Late on the Friday afternoon, Luke was sitting at his desk with the birthday card, wondering what to write. All in all, he was in a good mood, and for the most part the week had gone well, bar that one incident with Ryan on the Monday. It had been a busy week and he'd surprised himself by the number of times he quite forgotten that he was even wearing his SmartKlamp. Before he knew it, it was Friday, and he was in the clear.
Just Stacey's party to get through.
He'd considered bombing out of it, but then there was Owen and his promise to accompany the Welsh teen. If he didn’t go, Owen certainly wouldn’t.
Despite the fact that it was Stacey’s birthday, he hadn't really thought about giving her a card let alone a present, which is why the rather cringe-worthy offering his mum had got—just in case, she said—was lying in front of him. It was a gift card. She was probably right—a voucher was a lot easier than buying a present for someone that he hardly knew!
On the other hand, buying a girl ANY gift gave dodgy signals.
He picked up the card again and frowned. Either way, he couldn’t get out of signing it, and there had to be something better than just ‘from Luke’!
“Mum?” From where he was sitting, still hoping for inspiration some minutes later, he called through his open door. Pen in hand, he’d just realized that he had no idea who Stacey was, other than she was called…Stacey.
Stacey what, for God’s sake?
She was turning sixteen—as the card reminded him—which put her a couple of months younger than him. Stupidly, he felt like some pervy cradle-snatcher! From downstairs there was no answer, so he hauled himself upright and put his head out into the hallway.
”MUM!” He shouted this time.
“Yes?” A voice floated up from the lounge.
“What’s her name?”
“Whose name, sweetheart?”
“You could try ‘Stacey’?” From the same place, his dad’s pathetic suggestion drifted up. Luke rolled his eyes, refusing to be drawn.
"You know what I mean...her family name…!”
From where she was probably catching the early news, his mum upped the volume. “Her family name—I’m sure it’s Wyeman." She spelled it out letter by letter. “I think her mum works at Creek Kindergarten.”
"Okay—thanks." He returned to his desk. Wyeman. Stacey Wyeman. Stacey Summers.
Oh for God’s sake, get a grip! That was the LAST thing he needed! He shook his head to dislodge the stupid thought from his over-active brain, and played with the envelope as it lay in front of him. They would be leaving for Stacey’s party around seven, picking up Owen on the way. If he'd been by himself, he would have driven, but with Owen in the car, he couldn't. His mum would take and pickup.
He wondered if there would be food there, but she was making a bite to eat for him, anyway—a good job, too, as his stomach was already rumbling. Checking his watch, there was still plenty of time, so pushing the card to one side, he turned on his MacBook and logged into his Facebook account.
He was pleased to see Damon online at last. He’d not been around all week, and Luke realized he'd missed him and was beginning to depend on the freedom to talk that the distant New Yorker offered. And he had news. Damon didn't know that they now had several things in common.
[LUKE] "It's me!" Luke typed as introduction. Only moments later, the ready reply popped up.
[DAMONJ] "Oh—hi! It's me, too!"
Idiot! Smiling to himself, Luke didn't waste any time getting to the point.
[LUKE] "It's done!"
[LUKE] "Begins with C! Three guesses!"
[DAMONJ] "Mmmmm......you've just finished cooking—or you've been forced into child labor?"
His side of the screen, Luke cracked a wry grin.
[LUKE] "Okay, okay—let's not do all that again! I just wanted you to know that I had my circumcision op a few days back."
[DAMONJ] "Really? Hey congratulations dude—welcome to the club!"
Luke pulled a satisfied smirk. That nailed it exactly—the club—the same as everyone else.
[DAMONJ] "So, how did it go? Not too painful I hope? No details, by the way—I'm a squeamish with the whole blood thing, let alone the idea of someone hacking at my nads with a scalpel!"
[LUKE] "Sorry to disappoint, but not like that at all. It was done with something called a SmartKlamp. No blood…no stitches, even!" True if you didn't count the frenulum.
There was a pause.
[DAMONJ] "Damn—that looks freaking weird!"
