While still in a lucid pot haze, I drag myself into the chilly night air and to the dining hall. I muster as much enthusiasm as I can for my plate of semi-edible crap, and slump into a chair at our table near the back windows, away from the prying eyes of the staff.
I’m the last one, as usual. No one says anything as I drop my tray of gelatinous rice and limp vegetables on the table. They’re all listening to Alex talk about his summer. Something about the Russian mafia. Who knows if he makes it all up? I mean, he could be, and we’d never know. It’s not like we’re going to head off to Russia to find out. Besides, the one time his dad showed up on campus, he had legit bodyguards. Plus, Alex is the one with the off-campus dealer named Constantine and fake ID. So, even if he is making it up, he still has some freaky-ass shit going on.
Calista lifts her head slightly, so that she’s watching me from the corner of her eyes, and smiles. “You look rough,” she says, her soft voice nearly drowned out by the other noises swirling around us. My heart sputters. Her smile wages an assault on me, and I have no defense. None. If I weren’t standing in the middle of the crowded dining hall, surrounded by my friends, I’d probably break down and plead with her to stop torturing me.
Instead, I scratch the back of my head and focus on Brady balancing a fork on his nose. When I’m positive my voice won’t break, I say, “We had a little party. Too busy setting up to come by?”
She rests her chin on her hand. “No, my parents were here until about an hour ago. Mom wanted to do the whole ‘walk down memory lane’ thing.” I notice, for the first time, she’s sitting close to Alex. Closer than usual. Their chairs almost touch. Since when does she sit next to Alex?
“Mom wanted to come say ‘hi’ to you. She had your room number and everything, so you can thank me later for saving your ass.”
I gulp down some water, and as it washes over my tongue, I realize how dry my mouth is. “Thanks, Cal. I owe you.”
She sighs. How can a single sound have so many meanings? Annoyance, pity, pleasure. “You always owe me, Fletcher Colson.”
“I know. And that’s why I love you, Cal. You take good care of me.” As soon as the word ‘love’ passes my lips, I know I’ve made a mistake. Calista twists her napkin and begins ripping it into tiny pieces. She doesn’t have to tell me I’ve upset her.
Hannah stands across from me, wearing the same sweater from earlier, smiling nervously. My fingers curl around the edge of my chair and hold me in place, but what I really want is to disappear beneath the table.
“Can we sit here?” She’s with another junior girl whose name I can’t remember.
Brady wiggles his eyebrows at me and smirks. He knows I’m screwed.
What am I supposed to do? Cal’s busy whispering to Paige, not paying me any attention. As usual.
I stare up at Hannah, my lips puckered. If I let them sit here, it’s more or less an indication I’m interested. And I’m not interested. At least not in a relationship.
Paige flashes her ice and daggers bitch smile and saves me. “No. This table is for seniors.”
Hannah waits with her mouth slightly agape, waiting for me to rescue her.
I shrug. “Sorry, Hannah. Maybe next time.”
Her face falls, but she doesn’t call me names. That happens sometimes. Girls get pissed at me after we hook-up. They think we’re a couple or something. But Hannah’s cool and walks away without causing a scene. She gets bonus points for that. Definitely worth a return visit.
When she’s out of earshot, Brady and Reid burst out laughing, but Paige hisses at me. “We don’t need your leftovers hanging out here.” She glares first at me, then Brady. “Same goes for you.”
Brady holds up his hands defensively. “What did I do?”
“One word: Saylor.” Paige says. “We don’t need little girls thinking they can sit with us.”
A deep wrinkle appears across Brady’s forehead when he draws his eyebrows together. It’s his thinking hard look. “Who the hell is Saylor?”
“Oh. My. God. You animal.” Paige glares at him. “The girl from The Beach this morning.”
Still no signs of recollection from Brady. Or me.
“In the yellow t-shirt?” Paige’s voice grows shrill. “Seriously, you made out with her at Fletch’s.”
A light switches on. “Oh her. That’s her name? Saylor?”
Paige throws a chunk of ice from her Diet Coke at Brady. “I hope to God you’re kidding.”
While nodding, Brady holds his hand over his mouth so Paige can’t see and mouths, “No,” to me.
I shove a few more bites of the nasty stir-fry in my mouth and finish it off with water. Despite the amount of money our parents throw at this place, the food is something I imagine prisons serving inmates. “What would it take for them to get real food in this place?”
“It is real,” Reid responds, poking at the blob on his plate. “At least I believe it may have once been alive.”
Calista reaches across the table and grabs my hand, a gesture that the rest of the table notices. “I’m serious, Fletch. Keep those girls away from us. This is our table.”
She doesn’t raise her voice or anything, but there’s hurt in her eyes. And I don’t want her to hurt.
