"Why the hell are we here, Cal?" Rae asks as she hands me a beer.
"I didn't like these people when we were in high school. And I still don't. Nothing's changed." But something has changed.
I sit on the tailgate of my truck, taking a few gulps, and casually scan the crowd, clustered in the predictable groups they were in when we graduated last year: the athletes, the dramatics, the tokers and, of course, the elites.
They're why I'm here. Sort of. "I'm giving this one hour, and then we're out of here," Rae declares, taking a sip of her beer.
She slowly lowers her cup, staring across the field.
"Holy shit. Is Heather Townsend walking over here?" I look up just as Heather appears in front of me, twisting a strand of blond hair around her finger.
"Hi, Cal. I'm glad you showed up," she says, wearing a flirtatious smile.
"Hey," I respond.
She takes a step closer, moving between my dangling legs.
"Partying in the woods is so… high school." She exhales dramatically.
"I mean, you'd think we would've grown up a little since we left for college."
"Yeah, but we still have parents who won't willingly let us drink and trash their houses," I note.
She laughs like I said the funniest thing she's ever heard. Rae groans.
"You've got to be kidding me." Heather leans in so I can feel her breath on my mouth, "I think we're going to have a fun summer together." I swallow, unable to back away any farther without lying down.
"I'm only here for the week," I tell her.
Her lower lip juts out in a sulk. Not attractive. "Where are you going?" she asks, setting a hand on my knee.
My entire body tenses.
"Oregon. I'm working for my uncle for the summer."
"But you just got here, like… today." I hear Rae grumble something under her breath.
"Sorry," I say with a shrug.
"So, umm. Where is everyone? I don't see Nicole with you guys." Heather steps back with a roll of her eyes, crossing her arms. I've struck a nerve.
"I don't know. I guess she thinks she's better than us now that she's at Harvard." I pry a little more.
"Have you heard from her since graduation?" I can feel Rae staring at me. "Not even a stupid text. I mean, we were her best friends for like… ever. And nothing. Bitch." My eyes widen at her hostility.
"Heather." Vi is standing behind her with her hands on her hips.
"The party's over here." She nods toward the other elites, all clustered around Kyle's BMW.
"I'll be right there," Heather responds to Vi; then she looks back to me.
"Maybe we can do something before you go."
"Maybe," I reply, knowing we won't.
Heather turns and walks with Vi back to where she belongs. I slide off the truck and watch them walk away, back to the crowd that never gave us a second glance before today. I'm forcefully bumped forward by a shoulder and end up spilling beer on my pants.
"Not for you to look at," Neil Talbert threatens from behind me. I close my eyes and take a breath to restrain myself, wanting so badly to turn around and punch him in the face. My fist clenches with just the thought of it.
"You're such a dick," Rae snaps when I finally face him. I look past Neil-who's trying to make himself look bigger, flexing his arms at his sides-to Rae and give her a quick shake of my head.
"Still having girls fight for you," Neil scoffs.
"You really haven't changed, no matter what you look like." I don't say anything.
There's no point. He's as much of an ass as he was in high school, and nothing I say will make a difference.
"Neil!" yells some guy from a distance.
"Where the hell have you been? We've been waiting for the Beam for like an hour. Get over here." The tension in my shoulders eases when he starts walking toward his brother's BMW.
"Cal, I don't know why you still let him treat you like that. Hell, you're bigger than he is now. You know you could take him," she says, still glowering over my shoulder.
"He's not worth it." I lift myself back up onto the tailgate. "And what the hell was that about with Heather Townsend? Seriously? Sure, you grew three inches, ditched the glasses for contacts and somehow put on muscle I didn't know your scrawny body could handle, but you don't look that different. You're still you."
"Thanks for keeping my ego in check, Rae. I appreciate it." She continues, ignoring me.
"And Nicole Bentley? Really, Cal? I thought you gave up on her years ago."
"But don't you think it's weird she didn't come back this summer?" Something felt off when I didn't see her walking alongside the girls earlier today. And it still does. She's the reason I'm here.
I look over as Ashley straddles Kyle, kissing him like she's marking her territory. Kyle was Nicole's boyfriend throughout most of high school. And Ashley, Heather and Vi were supposed to be her best friends. I was never convinced she belonged with them, even if she was at the top of their hierarchy. She always seemed uncomfortable with the attention.
Or maybe I was the only one who thought that. I stopped trying to defend Nicole's ice queen reputation a long time ago because it pisses Rae off.
"Why do you care?" Rae questions.
"We haven't been friends with her since Richelle moved away in eighth grade. Nicole chose them, remember?" There's a bite in Rae's tone.
I know it's to cover up the hurt that she still feels from losing two of our closest friends in one summer. We don't talk about it. But we never do.
