Chapter 2 – Pants on Fire

Cold air slaps Stevie’s face as she exits the school, cooling cheeks still warm from the unexpected encounter. Her best friend strides confidently in front of her, blonde hair blowing perfectly in the wind. The elements seeming to bend to Chelsea’s will. Just like everybody does. Just like she does. Arms wrap around Stevie’s shoulders, startling her. Roughness catches her hair, pulling it gently.

“Hey baby.” Her boyfriend’s voice is deep, affectionate.

“Hey, Kevin.” Stevie turns, her lips meeting his.

“You’re warm.” His hand touches her cheek.

“Got into a tiff with the nerd herd.” Stevie slips her hand comfortably into his, distracting him from the heat he isn’t responsible for. “I got a bit fired up.”

“Do I need to go knock some heads in?”

“I can take care of myself around a bunch of hair dyed freaks.” Stevie smiles and pats his cheek. “But, you can help me knock back a couple cans of cider.”

“Chels?” Kevin calls forward. “What’s the plan? My girl needs to get her drink on.”

“Brandon’s parents are out of town. You’re driving with us.” Chelsea calls over her shoulder, her car beeping as they cross the parking lot.  Kevin opens the door and lets Stevie climb into the backseat. Kevin retreats from the car when Brandon calls his name. Stevie pulls her phone from her pocket, keeping an eye on the door, and quickly types a message.  “Hope your head’s okay <3” Send. A few key strokes and the phone switches to vibrate. Stevie cups it in her left hand, out of sight, against her leg.

“Are you guys getting in or what?” She calls “I’m both bored and cold.” Kevin slides into the backseat beside her. His hand immediately finds her thigh, kneading it gently.

The phone in Stevie’s hand vibrates as Chelsea pulls the passenger door shut, extinguishing the overhead light. Stevie clutches the phone, anxious to check the message.

“Where’s your head tonight, hon.” Kevin pulls her close.

“Just got a lot on my mind. Exams and crap.” She responds, leaning into his embrace, but keeping her back stiff. Her mind keenly aware of the small device cradled in her fingers, she taps the edge of the phone silently.

Melancholy settles over her. Thick against her skin. Itchy. But slightly comforting.  Her desire to check her message makes her muscles tremble. Unable to resist any longer, she slides the phone back into her purse. Out of sight, out of mind. Her hands wrap around Kevin’s neck. She twists her body. Contorting into him, she finds his mouth, distracting herself in the most familiar way possible. Easy. Comfortable. Boring.

“Jesus, you two. Not on the leather.” Brandon adjusts the rearview mirror, eyes lingering on the riding hem of Stevie’s skirt.

“Jesus, Brandon. Watch the road.” Chelsea grabs the wheel. “If you fuck up my car, I swear …”

“Shit. Sorry.” He moves his hand on top of his girlfriend’s. Brushing him off, Chelsea turns her attention back to her phone.

“Mike and Darren are hitting up the liquor store. They’ll be here in like half an hour.” As the car pulls to a stop, Stevie removes herself from Kevin’s lap, adjusts her skirt, making herself the image of presentability.

Once inside, she slips into the bathroom, perching on the edge of the tub her legs vibrate with anticipation. Phone in hand. Thumb sliding against the cool casing. A deep inhale. One new message. From Jennifer. Her code name. A few touches and the message opens: “Tonight? Usual place? My head needs to be kissed better.”

Stevie tries typing a response, but her fingers are shaking too badly. Canceling the message, she hits the call button instead.

“Hello?” Quinn’s voice answers through a laugh.

“Can you talk?” Her own voice is low but strong.

“Hang on.” Wind whistles through the receiver. “I’ll be back in a minute, Els. It’s my cousin.” The sound of boots against gravel travels through the phone. “Hey, baby.”

“Quinn.” Breath falls from her lungs in joyful deflation. “They buy it?”

“Did they ever! Ellie kinda wants to kick your ass. I may have redirected her hatred back to Chelsea.”

Stevie exhales a long sigh of frustration.

