Chapter 14-To Theta or Not to Theta

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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 I grunted and stared at the screen as I crashed down onto the outdated, floral comforter of the guest twin bed.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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Chapter 13-What the BLEEP is Mascot Girl

 

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Chapter 13

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.

Chapter 12-Christmas with the McClouds

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Chapter 12

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 11-Runaway Girl

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Chapter 11

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 10-Frienemy

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Chapter 10

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.

 

Chapter 9-Head Doctor

therapy

Chapter 9

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 thought he liked 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 you…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.