Here we go!
An hour before, Brian held out the bag to Ray, and Ray slapped his hand in return. The bag fell to the ground. Brian hated the Commerce City bridge, for this exact reason. These types of situations always seemed to unfold here. Brian looked around at the members of Ray’s crew. Just as he had expected, the deal had turned bad, for reasons completely beyond Brian’s understanding. Ray had flipped a switch and gone into gangster mode with no prior warning.
Ray, with his face half-covered with a bandage, reached into his jacket pocket and removed a pistol. Brian’s stomach lurched and he stepped backwards. He had not expected this. Brian closed his eyes and tried to picture a positive outcome to the scenario.
Ray noticed that Brian’s attention had become lost, and smacked Brian in the face with the pistol. Brian fell to the ground, more from shock than pain. Before tonight, he had never had a gun pointed at him, let alone been pistol whipped. His hand went to the spot on his face, which already throbbed and pulsed. Ray squared his shoulders. The half dozen members of Ray’s crew, shrouded in the dim light of the moon, chuckled. Brian turned his head, looking for a way out. Ray raised the pistol, and pushed it so close to Brian’s face that his eyes crossed.
Then Miguel arrived.
Ten minutes later, Brian’s ‘91 Honda Prelude sped north along Highway 287 away from the bridge at Commerce City, going twenty miles per hour above the speed limit. Inside the car, he tried to focus on the road ahead of him instead of the panic in his chest and the sweat accumulating on his palms, which made the steering wheel a slippery mess. He had twenty more minutes until Boulder. Twenty minutes to home.
Brian had been in uncomfortable situations before due to his line of work, but never anything like this. Tonight had been the first time he had ever experienced the immediacy of danger to such a vivid and palpable degree. A gun.
Now inside his car, realizing that he could not outrun what had just happened, his breath became rapid, and spotted vision accompanied lightheadedness. Despite the urgency to get home, he had no choice but to pull the car onto the shoulder. He parked the car, relaxed his grip on the steering wheel and moved his hands in loops around the fake leather circle, rubbing in the sweat. The steering wheel glistened. He tried to slow his rapid heart by breathing in his nose, out his mouth, repeatedly until he could see straight. He visualized himself at peace.
“This isn’t you,” he said to the dashboard. “This happened to you, but this isn’t you. You are not this anxiety. You are okay. You are going to be okay.”
He wanted to go back and get Miguel, whom he left behind. Miguel had insisted that Brian leave; that the situation was under control. Watching his friend wield that single shotgun against the lot of them and their pistols, Brian had been unconvinced. Worry about his friend consumed him, but if he went back, no telling what would he find. Perhaps, all the cars missing and Miguel’s bulky, lifeless body lying in the dirt under the Commerce City bridge? Too much to process. He cursed himself for leaving a friend to an unknown fate, but had seen little choice. He needed to get back to the dorms, and then he would figure out what to do.
Brian and Alex arrived at the keg party after 10 pm on the Friday of the first week of class. Although he had calmed several degrees from the fright of Wednesday night, still Brian did not want to be here, only two days removed from that experience. He refused to let it show because he wanted Alex to enjoy himself.
As Brian parked the car, Alex yawned. “You tired?” Brian asked him.
“I’m just not used to going out this late.”
Brian checked his watch. “It’s actually a little early; I’m not sure how many people are going to be here yet. Doesn’t get going at Miguel’s until usually about midnight, but that just means more beers to go around for us. You’ve been to keg parties before, right?”
Alex frowned. “Of course I have.”
Brian had not spoken to Wiles since the bridge, and figured he might as well warn Alex about that impending conversation. He traced the disc of the steering wheel with his fingertips as he spoke. “Look, there may be a friend of mine here tonight. If he is here, I might have to go off with him, and I won’t be able to give you a ride home. I’ll try to find you a ride with someone else if that happens. I’m sorry about this.”
Alex said, “yeah, no problem. Is everything okay?”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s probably nothing and it shouldn’t take very long. Just something I gotta go do.”
