CHAPTER 4

“What can I say? I got carried away.”

Someone laid down a four and Cora screamed for Abi to get it. She launched herself across the table and nearly collided with Graham, also trying to grab it. Abi squealed as she and pulled back the card, triumphant.

“Knock out!” Cora called as she slapped away a pile in front Graham, who looked ready to pick it back up off the floor. He took a few quick gulps from his cup before continuing.

As they played the loud game, the tension and worry of being at her first party loosened its grip on Abi.  Now that she was out with Cora, she realized it wasn’t that much of a to-do. At least, not if the parties Cora usually went to were like this. Abi could imagine her and Cora doing this exact thing together in college—hanging out with a few drinks and new friends. She laughed when Shelly slapped Theo’s cards to the floor and he fake-cried while drinking.

“Game!” Shelly and Graham yelled together as Shelly picked up the last card and slammed it down in front of her.

“Noo! Agh, you wench!” Theo banged his fist playfully on the table, almost toppling over.

“Let’s see…definitely you, Theo. And…” Abi’s heart thumped when Shelly’s gaze drifted over her and Cora. “Graham.”

It wasn’t until two shots were laid out in front of the two boys that she understood what they were singled out for.

“Cheers.” Theo raised the shot glass before knocking it back. “Woah, momma!” He cringed, setting the glass back down.

Abi was relieved when no one judged him for his reaction. While she hadn’t expected people to take shots like they did in the movies, where it was obviously water or tea, she was nervous about drinking something so strong in front of strangers.

The game was easier than she thought it would be. If you made three sets of three-of-a-kind before the person to your left had any, you shouted “Knock out!” and they drank for three seconds before continuing. If the person to your left had at least one set, you knocked one of them off the table and they drank for one second.

“Next round?” Shelly gathered and stacked the cards into piles as the rest of them searched for those thrown to the ground.

“Only if the dream team splits up.” Theo eyed Abi. “Unless you two agree to each drink a shot if your team gets called out.”

Abi didn’t like the sound of that, but they stuck together anyway. The next round went on longer than the previous one and Abi and Cora nearly won, only needing one more card to complete a set that would have tied them with Graham.

“Team Two-for-the-price-of-one, obviously,” he said, pointing at Abi and Cora. “And Shelly.” He angled his head as he said her name, the corner of his lips pulling up slightly.

He was flirting, Abi realized. It was odd seeing this, a side of Graham she had never glimpsed at Cora’s house.

The three girls picked up the shot glasses. Abi’s heart hammered hard in her chest and she knew the entire table must have been watching her. The liquor smelled spiced but she drank it all in one gulp, not allowing herself to think much about it. She grimaced, a whole-body shiver passing from her fingertips to her toes.

Cora doubled over laughing at her, and Abi was surprised she wasn’t embarrassed. She laughed too, leaning forward to catch her breath until the bench nearly tipped forward.

“I’m throwing in the towel.” Graham scooted his chair back and stalked over to the bucket with drinks. “I have to drive these two home.” He pulled out a bottle of water and disappeared down the stairs.

Jesse came up the stairs and sat down beside Abi. “Graham said ya’ll were one short.” The way he said ya’ll had a momentary accent to it that didn’t mesh with his normal speech.

He looked up and Abi glanced away, unaware that she had been staring. She smiled down at her cards and tried to turn her focus back to the game. Her earlier anxiety seemed to have disappeared, but she didn’t want to chance reawakening that dragon.

They played two more rounds and Abi felt light and warm despite small trails of her breath floating in front of her. The temperature must have steadily dropped as they’d played, but the fire kept most of it at bay. Three hours ago these people had been strangers, but now she somehow felt like they had shared something. It was clear that this group was close and, for a moment, she let herself believe she belonged there with this hodgepodge of people.

“Ready?” Graham’s voice was loud in Abi’s ear and both she and Cora jumped.

They chuckled over their reactions as they got up. Abi’s legs were heavy and the world spun with slowness. She blinked and focused her eyes, driving the spin away.

“Bye, everyone!” Cora called out, giving a single wave that spanned her arm’s reach.

“Bye!” Abi met Jesse’s gaze, and he smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes.

She winced as a pang shot through her head and Jesse cocked his head at her.

Then Cora was dragging her down the steps and to the car.

“I gave him your number, by the way,” Cora said, laughing. For once, Abi was glad for her friend’s boldness.

Graham handed them each a bottle of water once they reached the car, and Abi laid her head on Cora’s shoulder as they rode back home. There was no music and the quiet nearly put Abi to sleep. The car’s headlights eerily lit up the trees on either side of the road, but something about it was comforting. Like a constant, never changing view of life coming from the darkness.

They made it back to Abi’s house and she tried to climb the ladder as quietly as she could, but wasn’t sure how successful she was.

“Did you have fun?” Cora whispered up to her as Graham moved the ladder back to the garage.

Abi looked out the window but couldn’t make out Cora’s face in the dark. “Yes. It was the perfect celebration.” Her words sounded sluggish to her own ears.

“Goodnight!” Cora disappeared and Abi collapsed onto her bed.

It was 3 a.m. She set her alarm and kicked the boots off her feet.

Just before drifting off to, she remembered the shimmering air around Jesse, and how it almost seemed like he had been reaching for her as she left.

 

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