[DAMONJ] "I just searched for it online—SmartKlamp. You've got one of those?"
[DAMONJ] "I've never heard of such a thing before..." There was a pause and then, "It says here it stays on 5-7 days, and then it gets taken off."
[LUKE] "Really? My doc said it had to be 10 days. I wonder why...can you paste me the link?" It surprised him how quickly Damon had tracked all that down.
[DAMONJ] "Age maybe? It says something about only being for children? Hang on—just pasting it."
[LUKE] "Ha, ha. Funny boy!"
[DAMONJ] "Here ya go…
The pasted link popped up along with...
[DAMONJ] "Then it says here that it just gets cut off and it's done. Yeewww! I trust they mean just the plastic thing—hehe!"
Luke sniggered and joked along.
[LUKE] "Crap—you don’t think they’re going to slice off my junk do you?"
[DAMONJ] "I heard they sell wangers on the black market to Chinese herbalists who grind them down to make an aphrodisiac powder!"
[LUKE] "I believe that's rhino horn..."
[DAMONJ] "OMG is it? Sorry—my bad! I'd better get my money back!"
Luke smirked to himself at the exchange as he looked over the website page—one he'd not seen before. Other than the timing of the SmartKlamp removal, it was pretty much what he already knew. As Damon had said, the site did seem to all about quite-young kids.
He shrugged. He had total confidence that Tiberius knew what he was doing, and as long as it worked, he would put up with it a few extra days. And after today, that was just three more!
[DAMONJ] "Oh—there's some warnings on here about dangers and high failure rates..."
[LUKE] "Where?" Luke pursed his lips, trying to recall reading anything like that himself. He searched the page. Where was it?
[DAMONJ] "Down at the bottom—on the home page."
Frowning, Luke scrolled down.
[LUKE] "Where? I don't see it?"
[DAMONJ] "Hehe - got ya!'"
[LUKE] "God—you skunk! That was mean!"
[DAMONJ] "Sorry…hehe. You gotta admit, I really had ya there!"
[LUKE] "I'm admitting nothing! Well okay—just a bit." He tapped at the keyboard, relieved it was only a wind up!
[LUKE] "Anyway, that's pretty much what he said. It's being taken off on Tuesday. Trust me, it can't come soon enough!"
[DAMONJ] "Bit obvious though, isn't it? I mean it’s not small!"
[LUKE] "Nah, it’s not so big really—it hardly shows."
[DAMONJ] “Actually, I meant the SmartKlamp..."
Luke burst out laughing, and his mum put her head in the door and stared at him as though he’d lost the plot. “Is everything okay sweetheart?” she asked.
“I’m fine. Just talking to a friend on Facebook.”
"Oh—that's nice," she said, though he knew she had little idea of what he actually meant. She wasn’t much into computers, let alone social networking. “Just to let you know, tea’s ready in a few minutes…. and don’t forget to sign the card.”
Still grinning, he nodded obediently. "Yep, I'll be straight down." She pulled the door too, leaving him to go back to his screen and to Damon.
The guy was a subtle tease; these light but risqué innuendos, a game. One that Luke quite enjoyed playing! He wished he had more time that evening because he was realizing more and more that Damon was someone that he could talk to, someone who might even be able to offer him advice. The problem was, the things he really wanted to talk about needed time, and he didn’t have much of that right then.
[LUKE] “I refuse to speculate about size!” he finally typed.
[LUKE] "Okay—for the record—we’re talking about the SmartKlamp, and I arranged to stay off sports this last week, so actually nobody knows anything about it." This wasn't strictly true. Ryan was one person who knew he’d had the procedure done, but he didn't particularly count.
[DAMONJ] "You pretended you’d pulled a muscle or something?"
[LUKE] "Yep, something like that." Actually that was quite astute, he had been suggesting something like that to those who had asked. The opt-out note his mum had written hadn’t said that, but even what it did say he’d made sure remained carefully obscure.
[DAMONJ] "You're still quite funny about all this, aren't you?"
[LUKE] "In what way?"
