Fifteen

☼►twenty-three◄☼

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I felt oddly out of place sitting on the truck’s lowered tailgate while wearing a sparkly dress. Cody passed the flask over, and I swallowed down a mouthful of whisky before handing it back. The liquor burnt a path down to my belly, exploded into a warmth that spread through my veins. A sea of stars glittered overhead, twinkling amongst the black, and I tilted my head back to stare up at them.

A small part of me wondered if Harry was looking at the same stars. If he was thinking of me as I’d thought of him every day for the last year. Tears pricked at my eyes. I drew in a shaky breath and blinked rapidly before my makeup could be ruined.

“So that was crazy, right? Wasn’t just me, it was literally crazy?”

I snorted and shook my head, thankful for the distraction. “Fucking insane. What the hell was Tyler thinking?”

“Well, probably that he wanted to get drunk and kick Blake’s ass.”

“Can’t believe our prom got crashed by cops.”

“Yeah. Nuts.” He looked over at me, face dark with shadows but the torchlight was bright enough to illuminate his deep brown eyes. His gaze skimmed over my bare shoulders. “So... you leave next week.”

I nodded, suddenly unable to speak. I’d been planning the move since I turned seventeen, but now that it was on the horizon, it felt... illogical. Like I was wrong to do it. My parents had been surprised when I first brought up the idea, asking me if I really thought that I should. To my surprise, they had been my biggest supporters; they even so far as to discuss it with my aunt themselves so that there was no doubt in Bev’s mind that my mom and dad approved.

Cody was the first person I told my plans to, late one night after I’d sneaked out of the house just to get away from the noise of the silence. We’d sat, much like this, on the tailgate of his old Chevy and passed a joint back and forth. He had nodded sagely when I announced my plans, and that was that.

We weren’t dating, not really, but he was the closest thing I had to a friend in this town. What we had was undefined; it started with boredom a few months ago and ended in the murky thing-with-no-name between us. Thankfully, he was completely at ease with the fact that, no matter how cute and funny he was, he would never have my love.

We both agreed that there was nothing significant to our arrangement - we were just two friends who occasionally engaged in heavy petting. He wasn’t looking for a steady relationship, and my heart was no longer mine to give.

I felt nothing as I slipped back into my prom dress. Growing up, I’d always heard that losing my virginity would be special, life-altering, but I couldn’t even gather up the desire to question why my world was the same now as it had been fifteen minutes ago. Nothing had changed, except now I’d had sex for the first time.

Sighing, I gazed up at the sky again while Cody buttoned up his slacks. I wondered if it would have been different with someone else. Green eyes, shining with laughter above cold-pinked cheeks, flashed across my mind. Maybe it would have been, but it was too late for that now.

Almost six days later, I was parking between bright white lines in front of a block of flats. Late afternoon sunlight glinted off windows, washed the pale yellow bricks a golden-orange, and dozens of people roamed around the trails on the outskirts of the complex. Families and couples, dogs and even a cat on leashes, everyone enjoying the heat of the day. I ran a hand through my hair and sighed. I was finally here.

I shoved open the door to my poor, overworked Impala and stepped out. Fog coated the lenses of my cheap sunglasses, a pair I bought from some fuel station in Wichita, and the breeze slipped, warm and satin-smooth, across my cold skin. Though I was miles from the beach, I was certain there was a briny edge to the air.

“You’re here, you’re here, you’re here!”

At the husky voice crackling in excitement, I turned in time for strong arms to wrap around my neck, and my aunt hugged me tightly enough that I couldn’t breathe for fear of puncturing a lung. I melted into her embrace, anyway.

It had been six months since I last saw her. She still looked the same - sandy-blonde hair, bright hazel eyes, thin lips stretched into an enormous smile. Hell, she even smelled like the perfume she wore at Thanksgiving.

Emotions welled up inside of me as I stood there in the circle of her arms, but I brushed them off. They were most likely only due to exhaustion from driving for so long. Definitely nothing to do with homesickness for a home I didn’t belong or a family that was never mine.

“Tell me you were careful,” Bev pleaded as she pulled away.

“Stopped every four to six hours to stretch my legs, took an hour rest around noon, and slept at least seven hours a night.”

“Good. How was the weather?”

As we carried my belongings up to her flat, I told her about the drive - the congestion around St Louis, the storm cell that seemed to stretch all the way through Oklahoma, and the massive traffic jam at the California border. She winced in sympathy as I recounted witnessing a pair of teens shouting at each other at a rest stop while their mother cried nearby.

“Poor woman.” She sighed, clapped her hands. “Okay, so obviously, this is my place. I’ve already got a bedroom set up for you. It isn’t much, unfortunately, but it’s something.”

