Elle doesn't like to think about things because worry doesn't feel good. It makes her hands clammy and her heart strain with pump-pumps. And while, admittedly, abstaining from thoughts has been an insensible philosophy and the raison d'etre behind 99% of her fuck-ups, Elle can't stop the abrupt outpour of thinks, mainly about how badly Noah is going to kill her dead, find some spooky necromancer freak to breathe life into her bones just so he'll have the satisfaction of killing her again. Maybe this is the single most scary event of her life, maybe it isn't. But Elle can't feel anything other than a resounding fear that does something funny to her insides, prompts her to heave Mr. Cortez across the hall and into the coat closet. Elle is so consumed in fleeing that she doesn't notice her wallet squeeze out of her back pocket or how just as Claire's foot slips into the closing door, Noah pads inside the house.
He bends down for the scuffed wallet. There, secured beneath the plastic visor and obscured by an old ticket stub, is Elle's driver's license. "Elle?" he calls, foot perched on the first step.
The top of her bedroom door is crooked open and visible from his vantage point. Another halting step forward and Noah flicks a glance towards his wristwatch. He grimaces. It's too late to be doing anything other than snatching his briefcase and barreling towards the airport. Vital clients are expecting him and, once again, the Company's reputation relies on his tried bureaucracy. They've already postponed the meeting well over an hour upon news that he had missed his initial flight and the boss would not take kindly to another muck up, albeit their rarity in Noah's carefully documented employment history. He slaps the wallet on the coffee table and tucks the briefcase beneath his arm.
Elle and Claire hold their breaths as a muffled engine churns away, further and further until the fear manifests into laughter. The closet is tight, Elle's crouched against the very back and Claire is kneeling against her, head bowed near Elle's chest. "Let's not do that again," whispers Claire and they smile at each other to distract their bodies from registering their proximity and the very real perils it poses. "I think it's clear…"
Elle nods expectantly, waiting for Claire to retreat so that she can spring upright, but the teenager just sits still, raises her head to look at Elle in the face. It's the closest they've been in eons and the cheerleader isn't ready to give it up. Claire wets her lips involuntarily, "I think we should get out of here before I do something I might end up regretting." Elle agrees.
It takes four propeller-like hoists to lodge Mr. Ortega into the backseat and they're off, scouting the area for a prime dumping site. The parking lot the chemistry teacher was abducted from is too conspicuous and it takes a 40 ounce cherry Slurpee split two ways and one mondo brain freeze before they happen upon a secluded patch of land near an ugly but in-service payphone. They make sure to plug the teacher's pockets with quarters and any other silver coins they find inside Claire's purse before slinking away as quickly as the speed limit will allow.
Claire can't shake off the thrill percolating straight through her bones. This, she reasons, is what the bad guys must feel like. She has to steer her eyes away from Elle on the way back. She wants to tangle her fingers with the older girl's but doesn't know how to broach the subject. Elle feels Claire looking at her and has a funny suspicion the cheerleader would do any torrid thing she could possibly ask for, but she resists, determined to stretch Claire's resolve until the younger girl snaps. "School?" she asks as pleasantly as she can muster, forcing Claire out of her hot daze.
Claire gazes out the window. "Don't bother."
"I guess you can look forward to your date now." It's a brisk afterthought, but laced with something undeniably off-putting.
Claire doesn't respond, sticks a hand out her open window and lets her fingers wiggle free. The wind sweeps her hair back and she closes her eyes, focuses on the feel of the air against her cheeks and lips and eyelids, the cool lashes lapping at her palm. Elle stares at the blurred pavement ahead of her, clenches her palms around the steering wheel so tight it makes the car jar out of place.
They spend the day avoiding one another, Elle counting down the minutes until dusk and the dwindling end of Friday's transition into Friday night. Elle spies Claire preening over her vanity mirror, uncapping mascara and dabbing on globs of lip gloss, holding outfits and half outfits to her body and cocking her head towards her reflection in assessment. Claire turns towards her, dress draped over shorts and tank top, and asks, "What do you think?"
