”

Nash groaned. “You are so weird.”

“Shh, don’t tell.”

“You know I’m recording this, right?”

“You are not, ass pipe, damn, I mean ass wipe!” I snorted with my laugh, which made Nash crackup, and in turn, I laughed more.

“I really wish I would have recorded this so I can play it when you go disappear again.” Nash shook his head.

“Quit with the guilt trips!”

“I’m only half joking.”

“Aw, I miss you, too, buddy ol’ pal. So, what’s new in your world?”

“Nothin’ much, other than, wrapping my mind around the whole Tabitha-coming-out-never-loving-me thing.”

“Hold on a second,” I said, as I got up to grab my water bottle. My mouth suddenly felt like a desert. I sat down in front of my monitor and took a sip. “This needs ice. The water here is kind of gross.”

“So, Merritt, what do you think?”

“Me?” I squeaked. I cracked my back as I readjusted in my seat. “I don’t have an opinion. I don’t even care.”

“Well, I don’t care, either. It is what it is. But it’s weird, right?  It almost alters my memories of high school. Like everything that happened, I see from this other perspective and am like, oh.”

“Ya, me too. I’m like ‘oh’, as well.”

I took a chug of water and it went down the wrong pipe. After hacking like a lifetime smoker, I returned to face the screen.

“Lord have mercy, are you okay?”

“How’s Jess?” I croaked.

“Fine.” Nash bit his bottom lip.

“I’m seeing someone,” I blurted. I am?

Nash’s jaw dropped. “Oh, really?”

“Ya, no titles or anything yet. We went out for New Years Eve and then he’s taken me out for dinner a few times.” Okay, he’s only taken me to dinner once, and it ended in a small, unmemorable peck.

“Well that’s cool,” Nash said, wiping his hand over his face. “I’m surprised; you are becoming Miss Social out there in Cali.”

I felt a jab inside my chest. After a few moments of staring into Nash’s eyes I said, “Well what did you expect? That I wouldn’t make new friends?”

Nash’s eyes grew and he held up his palms. “No-no. It’s just, I thought, when you first went away to school, that you would call me and tell me about class and all the plays that you are in. Not about gal pals and boyfriends. But there isn’t anything wrong with that. I’m just surprised.”

“Freshmen don’t get cast in anything and I am swamped with boring pre-requisites,” I snipped. “School it’s exciting just yet, and that’s how it works.”

“Sorry that I don’t know exactly how big Universities work,” Nash said narrowing his eyes. “At tech school, we just learn our trade. I like that though. No hoops. Just cars.”

“Don’t take it that way,” I said leaning back in my chair. “That’s clearly, not what I meant.”

“So how is this guy? Does he have a name?”

“Dillon McCloud. He’s President of a popular frat. He made Greek history at Baylor for getting elected as a Freshman.”

“Big man on campus,” Nash said in a mocking voice.

I felt my ears burn. “He sends me flowers and things. He holds doors for me and chairs.”

“So he puts you way up there on a pedestal, huh?” Nash made a soured face.

“I never thought about it that way,” I said folding my arms. “I guess he does put me on a pedestal. So what? Shouldn’t a man treat me right?”

“None of this ‘should’,” Nash shook his finger. “Men must treat you right. You demand it from them from day one. If any piece of shit does otherwise, you let me know.”

I fantasized about getting up, and tripping over the power cord, disconnecting our conversation. But I was stuck to that chair, like it was made of super glue.

“What the hell is this?” I threw up my arms. “You criticize me for liking princess treatment, but then you get all, macho man on me? What do you want from me?”

“I don’t know,” Nash snapped. He collapsed into his hands. After rubbing his forehead he said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said any of that. I think what it is, is you are so far away, I feel helpless here. I’m only a talking head on a screen to you anymore, not the guy next door. Forgive me for being a bit protective of you. It’s a habit, I’m sure is time to break.”

No you don’t! I love your overprotection! Stop it! “I am a big girl now. I don’t need it.”

“Duly noted,” Nash said with a thumbs up. “But, please, let me give you at least one drop of advice. Friend to friend.”

“I’d appreciate it,” I said, my heart crumbling into a mound of dust.

“A guy who dotes on you is nice. But make sure you chose a guy who treats you as an equal.”

I cringed. Nash was right. The little globe Dillon put in the palm of my hand went from a cutsy, mushy, lame gesture and transformed into to a slap in face. Dillon certainly didn’t view me as an equal. I’m not sure that I even was.

“Dillon, is like, a mega feminist,” I said waving a nonchalant hand.

“Good.”

“I’m so over talking about me. Tell me, how is Jess?”

“Um, we broke up.”

“What? Why?”

Oh no. Someone has to stand in the way! That’s how this works! Come back Jess! Actually, stay away, bitch. Good, God, I need a fucking lobotomy.

“Reasons.”

“James Devon Nash, you tell me right now!” I fiddled with my silver necklace chain.

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” Nash said with a smirk.

“At least be original! That’s my line!”

“No it’s not. It’s like, borderline cliché.”

“Is it really? I fucking hate clichés!”

“I know you do, that’s why it was fun to point out. Okay, Miss Social, I got to get off here.”

“You can call me Merritt.”

“Things are changing so much,” Nash said with a shrug, “maybe nick-names need to follow suit.”

“So, you’re saying, it’s time to call you Jimmy Crack Corn?”

“Bye, Merritt.”

*****

Later that evening, when Leah was snoring in bed, I crept out of the top bunk and slid open the wooden door of my closet.

I reached to the back and unearthed my memory box, adorned in My Little Pony stickers. My heart picked up pace, as it always does, when I’m deciding to open the lid or not. Most of the time, I don’t let myself go there. The conversation with Nash sparked a dark craving for the six secret items inside. It was a peculiar comfort that as my life changed, these demons remained. It was a twisted, ugly, reminder that Nash was still mine. After all, he knew all about the items and the horrors associated with each of them. Knowing things like that chains you to person whether you want to or not.

When I opened the box, my possessions screamed inside of head. I closed my eyes and fingered my favorite thing. It was that little gift I almost stepped on before I went outside to see Santa’s sleigh, that night. I picked it out at the dollar store and paid the cashier myself. It was blue, because part of me just knew that he would be a boy. Mom, so stubborn, refused an ultrasound. I didn’t need one anyway. It was a boy. This was before I met Nash, but oddly enough, I asked my mom if we could name my brother James. I had just finished James and the Giant Peach for reading club. She said “we’ll see” in a way that I just knew that she would give him that name. He was due in a few months.

I felt my skin hum as I gave the rattle shake. The sound of the beads, or pebbles, or whatever was in there made me crave my razor. I reopened my eyes and stared at it. The razor gleamed in the dim room from its spot in my box. But I would never use that again. Never. I was all sewing needles or eyebrow shapers since Trina found me bleeding out. Razor in one hand, bloody loose-leaf paper in other. I shuttered. I needed to get rid of it. I would one day; it didn’t belong next to James’s precious rattle. One day.

When we got off the bus, the day that I first met Nash, he told me his name. Then, that his parents told him about what happened to me on Christmas Eve. He said that he liked my sunglasses and that I looked like a movie star. I told him that I liked his name, but it was my brother’s…

….could I call him Nash.

Chapter 17-Fake It

A goopy, salty, greasy, triangle stared at me from my plate. It was Friday, and I was trying to bank calories for alcohol. Pizza Hut had other plans. The cheese slabs of hot grease were detestable. Yet, scrumptious. Such a strange game. I took my napkin and absorbed some of the grease. Then another napkin. Then another. The cheese was practically dried out when I was done, and I had a little mound of white crumpled grease stained napkins. I took my knife and fork and began to cut it into small little triangles. The smaller, the better.

“Brie, what are you doing,” Bradley asked, gaping at my plate.

My heart jumped to my throat. It was rare that anyone asked why I eat the way I do. I froze in place and stared into Bradley’s brown eyes. I felt like I was on the toilet and he just opened the door on me. I was being gross and was completely exposed.

Lauren wacked her boyfriend on the shoulder. “Bradley. What’s wrong with you? You don’t hear Brie asking you why you chomp with your mouth open, now do you?”

Bradley snarled at Lauren and took a savage bite. I had to avert my eyes. Bradley looked like a hyena tearing into the flesh of a lion cub. Watching other people eat was hell. Eating around others was hell. Especially since I knew I was monitored. I shoved my plate away and gave Bradley and Lauren a weak smile. Without much thought, I started scootching out of the red booth.

Dillon grabbed my wrist. “Where are you going, baby?”

“Oh, um, just to the bathroom,” I said as I retrieved my purse and clutched it to my chest with my other hand. I wiggled out of Dillon’s grip.

“Don’t keep me waiting too long,” Dillon said with a wink.

I forced a toothy smile and turned to scurry to the bathroom. Did he just give me a time limit on the bathroom? Or was he being sweet? I wondered as I opened the door. I was happy to find the bathroom empty, other than the smell of dirty diapers. I crinkled my nose.

I flung my purse on a dry spot of the sink and looked in the mirror. Ugly lighting. My mascara was running a little bit so I licked my finger and tried to wipe some of it off from under my eye. It didn’t help much. It did, however, make my eyes puffy from rubbing. I grunted.

I unzipped my purse and rummaged through. My nerves tingled until I found it. I let out a sigh of relief. I typed in the 4 digit code. Only one ring.

