One Year Ago
“No! Turn here,” K.C. shrieked in my right ear.
The tires of my dad’s Bronco screeched with the sudden, short turn onto a car-packed street.
“You know, maybe you should’ve just driven like I suggested,” I blurted out, even though I never liked anyone else to drive when I was in the car.
As if reading my mind, K.C. responded, "And have you bury your face in your hands every time I don't launch myself through every yellow light? Not."
I smiled to myself. My best friend knew me too well. I liked to drive fast. I liked to move fast. I walked as quickly as my legs could take me, and I drove as speedily as was reasonable. I rushed to every stop sign and red light. Hurry up and wait, that was me.
But hearing the pounding rhythm of the music in the distance, I had no desire to rush any further. The lane was lined with car after car, displaying the magnitude of the party we were crashing. My hands clenched the steering wheel as I squeezed into a spot a block away from the party.
"K.C.? I don’t think this is a good idea,” I declared…again.
“It’ll be fine, you’ll see.” She patted my leg. “Bryan invited Liam. Liam invited me, and I’m inviting you.” Her calm, flat tone did nothing to ease the tightness in my chest.
Unfastening my seatbelt, I looked over to her. “Well, just remember…if I get uncomfortable, I’m gone. You catch a ride with Liam.”
We climbed out and jogged across the street. The party ruckus amplified the closer we got to the house.
“You’re not going anywhere. You leave in two days, and we’re having fun. No matter what.” Her threatening voice shook my already unsteady nerves.
As we walked up the driveway, she trailed behind me. Texting Liam, I assumed. Her boyfriend had arrived earlier, having spent most of the day with his friends at the lake while K.C. and I shopped.
Red Solo cups littered the lawn, and people filtered in and out of the house, enjoying the balmy summer night. Several guys I recognized from school lunged out of the front door, chasing each other and sloshing drinks in the process.
“Hey, K.C. How’s it going, Tate?” Tori Beckman sat inside the front door with a drink in hand, chatting with a boy I didn’t know. “Drop your keys in the bowl,” she instructed, returning her attention to her company.
Taking a moment to process her request, I realized she was making me surrender my keys.
I guess she wasn’t letting anyone drive drunk tonight.
“Well, I won’t be drinking,” I shouted over the music.
“And you might change your mind,” she challenged. “If you want in, I need your keys.”
Annoyed, I dug into my bag and dropped my set into the bowl. The thought of giving up one of my lifelines irritated the hell out of me. Not having my keys meant I wouldn’t be able to leave quickly if I wanted to. Or needed to. What if she got drunk and left her post? What if someone accidentally took my keys? I suddenly remembered my mom, who used to tell me to stop asking “what if” questions. What if Disneyland is closed for cleaning when we get there? What if every store in town ran out of gummi bears? I bit my lip to stifle a laugh, remembering how annoyed she would get with my endless questions.
“Wow,” K.C. shouted in my ear, “look at it in here!”
People, some classmates and some not, bounced to the music, laughing and living it up. The hair on my arms stood on end at the sight of all the bustle and enthusiasm. The floors echoed the beat coming from the speakers, and I was speechless at the sight of so much activity in one space. People danced, horse-played, jumped, drank, and played football…yes, football, in the living room.
“He better not ruin this for me,” I said, the force of my voice sounding more forceful than usual. Enjoying one party with my best friend before I left town for a year wasn't asking too much.
Shaking my head, I looked to K.C., who winked knowingly at me. I motioned towards the kitchen, and we both slithered our way, hand in hand, through the thick crowd.
Entering the huge, every-mom’s-dream kitchen, I spied the makeshift bar on the center island. Bottles of liquor covered the granite top along with two liters of soda, cups and a bucket of ice in the sink. Blowing out a breath, I resigned to keep with my commitment to stay sober tonight. Getting drunk was tempting. What I wouldn’t give to just let go for one night.
K.C. and I had sampled our parents’ liquor stashes here and there, and I’d been to a few concerts out of town where we’d partied a bit. However, it was out of the question to be off my guard around some of these people tonight.
“Hey, Tate! Come here, girl.” Jess Cullen grabbed me in a hug before I reached the bar. “We’re going to miss you, ya know. France, huh? For a whole year?” My shoulders relaxed as I hugged Jess back, my muscles less tense than when I walked in. At least one other person here besides K.C. was excited to see me.
“That’s the plan.” I nodded, letting out a sigh. “I’m set up with a host family and already registered for classes. I’ll be back for senior year, though. Will you save me a spot on the team?”
Jess was vying for captain of the cross-country team this fall, and competing was one experience in high school that I would miss.
“If I’m captain, honey, your spot is secure,” she boasted animatedly, clearly drunk. Jess had always been nice to me despite the rumors that followed me year to year and the embarrassing pranks that reminded everyone why I was a joke.
“Thanks. I’ll see you later?” I inched towards K.C.
“Yeah, but if I don’t see you, good luck in France,” Jess shouted as she danced her way out of the kitchen.
Watching her leave, my face quickly fell. Dread crawled its way through my chest and down to my stomach.
No, no, no….