“I know. I know. She’s your best friend. But it’s the better option.” Quinn’s voice is full of frustration. Stevie can picture Quinn’s nose doing that cute crinkle thing it does. She bites away the smile spreading across her face. “The thought of Ellie hurting you… I had to do something.”

“I’m not worried.” Stevie twists a strand of hair absentmindedly. “And I didn’t call to talk about my bitchy best friend. How’s your head?”

“It hurts, but it’s getting better.” Quinn replies, “If someone was around to baby me, I bet that would speed up the process.”

“Maybe if you were five,” Stevie laughs “But I can think of a couple grown up ways to distract you from the pain.”

“I need to see you. Tonight. Can we…?” Desire transmits silently across the airwaves.

“Give me a couple hours. I have to put on the show.” Stevie picks at her fingernails.

“Same here. Let me know when you’re leaving.” Quinn replies.

“I’ll get out as soon as I can.” A knock sounds at the door. “Gotta go.” Stevie end the call and presses the phone to her lips. The knocking sounds again.

“Stevie, what the hell are you doing in there?” Chelsea’s voice calls through the door.

“Crocheting. What the hell do you think?” she mocks. She flushes the toilet and turns on the taps for effect before pulling open the door. “Beer me, lady.” Throwing her arm around her best friend’s shoulders, they dissolve into the growing throng of shining teenage popularity.

“Brianne, toss me a drink.” Stevie calls from her position on the porch a couple hours later.

“Get your own.” The brunette rests her feet on cooler. “You’re not the boss of me.”

“There’s like two feet away from you. Literally.” She sighs.

“Lazy ass.” Brianne laughs, but reaches into the cooler and tosses a can across the opening between them.

“Thanks. I’ve reach the I think I’m too drunk to get out of my chair point of the night.” Stevie lies, cracking open the can of cider.

“”I hit that a while okay.” Brianne chuckles, wiping a hand lazily across her forehead. “Hence the not moving thing. And Chelsea told me to save her seat.”

“You don’t have to do everything she tells you, Brianne.” Stevie rolls her eyes.

“It’s just a seat, Stevie. Don’t lose your shit.” Brianne waves to someone across the room and tilts her head to stare. “What are they doing here?

Stevie glances over her shoulder to see a couple tenth graders huddling nervously in the corner of the kitchen. “Just leave it alone, Bree. They’re just trying to have a good time.”

“They don’t belong.” Brianne pushes herself out of her chair. The expression on her faces is one Stevie knows well. It’s time to get the hell out of dodge.  Before her friend can start tormenting the unwanted guests, Stevie goes looking for Kevin. She hasn’t seen him for over half an hour. If she leaves the party without saying goodbye, there will be a fight tomorrow. Feigning drunkenness, she slides along the walls, peering into rooms. As her fingers find a closed door, the knob twists beneath her palm and the door slides open. Chelsea’s slender frame slips out of the darkness.

“Stevie!” Chelsea becomes dead weight as she throws her arms around Stevie’s neck. “You are my bestest friend. You know that, right?” The reek of rum and fruit fills Stevie’s nostrils. Grimacing, she shifts Chelsea’s weight.

“I love you, too, Chels.” Stevie giggles, leading Chelsea down the hall to find someone, anyone, to take the drunk off her hands. “Have you seen Kevin?”

“A while ago, but he was totally passed out. You guys can crash here tonight.” Grabbing a random beer from a side table, Chelsea’s presses it against her lips. A long swig ends in instant gagging.

“What? What’s wrong?” Stevie pounds Chelsea’s back.

“Cigarette butt.” Spitting on the hardwood, Chelsea’s hand flies to her mouth as her cheeks puff. Blond hair flies behind her as she disappears through the bathroom door. Stevie takes the opening, grabs her purse, and slips out the front door. The text message takes seconds to type “on my way.”

****                 *****               *****

“How’s your cousin?”  Ellie asks around the sucker still jammed in her mouth.

“Twelve.” Quinn tips a bottle to her lips, blocking the expression on her face.

Ellie chuckles, dragging the tips of her shoes through the sand below her feet as her seat swings slowly back and forth. Dropping onto the thin strip of galvanized rubber beside her friend, Quinn slumps against the chains.