“Boo-boo!” Trina screamed through my ear piece. And all of the sudden, the nasty diaper smelling bathroom became an oasis of comfort. All it took was Trina’s voice.

“Oh my God, I miss you!” I squealed back. I hadn’t talked to Trina in two or three days. It was a record.

“Miss you more. What are you into?”

“I’m into trouble,” I said with a stiff giggle.

Trina gasped. “What? Okay, you stay put, I’ll be there in, like, ten hours or something.”

“No-no,” I said glancing up at my reflection. Ew. I looked away.

“Seriously! I told you, anytime you need me out there, I am coming.”

“You don’t have to do that!”

“Besides I’m dying for a reason to visit Coralvalley, are you serious? Can you say campus tour? I need to get off my lazy fat ass and apply already you know that the deadline for next fall is at the end of March so I bet-”

“I’m fine,” I interrupted, “although, I would love for you to come visit. I am officially staying with Leah in the summer, so even if you can’t come this spring, we you can visit me in LA.”

“Shutup!” Trina screamed.

My cheeks stung from smiling.  “Yes!”

“That’s amazing! And sorry I’ve been busy the last few days, I was practicing for my spring play audition. We are doing Peter Pan.  Can you think of a better Peter Pan than me? Homeboy is androgynous as fuck!”

“Can I come back and play Wendy?” I said, my chest feeling like an empty cave. I had only been an extra in a production at Baylor and had worked behind the scenes in the Coralvalley community theater, thus far. That hardly compared to center stage with a lead, which was my life in high school. I even beat out a senior for Juliet when I was a freshman. They say pain translates into art, it must have been true. I didn’t even know what I was doing.

“I wish! Jess is trying out for Wendy. Pshh. She sucks.”

I imagined myself jumping up and clicking my heels together, Irish style.

“Can I be a bitch?”

“Do it.”

“I’m glad Jess sucks. She doesn’t get to be hot, have a cute accent, kiss my Nash, and have talent. No. Just…no.”

“Word!”

I flashed a tight lipped smile at a random woman who walked in and headed for a stall. I hoped things wouldn’t become bathroom-sounds awkward. There was no music or white noise. But I wasn’t going back to Lauren, Dillon, and Bradley just yet. I didn’t have my full dose of Trina Lubble. Bring on the farts and poop splashes.

“So, have there been any Nashjess sightings out around town?”

“Um, no, they are like, done-done. I saw them a few times together after Christmas break, but he was like, ignoring her, and she looked hella bored.”

“Good.”

“Brie, just fucking tell him already.”

“Over my dead body.”

Pause.

“Brie, don’t ever put that image in my brain.”

I felt my heart sink. “Oh man. I’m so sorry. Poor word choices.”

“No shit!”

“Trina, I need to go soon. I’m on a double date with Dillon, Lauren, and her boyfriend, Bradley Patsoop.” I cupped my mouth and whispered into the receiver, “His last name is so stupid, it really suits him.”

“I love it when you talk bitchy to me.” Trina laughed. “How are you and Dilly? Any changes since we last spoke?”

“Well,” I said, as I heard water flush down a toilet. “It has its ups and downs. I still don’t know what to make of it all. I’m reminded daily how important, perfect, and rich he is. It has me wondering why the hell he likes me.”

“There are a million reasons to like you, boo-thing. You are a star.”

“Oh whatever. So there’s Dillon, and the whole other secret thing I told you about Theta. That’s my whole life right now. What is happening to me?” I darted my eyes at the woman who was washing her hands and staring up into the mirror at her blonde, fried, permed hair in the mirror.

“Oh ya-ya. The Mascot Girl thing,” Trina said adding a ‘mmhm’.

“The Thetas are pushing me to make things official with Dillon,” I whispered as the stranger exited the bathroom.

“I am having such a hard time understanding Mascot Girl.”

“Me too, honestly, I’m learning as I go.”

“Insane. But Dillon is growing on you?”

“Like, I like him, but at the same time, something is weird. Then when I FaceTimed Nash and he pointed out that men should treat me as an equal. Then it dawned on me, that is what my gut was telling me in the first place. Dillon sees me as, I don’t know, Foo-Foo his pet poodle, maybe? Why am I still intrigued by a guy who treats me like a poodle?”

“Girl, I don’t blame you, I stalked his Facebook and hot damn. Hot….damn.”

“Right? I think I’m blinded by it. He’s so fucking…dashing.”

“Dashing, hells yes. Good kisser?”

“He is! That’s all we’ve done thus far, but judging by that, he has to be good with other things.”

“Not that you would know exactly good from bad,” Trina giggled.

“Well…there was Jesse. So I at least know how bad, bad can be.”

I jumped when the bathroom door swung open. Lauren walked in, folded her arms and raised a brow.

“Oops, gotta go Trina.” I heard Trina say bye and I shoved my phone back in my purse. For some reason, I felt like I had been caught cheating.

Lauren peeked under the stalls for legs and let out a sigh when she knew we were alone. “Remember, in public, you represent Theta. Even at Pizza Hut.”

“I’m not allowed to cut food or use the restroom?” I asked, surprised as I heard the words slipping from my mouth. I covered my lips with my hands. I knew Lauren was training me, the problem was, I hated to be told what to do. I had to think of this more as an acting job, and Lauren was my rich, Californian, director.

Lauren stared at me for a long awkward minute. She smoothed back her hair and appeared to be composing herself.

“Brie. If you don’t want pizza, don’t get it. Get a salad. Eat a breadstick. Say you ate before you came.”

“I like pizza.”

Lauren rolled her eyes.“It wouldn’t hurt to argue with the suggestion of Pizza Hut. Lambda’s would almost expect that from girls they deem suitable for dating. They don’t date girls larger than size 6.”

“It’s so damn hard being a girl…”

“But cutting it all up and then throwing up in the bathroom? That is something you would do in the privacy of our home. Your sisters wouldn’t mind. But in the public, thinness should be effortless. Not covered in vomit.”

“Oh no, I was absolutely not throwing up. Absolutely not.”

“It’s okay, Brie.” Lauren reached over and stroked my shoulder. “We are sisters. I won’t judge you. How do you think I lost all my weight? I didn’t throw up, but I exercised for two hours a day and only ate gummy bears and diet coke for three months.”

“I’m not going to say I have healthy eating habits, but I am not throwing up. I came in here to make a call. I needed a break. I like those guys, but sometimes, I don’t know…”

“I understand,” Lauren said nodding. “But it looks like that is what you came here to do. You just need to be mindful of your public perception. Even if its just you and Dillon. Sisters are safe, but no one else.”

“What if Dillon wants to be official? I’m sure he’ll see an ugly side of me then. Like I said, I don’t throw up, but I’m not healthy either.”

Lauren shook her head. “No. He must think that you are perfect, because you are. You are everything every girl wants to be and the one every guy wants to marry. Not bang…marry.”

“No,” I said with a little laugh. “I’m not. Seriously.”

“Brie, Brie, Brie, how many times have we been over this,” Lauren asked as she guided me out of the bathroom. She leaned into my ear and said, “Fake it.”

****

My faithful roommate, Leah, had her thigh was pressed against mine as we sat stiffly on the couch in the formal living room. She was usually allowed to come with me to these social meetings, almost like, my unofficial side-kick. I wondered if Leah knew that she would come to college and become a side-kick. She didn’t seem like the type. But then, we were both in positions that we didn’t want. My gut said to stand up, march to the red doors, swing them open, and dash out of Theta without glancing over my shoulder. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

“All I’m saying,” Caroline Stevenson said, pushing her glasses back up her nose, “if you make him your official boyfriend, we would be secured for next year. The Lambda president? Really? How can you be unsure.”

I cleared my throat and peered at the five sets, unblinking eyes. The social committee was Lauren Cunningham, Caroline Stevenson, Mallory Birch, Beth Bolvichski, and Gina Rivera. It took me awhile, but I was finally learning the roles and names of the most important women in my life.

Lauren was president of Theta Gamma Nu and the current Mascot Girl, Mallory was the VP and head of the social committee. Beth and Gina were two very opinionated members. I dreaded that the darling, little miss Caroline and protective, strong Lauren would be graduating in a few months. I would be left to the mercy of the remaining three: Mallory, Beth, and Gina.

Mallory, Beth, and Gina were known, behind their backs of course, as the ‘terrible three’. They were total bitches. In all honesty, most of my sisters were friendly, but of course, there are bitches everywhere. The joke of life is that bitches always turn into management. Why is that so? We already planned on replacing Caroline and Lauren with whatever president the sister’s elect and my right hand gal, Leah. May the odds be ever in my favor that the elected president isn’t a psycho. And isn’t Mallory.

Mallory ran her tongue over the humongous gap between her two front teeth. She had a habit of doing that. It made me want to reach inside her mouth and yank out her tongue.

“It’s social suicide to reject Dillon McCloud,” Mallory said. “What is your problem?”

What in the hell does Mallory know about young adult social structure? An education of Saved by the Bell reruns? Dweeb.

 “I’m not sure it’ll get to that place,” I said shifting uncomfortably. “I can’t make any promises.”

“Brie, Dillon simply adores you,” Lauren said with false warmth in her voice. “I could tell yesterday at dinner. Ask him to make it official, already. I think he likes your wishy-washiness because he’s so used to hearing yes. But that won’t last forever.”

“I know…”

“I do have bad news,” Lauren said with a gigantic frown. “Bradley says Dillon is noticing this chick Krissy from Omega Sigma Sigma. And, well, it makes way more sense he’d be with an Omega girl. Their frat is historically linked to that sorority.”