No one at our table speaks. They’re all watching us. Waiting for whatever they think should happen. Hell, I’m waiting for something to happen.
Paige clears her throat, bringing the attention back to her end of the table. “We have to finish unpacking, Cal. Are you done?”
While Calista finishes up, Paige pecks Reid on the cheek, her hand caressing his face. Brady’s eyes nearly roll back in his head. “Nauseating much?”
“Jealous much?” she replies. “Maybe you want to be the one kissing Reid?”
Brady licks his French fries suggestively. “As if he could resist me.”
Paige mock-gags before saying, “C’mon, Cal.”
Unlike earlier, there’s no emotion in Cal’s eyes when she glances at me. Just like usual. However, the shredded napkin she leaves on the table tells me that I’ve upset her.
The girls aren’t even through the elaborately carved doorway before Alex starts in. “What was that?”
“What?” I say, trying my hardest to sound disinterested.
“What did you and Calista do this summer?” After three years at Harker, only a trace of his once prominent Russian
I have no idea what he’s heard. My best bet: go vague. “You know how it is, Sasha,” I say, using his Russian name — the one Reid forced him to give up because it sounded too much like a chick’s. “Our moms are always together.”
“She said the same thing, but I think you’re both lying.” Like all our friends, Alex already knows Calista was my first, way back during freshman year. He also knows she and I have known each other since birth. Our moms have been best friends since high school. But he doesn’t know about our extra-curricular summer activities.
“Do you like her or something?” I ask more angrily than I intend.
“She’s cool.” His cold eyes don’t leave mine. “Not to mention hot.”
I drop my fork on the table with a dull thud. “She’s Calista. She’s-“
“What? Off-limits?” Alex chuckles. When I don’t answer, he says, “Whatever, Fletch. You’re the biggest fucking hypocrite.”
Brady’s hand is on my shoulder before I realize I’m standing, leaning over Alex.
“Let’s go.” Reid picks up his tray and heads toward the exit. When I don’t move, he snaps, “Fletch. Let’s go.”
Brady pulls me upright, but not before I shove Alex’s tray.
“You’re a dick,” I say to Alex as Brady angles his body between us. Since we’re not shouting, the adults don’t pay attention to us.
“You would know.” He resumes eating like he’s completely unconcerned about what I may do to him. That’s how non-threatening my lanky body is. I’m pissed, and Alex isn’t even the least bit worried about me hurting him.
“Fletch, you coming or what?” Reid stands halfway across the room waiting for me.
“Yeah.” Adrenaline floods my system as I walk toward the recycling bins, dodging stray backpacks and legs. I’m not a fighter, but right now, I want to punch Alex. Hard.
“What’s wrong with you?” Reid gestures to my careful garbage sorting, my pathetic attempt to distract myself with a mindless activity.
I shrug. “I’m recycling. Protecting planet Earth and all that shit.”
He gives me an incredulous look. “No, dumbass. I mean, what are you doing? Arguing with Alex?”
The honest answer, the one I don’t say, is I don’t want to see Calista with anyone else. And this thing with Alex…well, I can’t see how it’s going to work. They have nothing in common.
I dump the rest of my garbage and follow Reid to the door “Do you think it’s a good idea for them to get together?”
The ravenous fog rushes around us, consuming everything in its path, as we step from the noise of the dining hall and out into the eerily quiet Quad. The academic buildings loom over us like silent giants, a reminder that classes start tomorrow, and mist sticks to my clothes, sending shivers down my spine.
“I think it’s about as good of an idea as the two of you fucking over the summer. What were you thinking? Don’t you remember what happened last time?”
Last time. Freshman year. When I took her virginity and then proceeded to ignore her as I worked my way through the school. “It was just a summer thing. She gets it.”
“Do you ever think with anything but your dick?” Reid asks. “Like maybe she actually likes you? Plus, she’s our friend. You can’t screw your friends, dude. Don’t you have boundaries?”
I shrug. Because that’s what I’m supposed to do.
A few very young-looking freshmen hang out in the courtyard. Their over-excited, first-day-of-school voices float around us. Reid ignores them like they’re meaningless wastes of space, and I follow his lead.
“But you have no problem with Alex and her?”
Reid stops and leans on the stair railing leading to the academic buildings. “I know he’s not you, and yeah, I think that’s a good thing.”
“Thanks a lot.” My hands shake slightly as I run them through my hair. Why is this bothering me so much?
“No problem.” Reid says. “I’m going back to my room. Wanna come? I’m thinking we need to cap off this day with a little treat.”
I’m still groggy from earlier. But it doesn’t matter. I need something to take my mind off Cal. “I’m screwed, aren’t I?”
Reid laughs and starts up the stairs toward his dorm. “Dude, you are so screwed.”
Crushed Release December 11th. Add it to Goodreads here.