[DAMONJ] "You're talking about it to me, but not your close friends."
Maybe he should have known, even then. A part of him wanted to deepen the conversation and be honest about something else, too.
If only it were that easy...and if only he had more time.
[LUKE] "Maybe... Don’t get me wrong, but some things are just easier with someone you'll never meet!"
Damon appeared happy to let it drop.
[DAMONJ] "So—you got a busy weekend?”
[LUKE] “Kind of—am out to a party tonight.”
[DAMONJ] “Cool! What’s the occasion?”
[LUKE] “16th birthday—a girl I know.”
[DAMONJ] “Nice—so what's her name?”
[LUKE] “Stacey—and yeah, she's alright.” He left it there, uncomfortable about getting into the rest.
They chatted a while longer before his mum shouted up the stairs, reminding him to move it. He wrapped up with Damon and logged off. Lacking further inspiration, he signed the card ‘from Luke’ and stuffed it in the envelope before going downstairs.
At a quarter past seven, he knocked on the Kears’ front door.
Theoretically, the party started at seven-thirty, but he couldn’t get it into his mum's head to think that it might be just as okay for them to turn up fashionably late. A stickler for punctuality, she'd been adamant. If it says seven-thirty on the invitation, then that’s when you should get there!
Outside the Kears’ place, he could hear sounds of frantic activity behind the door, and as he waited patiently on the front porch, he eyed the sky. It was the time of year when humid air was pushed up from the gulf by spiralling cyclones, dropping monsoon-like over the southern states. It was warm and uncomfortably muggy. If they were unlucky, it would rain.
Thankfully, it would soon pass and probably be bright and sunny the following day.
He’d taken time choosing his outfit, and dressed—for obvious reasons—in his baggiest of jeans topped with a trendy, grey india-cotton shirt. He knew they looked good on him. His mum had pressed him to bring a coat, just in case. The coat was in their van, and he planned that it would still be there when she drove off.
Finally, the door swung open and Owen appeared. Anne Kear was hovering in the background. Studying Owen’s clothing, Luke was relieved to see that the guy had actually made some reasonable effort, even managing to squeeze into some fashionable jeans! Despite that—or maybe because of it—Owen looked distantly uncomfortable, and his mother fussed around him, making it worse. She held a tie in her hand, which the Welsh teen was blatantly ignoring.
My God—what was she like!
Luke’s mum spoke through her open window as the three of them crossed to the van. “I’ll drop him back here when they’re done, Anne!”
“Are you sure, Lucy?” Anne looked doubtful. “I can go and pick them up at maybe ten-ish...”
He cringed. Ten? Was the women MENTAL!!
“It’s fine Anne—I’m sure it’s going to be more like past eleven, knowing Luke! I can do it. I’ll drop Owen off on the way home.”
Past eleven wasn't so bad, thought Luke, though midnight would be better. The sooner he got his own wheels the better. Driving was cool—and even better, you could come and go when you wanted!
“Oh…okay, then,” Anne said. Clearly she wasn’t too sure whether it was okay or not. “Enjoy yourself now, dear.” She gave her son a pat. It appeared to be her best shot at last-minute parental advice. Owen’s grunted reply was non-committal.
Fifteen minutes later—give or take a few seconds—they arrived at the Wyeman house.
At first look, it reminded Luke of Ryan's place, if not the house itself, then the neighbourhood—one that didn't seem short of a few bucks. The properties themselves were spread out and appeared similar to those in the gated community where the Alexis family lived.
"Nice place," he murmured. Schooling at the Academy, he was used to friends with big plots, but this was a surprise. The closer they got to the house, the bigger it actually seemed to be. The question was, with all of this, why the hell did Stacey have to work as a waitress at Longhorn?
Even his mum seemed impressed and her eyes flicked around as she joined other vehicles pulling into the driveway. A second driveway completed the loop back to the secluded road, and they could see more cars ahead, either leaving or finding somewhere to park.
“Just call me when you want me to come and pick you up," she said. "Not too late though this time, maybe…” Her eyes flicked meaningfully towards Owen, whose face was pressed to the window as he stared through the glass at the sizable grounds.
