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"You got him?" Jamie asks me.
I heave his brother's feet off the floor. "Yeah, I think so." I almost ask what the hell Ray's been eating, but I already know. At least, I know what's going through his system to make him so big. Steroids.
Jamie and I heave Ray's unconscious body out of the mansion. This wasn't the most exciting party I've been to. Just a half the school, getting together, getting drunk. I didn't even want to come here. My friend, Mel, forced me to. In her mind, we're the closest friends in the world who must do absolutely everything together. In mine, she's the only girlfriend I have. It's not like we tell each other anything. She just wants me around; I can't imagine why.
When we reach his pick-up, Jamie kicks open the door, and places Ray in the back seat. Mel silently crawls in the back with him; she's been following us. She doesn't want us to take her "boyfriend" away, even though she's never spoken to him since tonight.
I'm glad I ran into Jamie. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't have be able to take Mel home. She'll be mad at me later for leaving her dad's car here, but that's her problem.
I squeeze in the passengers' seat, and Jamie takes the wheel. With Ray completely passed out, it's unlikely he'll be up any time soon. I know how heavy a sleeper he is.
We ride in silence for five minutes. Jamie and I clearly need to talk. With Mel still awake in the back, we can't. But actually talking to him, that's easy. Jamie is the closest friend I have. He's the only one who's bothered to memorize me, and vise versa. We know everything about each other, which has it's pros and cons.
It's quiter in the back. I see Mel has cuddled close to Ray and is out. Now's my chance.
"What did Ray tell you?" I ask is a low voice. "Before, you know."
"Before he drank himself unconscious?" Jamie says bitterly, obviously ashamed of his brother.
I nod. "Before he drank himself unconscious, yes." I should know better than to avoid direct communication. What's the point?
He sighs, eyes on the road. "Ray told me 'this blonde' came up to him, flirted with him, so they both started taking shots."
I stifle a laugh. "Her version was slightly different. She said it was 'love at first sight'."
He shakes his head in disgust, not finding it amusing. "I swear, that girl..." He glances back at Mel and Ray. "I can't even believe she's in my car."
"Hey, you promised to give her ride home."
He grits his teeth. "Right."
"Don't be angry with Mel," I insist. "It's not her fault."
"Oh, yeah, I'm so sorry for her." Jamie says sourly. "Why not feel for the richie-rich girl with everything?"
"Will you stop?" I've risen my voice, so I take it down a notch. "I get it, she's rich. I want what she has every day. That doesn't make her a bad person. I'm not going to bail on her just because she's not perfect. She's my friend, too."
I can tell he doesn't agree with me - not even remotely - but my last statement gets to him.
"I'm sorry, alright?" Jamie tries to cool down, looking at me. "I'm frustrated with Ray; not you, or even Mel. I don't think I can take another night of this."
I look at him sympathetically. "I know." And I do. He doesn't want to get home and have to deal with the screaming, the hitting, the throwing. He doesn't want to have to tear apart his mother and brother before they tear each other apart. I remember when Mrs. Terry was different; when she baked cookies, took care of everyone, smiled. Ray, too, I remember in a happier time when he play-fought with his little brother and showed nothing but love for his mother.
Jamie shrugs. "It'll be fine. I just need to get him inside before Mom wakes up. Surprisingly, the Terry's are all heavy sleepers." He laughs dryly.
I bite my lip, wishing I could make him feel the slightest bit better.
"How do you think you're going to get Mel inside?"
Grateful for the shift in conversation, I shrug. "Pray she's got a key under the mat and sneak her in. I just hope her parents are nice."
He gives me a puzzled look. "Aren't you two, you know, 'BFF's'?"
I eye him up and down.
He shrugs innocently. "That's what she tells everyone. You're her best friend and you don't even know her parents?"
I blush a little. "I've been to her house before," I say defensively. "Her parents are never home, that's all. They might not even be there now."
"Seems like you're not the only secretive friend," he mutters loud enough for me to hear.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I glare at him. "She's not secretive. She just doesn't mention everything."
"And you don't mention anything."
I duck my head down discreetly. "She...doesn't ask."
I don't respond.
Oddly, Jamie smiles, and shakes his head.