Elle wants to tell Claire how beautiful she looks, but the words turn into carcasses somewhere along her thirsty throat. Instead, she nods, shrugs, walks away disinterestedly. She remembers the crumpled piece of paper Katie had given her days ago and which desk drawer she'd shoved it into. She unfolds the strip and yanks the house phone off its cradle, determined to show the blonde up.
Elle holes herself up in the bathroom, doesn't pop her head out when the doorbell rings and she hears Claire's heels clicking down the stairs, or when the heels come clicking back up for a presumably forgotten purse. Claire eyes the bathroom door and thinks about knocking to show Elle what she's worked so hard on pulling together for the sole purpose of making the older girl squirm. On second thought, Claire rules that calling attention to herself would be like admitting defeat and forces her legs to move on, back to Jared.
Katie's house is bigger than Elle imagined, but not as big as any of Daddy's old estates. The Toyota Corolla SR5 Noah gave her is older than Claire and it shows. She drives around the block because the streets nearest to Katie's house are congested with double parked guests. There's a sliver of open street wide enough to park in without dinging her rusty bumpers so she steals it before the less-shitty hatchback across from her has a chance to gun into the space. She walks past the Spanish style gates encircling Katie's house.
The brunt of Katie's party is inside the two story Spanish style house and along the back deck and tiled pool area. DJ Infierno is on a pedestal directly under the broad archway to-and-from the backyard. Elle shoulders her way to the open bar and pours herself a double shot of Rey Sol because it's nearest. A pack of sharply dressed seniors walks up to her but she sends the boys scurrying away with a demeaning glare. She can't be bothered humoring anyone, she's here for Claire.
Katie finds Elle first, taps her on the shoulder as Elle re-fills her cup. Elle picked out a racy dress and boots and from the wolfish glint in Katie's eyes, Elle knows she made the right selection. "Hey," greets the brunette. "You look amazing."
Elle smiles, throws Katie a bone by lingering over the parts the girl's outfit accentuates. They lock eyes. "Nice… place."
Katie bites her lip. "Thanks." She takes a sip of her bottled drink, "Did you just get here?"
"Like five minutes ago, why?"
"I've kind of been keeping an eye out for you," giggles Katie. "Does that make me a stalker?"
Elle scrunches her nose. "A little bit."
"You're in high demand; Claire's been looking for you since she got here."
"Where is Claire? I haven't seen her yet."
"Just hawk out the tallest guy in the room with the most pathetic lovesick smile on his face and you'll find her."
Elle nods stiffly. Oh how she'd love to spot Jared, give him a good surge of electricity, not too much though, just enough to permanently re-wire a couple million brain cells. Sure enough, the boy is hanging at Claire's side, trying to follow a conversation she's having with a mauve-haired girl.
Claire glances past her friend's shoulder and blinks at Elle. She's both surprised and relieved to see the older girl because for a while, Claire didn't think Elle would show up which in turn would have ruined her carefully deliberated plan. She presses her tiny palm against Jared's chest and pulls him in closer so that she can whisper something into his ear. A smirk splits his face from earlobe to earlobe and Elle can't stop seething.
Elle's plastic cup caves beneath her fingertips. If Claire insists on going blow for blow, Elle has no choice but to comply. Katie mentions body shots and Elle doesn't hesitate to shake a trail of salt along Katie's neck. Elle drags her tongue against Katie and slams down the shot before biting on the lime wedge between Katie's lips. Some part of Elle, the part that feels like a 24-year-old woman, can't believe she's resorting to playing high school mind games with 17-year-olds. It's like this the entire night, Claire postures and Elle postures right back. Claire strikes and Elle strikes harder. The electric blonde stopped counting shots three hours ago and Katie hasn't stopped trying to convince Elle into seeing the inside of her bedroom. "Please," she asks for the umpteenth time, insisting that her bedroom set, particularly her princess style four-poster, is the comfiest in all the land.