Jared walked into the kitchen, and I froze. He was exactly the person I’d hoped not to see tonight. His eyes met mine with surprise followed by immediate displeasure.
Yep. I’m totally familiar with that look. The I-can’t-stand-the-fucking-sight-of-you-so-get-off-my-planet look.
His jaw clenched, and I noticed how his chin lifted slightly as if he had just put on his “bully” mask. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath.
The familiar pounding in my chest echoed in my ears, and a hundred miles away sounded like a really nice place to be right now.
Was it too much to ask that I had one night of normal teenage fun to myself?
There were so many times when we were kids, growing up next door to each other, that I thought Jared was the greatest. He was sweet, generous, and friendly. And the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen.
His rich, brown hair still complimented his olive skin, and his stunning smile—when he smiled—demanded undivided attention. Girls were too busy watching him in the hallway at school that they ran into walls. Like actually ran into walls.
But that kid was long gone now.
Quickly turning away, I found K.C. at the bar and tried to fix myself a drink, despite my shaking hands. Actually, I just poured a Sprite, but the red cup would look like I was drinking. Now that I knew he was here, I needed to stay sober around the ass**le.
He walked around to the bar and stood right behind me. A nervous heat ran through my body at his proximity. The muscles in his chest rubbed against the thin fabric of my tank top, and a shockwave burst from my chest to my stomach. Calm down. Calm the hell down!
Scooping up some ice and adding it to my drink, I forced my breathing in and out slowly. I maneuvered to the right to get out of his way, but his arm shot out to grab a cup and blocked my passage. As I tried to squeeze out to the left next to K.C., his other arm reached out to grab the Jack Daniels.
Ten different scenarios ran through my head of what I should do right now. What if I elbowed him in the gut? What if I threw my drink in his face? What if I took the sink hose and …?
Oh, never mind. In my dreams, I was much braver. In my dreams, I might take an ice cube and do things God didn’t intend a sixteen year old girl to do just to see if I could make his cool demeanor falter. What if? What if?
I had planned on keeping my distance from him tonight, and now he was positioned right at my back. Jared did things like this just to intimidate me. He wasn’t scary, but he was cruel. He wanted me to know he was in control. Time after time, I let the jerk force me into hiding just so I wouldn’t have to endure any embarrassment or upset. Enjoying at least one party had been my top priority all summer, and now here I was again, dreadful anticipation twisting me into knots. Why didn’t he just leave me alone?
Turning around to face him, I noticed the corners of his mouth turned up. The smile was lost on his eyes, though, as he poured a hefty serving of alcohol into his cup.
“K.C.? Pour some Coke into here, please.” Jared spoke to K.C. but his eyes were on me as he held up his cup for her.
“Um, yeah,” K.C. stammered, finally looking up. She poured a small portion of the liquid for Jared and glanced nervously to me.
As usual, Jared never spoke to me unless it was to bite out a threat. His dark brow knitted before taking a swig of his drink and walking away.
Watching him leave the kitchen, I wiped away the cold sweat that broke out across my forehead. Nothing had happened, and he hadn’t even said anything to me, but my stomach had hollowed all the same.
And now he knew that I was here tonight.
“I can’t do this, K.C.” My weary whisper was a contradiction to the force with which I clenched my cup. It was a mistake to come tonight.
“Tate, no.” K.C. shook her head, probably recognizing the look of surrender in my eyes. Tossing the cup into the sink and making my way out of the kitchen, I weaved through the throng of people as K.C. followed behind.
Grabbing the glass fishbowl, I began digging around for my keys.
“Tate, you are not leaving,” K.C. ordered, every word dripped with disappointment. “Don’t let him win. I’m here. Liam’s here. You don’t have to be afraid.” She was bracing me by my upper arms while I continued my search.
“I’m not scared of him,” I said defensively, not really believing it myself. “I’m just…done. You saw him in there. He was already messing with me. He’s planning something. Every party we go to, or every time I relax at school, there’s some prank or embarrassment to ruin it.”
Still searching for my colorful DNA-shaped key chain, I relaxed the knit in my brow and offered a tight smile. “It’s okay. I’m fine,” I reassured her, my words coming out too quickly. “I just don’t care to stay and see what he’s cooked up this time. The dickhead can starve tonight.”
“Tate, he wants you to leave. If you do, then he wins. He, or that jackass Madoc, might come up with something, but if you stay and stand your ground, then you will win.”
“I’m just worn out, K.C. I’d rather go home mad now than in tears later.” I returned my attention to the bowl. Every time I sifted through a pile of keys though, my hands would bring up nothing resembling my set.
“Well,” I shouted over the music and slammed the bowl back down on the stand, “it looks like I can’t leave anyway. My keys aren’t in there.”
“What?” K.C. looked confused.
“They’re not in there!” I repeated, looking around the room. My money and my phone were in my bag. Two lifelines safe and sound. My other escape plan was missing, and the walls felt like they were caving in. Curses ran through my head, and the weariness that got me running before turned to anger. I clenched my fists. Of course, I should’ve known this was going to happen.
“Someone could’ve grabbed them by accident, I guess,” she offered, but she must’ve known that the odds of that happening were slimmer than people leaving the party this early. Accidents didn’t happen to me.