He switches his gaze to the,road again. "I'm just trying to figure out why you're friends with her in the first place."
I sit back in the seat. "Yeah?"
"Chris, you two have nothing in common," he argues. "She doesn't have a logical thought in her head; you're an honors student. She pastes on pounds of makeup everyday; you're pretty all on your own. She has the biggest ego; you hardly give yourself any credit."
I blush deeply.
"She's fake; you're real."
"Okay, look." I start to go on about how he knows I'm a A minus average, and that Mel is prettier than everybody, but that would only prove his third point. I don't give myself enough credit.
Still watching the road, Jamie says, "I'm waiting, Chris."
I sigh, exasperated. "What do you want me to say? That you're right? Maybe I don't want credit."
Before Jamie can come up with some witty reply, I go on.
"And, for the record, maybe I don't want to abandon Mel. I don't want her to have any interaction with my life. If she's happy in her little world, good for her. I'm here to keep her from going too far and hurting herself."
"That's not your responsibly."
"Oh?" I laugh humorlessly. "And your brother is your responsibility?"
Jamie's expression tightens. His teeth grit together, and his knuckles turn white while he grips the steering wheel. "Yes."
"Why?" I don't know why I'm pushing.
Jamie's eyes lock hard on mine, avoiding the road altogether. "When Dad died, Ray was supposed to take care of us. He hasn't even tried. All he does if drown out the pain. It took two years for me to figure out I'm supposed to be holding the family together, not him. We're already breaking. It's my job to keep us intact."
We stare at each other - unmoving, unblinking. He's right. He's so right. In every way is he entitled to what he just -
I'm overcome with flashes of memory, hitting me so hard I feel it almost physically. The smoke, the screaming, the fear, the helplessness...
Jamie's face unhardens as he brushes a lone tear from my cheek. He's wishing he could take back what he said.
"I understand, Jamie," I say, surprisingly steadily. "You're right. I'm sorry I made you say it." I tear my eyes away from him, and look at the road he's somehow managing to stay on.
"Chris, I didn't..."
"Don't worry about it," I insist, shaking of the tears. "It's fine. Everything's fine."
He jerks the car to the side of the road, and then puts it park.
"It's not fine. Look at me." He grabs my chin and forces me to meet his eyes. "You had it worse than me, and you know it. You don't have to look after everyone else. You should slap me after what I just said - don't let me off the hook. I'm whining how my family has suffered from that night; you lost your home and your family, literally everything - "
"Don't!" I jerk fiercely away from him. Hearing Mel and Ray stirring in the back, I say much quieter, "Please, don't."
I like to call it the Golden Age. Back when my life was so beautiful I took it for granted.
Jamie and I'd been best friends since we could walk. Our families did everything together. We would've been one of those cute couples that are together forever and decide to get married; the beginning of some country love song he'd kill the radio for.
I don't want to get too into what happened next. It was nothing new or exciting; houses catch on fire all the time. Jamie's family had brought me home from a play date, and I'd stupidly ran straight through the flames to find my parents. Jamie ran after me, his mom ran after him, his dad ran after her, and Ray ran after the bunch of us.
Heat. Panic. Stupidity. Bravery. Loss. It all took place that night. The perfect tragedy. The headlines said it all: “Three Casualties in House Fire”, “Twelve-Year-Old Girl's Parents and Family Friend Burn to Death in House Fire”, and “Fourteen-Year-Old Boy Rescues Mother, Younger Brother, and Family Friend from House Fire”.
That was three years ago. They never took into account the long-term fallout from those headlines. They never do.
I'm back. Wiping my damp eyes furiously, I bark, "Why did you do that? Do you know how long I've been trying to forget?"
"Forgetting doesn't solve anything," Jamie's talking in just above a whisper. "It still happened. It's okay to remember."
"It isn't." My body shakes mercilessly from the sobs. "It's not okay. It will never be okay. Because my dad's awful sister never lets me forget. I'm used to hearing her accusations, but I... She won't..." I can't stop shaking.
No reaction from him. He's like a statue for almost thirty seconds. Then, he slowly reaches toward me. It's a few seconds late before I see what he's doing.