I gasped. They stared. I glanced at Leah who had her mouth in the shape of a small ‘o’.

“Krissy? Krissy Ferro?” I stumbled over my words.

Lauren nodded. “Friend of yours?”

“She lives on my floor in Valentine Hall. She rooms with this girl Charlene, who is telling everyone I drew a knife on her.”

Everyone talked at once. I was overwhelmed with: what? are you serious? a knife? holy shit!

“Order, order!” Mallory demanded. Her skin was turning the same color as her dreadful brassy-yellow spiral curls. “What do you mean knife?”

“It was a total misunderstanding, one night. Charlene was blitzed. She’s been on this downward spiral since Pi Delta Xi rejected her. She didn’t care for me much before, but now she’s effin hates me.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Lauren asked tilting her head. “We need to help you with your public image. If there is an unfair rumor, we do damage control.”

My palm flew up and met my face. I stayed there. Eyes closed, behind my hand for a few moments, when Leah yanked my hand off of my face.

“Calm down, girlies! Most everyone knows Char is a wacko,” Leah said, “but Krissy has been really rude to both of us ever since the knife rumor thing. Krissy adores Char.”

“Krissy might try to snatch Dillon for revenge,” Beth spoke up. It always sounded as if a clothespin pinched her nose closed.

“Do it Brie,” Gina said nodding her head. Gina was the only person I had ever met whose bottom lip was smaller than her top. “You better lock things down with Dillon before Krissy does. I don’t even know her, but if she’s an Omega, she is a threat.”

I felt a firecracker exploded in my chest as I thought about Dillon placing his soft, luscious lips on Krissy’s collagen, plumped, duck beak. I massaged my temples and glanced at Leah. She nodded at me and gestured for me to ‘go-ahead’. I took a deep breath. Before this went further, I just had to say my piece.

“Guys, this Mascot Girl thing…I need to say something.”

“The floor is yours,” Mallory said, sitting back and crossing her legs.

Thanks for your permission Miss Birch. “Um, when I was introduced to Theta Gamma Nu, I bought into the philosophy. Diversity. Charity. Internal beauty. All of that. I didn’t think about superficial things because that was never important to me. Well, sometimes I did. Who doesn’t? But it wasn’t a ruling force in my life. Until now. It’s already effecting my thinking.”

“You know it’s all a lie. It’s all a game,” Lauren said, sounding like Dr. Jones’s firm but sweet. “You won’t change inside. I haven’t. It’s only made me wiser and ready to have a career when I graduate. Everything is fake. Home is real.”

“But being fake…all the time? I don’t know if I can or want to. Part of me wants to try, part of me doesn’t.”

“Brie,” Mallory said with furrowed brows, “you already accepted the position. You knew exactly what it was all about. We don’t even ask you to do that much, honestly. What is wrong with you?”

“Because I wanted to be a Theta so I could relax and be with, you know, weirdly normal people! Now I have to be this robot, Barbie, who is shoved into arranged boyfriend situations.”

There was a collective giggle.

“You can force me to date Dillon McCloud any day,” Beth said with a snort.

“We are paying your dues here. Lauren is going to go shopping for you,” Mallory said. She put the period on her sentence by running her tongue over her gap. Why does she do that? Is she checking to make sure it’s still there? 

Lauren shrugged. “If you don’t do this for us, then what kind of sister are you? How deep is your loyalty?”

I took turns looking into each of my sisters’ eyes. I supposed that I could be their glamours sacrificial superficial lamb. That didn’t mean five minutes from that moment, I would change my mind. Again. At least I had finally acknowledged my issues.

“I do know one thing,” I said with a smirk, “that Omega twit can keep her french manicured claws off of my Dillon.”

I saw sinister smiles creep across the social committee’s faces. Leah patted my back.

****

Lauren and I were right in front of Lambda Psi Tau’s door. I felt like I did when I was about to walk out on stage. Like a hundred little puppies in the vet waiting room were right inside of my stomach.  This time, the frat’s door was my curtain, Lauren was my director, and my audience would the famous Dillon McCloud.

“Just fake it,” Lauren whispered. She dug out her set of key. She jammed a silver key that had the shape of a heart on the top  in the keyhole and twisted. I heard a little click and we both stepped in. We walked right into the formal living room where I immediately saw Dillon, Bradley, and a few other frat brothers talking with a group of cross legged young women. My heart thumped against my chest. I felt a little vibration in my purse. I fumbled through my purse to take a peek. I hadn’t heard from my dad in a few weeks and I wondered if it was him.

Nash: Hey. Saw this and thought of you. LOL!

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“Are you fucking kidding me? Nash texts me right fucking now?” I grumbled out loud. My strong resolve instantly began to fade.

“Get off your phone!” Lauren barked. “And leave your filthy mouth on the boat with the rest of the sailors. For heaven’s sake,Brie.”

“Sorry,” I said straightening my shoulders. I tugged on my Tiffany blue, form fitting V neck sweater and then pulled up my jeggins. “How do I look?”

“Killer,” Lauren said. Her eyes looked more sincere than usual. It gave me a tiny ego boost.

I walked with Lauren through the living room. My gray wedge, knee high boots clicked against the hardwood floors. I mimicked Lauren’s hint of a switch in her walk. My chin was up, my expression was soft yet confident.

I cut through the circle of socializing co-eds. My eyes fixated on Dillon. He developed a sexy smile when he saw me approaching. I gripped his dress shirt into my fists and stared into his eyes. I yanked him closer and planted an uncomplicated little kiss that turned PG-13 within moments. I threw my arms around his neck and allowed him to run his hands down the sides of my body. His big,bulky, Bvlgari watched scraped against my brand new sweater Lauren had given me for this particular event. The sensation brought me back to reality.

I leaned back and Dillon looked into my eyes. He stroked my cheek tenderly. I had to remind myself to breathe.

“Like, what in the hell is this?” A familiar female voice said from behind me. I spun around and my hand flew to my mouth. Among the visiting girls on the couch was Krissy. And right next to Krissy sat cross armed, burning eyed, Char.

“What is a Theta doing here?” Char said swiveling her neck.

I glanced at Lauren, who looked as puzzled as I felt. Did Char just imply what I think? 

I let go of Dillon who looked mildly amused at the comment. This triggered something. Some deep seeded. I didn’t know it was there until that moment. Maybe it was when my sisters came to my dorm room and lit my Theta Gamma Nu pledge candle. Maybe it was at the initiation ceremony. Maybe it was the first time I got us into Lambda’s party. It didn’t matter. Char stepped right on something that I didn’t know existed.

“I go where I’m wanted,” I said, resting my hand on my hip and flipping my silky long blonde hair over my shoulder. “Isn’t that right, Dillon.”

Dillon wrapped his large hands around my waist from behind me. I was surprised when he answered by kissing my neck. I giggled and curled up. I whispered to him that it tickled.

I could tell everyone felt uncomfortable. That is, everyone but Dillon and me. And Lauren, who was hiding her mouth behind a balled fist.

“I, um-I,” Char stumbled.

“What do you think Dillon? Anything wrong with a Theta girl?”

“Hell no. If they would let me be in a sorority, I’d be in whatever one you were in.”

“Dillon, I didn’t know you, like, …know Brie,” Krissy said. “She’s the one we told you about. The one who…the knife…poor Char.”

Dillon twirled me around to face him and he ran his hand through my hair. “You did tell me there would be surprises. Didn’t think attempted murder would be among them, but hey, I’m flexible.”

I bit my lip, and did my best Cindy Crawford bedroom eyes. “Just don’t give me a reason to stab you.”

Dillon chuckled and looked over my shoulder at his stunned guests. “Rumors are for the weak.”

Dillon interlaced his hand with mine, and without another word, lead me away from the group.

I knew right then I became two things: A girlfriend. A Mascot Girl.

 

 

PART II

 

Chapter18-Courting a Hollogram

I thumbed through my closet and let out a little squeal. It was like looking into a candy dish. There were so many different colors and a lingering scent of department store newness. I had to pinch myself.

“Leah, this is like, the best day of my life,” I glanced back at Leah. She was fifteen pounds lighter than the day the social committee finally convinced me to become Mascot Girl.

Six months had never whooshed by so fast.

“Clothes are a girl’s best friend. Screw diamonds,” Leah said scrolling through her phone.

I released a sigh, unsure if Leah was being sarcastic or not.

“I’ve never had this many nice things.” I pulled out a slinky black cocktail dress. I ran my thumb over the thick, expensive fabric. “I think I never cared about clothing because I couldn’t afford it. But now that I have a new wardrobe for free…”

“Lucky,” Leah said without looking away from her phone.

I hung the dress back on the rack. I padded over to my bed and flopped down. It was still a suprising sensation of being consumed. The Mascot Girl’s bedroom had a memory foam mattress that took some getting used to.

“”Leah, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Leah snipped. She rose from the bed and glanced my way. “I need to go workout.”

“Ok, do you want a workout buddy?” I asked with hopeful eyes.

Leah shook her said and waved once before she exited my room.

Oh well, she isn’t going to ruin this moment for me. I thought. I nestled under my covers. I allowed my face to melt into a smile and cleared out my mind. Dr. Jones had suggested awhile back that I should focus on something that made me happy and visualize it. He said that it was possible to rewire your brain. But it took practice.

