We missed you again at Christmas this year. I may not remember what the holidays were like when you were around, but I can only imagine they were infinitely better with you in them. Will you ever come back? I need you to teach me how to drive since Dad refuses to do it. I’d be a good driver, you know. Anyway, Merry Christmas and all that. I miss you.
* * *
“Die, zombies, die!” Dave yells over the thumping music of the party. Red-faced and far too excited, he perches on the edge of the couch, trying to take down hundreds of zombies with the flick of his thumb. “Sam! Help me!”
“Relax!” I hit the buttons of my controller, sending rapid-fire at the wall of zombies descending on the fortress. Only a few go down due to my lousy aim. I can’t say I care. I’m only playing the game as an excuse to avoid hanging around the drunken masses upstairs.
I spent over a week trying to convince Kennedy that I shouldn’t come to her party. I argued I was too socially awkward; she countered with a threat—show up or be disowned as her best friend. So here I am, at her party, on the condition that I get to hang out in the basement with Dave. He doesn’t care where he is, and I don’t have to worry about anyone bumping into the bruised ribs I’ve been hiding.
I’m sure it’s been hard for Kennedy to keep her basement reserved for the “quiet losers,” but she’s done a half-decent job enforcing it. Not that it’s quiet down here, but it’s not as bad as upstairs. Only twenty people. Maybe fifteen. Dave even managed to play his guitar for a while earlier—until the music from upstairs got too loud.
Something crashes right over our heads. It’s getting out of control up there. I glance at the stairs, nervous that the party will eventually spill into the basement, and whoa! The most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen appears, gliding down the stairs. Okay, not gliding exactly, but she’s like some mystical being who stepped straight out of a fantasy novel and into Kennedy’s party. Our eyes lock, and I’m lost. Forget the zombies. Forget Dave. I have to meet this girl. I’m in a trance. Stop staring, Sam! Shit!
She flashes me a shy smile. Oh wow. I smile back and quickly look away.
“Sam, you ass! Pay attention! They’re killing us!” Dave yells from beside me, but I ignore him.
I should do something about this amazing girl. Something drastic. Like, talk to her. I casually peer through my bangs. She’s looking this way. Every time I glance over, she’s still staring. Not even trying to hide it. She smiles again, and I die inside.
Dave yells, “Nooooo!” as his character’s flesh is ripped off in chunks by the teeth of zombie cheerleaders. “Dammit, Sam! You suck.” He tosses the controller onto the coffee table and wanders toward the stairs. “I need a beer.”
I slowly lay my controller beside Dave’s and take a deep breath to calm my chaotic heartbeat. When I finally have the courage to look again, the girl is talking to Kennedy, who just came downstairs. Perfect! I can hang with Kennedy while I’m waiting for Dave. She can introduce us.
I navigate my way around the small groups of kids and head for the stairs. The girls are huddled together, deep in conversation.
Kennedy points over her shoulder to the couch where I was just sitting. The girl peeks around her, shaking her head. Her voice drifts over the music. “He’s not there anymore!”
“Oh!” Kennedy spins around to look for me, and when she realizes I’m only a few feet away, she jumps, spilling beer down the front of her shirt. “There you are, Sam! Oh, shit, that’s cold!” She leans forward to keep the wet fabric off her skin, exposing significant cleavage. “It never fails! I’ve gotta go change, but Sam, I want to talk to you. I’ll be back before midnight, okay?” She takes my arm in hers, hugs it, and then lets go. “Wait for me?”
I nod. “Sure.”
“Rose, this is Sam. Talk to him. He doesn’t bite. Sam, look after her.” Kennedy runs up the stairs, leaving me alone with Rose.
Damn. Her eyes are so round they belong in a Pixar movie, and she has a light dusting of freckles across her nose like sprinkles on a doughnut, only not so colourful.
“Hi,” I say. I toss a hand up in a half-assed wave and shove my hands in my back pockets. That’s all I’ve got. Hi. My mind is a total blank. Say something, Sam. Goddammit, say something! “So, uh, Happy New Year, I guess.”
Frowning, Rose pulls out her phone and glances at the time. “Not yet. We’ve still got a few minutes, see?” She wobbles a little as she shows me the time and puts her hand out to the wall for balance.
“Right. Not yet.” I lean against the wall and cross my arms in front of me. Nice and casual. “So, where do you go to school?”
She smiles her perfect, straight white teeth at me and says, “Same as you guys. I’m starting there after Christmas break.”
“Cool!” Damn. I sounded way too excited. Be cool. I clear my throat. “Cool.” I’m bobbing my head, stuck in a permanent nodding pattern as I try to figure out what to say next. I can’t stop. I’m a freaking bobblehead. I belong on a dashboard, not at this party.
A soft cartoon giggle sneaks out of her.
I lean in close so she can hear me. “Has anyone ever told you, you look like you stepped out of a Pixar movie? I mean seriously, are you cousins with Nemo or something? Your eyes are—”
“Ha! Wow, thanks. Yeah, I love being told I look like an orange fish.” She takes a step closer to me, and the drink in her hand sloshes around in the cup. She tips it up to her mouth and finishes it. “Gross. I hate warm beer.” There’s her cartoon giggle again.