I stared around at the seafoam green walls, the ash-coloured carpets, and swallowed down the apprehension. For better or worse, this was my new home. I’d made this choice.

“This is the living room, dining room and kitchen over there. Uh, this here is the bathroom. Only the one I’m afraid. You don’t take ages in front of the mirror, do you?”

“I’m, uh, I’m a ‘scrub teeth, brush hair, done’ kind of girl. Oh, and my showers are usually only about ten minutes long.”

Bev nodded sharply. “Good. I’m the complete opposite. Anyway, my room here, and this is yours.”

We worked in silence to transfer my six boxes and suitcase into the bedroom. She left me once the last box was set on the floor, promising a few pizzas would be on the table by the time I unpacked and showered. I nodded and hoped that she was right - I’d cleaned up at the motels I stopped at, but it hadn’t been enough. I got back on the road feeling less fresh than I did before my showers.

Bev slid a plate of pepperoni pizza across the table, shifting awkwardly on her feet before grabbing her own dinner and sitting down. “I’m not gonna make you pay rent, but I do want you to get a job. You need a routine,” she explained at my confused expression.

“Oh. I guess that makes sense.”

“Trust me, sweetheart. I’ve moved around enough to know that if you don’t get into a routine, you’ll end up regretting the move. Besides, it’ll be good for you to start saving up for your own place whenever you wanna get on your own feet.”

“Okay, well, the only job I’ve ever had was on a farm shovelling shit, so I’m not sure how well that will translate here.”

She grinned and handed me a Coke from the fridge. “Don’t worry, I know just the thing for you.”

‘The thing’ turned out to be a receptionist job.

My aunt guided me into the tattoo parlour early the next morning, and I swallowed down my nerves as she explained that everyone had taken turns during the day answering the phone and making appointments. Everywhere I looked, brightly-coloured posters stared back from silver-painted walls. The plush chairs in the waiting area were empty, pushed up against large windows that looked out over the street.

Soft buzzing came from behind a partition, someone hissed in pain. Heart racing beneath my ribs, I turned to my aunt. Her brown eyes sparkled with a mischievous joy, and she patted my shoulder.

“Don’t worry, I have an in with the boss here. Lemme go talk to her. Okay, you’ve got the job.”

“Wait, what?”

“This is my shop. I told you about it, didn’t I?” She pouted when all I could do was shake my head - I was sure I’d have remembered if she mentioned owning a tattoo parlour. “Oh, well. C’mon, welcome. I’ll give you the tour.”

I followed her on unsteady knees through the beaded curtains to the back. Each artist’s space was blocked off by chest-high walls, their separate areas decorated how they saw fit. A squeak escaped from me when I turned and was face-to-face with a hyper-realistic drawing of Pennywise, blood dripping from his eyes. Shuddering, I scurried to catch up with Bev.

She introduced me to every person we passed. Malcolm was easily the friendliest, grinning and bumping elbows with me before going back to working on his client. His tanned skin was covered with tattoos; ink disappeared beneath his T-shirt and cargo shorts, up the back of his neck to his hairline. His greying hair gleamed under the lights, and I almost asked how old he was. Thankfully, I realised it would have been rude, so I bit back the question as Bev and I walked away.

Trix barely glanced up from where she was cleaning her equipment when we stopped by her cubicle, though she did say “Sup”. Her dark braids seemed to shimmer and warp whenever she moved her head. The number of piercings she had in her face and ears was, quite honestly, shocking; I found myself mesmerised by the shining metal, but I had to admit she pulled it off well.

Lucien always ran late, or so Bev told me.

“Seriously, never schedule any appointments with him before ten in the morning,” she warned in an undertone. “The client will only end up having to wait a million years for him to show up, and it would be bad for business. If he wasn’t so damned good at what he does, I’d have booted him long ago. If they have to have an early appointment and don’t mind someone else, Trix and Dray are the most reliable with being on time.”

“Dray?”

Dray was a wispy sort of fellow with the shifty kind of expression on his face that said he expected trouble and would run at the first sight. I was surprised when he shook my hand; his grip was strong, completely unlike what I expected. Bev must have known what I was thinking, because she laughed softly and steered me back toward the front of the building.

She left me at the desk to get acquainted with the scheduling software, and I drew in a deep breath to steady myself. As I sat there, the strains of heavy metal managed to break through my internal freak-out, causing me to wonder how I’d missed it when I first arrived. My heart still raced, pounded painfully in my chest, but it was easier to handle now.

I could scarcely believe that not even five days ago, I had left on a two thousand-mile drive for an unfamiliar city. It was a desperate search for something different, something better, something more. I could only hope I’d found it in Huntington Beach.