Once she had left, he and Owen followed an eager group towards a large marquee that had been erected in the gardens. It actually made a lot of sense, he realized. Even with that house, with the numbers milling around and with more cars coming down the long drive, they would hardly fit in the lounge!
With Owen trailing behind, they took one of the many smooth-slabbed paths that crisscrossed the grounds. The one they were on passed adjacent to the entrance of the marquee, and they stopped by for a look. The covered doorway was beautifully decorated with flowers and Luke poked his head inside. His first impression was that it looked more like a venue for a wedding celebration than a sixteenth birthday! At one end of the floored, carpeted space, a sizable dance floor had been laid down, and just behind it, a raised stage that had space for a DJ and sound desk, and two banks of heavy speakers. The only incongruous note was the presence of the solid-white Chick-fil-A logos emblazoned on the side of each bass bin.
At the opposite end, white-clothed trestle tables awaited; presumably to receive food. He eyed them, regretting how much he'd already eaten. Filling the center, dozens of good-sized tables were dotted around the carpeted floor. Fancy, bright-colored balloon table decorations were in abundance. With lighting stands adding a glowing ambience, it was stunning.
However, other than a few, rather sad-looking people sitting at lonely tables and playing with their phones, the marquee was empty. He turned to Owen and said, "Do you wanna go in?"
Owen pulled a face. "You're kidding, right?"
Luke grinned and the two of them left to explore the grounds for a look-see. Passing over well-cut grass and around neat beds, they wandered for a while.
“Big place,” murmured Owen, echoing Luke’s own thoughts. Finally, with nowhere better to go, they settled onto the grass across from the pool, to wait until things livened up.
“I wish we had a pool." Luke couldn't help some pangs of jealousy at the magnet that had attracted many who were larking about at the edge.
How come everyone had pools, but them?
He eyed those tempting fate around the water. It seemed quite likely that someone would fall in. “Do you know any of them?”
Owen shrugged, dismissively. "Nope—don't think so."
Luke gazed around. It really was a beautiful place and he realized how little he knew about Stacey Wyeman and her family. For starters, what the hell was a girl from this kind of home doing going to Creek?
He put it out of his mind. What business was it of his anyway?
"So, did you have a good week?" he asked, more to be conversational than anything else.
"So so—" Owen's reply was far from bubbly. He lay back on the neat lawn and nibbled on a stray blade of grass. "You?"
“You have no idea!" Luke grinned as his whole world of dicks and circumcision devices reared.
"What the hell does that mean?" Turning his head where he lay, Owen's frown was bleak stare.
Luke shook his head, still grinning. "It's had its ups and downs, that's all. In a good way, though."
Owen continued to study him as if he'd just left the loony bin, and then thankfully changed the subject.
“Now if we had somewhere like this…" Owen said, sitting up on his elbows again and watching the guys at the pool. His eyes flicked across again to the big house. "It might be worth living here."
Luke studied the Welsh teen. “You think so?” He was doubtful, despite what he’d just been thinking himself. “It’s just a house.”
There had to be more to life than where you lived, didn’t there?
“Don’t you think some people seem to have it easy, though,” Owen grunted, lying back down on the grass. Sucking on his blade of grass, he stared into space.
Luke shrugged, wondering if, in Owen's eyes, he would be tarred with that same brush. “Don’t you think people are responsible for their own choices?”
Surprisingly, Owen turned his head and chuckled. His face lit up in a way Luke hadn’t often seen. He was almost a different person. “God, Luke, you sound like my old man!”
Luke grinned too, but before he could reply, a burst of lively music came from the marquee. The music settled and, from around the grounds, dozens took it as a clarion call and streamed towards the huge white tent. At the pool, the guys fooling around there joined the stream, too.
"Is that a card?" Owen asked. They both studied the envelope Luke was still carrying. To Luke, there didn't seem much point in stating the obvious.
"I forgot," Owen added. "D'ya think it'll matter?" It looked like he was eyeing the card, hopefully. Luke hauled himself to his feet and brushed off.