I thought of the bowing on stage during the curtain call. I pictured laying poolside at the McClouds’ country club all summer. I imagined my new closet filled with designer clothes. I felt my smile fade. In the corner of my closet floor was that little memory box.

Get out of my happy thoughts, you fucking box. I’m rewiring here! My eyes flew open and I propped myself up on my elbows. I could see the box from my bed. It was like it was watching me, making sure that I wasn’t getting too content.

I slipped out of my bed and stomped towards the closet. I am getting rid of you, once and for all! I got on my hands and knees and crawled into the closet. Just then, a memory flooded through, like a river after a damn burst. I remembered sitting in my closet when I was a little girl and covering my ears to drown out the yelling. Our walls were so cardboard thin, I could hear it anyway. There was no use.

Memory floods aren’t flashbacks because I know it’s only a memory and not happening. It was like watching play in my mind. The script was burned in my brain with sizzling hot iron rod.

Mommy-  (screams) Maybe if you didn’t drink all of our money, we wouldn’t have had to move back to fucking Rivertown! Maybe if you worked steady, like a real man. It’s all your fault.

Daddy- (screams/slurs) That’s right, blame me. Your actin’ ain’t done shit for us.

Mommy- You made me leave when my career was heating up. I was in a fucking movie. Now find a way to get me back there! Before I explode all over this shit town.

Daddy- We can live in a house that my parents left us, for free, or pay thousands a month on rent…. for a job you ain’t never gonna get!

Mommy-(throws something that shatters against the wall) You did this to me! You got my pregnant with Brianne when I was in a movie. A movie!

Daddy-Hey there, Rosalee. No one knows you’re in a movie. Maybe you should tell the whole town for the for the 1,000th time.

 Mommy- Fuck you, you piece of hillbilly shit.

Daddy- And don’t go and be pointin no fingers at me. I told you to get rid of it the second you told me you was knocked up. Now you gone and got knocked up, again. I dunno if this one is mine. You ain’t nothin’ but the town bike anyways.

 

I shook my head and picked up the box. I creaked it open and pulled out another one of my dark objects. My cheap, big, black glasses that I wore for six months. I cocked my head as I looked at them. Six months ago, I decided to become something new. Maybe it’s a sign that I should get rid of these glasses. Six months and six months. It had to mean something. Right?

I grinded my teeth as I balled my hand around each lens. The sound of plastic snapping accelerated my heartbeat. I remembered when Trina, who was Thomas, took off my sunglasses and looked me in the eyes for the first time. He said my eyes were the prettiest shade of blue he’d ever seen. Pain thumped in my chest to the beat of my heart. I got up and headed towards the waste paper basket next to my white desk. I tossed the glasses and they clunked against the metal bin.

I charged back to the box. This is it. Fuck you, box of pain. I’m in Theta house, now. You have no power here. I threw it into the trash as hard as I could. The lid flung open and I saw the rattle, the razor, and the three other pieces of terror. I back pedaled towards the door and then slammed the door behind me. I walked a few steps, holding onto the wall.

“Brie, are you okay?” One of my sisters passing by asked.

I offered a weak smile and straightened my spine. With my Lauren Cunnigham walk, I headed for the stairs and floated down several steps when I stopped dead in my tracks. When I was gone, would our house maid be around and empty our garbages? I had only moved in a few days prior, and didn’t know the schedule the maid worked.

I ran back to my room breaking the sound barrier. I dumped the trash and panted from my high speed dash. I stared at my things and apologized to them by scooping them up and placing them back inside the closet. This time, I slid the door shut. That way, I wouldn’t have to see it watching me.

But I still needed it to exist for some unknown masochistic reason.

****

“You really don’t have to do my hair,” I said, feeling guilt tickling beneath my skin.

“You’ll get used to it,” Daisy said. “Lauren was the same way. Then she got accustomed to it. My mom is a hairdresser and I enjoy it. So just sit back and relax.”

I stared at my electric blue eyes, highlighted by the dark brown shadow above thick black lashes. My lips curved at my reflection. I had a vanity in my room that I already planned on stealing whenever I moved out of Theta. It was a garage sale find, they told me. The sisters made it just for Lauren. They spray painted it our color, teal, and then reupholstered the seat with fabric that had our Greek letters. There were big, Hollywood style, bulbs circling the mirror, and a drawer filled with designer makeup.

Daisy hummed along to the music that she had streaming through her portable bluetooth speaker. It was set on 90s pop, and Jesus must have been the DJ, because every song that played was amazing.

“Are you excited about your date?” Daisy asked.

I glanced at her face. She was a Chinese American, and one of the prettier girls at Theta. Especially when her mouth was closed.

“Kind of. He has something planned and wouldn’t tell me what. I hate surprises.”

Daisy smiled, revealing her horse-like gums and tiny teeth. She pinned back a loose braid and sprayed it. She ran her fingers through the tight, curling iron curls, and produced soft, flowing waves.

Being touched was growing on me. Especially having my hair played with.

“Just have fun with it. Okay, Brie, you are all done. You look stunning.”

“Thanks,” I said, with a grin. I agreed with Daisy, I did sort of look stunning. They had given me a teeth whitening kit. Not that my teeth were ever bad, but now they were brilliantly white, and contrasted against my red glamour lipstick.

“Tell me all about it when you get home, mmk?” Daisy gave my shoulders a little squeeze and turned to shuffle out of my room.

I fluffed my hair and gazed at the transformed Brie in the mirror. I was already beginning to understand what life would be as Mascot Girl. I had concerns that a majority of the sisters would hate me. I worried that I would be taken as a joke. There were so many ways that Mascot Girl could be a disaster.

There were a few haters, but I was mostly adored. I was like their little doll.

I walked down the foyer, to be sent right back upstairs. All the girls at home agreed that I needed to make Dillon wait in the foyer, and walk down the stairs like Anastasia. I rolled my eyes at their giggles, but understood the impact of a great entrance. Even though it’s not like Dillon hadn’t seen me before. He’d even seen things weren’t ever seen, even by me.

When the sisters cleared me to descend the stairs, I felt that nervous stage rush again. I focused on my breathing and imagined what an unobtainable, level ten, knockout would do. I let the palm of my hand float over the railing like a dove. Each step was flowy and graceful.  Don’t trip, don’t be yourself.

When my eyes met Dillon’s, I felt as if I were in a movie. Dillon was in a sharp suit and was wearing a crimson silk tie. His face melted when he saw me. It took a lot of will power to keep my cheeks relaxed and my lips curved in a Mona Lisa smile. Am I smiling, or not? I didn’t want Dillon to know how giddy he made me feel. I realized something as I continued my long, dramatic stair decent: pretty is power.

When I arrived at the bottom, Dillon reached for both of my hands and brought them both to his lips for sweet kisses. He let our hands fall, but kept our fingers locked. Off to the side was a cluster of snickering sorority sisters in pajamas and slippers.

“Brianne Merritt. Before I met you, beauty was a word I tossed around carelessly. Now that I’m with you, that word is reserved for you and you alone. Nothing else compares.”

Dillon leaned forward and kissed my lips. I heard a chorus of “awe” from my nosy sisters. He tasted fresh and minty. He pulled back, and I quickly attempted to rub the red lipstick off of his lip. It left a pinkish stain.

“Sorry, you might be stuck wearing Dolce & Gabana lipstick.” I batted my eyelashes. “In shade: ‘The Devil’.”

“I got to kiss your lips,” Dillon said, placing his hands on the small of my back. “It was worth the public scrutiny.”

Dillon guided me to the front door. “Ladies,” Dillon said winking at my sisters, “I’ll have her back at a decent hour.”

There was a response of chatter and giggles.

“Your chariot awaits, princess,” Dillon said, opening the door. A shining white stretch limo was parked in the front of Theta. I gasped.

I followed Dillon to the back door. He shooed the driver away, insisting that he open the door and assist me inside.  Once inside, he put his arm around my back, and placed his other hand on my knee. Thank God I shaved. My inner voice commented.

“I have something for you,” Dillon said, so close to my face, that I could feel his mint breath on my cheek. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a little red box. My eyes widened. Don’t worry, earrings come in boxes that size. Please be earrings. Please. He wouldn’t propose! Right?

“Go on,” Dillon said. “Open it.”

I opened the box carefully, as to not break a nail. I sat back. I was greatful that I emptied my bladder before leaving, because I certainly would have peed.

“Dillon McCloud!” I shrieked. “This is beautiful. Is it really for me?”

I picked up the broach and admired it, shimmering in my palm. It was the Comedy and Tragedy masks with dozens of glittering jewels.

“It’s 2 karat total weights. All diamonds. I had a jeweler tailor it special for you. Flip it over.”

All my love- Dillon McCloud

My lunch tossed around as I stared at the frightening four letter L word. We hadn’t exchanged it yet, and I was light years away from being ready.

I gulped. “T-thank you, Dilly. It’s perfect.” I sealed my gratitude with a kiss.

“You are perfect. You needed the perfect six month celebration gift.” His hand returned to my knee. He ran the tips of his fingers across my skin, and I felt goose bumps sprout in response.

“I don’t get nervous about much,” Dillon said, “but I’m a little curious about your reaction to this one.”

“There’s more?” I felt my face drain of color. I could just open this limo door and tuck and roll. I have options.

“Let me first explain. I asked my father what he thinks, and he adores you, so I hope that it didn’t skew his advice giving.”

“Okay…” If I hold my breath long enough, I’ll turn blue and pass out.