They got out of Brian’s car, and with some effort, he shut the driver-side door, which had not cooperated since he had nudged that telephone poll a couple years before. Brian looked around at the sparsely populated front lawn of Miguel’s house, and the party did indeed seem small. One keg sat near the porch, which indicated a probable second keg in the back yard.
“Do you know any of these people?” Alex said.
“No, I don’t think so; not any of these people out front.”
“Should we stay here, then? Is that weird?”
Brian shook his head. “It’s a keg party. If you got your five bucks, nobody cares. I know the guy who lives here so it’s not a big deal. There’s maybe another keg around back, and we can hit up that one instead. The back yard’s bigger, probably more people. I hate waiting in line for the keg, anyway.”
They rounded the back of the house and Brian noticed his friends Leroy and Malcolm standing by the keg. Leroy gave him a knowing wink. Brian, while not feeling social today, still flashed the peace sign, and Leroy waved him over. Brian slipped his hand into his pocket as Leroy did the same. They high-fived, and Brian slipped Leroy a small baggie of weed, which Leroy replaced with a twenty dollar bill. Brian slipped the money into his pocket. The whole exchange lasted less than a second. Brian studied Alex, who appeared oblivious to the deal that had just taken place.
“Brian,” Leroy began, “you gotta get in on this. Malcolm here says he don’t eat the cat. I ain’t sure if I believe him, but tell him what you told me.”
Malcolm interjected before Brian could say anything. “I don’t be doing that freaky shit. I ain’t into that nasty stuff.”
“Tell him what you told me,” Leroy repeated.
Brian lifted two cups from the stack on top of the keg, and passed one to Alex as he spoke. Leroy and Malcolm paid no attention. “Malcolm, how many girls have you been with?”
He looked up to the heavens for an answer. “I don’t know, a few. I ain’t R. Kelly or nothing, but I been around.”
Brian took the keg tap from Leroy’s hand and started to fill up his cup, and then Alex’s. He tilted the cup while pouring to reduce the head from the frothy keg. He continued: “So, if you don’t go down on those girls, how many of them have you been with more than once?”
Malcolm opened his mouth to speak, but then stumbled over his words. He cocked his head like a confused dog, pondering it. Speechless. Leroy exploded with laughter and slugged Brian in the shoulder. Leroy pointed a told-you-so finger at Malcolm. “See, son? That’s what I been telling you.”
“Cops been here yet?” Brian said.
“Naw, but it’s still pretty early. Everybody just standing around and shit. Waiting on some women to show up, but that’s not looking too promising right now.”
“Miguel?” Brian said.
“I don’t know man, he was here for a short minute, but we ain’t seen him in a while.”
“We’re going to get around, I’ll catch you guys later,” Brian said as he returned the keg tap to Leroy. As they walked, Brian smiled at Alex, who still held the five-dollar bill in his hand, as if waiting to give it to someone. “Don’t worry about that,” Brian told him.
Alex held up his cup to eye-level. Half foam. Brian swiped a finger along the side of his nose and dipped into Alex’s beer. Alex yanked his cup-hand away. “Dude, what in the fuck?” he said.
“Oh, sorry, habit. A little skin oil will melt away that foam real quick. Heather swears by earwax, but I think that’s pretty nasty.”
“Hmm,” Alex said. He examined the cup as the head retreated. “Okay, kinda gross, but makes sense.”
The back yard of the house was indeed a different story from the front yard. Scanning the crowd, Brian’s eyes happened to land on a particular girl, standing at the opposite end of the yard. Tall, with long brown hair, a trim figure, and crescent-moon arched eyebrows highlighting her face. She stood out like a tulip in a field of lilies, and Brian could not take his eyes from her. She was talking with some other girls in a small circle, but he was too far away to hear their conversation. She had one hand on her curvy hip, the other holding a wine cooler she sipped through a straw. Brian never understood the straw-in-the-bottle thing that girls always did, but for some reason, this one looked even sexier with it.
Brian realized that she looked somewhat like Heather. Same long brown hair, same facial structure and similar figure, yet one thing about this new girl seemed quite different, though. She had, poking out of the top of her t-shirt, a sliver of dark tattoo crawling up her collarbone and onto her neck. Curvy, like the tail of a snake, it hinted at a much larger tattoo underneath. The tattoo increased her appeal, because ink like that would have a story behind it.