Elle's too busy spying on Claire and the way she and Jared are canoodling on the sofa, her head on his chest and his hand in her hair. They're evenly scored, and Claire hasn't had so much as one drink or laid her lips anywhere past Jared's cheek. There are no qualms in Elle's head that Claire is anything short of a five star golden girl. The cheerleader's eyes skim towards her direction every so often when Jared is talking or their conversation has hit a lull, especially when Claire caresses his chest or shoulders, leans up to giggle something or accepts an arm around her. Elle openly rolls her eyes and takes Katie's hand, yanking the girl somewhere, anywhere else. The alcohol is making her feet wobbly and her head light and foggy. If she doesn't get away from the bass-laden music and Claire's obnoxious interactions, she'll spew.
The younger girl takes the lead, tugging Elle up a staircase and down the first left turn. She dims the lights and locks the door behind Elle who trudges forward and collapses on the bed. "You don't waste any time, do you?" giggles Katie, reaching back to unzip her top. She hops onto Elle, scratches her nails down the blonde's ribcage. "How do I look?" But it's too late, Elle is asleep. Katie huffs, but quickly decides that Elle is too cute to be angry with. She tucks the older girl into bed and sidles alongside her. Plus, Katie reasons, all the anticipation just makes her hotter.
Claire is annoyed. She's sick of ego-fluffing Jared, swears she'll kill the next well-intentioned peer who so much as approaches her with noxious levels of alcohol on their breath. She's annoyed with Katie, the insensitive skank, for pursuing Elle even after Claire had risked marring her perfectly tailored projection of normalcy to claim the older girl as hers and hers alone. She's annoyed that the DJ has outplayed her favorite songs to the point where the mindlessness of pop music begins to unnerve her and she wants every Billboard 100 artist's head on a skewer. Annoyed that she can't fake being not annoyed for more than five minutes without Elle's eyes on her. But most of all, she's annoyed at Elle for making her feel this way. Annoyed at Elle for making her feel so secure about whatever this fucked up thing between them is that she actually believed Katie was just showing her to the bathroom. But it's been hours since she's seen the two girls and Claire is one alcoholic beverage short of kicking Katie's door open and dragging the brunette down by her hair.
Claire is a teetotaler by choice, but caved about an hour ago when the anticipation of Elle's re-emergence turned into a savage obsession. It started with one Smirnoff Ice and then another. Being a lightweight, the two drinks were enough for her to laughingly tell Jared off. He'd simpered away and although that had helped a little, Claire needed more comfort, sought her solace in a competitive game of beer pong.
Claire is losing. Again. It's her third round and the opposing team just sunk two consecutive ping pong balls in her cups. She swallows the beer down and rolls her eyes as the winning teammates crunch sweaty chests in victory. "How about another game?" asks Jenna, flushed and glassy-eyed.
"No, thanks. I'm way, way, way past my alcohol limit and I definitely don't want to pull a Brock Taylor," says Claire. Every school has a Brock Taylor, the kid who can't quite hold his own liquor and ends up in the back of a squad car for streaking. The somebody who pukes in the pool and passes out in the pantry for the maid to discover in the morning. The juggernaut behind the embarrassing event everyone can recall even through the densest spells of alcoholic amnesia, yeah, that kid.
When Claire wanders to the living room, Katie is back downstairs, making rounds and saying goodbye to the retreating few. Claire can't describe the sensations bursting throughout her body in any other words than just that: bursting. She pulls Katie away from Michael Strongwood and Heather Dwight, and shuts them inside the study. "Hey, Claire," says Katie. "What's up? Is everything okay?"
"No, everything is not okay."
The brunette sighs noisily, rearranges a crystal paperweight, lion head bookends. "Is this about Elle?"