“I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m a bit old fashioned. Courting was done better in the past. Back when men were gentleman.”

Who is this guy, seriously? He’s got to be an alien. Or a hologram projected from some young girl’s fantasy.

            “There used to be a tradition of a class ring as a symbol of going steady.”

Is this the surprise? We are in a time machine limo and traveling back to the good ol’ days when women were houseslaves and addicted to valium?

“Brie, would you wear my ring?”

Dillon reached into his pocket again. There, pinched between his two fingers, was the prettiest ring that I’d ever seen.

My jaw dropped. I plucked the ring from Dillons fingers and held it up to my eyes. I had to blink a few times. The center stone was a shining salmon colored gem and was surrounded with a halo of accent diamonds. The sides had Dillon’s Greek letters in rose gold. Under the letters, there were two feminine bands of diamonds that twisted down the side. The underside of the band was sold pinkish gold. I crossed my eyes to read the delicate cursive.

Dillon’s Girl

 

I slid the ring on my right ring finger, and held up my hand. The center jewel was big enough to be jaw dropping, but not gaudy. It fit well in that, it wasn’t too tight, but wasn’t falling off, either. It looked like a crown upon my lengthy, slender, French tipped, finger.

Dillion took my hand and inspected his gift. “It fits. It must be a sign I fit you.”

“This ring is worth more than I am. Like literally. Put all my possessions together and then sell my body to science, and this ring is worth way more.”

“It’s a morganite. It is a precious stone, but it’s not as rare as a diamond. That is reserved for your left hand. I mean, well, you know what I mean.”

“I never thought I would own any kind of jewel, period.”

“Why?”

“Well,” I said, finding it hard not to look away from the ring, “growing up I didn’t have much. My treasures were people. Not things.”

I felt a pin prick as I heard my admission.

“I see,” Dillon said, running his hand through my hair. “I want you to know that this ring is a promise that I will take care of you. You won’t struggle anymore now that you are mine.”

“I wouldn’t call it a ‘struggle’ per say,” I said meeting Dillon’s eyes. Why the fuck are you defending your poverty! Shutup, Brie.

“Oh?” Dillon raised his eyebrow.

“I wasn’t always comfortable, but I had the love of my friends. I told you about Trina.”

“Yes, the transgender girl who moved into Valentine Hall this fall?”

“Yes. She saved my life.”

“Oh? In what way?”

“She just did, okay?”

“Sorry, princess.”

“No-no, I’m sorry, Dilly, I don’t know why I said it that way. Anyway, I had my next door neighbor I told you about, too.”

“Yes, he sounded like a great guy. Is he still in Kansas?”

“Yep. He’s in trade school but wants to get into a university. So he did, after many attempts, get some decent SAT scores, but hasn’t applied anywhere yet. I don’t know why. It’s been his dream forever to become a dentist like his dad.”

“What a terrible job…looking at people’s mouths?”

“ He would be a really good dentist. Ya know? Everyone hates going to the dentist, he’d be the type to give you a little bit more laughing gas and tell some crappy jokes while he cuts open your gums.”

I beamed at the mental image and smile dissolved when I saw Dillon studying my face.

“You’ll have to tell him about the ring,” Dillon said in stern tone, rocking the ring back and forth on my finger.

For whatever reason, my heart dropped at the thought. I didn’t want Nash to know that Dillon and I were officially together so I never got around to telling him. I was sure he saw it on Facebook, but he never brought it up during the rare times that we FaceTimed or texted. I hadn’t been back to Rivertown since my Christmas break. I hadn’t seen my dad or Nash in person for an uncomfortable amount of time. I stared at the twinkling rock on my finger and it finally hit me. I ran away. For real. And I was staring at my new life and future in the form of a salmon colored gemstone.

“Will you tell your father that you are officially spoken for?” Dillon said a bit gentler. He squeezed my hand.

“What are the rules on that? Were you supposed to ask him?”

Dillon shook his head. “Only for engagement. And honestly, I would never ask your father that. I can’t respect a man who was neglectful to his daughter. There is no excuse. None.”

I nodded.

“If it comes to that point in the future,” Dillon said stroking my cheek, “I will speak with him, but I won’t ask him for your hand. I’ll tell him that I’m going to treat his little girl the way he should have all along. Like the princess she is.”

That was the last straw. I lunged into Dillon’s arms kissed him in a way I knew would drive him insane.

He had to tell the limo to drive around for another hour because we arrived at the restaurant before he was done with me.

*****

Dillon ordered me sushi and I was glad for it. I think I saw his head pop off his neck when I admitted that I never had it. It turned out, he was practically an expert. I was an instant fan, the moment the seaweed paper slid over my tongue.

I hid behind an ivory cloth napkin when I took a piece of sushi into my mouth. My cheeks felt like chipmunk’s cheeks, and it didn’t seem very “Mascot Girl”.

Those were my last thoughts before the sky crumbled into sand crashed down to bury me. They say you will always remember that moment as a before and after. My phone vibrated under the table and I ignored it. Then, it buzzed again and I reached down and sent whoever to voicemail. When I kept receiving the calls, I asked Dillon, with rosy cheeks, to excuse me.

I took my phone outside with me. Where we were didn’t seem like a place you answer cell phones. Our dinners combined were probably worth more than my house. I rubbed my arms as I looked at my phone. It was my grandparents. It wasn’t odd that my grandparents would call; I talked to them about once a month. We never we as close, but that was because my grandpa hated my dad. It drove a wall between us when I refused to move in with them time and time again. I should have moved in with them, I knew that when I was a little girl, just as much as I knew it as an adult. But I couldn’t leave my dad. He needed me.

I called back my grandparents’ number and I my grandma picked up after three rings. I could hardly understand her through her hysteria. Finally, I understood what was happening.

The world went black. I dropped to the asphalt, and felt the skin on my bare knees tear open with sharp little rocks.  My phone slipped from my grip as I fell and sailed to the ground. The screen split into winding cracks. I hardly noticed the disturbed expressions all around me as I screamed.

Chapter 19-Tragedy Plus Time

“Here, dear,” The man in generic black suit said. “You can sit in the chair. Some people find it difficult to stand the entire day.”

The man handed me a soft tissue and guided me to the burgundy chair that sat next to my father’s gold plated urn. I shoved the unneeded tissue in my pocket and sat down. I wondered how many people sat in that chair. How many tears must have absorbed in its thick, stiff cushion. My funeral throne may as well have been an electric chair. If it were up to me, we wouldn’t have had one at all.

Funerals are traumatic. My brother had his own urn; it was in the shape of a slumbering child with angel wings. They extracted him from my mother when she died to try to save him. It was too late. So he had a funeral. It honestly did more harm than good.

I was present at my father’s funeral only because it’s what everyone else wanted. Death makes everyone feel so helpless and weak. It reminds them of their own mortality. People needed to come see me and offer support for their own wellbeing. They need to tell me sorry, and if there is anything I ever need, let them know. How I wanted to say the only thing I ever truly needed was parents. That I needed to go home and grieve in private to protect my fragile mental health. But I put my needs aside.

I wore a loose, cheap, suit jacket that was my grandma’s. The style kind of circled back around to where shoulder pads were partially acceptable. Partially. The Comedy and Tragedy masks glimmered on the front pocket. The sleeves were a little long on me, so it covered the ring. I thanked borrowed 80s suit for that. I couldn’t take it off because Dillon was with me for my dad’s wake. Yet, I wasn’t ready for Rivertown to know how serious my relationship had grown.

Just when I thought I had it all figured out you had to go and die, I thought as I leered at the urn. You ruined my whole fucking childhood. Then, you had to go and destroy the most romantic night of my life. Now Dillon is here in Rivertown despite my every objection. And my worlds are about to collide. Eff you, you pile of dirt.

I cringed at my own internal dialogue. A few nuts and bolts must have gotten loose. It must have been the combination of grief and the fumes that the flowers emitted. I rubbed my eyes, they were practically swollen from the allergens drifting around in the air. I hoped it made my eyes look normal and recently cried.

“Do you need anything, babe?” Dillon said running his fingers through my hair.

I shook my head.

“Okay, I’m going to go get us a couple drinks from the gas station across the street. Be right back.” Dillon planted a kiss on my head and asked my grandma if she wanted anything. She fluffed her shoulder length, stark white hair and declined.

“When does the wake begin?” My grandma asked the funeral director.

“About a half an hour, now. And you are certain you don’t want to provide any pictures? Music? Anything for your guests?” The director asked me.

“My answer isn’t going to change.”  Pictures of my father in his younger years might send me into flashback, Mr. Walmart Suit.

A few moments after Dillon left, an attractive dirty blonde haired gentleman in a pale green button up shirt, gray sports coat, and dark blue jeans slid through the doors. Dillon and Nash had to of brushed shoulders one coming in, one going out. They saw each other. It was  happening.

“Sorry sir, it’s immediate family only–”

“He is family,” I said in a crackling voice.  Mr. Walmart Suit yet eyes bulged. He did an awkward bow and left.

I need to start bowing to people. It should be a thing.

Nash rushed to me, and helped me out of the funeral throne. I didn’t notice how weak my body felt until then. I couldn’t keep down any food and Nash wasn’t around to give me his Dramamine and Benadryl potion that helped me sleep and quit the vomiting.

“Brianne,” Nash said as he wrapped his arms around me. I couldn’t breathe under his crushing arms. That was okay. I didn’t need oxygen when my body was pressed against his. He was oxygen.