"I doubt it.” Go buy your own bloody card! Or at least get a mum who remembered those kinds of things for you! “Come on, let's go and find a table near the food!"
Owen shrugged and followed him in.
A crowd had bunched up at the entrance, and it took a while to get through the bottleneck. By the time they did, most tables seemed to have at least one person at it. The likeliest option seemed one that carried a nerdy-looking guy who was still texting on his phone. He nudged Owen in that direction, edging past a group of girls who were dressed to kill and probably looking for guys wanting to pull.
It was then that Luke spotted Stacey—surrounded by friends all vying for her attention. He couldn’t decide…either she'd looked to the doorway by chance just at that moment, or she'd been checking it every few seconds. Either way, she noticed them and raised her voice above the mêlée.
Mortified, he tried desperately not to blush as every head in the posse surrounding her, turned. Eyes from numerous tables nearby flicked in his direction, studying him, too. He grinned foolishly as Stacey abandoned her cortege and descended on them.
“So—you came!” She bounded up to them in obvious delight. More heads turned, and he was completely unnerved.
Her dress was tastefully sleek; off the shoulders, yet still covering pert bumps on her chest that left no doubt as to her gender! Close-fitting but not too tight, her outfit subtly picked up the colors of the décor. Her hair flowed and her face was glowing. In fact, she looked quite stunning and nothing like the Stacey that bustled around the tables in Longhorn serving iced tea!
It scared the crap out of him!
“Oh…errr…yes…hi.." He fumbled over his words, then pushed the card at her, which looked small and totally inadequate in the excessive surroundings. "Happy birthday—”
“Luke! You’re so sweet!” Stacey grasped it close as if it actually contained something of value! Her eyes were bright with energy. “Come on…I’ve saved you a seat at our table.”
Abandoning the rest, she captured his hand before he had any chance to think. “You, too, Owen,” she added. As she dragged them through the occupied tables to one arranged in prime position by the dance floor, Owen wasn't the only one who had the appearance of a piece of Welsh rabbit stranded in the headlights of an oncoming doom.
That it was Stacey’s table was obvious by the number of cards and small gifts scattered there. She put Luke to her right and Owen slid in to an empty chair next to him.
“Don’t let anyone take my seat!” she laughed, and she went back to greet some new arrivals.
Oh bloody hell!
To say Luke felt uncomfortable at being pushed center stage was putting it mildly! Even he had never experienced anything like this in his life. Good God—it was only a 16th birthday! He hated to think how many iPhones the table decorations alone, represented!
“Bloody hell, Luke." Owen whispered, looking as much a fish out water as Luke did himself. He stared at all the expensive trimmings "You didn’t tell me she’s your girlfriend! You lucky sod!”
“She’s not my girlfriend!" Luke muttered. "I hardly know her!”
Owen stared at him in patent disbelief. “You're bloody kidding, right? I have a whole book full of people I hardly know—yet none of them invite me to their parties or look at me in the way she was looking at you!”
Shrugging, Luke studied the numerous unopened cards on the table in front of them. Several were addressed ‘To Stacey and Oliver’, or sometimes, ‘To Stacey and Olly’. He frowned—who the hell was Oliver or Olly. He was about to ask Owen about it, when three girls, all of the giggly type, approached their table.
“Owen? You know this is Stacey’s table, right?” The girl glared at them, showing off a full-arch orthodontic retainer.
Luke felt like an intruder—one busted by the ortho-police—and he stood on behalf of both of them in an attempt to look more gallant and less guilty as Owen did the equivalent of hiding behind him.
“Ummm…actually, Stacey asked us to sit here and keep her seat...”
The other two girls simpered, each of them part of the orthodontic brigade as well. The first studied him through narrowed eyes, but then some light of understanding crept into them. "Ah—you must be Luke!”
Her friend's eyes widened. “You're Luke Summers?”
Uncomfortable, Luke looked from one to the other.
Last I checked, yes.
“Umm…yes.” He managed to get it out finally. The toothy trio looked at each other and did another giggly, simpering thing that was quite discouraging.