"You know this is about Elle."
"Too bad, Claire," she snarls, gripping the desk behind her. "You always get everything you want. You got captain of the squad even though we both know I busted my ass off twice as hard," she takes a menacing step towards Claire, "Ky Walton. Do you even remember him? You went on a date with him even though you knew I was, like, in love with the guy. Or genius Greta Paulson over stinky, legally retarded Newt Toby for lab partners because you were nicer to her during freshman year," she shakes her head, "This time I'm not going to stand down. I really like Elle and most importantly, without giving too much away," she bites her lip suggestively, "I think Elle likes me too."
"I'll let you decide that for yourself," she captures Claire's chin in her fist. "Now, since I'm not a vindictive little bitch, you're welcome to leave or you're welcome to stay. Just make sure you stay the hell away from me because," she kisses Claire on the cheek, "I promise you will get hurt."
A shock of sunlight sweeps over Elle's face. She groans and tugs the blanket over her eyes. "You!" growls an irate parental figure; Elle can hear God-given authority all over his gritty tone. "Get the hell out of my daughter's bed!"
Elle slides upward, palm squished against the side of her head that throbs the most. She doesn't remember screwing anyone last night, let alone anyone's daughter. Just then, Katie hurls her tiny, underwear-clad form at the very angry man screaming at her. She can't hear what he's saying, but she assumes it's something gristly; the vein bulging at his forehead is plenty indication. Elle feels something crawling around in her stomach, possibly hoofing its way up to her throat.
Elle makes it onto her feet, wobbles sideways and desperately swipes at the bedpost. She steadies herself, trying her best to push down whatever the fuck is creeping up and up. Oh God, she feels sick, searches around for a potted plant or insignificant vase, finding none and running, flying to the nearest restroom. She yanks the toilet lid open just in time. Outside the bathroom, she can hear Katie whining at her father and she'd roll her eyes if they weren't so watery. "Please don't," she sniffles. "Nothing happened!"
"I don't care, Katie. It's the principle. Now tell me who the hell that girl is so that I can call her parents--," pause, "She does go to your school?" Revealing pause. "Goddammit, Katie, why the hell do you do this to me? I'm getting my shotgun."
Elle groans, spits the sour taste out of her mouth and steals a sip of the mouthwash perched on the sink. She swishes it around as she stumbles out of the bathroom, gargles as she hurries down the stairs so, so clumsily. Katie is nipping at her heels. "Hurry, Elle," she urges. "My dad is crazy."
The front door is flung open and direct sunlight hits her face like a stealthy sidewinder. Elle grimaces. She spits the Scope out into the bushes and glares at the Jones' across the street who apparently rise at the buttcrack of early to trim their lawn and rotate their ornamental flamingos. They're staring at her or more accurately, at the scene that she has created: Katie, still in a bra and matching panties, hugging at her on the porch, tears freefalling down her face. Mumbling something about how her father shot so-and-so in the leg last summer, missed a major artery by a fucking fraction of a hair.
"Jesus," growls Elle, hungover and panicked. She manages to shove Katie off her and limp away. The brunette just hops up and down, yelling at her to run faster. This, Elle imagines, is what it must feel like when Claire and Katie's school quarterback is hurdling towards a touchdown, crowd doing the spectator thing and cheerleaders blowing smoke up his ass.
She glances back at the house and nearly wipes out on a water sprinkler as Katie's dad comes out with a shotgun. He levels the barrel in her direction but she ambles over a flower patch, absolutely destroying the promising plants, to duck out of the way. She runs until she's convinced he's not chasing her. Elle doesn't remember where she parked her car. The morning joggers must think she's a zombie extra as she shuffles down street after street, unsteady and aching from her guts out.
Sandra is cooking breakfast. The thick, runny oil and smell of popping bacon and sizzling fat makes her gag. She averts her eyes, but her stomach's already lurching and Sandra can see it all over her face. "Hangover?" she asks.