“Nash! I’m sorry I haven’t texted back much since it happened, it’s just –”

“Don’t apologize,” Nash said leaning back to look at me. Up close I could see the whites of his eyes were pink. “Don’t ever apologize for anything.”

“I keep thinking of all the ways that it could have been different. If I stayed here for school, I could have driven dad to and from Louie’s Bar if he relapsed. He was trying to get better you know…”

“I selfishly wanted to keep you home next to me but I was overjoyed that you left. Your dad had issues that weren’t up to you to fix. He was your dad that was never your job.”

“I never even got on him about his drinking much,” I croaked. “It some fucked up miserable way, I understood. After that Christmas Eve, I would have sold my soul to forget about it, even for just a moment. I know why he turned towards the bottle. I still understand. How fucked up is that?”

“You aren’t as fucked up as you think, Brie,” Nash said with shining tears that distorted the color of his green irises. “You are just ahead of all of us. You understand people on this deep, profound level. You are an amazing actress, because you don’t really act. You just are. You go on stage, understanding in ways that the rest of us just can’t. You’re ahead. And everyone admires the passion we want to know, but never will.”

I nestled my head into his chest. “You really think that about me?”

“I always did.”

“I’m mad at him,” I whispered. “Is that okay?”

“You should be.”

“It’s bad enough he destroyed himself and what’s left of me…”

“Don’t say that. I’m gonna fix you, Brie.”

“…he had to destroy another family, too. Our family is like a curse.”

“You are going to make it through this.”

“Do you think anyone is going to actually come today? Trina is back in town for the funerals. Her mom said that the other funeral is today, as well.”

“Anyone who shows today is for you. Not for him.”

“Jessica should have gotten out of fucking Rivertown when she had the chance. Once she graduated, I thought for sure she’d get as far away as possible.”

“Um,” Nash said. “You couldn’t have known this, she wasn’t very public about it, but Jess’s mom was diagnosed with this very aggressive form of cancer and was dying. Jess stayed to be with her mom during her final days.”

Nash’s hand wandered underneath the God awful 80’s suit jacket, and he caressed my back over my thin white T-Shirt. His touch felt different that day. Although I may have forgotten what it felt like. It had been six long months. Maybe it was my imagination.

“Let me say hi to Grandma,” Nash said taking a reluctant step back.

I watched Nash go to where my grandma was sitting. I almost forgot that they knew each other fairly well. She had his phone number and Nash was her eyes in Rivertown. I think they even exchanged Christmas gifts.

He held my grandma’s hands and they both glanced my way a few times. It was awkward knowing that people are talking about you a few feet away. Nash sent a smaller version of his dreamy smile towards me. I felt my blood warm.

Nash retuned to me. My heart panged. Out of the corner of my eye was my father’s damned urn. I pushed Nash back a few steps so that it was behind me. Nash had an unusual expression. I was so beside myself, that I slid my arms around his waist.

Turns out, grief is stronger than alcohol. Who’da thought, I said to myself, as I nestled into his chest and closed my eyes. Nash and I definitely embrace every once and awhile. But not like that. It never lingered past a minute and it was never so close. Body parts were smashed together in new ways. New good ways.

“I still can’t cry,” I said. I could hear Nash’s heartbeat with my ear upon his chest. It was a comforting sound, like the trickling of rain when you’re lying in bed.

“I know.” Nash kissed the top of my head and squeezed me. “But you don’t have to, I’ll cry in your place.”

I swallowed hard.

“You are seriously, the best fucking friend.”

“No, I’m just doing what I want to do. You weren’t meant to face this shit storm on your own. I’ll carry you.”

I peeked up and saw a tear trace a line down Nash’s cheek. I reach up and wiped it away. My insides turned into liquid. They felt like a hot, raging stream of chemistry. My heart was beating with extraordinary force, as I pictured what I wanted to do. I imagined myself, up on tip-toes, and closing my eyes. I saw myself holding the back of his neck and pulling him into me.

I had never kissed Nash. Not once. For some unknown reason, I felt as if he wanted it to happen right then. Maybe my mind was playing a trick. I was in too deep to think. The grief, the hormones, the lack of sleep, the agony, the malnourished body I walked around in all had a part in crazed decisions.

My heart was burning as my eyes continued to lock with Nash’s. I felt like we transcended some barrier, like he actually knew what I was thinking. He knew I was going to kiss him and he didn’t back away. I was going to do it. I wanted to do it.

I slipped my hands behind his neck. His skin was so soft. I went up on my toes and leaned into his body. My eyelids fell. His mouth was inches from my own. I moved my waiting lips closer. They almost stroked his when…

“Your grandma told me your boyfriend got you a private jet to Rivertown,” Nash gently pushed me back.

“Oh!” I came crashing down from the clouds like a bird, chopped into pieces by the blade of a helicopter.

I back peddled a hugged myself, stroking my arms. I averted my eyes to the fancy navy blue wallpaper. My ears were on fire. The word ‘embarrassment’ was weak compared to what I felt.

God dammit Nash! I held it in for 11 years and then, when my father kills your ex-girlfriend, and when my serious boyfriend is going to waltz in at any given moment, I decided to finally kiss you. Bravo, Brie. Your timing is priceless. Why can’t you see, Nash? I fucking love you!

Nash held out his hands. In a sweet voice he said, “It’s okay, come here.”

He knows I’m mortified beyond belief. That makes it even worse. Where is the bathroom? I have some stomach acid to purge.

I allowed him to hold my hands. I didn’t realize it until then, that my hands were shaking. The more I focused on them to make them stop, the more they shook. It took so much courage to cross that line.

“Y-you know, I’m not feeling myself today,” I stuttered. My eyes anywhere but on his. My stomach churned.

“Sit down, Merritt.” Nash guided me to the funeral throne and I collapsed. He kneeled down next to me. “Don’t worry, I don’t feel myself either. I’m in…a very confusing place.”

If Trina was here, she would smack me and say ‘Tell him, bitch’! She would kill me to know I almost kissed Nash, and he knew what I was doing, there was no mistaking it. Then I didn’t even speak my truth. I could absolutely not tell Trina about this. But who else can I tell? Leah just wouldn’t get it, and then there is Dillon…haha.

“Nash. I’m so fucking confused.”

“Are you feeling okay? You look like you are going to get sick.”

“You knowing what I look like when I’m feeling sick makes even more sick.”

“Wait, what?”

Cue Dillon McCloud into the tragedy that I called my fucking life. I peeked down at my shining theatre mask broach. Comedy is tragedy plus time. Can’t wait to laugh at this one. How much time till it’s funny, Mr. Twain?

Dillon walked in with two Sprites. I crinkled my nose.

Nash rose from his knees and gave Dillon a nod. “Hey, man, you must be Dillon.”

“Guilty as charged, buddy.”

When Dillon got close enough, he raised his eyebrows and scanned Nash, head to toe. He set the Sprites under my nasty chair.

Dillon reached out his hand. I blinked a few times when their hands connected. My worlds had officially collided. I wasn’t ready. At all. I shot my dad’s urn an evil eye.

We should have discussed where you wanted to go, Daddy dearest. Do you prefer water or decomposition? Because you can choose a truck stop toilet or the Rivertown dump.

“I’m James Nash.”

“Here a lil early, eh? Beating the crowd?” Dillon said coming to the other side of my chair. James was on my right, Dillon my left. There was just too much testosterone for comfort.

Dillon cupped my head in his hand, leaned down and kissed my closed, stiff lips. When he pulled back, his palm brushed against my chest. I shook my head slightly. I just knew that his ‘accidental boob bump’ was on purpose. I knew what he was doing.

“Did you show him your fine jewelry?” Dillon asked.

“I can’t think straight.” My father killed a young, innocent girl on his way to hell. You fucktard! No I’m not showing off my shit. He’s a mound of sand now and I’m sitting right next him, but, look at my bling, Nash!.

“I had both pieces custom made. Unfortunately, I gave them to Brie the same night her father died.” Dillon pulled up my sleeve and held up my hand. I fixed my vacant eyes on the back doors. People should be showing up soon. Someone would save me.

“Wow, that is beautiful,” Nash said leaning down to inspect the prettiest ring in the world. “It suits her hand.”

“Custom is always best. Don’t you agree?”

Nash grinned. “Wouldn’t know.”

“Speaking of which, Brie, I will have a better suit tailored for you when we get back home. Heaven forbid anyone else perishes, but we all have to have that dreaded funeral outfit in our closets. One that fits.”

“I don’t intend on going to anymore funerals. My whole family is officially dead. I should get a mercy pass.” I glanced up at Dillon whose face was frozen in shock.

“If someone you know passes, you must to their funeral,” Dillon said. “It’s only proper.”

I jutted up out of my chair. Enough was enough. “That’s the one good thing about not being from high society. In Kansas we do what we want. I get. A mothafucking.  Pass.”

I heard Nash stifle a chuckle as I stormed away from my living nightmare. I saw Lauren Cunningham fold her arms and narrow her eyes in my head. I was supposed to be a perfect trophy girlfriend, she instructed.

Lauren, I warned him. And I’ve shielded him from 99 percent of the true Brie Merritt. That must count for something. And my father crashed through a windshield and snapped his fucking neck. That’s a pass.

 

****

“Brie! My sweetest Brie!” Trina bellowed throwing open the front doors of the funeral parlor. Her eyes scanned the room. When she saw me she let out a wail. I pressed my lips together. If Theatre ever morphed into human form, it would transform into the body of Trina Lubble.