“He’s from England!” one declared. “Near London…isn’t that right, Luke?”
Luke nodded, feeling the first bite of a conspiracy.
“Ooh…” murmured the other, excitedly. “I’ve got a friend—Clarissa—she lives near London. Do you know her?” The girl looked at him quite expectantly, and Luke tried hard not to burst out laughing.
“Now leave him alone you three, he’s with me!” Still standing, he became aware that Stacey had returned. He swallowed as she wrapped a lazy arm around his waist, protectively. This was going quickly and in totally the wrong direction. He wondered if it could get worse, when a startlingly familiar voice came from behind him.
“Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman!”
“Put him down, Stace! For goodness sake, he’s British—you don’t know where he’s been!”
Luke twisted his head to see Todd Quince, grinning like an idiot.
He had mixed feelings. The mixture being: delight at seeing a familiar friendly face, followed by total horror at being caught by a school friend with some girl's hand resting on his waist. Before he could splutter an explanation, a tall, tanned, energetic-looking man bore down on them, interrupting whatever train of thought Luke could grab hold of.
“I think we’d better kick things off, Stace!” the man said. “Where’s your brother?” His eyes glanced at the arm around Luke’s waist and then up to pierce his soul. By looks alone, it was clear he was her father.
“No idea, Dad. Probably hiding somewhere.”
Her father rolled his eyes. “You’d better do it—the DJ has a microphone for you.”
Obviously unrepentant of the trailing arm lock, Stacey smiled sweetly at her dad. “Okay, Dad, will do. This is Luke Summers, by the way. I don’t think you’ve met him…yet.”
Luke followed her father’s eyes as they dropped down again to study the blatant body contact. They flicked up to challenge him with a look that could only mean, ‘So who are you, bud, and what gives you the right to have my only daughter’s arm around your body!’ With that, that arm irresistibly propelled Luke forward, for what suddenly felt like an interview!
How the hell he did it, Luke didn't know, but even in the midst of chaos, he performed flawlessly.
“Good to meet you, sir,” he said, as if addressing Prince Charles. He held hand out his hand, politely. Those eyes flicked again in surprise and Wyeman took Luke’s hand in a grip that was firm, but not crushing.
“Good to meet you too, Luke.” The man smiled without releasing him from either his grip or his piercing gaze. “Stacey’s right, we’ve not met before other than on the phone—and I don’t think you’re from these parts either!”
Luke grinned, feeling on safe ground. “No, sir, my family is from the UK, originally.”
“Luke and I are at school together at the Academy,” said Todd, helpfully. Luke could have kissed him for the appearance of credibility he offered.
“The Academy?” Wyeman’s eyebrows rose and he nodded as if temporarily satisfied that Luke’s schooling somehow proved he would be unlikely to molest his daughter right there in front of them. He released him and turned to Todd. “And how are your parents, Todd?”
Stacey pulled Luke off to one side as Todd took over. “That’s my dad. He seems to like you!” She laughed rather too meaningfully for Luke's liking. They took their seats at the table.
He tried to direct the conversation elsewhere. “But how come you know Todd?”
She shrugged. “Oh, we’ve known the Quince’s for years. I pretty much grew up with Todd. We were in the church youth group together for a long time.”
Luke couldn’t help but smirk in surprise. “Todd? In a church youth group? You’ve got to be kidding me!”
Her nose pinched. Perhaps she knew Todd as well as he did. “Well, he doesn’t come so much anymore, that’s true. Do you, Todd?”
Todd had escaped her father and joined them, and she gave him a pained look. “And have you seen Olly anywhere?”
Who the hell was Olly?
Whether he had been invited to the top table or not didn't seem to make any difference to Todd, though the ortho squad glared as he stole a chair from another table and pushed himself in the other side of Stacey. “Do I what, Stace?” Larger than life, he hadn’t really been listening.
“Come to the youth group much anymore.”
“I leave it to you to put the odd prayer in for me as usual, Stace!”
“Now don’t joke about it!” she admonished. “You should bring Luke along—he’d like it!”