“What’s up with you? You’ve been off all night.” Ellie tosses her empty bottle onto the grass beside the swing set.

“Garbage, dude. Use the garbage.” Quinn sighs and starts to stand.

“Cool your hippie genes. I’ll put it in there later.” Ellie grabs her wrists and holds her down “Now stop trying to change the subject. The last time you were like this was when you liked Ge… Hey! You’re totally into someone, aren’t you?”

“No.” Quinn’s eyes flicker to the slide. The jungle gym. The equipment shed. Anywhere but the gaze of her oldest friend. The girl who can always tell when she’s lying.

“Liar!” Ellie’s fist shoots out, punching Quinn’s arm. “Tell me who it is! Tell me now!”

“I do not respond to crazy talk.”

“Come on, Quinny. You know you’re going to tell me eventually.”

“It’s nothing.” Quinn shoots a sideways glance at her friend. Big green eyes stare back at her. Quinn breaks into a giant smile. “Damn you and your stupid sad eyes. You guilt me into telling you so many things!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Ellie bats her eyes innocently.

“You just know me too well.” Quinn laughs and pulls her half eaten sucker from her pocket. She tries to come up with something to say while she peels it from its wrapper. “It’s just someone…unexpected.”

“Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.” Ellie begs, bouncing on her swing.

Quinn’s gaze flits around the playground desperate for something to throw Ellie off the scent.

“Oh my god, I know who it is!” Ellie interrupts her thoughts, grabbing the chains of Quinn’s swing and pulling their faces close. Her voice lowers. “It’s Terry, isn’t it? You know he’s totally into you, right?” Her eyes shoot to the picnic table a few feet away, where the boys try to outdo each other in one of their almost ritualistic beer cap flicking contests.

Quinn follows her gaze. Terry sits at the end of the table, one leg swinging over the edge. Dark fitted jeans. Black military style shirt. Perfectly roughed up jean jacket. Dark blond hair. A jaw that makes even the popular girls swoon. He’s everything she’s supposed to want. The corner of her lip slips between her teeth, hiding a growing smirk. Ellie takes it to mean exactly what Quinn wants her to.

“It is Terry! Good taste, bitch.” The heavy black sole of her boot lightly taps against Quinn’s swinging leg. “I’ll set it up.” Before Quinn’s lips can part to protest, Ellie is skipping towards her boyfriend. Sighing, Quinn follows. If she has to pretend, Terry’s not a terrible choice.

Half an hour later, they’re lounging on the dome of monkey bars behind the school. The elementary school’s gym is better than any of the non-athletic high school facilities. Quinn looks toward their wing of the school, thinking about the broken chair and ancient sewing machine in a room at the back of the school, out of the path of potential parents. Irrational drunken anger sends her arm into motion, chucking her almost empty bottle at the pristine brick wall.

“Bad wall. You stay over there.” Terry laughs as he climbs back up the bars, a new bottle in his fingers.

“Shit! Did I hit you?” Quinn leans forward “If I’d known you were lurking, I would have aimed somewhere else.”

“Yes. I was doing all the lurking. Down there, by the box containing all the beer. Meer moments after being over there doing all the drinking. Report me to the police, ma’am. I am a dirty, dirty lurker.” He jokingly holds up his hands.

“Bah, you just wanted an excuse to come sit beside me.” Quinn laughs, leaning back against the bars. “And you didn’t even bring me a beer. I’m obviously empty.” She gestures towards the shards now littering the basketball court. Guilt twists in her stomach. She’s probably going to end up picking that up before the end of the night.

“I didn’t, did I?” He raises an eyebrow and pulls a dripping bottle from his pocket.

“Such a gentleman.”

“Only when I want something in return.”

“Son, it’s going to take more than a cheap beer I don’t even like.” She jokingly smacks his arm. “Besides, what would your dad think?”

“God. Only you would threaten to tell my dad.”

“Well, I do get to see him every Sunday. That’s more than I see pretty much anyone else’s parents. It’s almost more than I get to see my own mom.”