Trina’s mother slinked in behind her and gave me a shy wave. I returned her wave and felt comfort looking at her familiar, friendly face. I turned to Trina. She was wearing a black lacy ankle length dress and a black hat that actually had a short trimmed veil. I was supposed to remain somber at my own father’s wake, but I wanted to smile at her. She approached me, already crying streams of black mascara.

Trina scooped me up and kissed each of my cheeks. She let out a loud sigh. “I am so sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you. And thank you for coming,” I said, giving Trina another hug. I whispered in her ear, “Nash and Dillon are in there by my dad’s urn. Together. I think.”

Trina’s arms flailed around. “No!” Trina said in a scream whisper. She studied my face and she stepped back. “There is more.”

Well, my resolve to not tell Trina didn’t last long. I grabbed Trina’s hand and led her to the downward staircase. “Down here is the family refreshment area. Come on. We need privacy.”

“Sweet baby Jesus this is big,” Trina said with her hand over her heart.

I pulled her down past the mini kitchen and into a dark spooky hallway.

“I almost kissed Nash,” I said, my heart accelerated as I heard the words spoken aloud.

Trina put both of her hands over her mouth and her almond eyes grew ten times their normal size.

“He knows I was going to kiss him. He cut me off by saying something about Dillon.”

“Brie!”

“I know. So then Dillon comes in and I can just tell, he had no idea that Nash looks like, well you know.”

“Oh honey, I know. Mmmhm.”

“So, then he kisses me and is acting all possessive-ish. You saw the pics I sent you of the ring, so you know. Well, he showboats it off to Nash. I never saw that side of Dillon, but I hated it.”

“What a douche!”

“So I snap at Dillon, for the first time ever, like, in front of Nash and my dead dad. My grandma probably heard it too; she was off in the back of the room sitting down. Then I rush out of the room and have been too afraid to go back in. And I think they are both too afraid to follow me. I feel so bad.”

“Pssh, Dillon is yesterday’s trash, as far as I’m concerned. I need more deets about the almost Nash kiss. I’ve been waiting for this all my life. Oh that sounds so creepy. Hashtag, sorry, not sorry.”

I laughed. For the first time in weeks I laughed. A couple of fuzzy, snuggly endorphins slid through my veins like a water slide. “Trina! No using hashtag in sentences. We’ve been over this.”

Trina snaked her neck. “Um, excuse me, I was being ironic.”

I threw my arms around Trina. “Thank you for not killing me for not telling Nash I love him.”

“Oh you will,” Trina said with the corners of her mouth curving up. “You will.”

Chapter 20-Secrets in the Closet

An hour later, and the wake was buzzing. I didn’t think too many would show their faces, especially since Jessica Fabian’s wake was at the same time. But they came. I made my way back to the urn because people were lining up as they would if they were passing by a coffin. After the steady line of well wishers dwindled down, I escaped for a break.

I went down to the family refreshment area and turned on the sink in the kitchenette. I soaped up my hands and splashed some cold water on my face. I leaned over the sink and let the droplets slip down my face and into the sink.

“Princess, are you crying?”

I spun around and felt a twinge of guilt mixed with a grossed out feeling. Dillon placed his hands on my shoulders. Pity haunted his eyes.

“You can cry,” Dillon said. “No need to sneak away.”

“I know,” I said, setting my palms on his chest. “I’m so sorry for snapping at you.”

Dillon nodded. “It’s okay.  I’m the one who peeled you off of the restaurant pavement, remember? I know you are sad. A little sass is nothing.”

“Really?”

“Yes. But your friend shouldn’t have witnessed that.”

“You’re right. But I need to be honest. I was really pissed. I don’t like showing off expensive things or talking about custom this and that. It sounds pretentious.” I felt my cheeks warm just thinking about it.

Dillon ran his hand over his face. “I was showing your friend what kind of lifestyle I could provide. He knows your dad neglected you, so I thought he’d like to know I spoil you.”

“For a moment I forgot he was dead,” I said with a sudden chill. Death is an oddity.

“ Sorry, I don’t mean to speak ill of the deceased.”

“Dying doesn’t erase what my father has done.” I wrapped my arms around Dillon’s neck and my body relaxed in his warmth. The gross feeling subsided. “So…you weren’t trying to make Nash envious?”

Dillon rubbed his nose. “No. Why would I do that?”

Because Nash is so hot, you are probably questioning your sexuality. “That’s how it seemed.”

“Hell no,” Dillon said, as he leaned down and laid his tender lips on mine. He leaned into me and the faux granite counter jabbed my lower back.

As we kissed, I wondered how it would have felt with Nash. I pushed back and got lost in the depths of Dillon’s eyes for a moment. I felt something sparkle inside. As much as he annoyed me, I liked him. Still, the sparkle was no comparison to the inferno that raged when I was in Nash’s arms.

            Stop thinking about Nash, Brianne Merritt!

I broke the silence by saying, “Thank you for being so good to me. I’m not sure that I deserve it.”

Dillon placed several small pecks on my neck and whispered in my ear, “You drive me crazy.”

Something inside of me exploded when I saw that Nash had come down the stairs and was staring at us make out. It felt the box closed, after I just found the long lost key. I broke the damn key. Like everything else.

“Um, sorry to interrupt,” Nash said, scratching the back of his neck. “There are some Theta girls here looking for you.”

***

“Leah? I didn’t know you were coming!” I squealed.

Leah removed her big sunglasses and looked around. “Girl, of course. I met up with Lauren at the airport and we traveled together, she’s around somewhere. I think she got caught talking with this skinny, tall guy who was laying it on really heavy outside.”

Oh God. Emergency. E-fucking-mergency.

“Trina!” I said waving down my friend, who was across the waiting room area. Trina rushed over when she saw me wave. Her face was riddled with concern. “Trina, this is Leah. Leah, Trina.”

“At last we finally meet!” Trina said with a sigh, giving Leah a once over. “You are so pretty girl, look at you.”

Leah’s cheeks glowed. “Thank you, girl. You know, I feel like I know you. Brie talks so much about you.”

“Ugh, don’t listen to her, none of it is true!” Trina said waving her finger.

“Okay, you two talk, I will be back. I need to rescue Lauren.”

Leah and Trina began chattering right away. Trina slid her arm through Leah’s and they looked like they were headed for the refreshment room.  They are going to be best friends or sworn enemies, there is literally no in between. It’s one or the other.

I dashed outside and I was right about my prediction. I spotted Lauren from a mile away. She was wearing a lose fitting white sweater, tight dark blue jeans, and white closed toed strappy heels. Her hair was gathered in a thick ponytail, which made her red lips and Raybands stand out.

Then there was Billy in a grubby tshirt and pants that were too big.

“Billy!” I said scurrying out in the parking lot.

“Hey, Merritt,” Billy said as he put his two twiggy arms around me.  A line appeared between his brows. “You look nice.”

“Shutup, be real. Dad dying doesn’t mean you have to pretend to be nice.”

Billy’s face relaxed and he made a sideways smile. “Okay, you look like shit.”

“Um, watch your mouth, young man. You are in the presence of a lady.” I nodded at Lauren.

“Oh. Sorry, sweetheart.”

Lauren held up her hand. “Oh, please. I know boys. Vulgarity doesn’t scare me, I’m completely desensitized. Although I see where your sailors’ language derives from, Miss Merritt.”

“Yep! Oh my God, I can’t believe you are really here. I see you’ve met Billy.”

“Yes,” Lauren said putting her hands on mine. “And I’m so sorry, Brie. I can’t imagine what you must feel. I didn’t know all those things about your life, Billy was just telling me.”

“I just don’t talk about it.”

“I wish you would have opened up more,” Lauren squeezed my hands. “I know I was harsh on you sometimes. But I really do care about you.”

“I know,” I said peering into Lauren’s two hazel eyes.

“Big turn out,” Billy said nodding at the parking lot.

“Yeah. For a killer.” My eyes fell.

“Everyone is here for you, Brie. It doesn’t matter how your dad passed. I feel like I can still talk on behalf of Theta since I was their spokeswoman for four years. Theta feels your pain. We love you.”

****

After the wake was over, my best friends from Baylor University and my childhood best friends decided to go to Stella’s for a few drinks. I wasn’t too keen on the idea; my father lost his life to alcohol. A young woman was dead. Yet, there we go, prancing to the bar. I wasn’t in the mood. But everyone felt it would cheer me up. So there I went in Dillon’s rental car with Lauren and Leah in tow.

We arrived at the bar as the orange sun slipped away, and the darkness slithered across the sky. Before that, I went back to my hotel, and changed into a white elbow length blouse with black stripes. I went bold with red, skin tight, pants with white flats. I topped it all off with a denim jacket. I took my time getting ready because I was enjoying the space. Dillon had gotten us separate rooms, sighting that it wasn’t appropriate to get a room together unwed. It didn’t stop him from sneaking into my room at night.

When we walked in to Stella’s, there were empty tables and hushed country music. It was early. We pushed some tables together. Dillon was velcroed to my side, and made it clear he was sitting by me when the tables were being put together. When everyone was seated I gazed around at my two worlds. Leah, Dillon, and Lauren. Nash, Trina, and Billy. The universe must have had a good laugh when Nash sat down on the other side of me.

Dillon glanced and Nash, and gave him a single nod. Then, he slid his hand on thigh. I couldn’t even look at Nash. I couldn’t believe I tried to kiss him. How many times I swore to myself that that would never happen.