God, she’s adorable. I take the cup from her and put it on the stairs behind me. “So, did your toys come alive when you were a kid?” This has got to be the lamest flirting ever. Can I even call it flirting? I want to die.
Rose’s glassy eyes gaze into mine. She crinkles up her nose. “You’re weird.”
“Yup.” I laugh awkwardly, ready for her to tell me to leave her alone.
“I like it. So, tell me, weirdo-Sam, who are you? What’s your story?”
I hook my thumbs into my belt loops and shake my head. “My story?”
“I mean, aside from being hot. Oh shit, I didn’t mean to say that out loud.” Her cheeks flush. She brushes a hand across my shoulder. “Sorry. Lint. It was driving me nuts.”
I memorize the spot on my shoulder where her hand touched me so I can reference it later in my fantasies. “I’m not hot.”
“Trust me. You are.”
I shake my head. “Whatever. So…is that why you were staring?” I clear my throat and try to slow my breathing. “You could have come over and talked to me.”
“I was working up to it. Hey, you were staring too. Otherwise, how would you have known I was staring?” Her words slur together in an adorable drunken mess.
“Okay, fair enough.” I run a hand through my hair.
“Forget all that. I still need to figure you out. Who. Is. Sam.” As her gaze bores into mine like she’s trying to dissect me, I decide I like this game and don’t want it to end. Ever.
“Let’s see….” She looks me up and down. “You’re not a jock. That’s easy.”
“Ouch. Okay, I’m not built like a football player, but what if I’m on the track team? Or the swim team? I can be scrawny and still be a jock.”
“Are you?” Her eyes challenge me with a humorous, mocking glimmer that I definitely need to see more of in my future.
I try to hide my guilty smile. “No.”
“See? I’m good at this. Okay, so I’m going to embarrass myself and admit that I’ve been watching you all night, and you’re going to pretend that’s not creepy. Deal?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer and waves an invisible fly from her face. “So, anyway, you’ve spent the entire night playing video games, but you’re definitely not a gaming nerd.”
“How do you know? What if I’ve dedicated my entire existence to killing zombies?”
“Because you suck. You’re NOT a gamer.”
I laugh. “Fine.” I’m not sure how it happened, but we’ve moved closer to each other while talking, or maybe it was all her. I don’t know. But as she leans into me, her knee is now close enough to be brushing mine. I can’t think about anything but running my hands through her dark hair and kissing her.
“You’ve been drinking Coke all night. So, you’re a responsible designated driver.”
“Not quite. I don’t drive yet, and I don’t drink.”
I shake my head. “Nope.” Feeling unusually brave, I lean in close to her ear. “What do I get when you get one wrong?”
She runs her fingers along the bottom of my t-shirt. “Nothing. Yet. Do you mind me asking why you don’t drink?”
I go with my standard answer, even though it’s bullshit. “Don’t like the taste.”
I stare at her fingers on my shirt and imagine them moving closer, touching my stomach, running up to my chest. I want to kiss her, and I’m pretty damn sure she wants to kiss me. But I shouldn’t. She’s drunk. I step back. The edges of my shirt slip through her fingers and fall back in place. “I should go. I have to work tomorrow.”
“But it’s almost midnight. We have like, two minutes. Stay. I don’t know anyone else here except for Kennedy, and she hasn’t come back yet. Don’t leave me alone on New Years.” She wraps her arms around my neck and rests her head onto my shoulder. “Besides, you’re holding me up.” She chuckles.
After an eternity of hesitation, I give in and wrap my arms around her waist. “Fine. While we’re waiting…you still haven’t figured me out. Want to keep trying?” It’s a stupid game, but she seems to like it, and I’m all about keeping her happy now.
I laugh. “Do I look emo?” Before she can answer, I shake my head. “Keep guessing.”
I answer with a laugh. “Hardly.”
She pulls her head up from my shoulder and stares at my mouth. My ears. My hair. “You’re kinda artsy, but not. You’ve got.…”
I know she’s talking, but I can’t concentrate on her words. How is this happening? Girls usually ignore me. Or just want to be friends. She must be extremely drunk.
She runs her hand across my shoulder.
I tilt my head down to nuzzle her neck. She smells like cookies. “Wow, you smell good. Did you roll in a cookie jar?”
“My mom runs a cookie business out of the house.”
“I like it.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything, but since you started it, you smell like coffee. It’s like, radiating from you. Did you have a coffee bath before coming here?” she asks in a mocking tone.
“Ha, no, that’d be the consequence of working in a coffee shop all day.”
She nuzzles her nose into my shirt and takes a giant whiff. “Wow, that’s pretty hot.”
I gulp. “Uh-huh.” I put my hands on her shoulders and try to peel her away from me. I can lie to myself all I want, but I know Rose is too drunk for me to be letting her get this close. “I should go. I have an audition the second day back at school, and I’m not ready.” It’s a lame excuse, but at least it’s true.