Luke smothered a cough and tried not to look horrified. He couldn’t quite get over the idea that Todd Quince was a churchgoer. “So where’s your church?” He grinned past Stacey towards Todd. “Is it a big place?”
Todd shrugged. “I haven’t been in a while.”
Stacey rolled her eyes. “We noticed…”
“It’s just on the perimeter,” she continued. “I think there’s somewhere between five to six thousand in the congregation these days."
Luke’s eyes widened as Stacey checked her watch. ‘Now where’s my idiotic brother? He always does this! It’s his birthday too!” She looked irritated.
“You have a brother?” Luke asked. “It’s his birthday, too?”
“A twin brother.” Todd grinned. “And if you’ve never met Olly Wyeman, Luke, you’re missing a rare treat!”
“Stacey…” From a few feet away, her father motioned her. She nodded and stepped across the dance floor to find a microphone.
* * *
While Luke seemed besieged on all sides, Owen sat alone. In fact, he found it easier that way.
He watched from a distance as Luke and his friend from the Academy frequently took to the dance floor, always to be surrounded by girls. Meanwhile, he sat hunched morosely over the empty table, looking regularly at his watch at the slow passage of time.
He’d really wanted to make a go of it that evening, with the hope of maybe coming away knowing a few more people—perhaps even making some friends. For the first hour, he'd made a real effort, even jigging embarrassingly on the dance floor a couple of times. It just wasn't his thing, though Luke seemed to be having a good time. Then the food had started piling onto the tables and he gnawed on chicken. That used up another half an hour. Now he'd had enough of the whole thing, but with Luke in charge of the phoning for the lift home, he was stuck.
He’d never found it easy to get to know people, though he’d tried so hard during the first months living in Atlanta. He just wasn’t interesting or cool or a whole bloody host of other things that everyone else seemed to be.
For the first few weeks, new classmates had been intrigued by the arrival of the boy from Wales, but they’d soon lost interest. It was that unsubtle brush-off that got to him: you have nothing of value to offer, you don’t count, you might as well not be there.
Even the Bracey Bunch—as Luke called them—had given him that look when they’d first arrived. The 'who invited you and what gives you the right to be at this table’ look. Now, they’d forgotten he even existed as they tattled on about who was currently shacking up with whom.
Who fucking cared?
He knew it wasn’t completely everyone else’s fault he sat alone, but after a while he’d stopped trying and so did everyone else. Luke had kept trying to involve him at first, but the girls didn’t want him—they wanted Luke.
He checked his watch again. Maybe he could borrow a phone and get his mum to come get him. It sounded a good idea until he realized he didn't even know where here was.
His gaze drifted out across the dance floor, spotting Luke surrounded by chicks. Everybody wanted Luke. Stacey Wyeman definitely did, that much was obvious! Tired of it all, he checked his pocket, feeling both the deck of cards and the pack of cigarettes he'd stolen from his dad, and wondered about a smoke—the last resort of the pathetic.
It was then that he noticed the kid in the wheelchair.
Outside, the light was failing, but in the marquee, swirling disco banks cut across the low ambient lighting. The chair disappeared and then he caught it again as, across the dance floor and near the stage, he could see its occupant guiding his trendy-looking wheels along the edge of the floor boundary. Pausing, the owner seemed to be studying the crowds before moving on again, drifting in and out of view between the revellers.
Being in his class, Owen knew who he was, though the guy had only arrived at the school out of the blue a couple of weeks back. Owen tried to pull a name…Donny…Billy…? Who cared? Frankly, he had little interest in knowing anyone's name these days. The guy was new, he knew crap all about him, and it was likely to stay that way.
But why was he here? That quite surprised him—almost as much as he was surprised at being invited himself, and already suspecting it had been a mistake to come.
Why the hell invite some kid in a chair to a dance? Him and the disabled kid—he’d take a stab at both of their invitations being out of pity!