I want to go home. Wait. Where the fuck is home, now? I wondered. I’m going to have to sell that house.

We wasted no time getting drinks. People bought me so many so fast that I had a line of them in front of me. Everyone seemed to think the alcoholic’s child deserved a lot of alcohol. I begged to differ. I didn’t mind having a drink or two, but I refused to get drunk.

Dillon left me to go to sit at the bar with Billy. They bonded over scotch and took turns buying each other drinks. I could tell by the volume of their voices,  that someone would puke or black out before the clock turned twelve. I didn’t mind. As long as it wasn’t me. And as long as they didn’t drive.

Lauren, Leah, and Trina were in deep conversation. Their chairs were pushed together and they each had ten dollar pink panty dropper martini’s in their hands. I heard snit bits of their discussions about fashion, all the evidence proving Justin Timberlake is a God, and what is the kind of bread is perfect for toasting.

They attempted to include me and I tried. I really tried. I just couldn’t concentrate on these intellectually stimulating topics. The place reminded me so much of Jessica.

Nash sat beside me in silence. He took turns, looking around, playing with his phone, and staring at the wall. It wasn’t normal Nash. I wondered what he was thinking.

After one pink panty dropper, I turned to Nash. I cleared my throat. “This place will forever remind me of Jessica. It’s where I first met her. The only night we ever hung out.”

“I remember. She gushed about you every time your name came up after that. She admired you.”

“She shouldn’t have.”

“Why? You are older than her, so she looked up to you. That is just how it works.”

“I wish I kept in touch. I wish I talked her into touring Baylor. In normal circumstances, I probably would have. We clicked. But I never reached out to her because. Because…”

“You weren’t ready for me to date anyone other than Tabitha,” Nash said taking a sip of his beer and leaning back. “It’s okay. We both kind of figured that.”

“It’s so selfish, I know. Now I won’t have the chance to tell her I’m sorry.”

“She understood. There wouldn’t have been a need for an apology.”

I rested my face in my hands. “Why her?” I managed. “Why did she have to move down the street from us? I don’t understand how the crash even happened. Why her?”

Nash put his hand on my back. “Dangerous question. Don’t ask it.” Nash removed his hand and rubbed his temples.

“Look! There she is!” A middle aged man said pointing a finger at me. “That son of a bitch’s daughter.”

I looked up and saw three men and a woman with faces twisted in anger, heading my direction. I stood up to meet their eyes.

“Your fucking father is a murder,” The man with a ratty ponytail and a backwards cap hissed.

Nash sprang up and held his hand out in front of me. I glanced over at Dillon and Billy who were still at the bar. They didn’t notice. My sober brain worked fast. I was thankful for that advantage.  I need to defuse this. Billy and Dillon can’t see this, or there will be a brawl, and jail and consequences.

            I patted Nash’s arm. I shot him a look.

“It’s okay, Nash. Let them get what they need to say off of their chest,” I said out of the side of my mouth.

Nash dropped his arm and grinded his teeth. Trina, Lauren, and Leah were beginning to notice something was up.

“You need to get the fuck out of here, little girl,” The woman wearing a bandana and thick eyeliner said with a sneer.

I nodded.

“Take that fucking body, or pile of soot, whatever that Merritt guy is now with you,” the ponytail man added.

I nodded again. The group of four middle aged people began to exchange curious glances.

“You ain’t nothin’ but a white trash,” the smaller man piped in.

“Oh no he didn’t,” I heard Trina grumble. I shot my three girl friends a look and held my finger to my lips. They looked at me as if a pineapple was growing out of my head.

“Your family is garbage,” bandana woman said. “Your dead, addict mama and your murdering daddy. Do us all a favor and get out of town.”

I saw steam pour out of Nash’s ears next to me. He was chewing on his bottom lip. I gave his back a reassuring caress.

“Well!” The woman said making circles with her hands. “Go on. Say something.”

I looked in each of their eyes and took in a deep breath. I exhaled. I felt zen.

“If that’s what you want,” I nodded.

“What do you have to say for yourself, you inbred lil cunt?” The short man said.

“Who do you-” Nash started to defend me. I put my hand over his lips.

“You have every right to be angry,” I said. “If you need someone to yell at, yell at me. Do your worst. I’m mad as hell, too. And my heart is fucking broken. I know how you feel.”

“Oh ha, ha,” the woman said. “You ain’t no mother Theresa. You’re a little slut. Whoring all around town. Like your trick mother.”

I sucked on my bottom lip.

I saw Nash drop his head. His cheeks were the color of tomatoes. I peeked at my three girlfriends, all outspoken and fearless, their faces matched Nash’s. This is probably tourcher for them.

There was a deafening quietness. Then the woman finally said, “Say something, dammit!”

I looked into each other their angry eyes and said, “I understand.”

The woman was the first to curse under her breath and walk away. The men followed one by one after, leaving ponytail behind. Before ponytail turned around I saw his eyes well up.

So much pain in this town.

I released a breath and sat back down in front of my line of unsipped drinks. My three girlfriends marveled at myself control and told me they were proud of me. Nash sat silently and watched the carbonation bubbles of his beer rise to the surface.

An hour or so passed and more townies started to fill the place. I resigned to the fact that Dillon would be at the bar for awhile, as he and Billy started chatting up some older broads. I rolled my eyes. I just started to zone out when Nash leaned over, “Come with me. I want to talk to you.”

He slid his hand into mine and our fingers intertwined. No one saw us slip out together. Except Trina. Her eyes almost popped out of their sockets. I sent her a puzzled look.

He directed me towards the back, passed the pool tables, and into a small room. We slipped in, unnoticed, and he closed the door. He pulled the string on the light bulb. I saw mops leaning up against the wall, ladders, and paint buckets.

“What’s up?” I said folding my arms around myself.

Billy took a few loud breaths. “I’m struggling, Merritt.”

“About…”

“I’m confused.”

“Me, too. My life is a fucking circus.”

“No,” Nash said taking a step forward. “I’m confused about the nature of our friendship.”

“I-um,” I said dropping my eyes. My heart accelerated.

“I’m sorry. I just needed to have a moment of honesty with you. In private. And I didn’t know when I’d see you again without Dilly boy. And I didn’t know when you would be home next. Or answer my phone calls or texts. Now that your dad is gone, I wasn’t sure I would see you again.”

“That makes sense,” was all I could manage.

Nash lifted my chin and my eyes met his. His handsomness in the shadowy closet was blinding. It was like staring at the sun.

“I want you to look at me,” Nash said. I felt his hands hold my hips and my heart thumped. A little fire started to crackle in the pit of my stomach.

I let out an anxious giggle. “You are making me nervous.”

“What?” Nash said, with his Oscar winning smile. “Since when?”

“Well, recently, I guess? You never made me nervous before.”

“Why? It’s just me.”

“Um,” I giggled again. Here goes nothing. I wonder how this is going to come out. “You are mildy attractive.”

Ah, I guess I’m going the sarcastic route. How creative. Damn it, I’m even thinking sarcastically.  Shutup Brie. He’s right. This might be your only chance. Lay it all out. I am going to tie up ‘reason’ and throw her in the trunk. Go! May the force be with you.

“And you are exquisitely beautiful.”

When I heard his words, something changed. It felt as if a warm current flowed through my body and unthawed every frozen place. I couldn’t help but notice Nash’s face mirrored my own.

“Nash, why did you stop me from kissing you?”

“I was pleasantly surprised. I knew how I felt for you, but didn’t think you could ever see me as more than a friend. It took all I had to push you away. I didn’t want you to do something because you weren’t in the right mind. Plus, I didn’t want dill-pickle walking in and seeing it.”  

            “Wait, why did you think I’d never want you for more than a friend?”

“Clearly,” Nash said, as his fingers crept into my belt loops. “You are way, way, way, too good for me.”

“What! Are you fucking serious?” I laughed.

“You are.”

“I am not!”

“I want to kiss you, but–” Nash started.

“Then do it.”

Mischief flashed in Nash’s eyes. He snatched my right hand up and yanked the morganite ring off. It fell to the ground with a clink.

Then, everything in the world slowed. He brought me into his arms and I clasped my hands together above his shoulders.  He backed me into the wall. His hand gathered my hair together and he gave it a gentle pull. He brought his lips down upon mine and my eyes snapped shut. I witnessed sparks of light in the darkness of my eyelids as he kissed me. He pinned me to the wall with his weight, and I was grateful. My knees literally shook. Until that moment, I thought that was an expression. Turns out, I didn’t know the first thing about passion.

“You feel incredible in my arms,” Nash said between kisses.

“I never knew I’d get a chance to know what it feels like,” I said, running my fingers down his spine.

“I don’t want to let you go,” Nash said, gripping me tight, and kissing my lips.

I leaned back and took a deep, cleansing breath. I blinked a few times, trying to come to terms with reality.

What the hell am I going to do now?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please keep in mind

  1. I own the rights to “Mascot Girl” in its entirety. For any questions about my blog’s copyright, please visit my “about” page.
  2. “Mascot Girl” is not peer reviewed, edited, or proof read. It is entirely free handed, in order for me to practice my skill. Suggestions, likes/dislikes, or any other feedback is invaluable. Please, please, post any and all thoughts in comments.
  3. If this story happens to resonate with you, please let me know this! I am considering turning it into an actual novel, if it’s well received.

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6 thoughts on “Mascot Girl

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