"More like Armageddon."
Elle crumples over the breakfast counter and doesn't make any indications of life until Sandra drops a plate in front of her. She gags but the older woman gives her a stern look until she picks something up and takes a nibble. She gives Sandra a thumbs up as she shoves the food down her throat, managing to chew only sporadically in-between stuffings.
Elle struggles to brush her teeth. Her belly's full of greasy breakfast foods and already, she feels a speckle of relief. She rinses off her toothbrush and jams it in its holder before splashing some water on her face, scrubbing away any make-up and grimy traces of this morning's marathon run.
Her room is dark. The curtains are drawn and perfectly efficient at what they do. Elle sighs contentedly. She's never had a place to call her own and this space with its banal Bennet-picked wallpaper and divine shag carpeting, sloppily hitched fixtures and slew of posters; random articles of clothing clumped together in patches and other subtle adornments say "This is Elle's." She kneels against her mattress, rubs her palms across the cool, unmade sheets, ready to dive in when the lump she assumed was just a concentration of blankets, moves. "Damn it," she hisses, torching her fist just-in-case.
She grips one end of bedding and yanks it downward, exposing a startled Claire. Elle blinks, promptly extinguishing her hand. "What are you doing in my bed?" She squints. "Is that my shirt?"
Claire pushes herself upright and leans against the headboard. "Did you just get home?" she asks, rubbing the disorientation out her eyes.
Elle shrugs. "Does it matter? Look, I'm really not in the mood for a lengthy interrogation, if that's alright with you." She tugs her knee-high boots off, de-bangles her arms and de-earrings her lobes. "I just want to get some sleep."
Claire just stares at her. "You spent the night at Katie's," she says quietly, calmly.
"That's right, and her dad almost shot me. With a gun. A real one. With bullets. Or, you know, shot gun shells, if you want to get technical. And then I spent an hour looking for my car," she purses her lips, adds a vinegary afterthought, "At least an hour."
"I was right."
"About you and Katie."
"God, no," Elle snorts because she's too tired to laugh, "I told you I wasn't interested in her." She pads into her closet and sheds her dress for cotton short shorts patterned with anthropomorphic cupcakes and a plain white tank top. "Look," she pops her head out to pointedly address Claire, "I don't want you thinking you're entitled to certain types of information or anything, but I wanted to get away from the crowd last night. I ended up crashing in her room, that's all."
"Oh." Claire rubs her face, suppresses a smile beneath her hands. It feels like someone vacuum-sucked all the tension out of her body and dispersed it somewhere vast and free.
Elle ambles back towards Claire, one hand at her hip and the other waving around almost haphazardly. "Can I have my bed back now?"
Claire nods, but doesn't budge. "Your mattress is comfortable," she says and Elle chokes on a laugh because it's either the most random thing the cheerleader has ever said or the most obvious.
Elle swallows, drops one knee onto the mattress and then the other, places her palms flat in front of her and crawls up the bed. She bites her lip and bravely says, "You don't have to go. I mean, not if, you know, you don't want to." She absentmindedly positions a pillow beneath her head. "But, I mean, you don't have to stay either. You can totally leave, but I guess you know that."
"Do you want your shirt back too?" Claire lifts the hem slightly, exposing a cute belly button. Her eyes are twinkling, it's Elle's only indication that the cheerleader is joking.
"I'll let you keep it on account of the bitching draft this room is prone to."
Claire's smile is small but sincere as she de-tangles the blankets. Elle twists away from Claire, settles on her side with her eyes screwed shut. The teenager stares at Elle's shoulders, reaches out a hand to trace a line down Elle's back. She hears the older girl's breathe hitch, feels her muscles tighten and shudder beneath her fingerpad. "Elle?" she says.
"Yeah?" Her voice is shaky and small.
Claire looses her nerve and says, "Goodnight."