He looked over to where he could just see Luke moving to the music, and wondered again what the shortest time they would have to stay could be. His glance flicked back across to the other side of dance floor, but the wheelchair had vanished. Fed up, he pushed back his chair. Checking the shape of the cigarette packet in his pocket, he ducked out of the marquee and into the night.
Outside, he studied his surroundings for a hideout. Dark was coming, and it looked like there would be rain soon. If he was lucky it would break up the party and everyone could go home.
Passing numerous smooching couples with fingers wandering in the fading light, he went around the side of the big house and found a seat on a small, gloomily lit, patio. Before resorting to a smoke, he got out his pack of Yu-Gi-Oh cards and began to sort them in the half-light.
“So…this the place where sad fucks like you and me end up then, is it?”
Owen nearly jumped out of his skin. He hadn’t heard, let alone seen the wheelchair silently approaching over the expensive marble slabs.
He looked up, and his reply was morose. “If you’re looking for the party, it’s over there.” Sarcastically he pointed in the general direction of the marquee, trying to cover for the fact he didn't know the guy’s name.
Bloody kid. Just piss off!
The disabled boy seemed unable to take offense, and sighed theatrically. “I don’t know, I’m pretty much all danced out tonight, too.”
For the first time that evening, Owen's features twitched upwards as the guy shifted meaningfully in his chair and shrugged with self-deprecating humor.
"I saw you in there," the kid murmured thoughtfully. "Earlier. And sorry, I was wrong."
Owen glared. What the fuck was he talking about?
The kid shrugged at his silence. "The way you dance. I was sure you were a disabled spaz, too." There was a rumble of thunder and the kid shifted again. “Pardon me….”
An involuntary smile tried to force its way onto Owen's face. He smothered it and waited, but the guy didn't appear to want to go away, and from his chair he pointed at Owen’s cards.
“So…do you just have those for show, or do you want a game?”
“I gave up the fucking knitting a few weeks back.”
Owen scrutinized him carefully, not quite trusting him and stating the obvious. “I only have one deck...umm…Don...”
"For God's sake, Owen!" The kid rolled his eyes and shook his head. “If you're looking for a fucking name, it's Olly." Even then, he didn’t appear offended by either Owen's memory or his own colorful vocabulary.
"As you've only got one deck, I’d better use mine then," he added. "And unless you’re carrying God cards, don’t expect to win.”
Without waiting for any further discussion, Olly spun his wheels on the spot and began to navigate towards a door in the side of the house. “Not here though,” he said, looking at the sky. “We’d better go inside.”
Owen didn't move, attempting to remain his usual defiantly aloof. Olly was getting under his skin. Then the rain started, and a further rumble of thunder gave warning of a deluge. He remained sitting a few moments more, bemused as heavy spots splashed on his cards, and stared at the retreating chair. For a cripple, the kid seemed irritatingly confident and sure of himself.
The chair stopped and Olly turned his head to offer a piercing glare. “So, are you coming, or were you expecting a lift?” The rain turned full on, and Owen gathered up his deck before hurrying after him, wondering if the guy had a Blue Eyes White Dragon in this deck.
Owen tried to get to the door first, to open it for the chair, but Olly ignored him and kicked it wide, so Owen followed him through a conservatory and into the kitchen. It was helpfully huge, so the chair had plenty of room to move between the furniture as they passed through.
"What about here?" Owen asked. There were plenty of chairs and several tables that would do.
Olly ignored him and kept going further into the house. They reached the kitchen, which was occupied by people organizing the remains of the food. Olly didn't seem intimidated, but pushed himself past them and down one of the downstairs corridors. Owen assumed he was looking for the lounge.
Arriving at another door, Olly kicked hard and it crashed open, slamming against unseen stops. Owen cringed at the criminal violation and glanced fearfully back down the corridor, expecting someone to come and throw them out.
“Come on, we can go in here." Olly grunted and pushed himself inside.
Owen put his head round the unknown door and hesitated. “I dunno—perhaps we should go back to that conservatory, or find somewhere else? This is somebody’s bedroom!”
“Don’t be such a dumbfuck!” Olly’s snort was derisive. “Of course it is. It's mine!”