I should have stayed home.
My headache throbs with the pounding music. I shut my eyes as I take another sip of water, wishing the eating club away. With my eyes closed, I can almost pretend that the clack of pool balls doesn’t set off another bout of pounding, that the cold bench beneath me is actually my bed, and that Charlie beside me isn’t about to lose all the drinks he’d chugged before May convinced him a cup of water was vodka. Almost.
Then Charlie heaves again, and my eyes flash open when he scrambles from his seat and out of the game room. He leaves a trail of wreckage: a spilled water cup, his prox, and a makeshift keychain with a long white feather whose barbs are misaligned from repeated fiddling.
I shut my eyes again, considering when a good time to leave would be. I wake up to May’s voice.
“— find him.”
I only catch the last bit of what she says. “Hm?”
“You should find him,” she repeats. “Something’s wrong. He didn’t finish his water.” The drinks must have finally hit her because she stays staring at the spilled water for a long while.
But I don’t really know Charlie. I met him as we entered Imperial and he flung his sweaty arms around me and May, who did know Charlie from other haunts on the Street. May didn’t look quite ready to stand up properly, though.
A new thought crawls its way through the cracks of dread. Well, if you McCosh him, at least you can get a tylenol out of it. Their medicine cabinets are always stocked.
I pull myself from my perch, snatch the feather and prox, and pop them into my pocket. I promise myself I’ll go home after this.
The music gets louder as I near the stairs down to the main floor, but my eyes get stuck on the security guard standing outside the bathroom. Drummers beat on my temples as I force a smile and go toward him. From outside, I can hear retching within. Great.
I step in front of the guard. “Sorry, I think my friend went in there a second ago. I just want to make sure he’s okay.”
“Chinese kid with glasses?” the guard asks with a scowl.
My smile pinches. “White shirt?”
“Everyone cleared out when he hit the stalls.”
“Oh,” I say, because what else am I supposed to answer.
“I think it’s time he went home,” the guard says.
Is it too late to go around asking strangers for tylenol? “Sure thing. I’ll get him cleaned up.”
I peel myself away and enter the men’s room. My senses feel both too sharp and too dull. The stench of beer and stomach acid hit me along with the calamity of Charlie throwing up in a stall, but the music is now nothing but a heartbeat outside and my nerves feel frayed at the edges. I catch Charlie at the end as he heaves again, but rises with all the strength of a piece of thread. He stumbles to the sinks, and he grumbles to the water. Under the glaring lights, I notice for the first time that he has a bandage wrapped around one hand.
“Fucking Jenny. Fucking bird.” He sloshes water onto his shirt instead of his face, his bandaged hand firmly on the sink. He glances at it, notices the smear of throw-up among stains of booze, and scowls.
I pull paper towels from the dispenser and drench them in the water. “Let’s try this instead. How you feeling?”
“It wasn’t even my fault.” He glances at me. “Right?”
“Right,” I answer. Maybe it’s my head, but I don’t have a clue what he’s raving about.
“Should’ve plucked the bird clean,” he says.
“You know what else should get clean?” I hold out the paper towels.
Then Charlie starts ripping at the bandages, unravelling the stained gauze. Horror cuts through the blur in my mind.
“No, no, no,” I spit out, snatching his hand. But the damage is done. I grind my teeth and scan the bathroom. The first aid kit is drilled into the wall. “Just get off the bandage.”
I go to the kit and take out fresh gauze and disinfectant. When I turn around, Charlie is scrubbing his now bare hand. The water turns red. “No!”
Once more, I snatch his hand. Three terribly jagged cuts rip apart his palm, dripping watered down blood. They’re deep, and I can’t imagine what caused them. I can’t believe they don’t have stitches. I squeeze his wrist tighter to keep my hand from shaking. I skip the disinfectant and resort to just replacing the bandage and rewrapping the gauze. Charlie keeps grumbling.
“How’d you get these?” I ask, trying to focus on not wrapping too tightly.
Charlie shakes his head. “Can’t. Can’t.”
McCosh. McCosh for sure.
“They’re closing,” I say as I tape down the last bit. “We have to get out.”
“They think they can kick me out,” he answers.
I change tactics. “You know there’s even a bigger party at Castle.”
“Not Castle,” he says, looking at me as if I’m the one wearing my drink. “Vines.”
“We can’t- You know, right, Vines. But if we’re going to Vines we need to-”
“No!” Charlie whips around and grabs my arms. I freeze. “Can’t go to Vines!”
Call security. Now. I ignore the thought, take a deep, acidic breath, and gently put my hands on his arms. “How about this. You let me go, and we’ll go far away from Vines. We’ll leave, but you have to let me go.”
It takes a moment for the words to register, and I wonder if he heard anything but “Vines.” But he lets go of me, and I can let go of my breath. I don’t bother with cleaning anymore. I guide him out the door where May stands with security.
The guard turns and runs a skeptical eye over us. “You taking him home?”
Before I can suggest that it may be better to let McCosh handle this one, May beams a crooked smile at the guard. “We’ll get him back, no problem.”
The guard gives us a rough nod, and we guide Charlie to the stairs.
“No more basements,” Charlie grumbles before wavering and gripping the top of the railing in a way that says it’ll be a long walk to his dorm in Rocky. “It’s always the basement.”
May starts coaxing Charlie down the steps, and I start drifting far away from Imperial, from Charlie, from blood stained bandages.
A shower, two tylenols, and a blissful sleep later, I wake up at noon to two messages.