For the next fifteen seconds, Brian indulged in a fantasy about talking to this girl… how he would find an excuse to greet her when they both happened to be in the kitchen at some point later tonight. He would invent some clever thing to say that would make her laugh. Maybe something about that intriguing tattoo. He would be dashing but subtle, so afterwards he would be proud of his charm and hope that she might think of him later.
“There are a butt-load of people back here,” Alex said, interrupting Brian’s daydream. “I don’t know any of them.”
Brian did not know anyone in the backyard, but he had sold weed to probably half of them. “Yeah, I don’t, um…”
“What are you looking at?” Alex said.
Brian turned his attention back to Alex. “Nothing, really. You want to check out inside?”
Nearby, the familiar squeal of Heather’s voice. She had apparently spilled some beer on the head of a man seated on the back porch when she tried to close the glass door behind her. Classic Heather, she giggled while she made her apology to the beer-soaked stranger.
“There she is,” Brian said to Alex as they watched her fumble.
Heather saw them and ceased her apology. She patted the doused stranger on the head and then ran over towards Brian, almost knocking him over. “Hey baby. I was wondering when you were going to show up. Oh my God, you just missed it. Drunk Laura was up on the roof, trying to dance, and she totally bit it. Fell into that bush on the side of the house, and Kyle ended up taking her home. She was all scratched up. She didn’t want to leave, he had to put her in a headlock to get her out to the car, and she was kicking him in the shins and stuff. Seriously amazing.”
Heather, originally from Southern California, had a vague trace of the valley girl in her speech, but not enough to be annoying. Brian had spent so much time around her that he hardly noticed it any more.
“It’s not a party until Drunk Laura shows up,” said Brian. Heather sniffed a few times in quick succession. She’s been hitting the coke today. This is the last thing I need right now.
Heather noticed Alex. “Who’s this kid?”
“Oh yeah,” Brian said, “this is Alex. He lives on my floor.”
Alex tried to look nonchalant by giving Heather the quick head-nod and saying a curt “wassup,” but his eyes gave him away as they stole glances all over Heather’s body. She bobbed and weaved while she talked, as if to fulfill her breasts’ desire to free themselves of her low-cut top. Brian paid no attention; he knew Heather’s figure sometimes earned lingering looks from other men.
“You must be Brian’s girlfr–”
Heather covered Alex’s mouth with her hand, cutting him off. She slid a finger up to her own lips to shush him. After a few seconds of feigning seriousness, she broke the ruse and snickered.
Brian shook his head. “You are so toasted, little Miss Heather. It must be Friday. Get an early start today?”
“They cancelled my bio class so I pretty much had no choice but to go do some beer bongs with Chelsea and those guys at Reed’s apartment,” she said, grinning. “Like I said, I had to. Jimmy Fuston was there, and he told me to tell you that you still owe him twenty bucks. Oh my God, that reminds me, I was going to ask you, what’s up with your little brother? He in major trouble this time?”
“No idea, Jimmy hasn’t come home yet. I’m sure he will be when he finally shows up.”
Alex waited, probably for an explanation, but Brian had no desire to rehash it all right now. He had been dealing with his younger brother Jimmy’s propensity for running away for a couple of years, and Brian did not have the patience. Maybe later, just not right now. After Jimmy wandered back to his parents’ house in a day or two, remorseful and full of apologies, then Brian would discuss it.
“That kid is a flight risk,” Heather said, giggling. “Anyway, Wiles is inside. He told me to tell you, he’s looking for you and to send you inside ‘ASAP’ or ‘stat’ or whatever.”
Brian swallowed, trying to fake neutrality. “Okay, good, I was hoping he’d be here,” he lied. “I need to go talk to him about something. Alex, can you keep an eye on our girl here, make sure she doesn’t waste any more beer?”
Alex’s face lit up and he stole another glance at Heather’s curves before answering. “Yeah, sure, no problem. She’s safe with me.”