I've known Rae my entire life, so I know her, even when she doesn't say anything
. The four of us grew up together in the same small-town California neighborhood. Rae lives next door, although she's pretty much an extension of my family at this point.
Nicole and Richelle were neighbors a few houses down the street.
When we were kids, we were inseparable. But things changed as we got older. Richelle moved away. We stayed in touch for a while. And then we didn't. Nicole chose popularity over our friendship soon after.
Rae never got over Nicole's betrayal. And I never got over Nicole. I will never admit this to Rae, or to anyone else for that matter, but I miss them.
I know I can't do anything about it now. It's been too long. I look to Rae.
"Isn't it strange that the most popular girl in school hasn't been heard from in over a year and no one seems to care?"
"Besides you?" Rae counters with a scoff.
"Get over her, Cal. She became the queen elite bitch, and now Ashley has taken over her reign. They don't care about her. They never did. I don't know why you do."
"It's like she just… disappeared," I say quietly, staring unfocused at the ground.
Within the recesses of a faded memory, I can hear Nicole screaming. It was the last thing I heard before no one saw her again. "You can't make it go away by pretending nothing happened."
"You understand, right?" Carly says, "I feel really bad breaking it off at a party, but I didn't think it was fair to wait and do it later, when we're drunk." She crosses her arms over her chest, accentuating what little her genie costume is covering up.
"Yeah," I respond, with a nod-too shocked to say anything else.
I eye the cowboy I'd found her talking to, standing a safe distance away with two red cups in his hands.
I can only assume he's the reason she wants to talk now instead of later. It's not like we're that serious. I mean, it's been only three weeks. Carly pulls me down by the brim of my baseball hat and kisses me on the cheek before vanishing into the artificial fog of the Halloween party. I look down at the two cups I'm carrying and shake my head.
Draining one of the beers, I make my way out of the house through the back door.
There's no way I want to stick around now.
As I round the corner, I find a couple pinned up against the side of the house, reminding me of what I won't be doing tonight.
Not what I need right now.
But as I get closer, I realize they're not hooking up; they're arguing… or more like she's telling him off.
"You don't get to touch me," seethes the girl dressed head to toe in black.
I don't realize she's wearing a ninja costume at first, since she practically blends in with the shadows of the house.
Then I see what looks like a blade reflecting in her hand.
"This ass is not yours to touch, and if you so much as look at it, I'm going to shred your balls. Got it?" The guy in scrubs nods, his eyes flicker between her glare and the sai held under his chin.
The weapon looks legit.
And she looks pissed enough to use it. I wouldn't be able to speak either if I were in his position. I take a sip of my beer, anticipating what she'll do next. But she just walks away. I'm disappointed.
I expected her to at least knee him or something.
"Fucking psycho," the surgeon spits out-but not loud enough for her to hear him.
I think he prefers to protect his balls.
He elects to use the back entrance, staying clear of the ninja.
I gulp down the rest of the beer, toss the cup on the lawn, and follow after her-curious to see where she's heading.
I locate her striding toward the sidewalk and continue in the same direction.
"Nyelle!" a girl yells, rushing from the front door.
"Nyelle, where are you going?" Strawberry Shortcake almost runs into me, chasing after her friend.
She looks up, and her eyes widen in surprise.
"Oh. Hi, Cal!" She smiles, her painted cheeks blossoming.
It takes me a moment to recognize her.
"Tess! How are you?"
"Um." She glances to the sidewalk where Nyelle has stopped.
"I'm okay, but I think I have to go." She starts toward her friend and says as she walks, "It was great to see you. We should-"
"You two need a ride?" I ask, glancing between her and the spitfire with her hands on her hips.
"No!" My eyes bounce between the two girls, not sure which answer to go with.
"Come on, Nyelle. It's cold. Let him give us a ride."
"I need to walk." Nyelle turns and continues down the sidewalk.
I look at Tess, questioning.
She sighs and rushes after her.
I can't help it-I'm intrigued and have to follow.
"Fucking stupid boys," the ninja grumbles beneath the mask, focused on her steps.
"She's having a bad night," Tess tries to explain.
I examine the girl in black more carefully.
Her face is hidden, with only a slit revealing her eyes.
The black robe and pants aren't tight, but they don't hide the fact that there's a girl beneath them either.
Let's just say this girl would make a trash bag sexy.
Add the mystique of not knowing what she looks like, and I'm suddenly aware of the turn-on.
Dumbass should have kept his hands to himself.
"How are your classes this semester? Have you decided on a major yet?" Tess asks, her attention set on me.
I redirect my focus away from the fuming ninja, who continues to ramble in expletives.
I'm beginning to think she might go back to the party and give the surgeon a need for an operation.