May, 9:51 a.m.: Next time I have a lab in the morning, DON’T LET ME DRINK
6057890901, 3:19 a.m.: thank u so much for taking me back Lana. Sorry if i said smthng stupid 🙁
Under my sheets, I text back.
Lana, 12:06 p.m.: Literally not responsible for you deciding, now’s a good time for a shot. Also Forbes at 12:30? I’ll save seats.
Lana, 12:07 p.m.: Also, did you give Charlie my number?
Lana, 12:14 p.m.: No worries, just be a little more careful haha
I debate for a long while about asking about his hand. I’m still debating it after I’m dressed and heading upstairs to the dining hall. The tables are overcrowded with the noon rush, so I snag a plate of Korean barbeque wings and chia seed pudding before beginning the hunt for seats. Everywhere overflows with people. This is why we get brunch before noon.
I’m in the living room before I finally find some openings. But Charlie is perched in an armchair across the only available couch, leaning into a game of Bananagrams he’s playing with two guys seated on either side of him. I recognize one of them as Henry, a fellow from the Nassau Weekly. Officially, Henry is a junior editor; unofficially, he’s part of an underground team that scales the buildings on campus. He can get stories from places people didn’t realize existed.
The third guy shouts, “Bananas!” just as I pull up, and Charlie chucks the tile in his unbandaged hand at the crossword lying on the table. The tiles explode around the T-square meteor.
“Damn,” he sighs, falling back into his chair. His eyes catch mine.
“Hey,” I smile. “Mind if I join? I have a friend coming, too.”
Charlie beams. “Yo! Hell yea. Sit, sit.” He waves me to the couch. As I sink down, he says, “You and May are life savers.”
“It’s nothing,” I say.
“Nah, man, you could have sent my ass to McCosh. Instead you dragged me back to Holder in one piece.” His hands flutter as he talks, the bandage catching my eyes like headlights in the dark.
I’d tried three times to convince May it was better to send him to McCosh. Each time, May brushed it off with her own drunken stupor. Dumping Charlie would also dump her in her stumbling state.
“I can’t believe you put up with him drunk,” Henry says with a grin.
I shrug and to Charlie, ask, “How’s your hand?”
“Hm?” He glances down at the bandage, gives a sheepish grin, and tucks it over the arm of his chair, out of sight. “Ah, that’s nothing. Just a scrape.”
“It seemed pretty bad last night,” I say. “How’d you get it?”
His laugh is strained. “My scooter hit an edge, and I toppled.”
I laugh a bit, “What onto a pile of glass?”
“Yea, yea, exactly,” he brushes me off.
“You wouldn’t believe this loser’s luck,” the Bananagram champ says. He knocks into Charlie’s shoulder. “Always in the worst places.” He introduces himself as Max.
I laugh like I’m in on the joke. But I’m pulled into the story, ready to start poking for holes. “Right, right. I guess Vines is just one of those unlucky spots, then?”
Charlie’s smile shatters for a moment before it’s glued back together on his face. “What’s that about Vines?”
The moment snapshots in my mind, and I tuck it away for later. “You kept rambling about it. Weird shit, almost like you were scared of it.”
My chuckle sucks the rest of the sound out of the room. It takes a moment for them to join. Max jumps in with a howl.
“Man, you still scarred from Frosh week?” He looks to me with a shake of his head. “This dumbass tried to challenge the no-freshman rule, but instead of taking an easy route, he tried to sneak into Vines from the back. Got caught real fast and thrown out two minutes later.”
I laugh with them when Max starts cackling again. I’d almost believe it, but Charlie’s sinking into his chair with wide eyes and his laugh is begging me to fall for the story.
I don’t push anymore because May storms in, tosses her backpack over the couch, and says, “I’m banning myself from the Street.”
“Me, too,” Charlie jumps in. “Let’s form a club?”
And that’s the end of it. The laughs are back in full force. It’s easy and witty and not at all concerning. It’s waffles and fruit bowls and infused water all around with another game of Bananagrams. Max wins again, earning a, “Bruh,” from May who was a tile away from victory.
Max grins. “I am inevitable.”
“What you are is full of shit,” Henry says.
“And nerdy quotes that don’t quite fit the moment.” In sashays a tall girl, red hair pulled back by sunglasses on her head. Her smile is all bright teeth, the kind you see in movies but just a tad bit stiffer. Max jumps from his seat to greet her with a kiss.
Max introduces her as “my girl, Jenny.” At her name, my eyes flash to Charlie, who will not turn to me. May tells her to join in, but Jenny has her excuse lined up.
Jenny is a junior in Vines, and she’s already spent her meal swipes. Even if she hadn’t, she and Max have plans for the afternoon, so they have to go anyway.
Charlie keeps his eyes on Jenny with a forced smile. Well there you have it. A little jealousy plot with his best friend’s girlfriend and a few nerves about you wrecking the whole deal by bringing up his little spat about Jenny last night. Case closed. No more problems. I sink back into the couch, satisfied with my reasoning. Nothing strange, just a laughable accident and a love triangle I definitely don’t need to get involved with. I take a long drag from my water.
“Alright, we should head out,” Jenny bares her teeth again. To Max, “And you should lose the hoodie. It’s blistering out there.”
To prove her point, she moves to pull up her hair, and I almost spit out my drink. Her earrings are mismatched. She has a small stud in one, then a long, white feather with little tufts around it hanging from the other. The conversation moves forward, but my mind is stuck on the feather until she leaves. The feather whose twin is still sitting in last night’s jeans, shucked off in the corner of my room.
To be continued.