“That’s it! You’re a theatre nerd!”
“Yup, that’s me.”
Rose lets out a small giggle and a sigh. “Me too. What are you guys putting on this year?”
“Are you shitting me?” I can’t hide my giant smile. This girl keeps getting better. In fact, she may be perfect. “Uh, we’re doing Grease, despite Kennedy’s protests that it’s barbaric.”
“Yeah, you know, the whole Sandy changing for Danny thing. Plus, Danny’s an ass for ignoring her because he’s too cool. Don’t mention it to Kennedy. She’ll talk your ear off.” I mime a gun to my head and pull the trigger.
I nod to her. “So, you think you’ll audition?”
“Definitely.” Rose sways a little and mumble-sings, “Hopelessly devoted to you…” and at that exact moment, I’m in love. Her voice is like gold, and she’s not even trying.
Upstairs, someone shut off the music and is yelling for everyone to watch the time—thirty seconds to midnight. The last of the people still in the basement rush upstairs so they won’t miss the big moment.
We’re alone now. Rose tips her head back and stares at me, unfocused. “I know we just met, but would it be cool if we kissed at midnight? I’ve always wanted to start the year off doing something awesome, like kissing a cute guy.”
“You want to…yeah, uh sure.” Smooth, Sam.
She giggles again and tightens her grip around my neck. Dozens of drunken voices drift down the stairs, counting down the seconds to when I get to kiss this amazing girl, and I can’t wait until they get to “one.”
I slip my hands to Rose’s face, tracing a few of the freckles on her nose with my thumb. Her Nemo eyes stare at my lips. That’s it; I’m not waiting.
“One.” I pull her close and kiss her. She tastes like beer and chocolate.
Upstairs, as everyone else hits the new year, there’s a giant crash, some swearing, and a roar of laughter. But Rose and I are wrapped in this kiss that I would kill to keep going forever.
After a minute, she pulls away, breathless, her eyes shining even brighter than before. “You cheated. You kissed me at five.”
“I couldn’t wait.” I smirk with a quick shrug.
“You couldn’t wait five seconds?”
“Hey, I’m not the one who—” I don’t get to finish my thought because her lips lock on mine again, and I’m backed against the wall. Not wanting to stop any of this, I ignore the pain in my ribs. She runs her hands up inside my shirt, so I figure hands-under-shirts are fair game and do the same to her.
The music’s back on, thumping and shaking the walls.
It’s been way too long since I’ve felt-up a girl. A whole year since Jamie dumped me on Christmas Eve. She thought I was embarrassed to have her over at my house. I wasn’t about to admit that my dad was the problem. I hadn’t invited anyone to the house in over six years. It was easier to let Jamie think it was about her.
A year is clearly too long to go without making out when you’re sixteen. I can’t stop. Don’t want to stop. I know I need to, though, because I barely know Rose, and she’s drunk, and I don’t want to be that guy she regrets the next day. I also don’t need her seeing my bruises.
I run one of my hands down her back and onto her butt while she leans into me. Harder. Her kiss grows stronger. I reach back under her shirt and unclasp her bra. I spin us around, so she’s the one pinned to the wall. I grind up against her—kiss her neck. Move back to her lips.
Her hands go to the button on my jeans, and she starts to undo them. I push her hands away because this is too much. I’m not about to have my first time in Kennedy’s basement with a bunch of drunk assholes partying upstairs. Rose tries again, the warmth of her fingers tingling against my skin as she plays with the top of my jeans. Shit, this needs to stop. Popped button, unzipped zipper. Her hands…
“Sam! What the fuck are you doing?” Kennedy’s sharp voice echoes through the empty basement.
Rose and I jump from the shock of remembering that other people exist. I turn my back on both girls while I struggle to do up my jeans. Shit.
When I turn back around, thankful I’m wearing a long shirt, Rose is standing there, weaving back and forth, grinning. “Sorry. I got carried away. I swear I’m not usually like this.”
Kennedy puts her hands on her hips, but the expression on her face is unreadable. “She’s been drinking, Sam. I thought I could trust you.”
“Sorry. It just kind of…happened.” God, that sounds so lame.
“Since when do you take advantage of drunk girls? Would you have…never mind. I don’t want to know. Dave’s wasted, and you need to walk him home. Can I trust you to do that without making out with him too?”
“Geez, Kennedy. You’re kind of overreacting.”
“Am I?” Her face is red, and she looks like she’s about to cry.
“Hey, what’s really wrong?” I wrap an arm around her shoulders. We’ve been friends since kindergarten. I know when she’s not telling me something. “Talk to me.”
She shakes her head and blows out a puff of air. “No, it’s okay. It’s just that I—a picture in the hallway got knocked down. My parents are going to be pissed. Forget it.” She turns to Rose, “You’re still sleeping over, right?”
Rose nods, then falls flat on her ass. What’s scary is that I don’t think she realizes she fell. She’s talking to Kennedy’s knees. I knew she was drunk. I had no idea she was that drunk.
It’s official. I’m a shit.