“If I open this thing for you, think you might reconsider telling my dad?” He wiggles the bottle just out of her reach.

“If you can do it without using your sleeve, I might think about it.” Quinn’s smile spreads across her face. Terry pushes his sleeves up showily, flexes his fingers, and twists the bottle cap against his palm. Nothing happens.

“Uh oh.” Quinn pulls her phone from her pocket. “I might actually have your dad’s number in here.”

“Hang on. Hang on.” He wiggles his fingers again. “One more try.” He scrunches up his face and twists. She can see the flicker of pain as the sharp teeth of the cap bite into his skin but it passes quickly. The telltale spritz of the cap releasing sounds and Terry grins. “Told you I could do it.” He hands her the bottle.

“You’re a muscle man. That’s what you are.” Quinn chuckles, leaning forward to plant a kiss on his cheek.

“You guys want to go up on the roof?” Ellie calls from the other side of the money bars where she, Jason, and Geoff are sitting. “These guys keep talking about some stupid racing game. I have reached my pretending to care threshold.”

“There’s no way up.” Terry replies. “They pulled down the ladder over the summer.”

“I figured out a way a couple weeks ago.” Ellie leads them around the side of the school. Beer bottles clink in the case hanging from Jason’s arm. Stopping beside a crevice where the new wing of the elementary school meets the high school, she points towards the roof. “Here we go.”

“Awe,” Geoff pats her on the head condescendingly, “Adorable. That’s a wall, Ellie-poo. Did you miss that day in kindergarten?”

Her eyes turn to Geoff in a slow, languid roll. “Give me a few of those beers.” Holding her hands out, she jams a couple bottles in her pockets. Her feet plant on either side of the space, boots gripping bricks. She shimmies up the opening and in seconds, looks down at them from above. “See. It’s easy. And don’t call me Ellie-poo!”

Stowing bottles into pockets, each of them follows her up. Quinn has little trouble. The boys are a different story. Leaning over the edge to watch Terry try to squeeze his frame into the crawl space, Quinn chuckles. Still giggling, she watches his body spill gracelessly onto the tar roofing.

“What are you laughing at?” Crawling towards her, he pants from the exertion.

“I think maybe, you boys might want to change a day of racing pixilated cars to maybe gym day…”

“Yes. You and Ellie. You’re hitting up the no gym we have in this town every other day, right? It’s got nothing to do with those boots you’re wearing, eh?”

“I like these boots.” She sticks her tongue out at him.

“So do I.” He wiggles his eyebrows. “I’d like them better if they were off.”

“Hey. Hey. None of that.” Quinn chucks him in the side with her shoulder. He uses the opportunity to swing his arm around her and pull her against him.

Quinn lets him leave it there and holds out a new bottle of beer. “You going to be my knight in sensitive skin, again?” If she has to pretend, it could be worse. He smiles and removes his arm to open the lid.

A couple hours later, a found Frisbee flies across the roof. “It’s mine!” Ellie jumps in front of Quinn. They’ve been tossing the thing closer and closer to the edge as they play. Seeing how close they can get without losing the Frisbee.

Suddenly, lights flash across the roof. “Hey! What are you kids doing up here?” Two security guards start running towards them, their flashlights bobbing crazily. Ellie is the first over the edge, sliding down the opening with practiced ease. One by one, the others follow suit, coming precariously close to one another.

The skin on Quinn’s hands rips against the jagged brick. The rough tread of her boots more hindrance than help this trip. Footsteps pound in all directions. Glancing over her shoulder, Quinn uses their distraction to slip away. Running as fast as she can. Across the road. Through the opening in the fence. Red broken shale crunches beneath her feet as she skids into the dugout.

Throwing herself onto the bench. Back against the wall. Breathing fast. She pulls her phone from her pocket. Wincing as the cold plastic presses into her torn skin, the message light flashes at the top. It’s from Stevie: “on my way.” Quinn checks the time stamp. Ten minutes earlier.

“be there in 30” She types back. Suddenly relaxed, Quinn takes a deep breath and pushes herself off the bench.

Chapter 3

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