I start to back away, but he's faster. He rubs the heavy foundation off of my cheekbone.
"It's just a bruise." I cover it pathetically. "Don't worry about it." My tears have gone away for a while, due to hostility.
"But, Chris - "
"Don't worry about me!" I snap. "I mean it. Just leave it alone."
But Jamie isn't going to let this go. "Rebecca can't treat you that way. You can go to the police."
"I think they have enough abusive guardians to deal with."
"You can do something about this."
"I don't want to!"
"Yes, you do," he insists. "You want her to stop hating you. You want someone to take care of you like your parents did. You want to be understood, cared about... Loved."
Tears spill over. "I'm weak," I moan.
I expect some crap from him about how I've been strong for too long, how it's okay to cry. Instead, he says, "You can't take a right hook like that and call yourself weak."
I don't know why this makes me smile.
"What you said...about being loved... That halfway covers it," I say, honestly.
"What else do you want?"
I self-contiously look in the back at Mel and Ray's seemingly sleeping bodies.
"They can't hear us." I feel Jamie's hand rest over mine. "It's just you and me."
I look up. He's staring at me, deeply, hopefully.
I look awatly. "I want... I want to be like Mel. I want to be carefree, stupid, happy. I want to be open up without being so afraid. I want to not feel guilty for everything that goes wrong. I don't want to live with her. I want to be...anyone but myself."
Naked. That's how I feel right now.
Why did I just say all that? I'm usually so guarded. Why am I suddenly acting so...reckless? I swear, I didn't have one drink.
Jamie starts stroking my hair. It somehow calms me. My breathing steadies, and I feel less humiliated.
"Chris." My name comes out as a sigh from him. "I don't want you to change. I like who you are."
"Stop." I shake my head. "You don't have to do that."
"I mean it," he insists. "Hey, look at me." His voice is so gentle.
I still can't bring myself to.
"Please look at me?"
My eyes stay locked on my tennis shoes.
Jamie sighs. "I like who you are. Really. Mel has no idea how great of a friend she has. You're better than her; you could leave her in the dust and never look back. But you won't. You care so much. It amazes me. Your heart is so good."
This oddly touches me. Something inside me stirs as a reaction to his words. I surprise myself by looking up. Even more so by smiling at all, even one this faint.
"You're heart is better."
Jamie wasn't expecting this.
I explain further. "Don't you miss who Ray and your mom were before the accident?"
He blinks a few times, wondering where I'm going with this.
"You know they're not the same people. You know they've really gotten crueler over the years. But you care enough to hold everyone together. I hate my aunt. She's all I have and I hate her. It's...important to love your flesh and blood."
His eyes flicker down. "It's not so strange," he points out. "I think it's impossible not to love family. You still love your parents. They're your flesh and blood, even now."
"I love the dust and bones of my parents." I meant to pass it off as a joke, but it doesn't sound like it. I clear my throat again. "I still find it surprising. Being able to love anything in this world is surprising. There's always the fear of having it taken away." I rest my hand on top of his. "You have a good heart, too."
Jamie smiles crookedly, and looks down. "We both do. In different ways. You love friends and I love family." He brings the car back to life and gets back on the road.
I'm not surprised with myself anymore. It's always been easy to talk to him. Why should it be different now, even if the conversations are deeper?
It's quiet for a second before he suggests me coming over after we drop off Mel and put Ray to bed. I'm hesitant, but he bribes me with Adam Sandler and microwave popcorn.
"I hate how well you know me." I tease.
I don't know what it is, but I feel lighter. Like Jamie's helped lift a load off of my shoulders. By the way he's smiling, I feel like I've done the same for him. I feel good for doing so.
I know what will happen. I'm going to wake up tomorrow, Rebecca will be there in the morning to interregate me with rediculous questions, and tomorrow I'll have to get more foundation. But somehow, I can handle it. I know Jamie will always be here.
We're almost at Mel's. "Need help bringing her inside?" he asks.
"That's okay, thanks." I unbuckle my seat belt. "You probably need to stay here and look after Ray."
"Right," he says. "God forbid, he wakes up and I'll have to spank him."
I laugh a little.
"Still think my heart is good?"
I grin. "Undoubtably."