Party Crashers (Part 1 of 2)
It was just after nine, but already frost was starting to form on the pavements; already his breath was misting in the air. Jake Martin pulled his scarf around his neck and tested the ground with his foot – the frost was crunchy, it sparkled like diamonds under the street lights. He felt vividly aware of his youth, the sheer promise of all the world had to offer.
A nightscape of city lights loomed out before him. The suburbs spread like a buffet table.
“Jake, come on!”
He scooped the six-pack up in his gloved fingers and ambled after that voice.
Friday night. A night even younger than he was. A night ripe for partying. And the only thing on Jake's mind right now was how he was going to get it on with Meredith Harper at the party tonight.
Meredith Harper didn't know Jake was going to be at the party. She hadn't given him any real thought. Her attention was fixed on which dress she was going to wear: the black – which was sleek and shiny, but maybe a little bit too much – or the blue and silver – which was stylish, glitzy, but she thought – as she twisted a couple of times in front of the mirror – just might be making her butt look big.
Her friend Sally wasn't that much help: “Honestly Meredith, I don't think it's the dress.”
“I'm not being a bitch.” She tossed a cushion at Meredith.
“You've been eating a lot cake just lately...”
The cushion went flying right back.
“Seriously Merry. The dress looks hot. You look hot. Can we go?”
“Who the hell are you expecting to see there?”
“I don't know.”
“Luke said his cousin might be back in town...”
“What? Kevin? You're not still all over that?”
She didn't like being obvious, even if it was with Sally, the friend who knew her inside out, had practically grown up with her, who was all but a sister. And Kevin Lancaster: what was she even thinking? Because if an apple really didn't fall far from a tree, then this was just the worst mistake; and the dumbest, most misguided, most idiotic, ludicrous crush...
She grabbed her bag: “Okay, okay, we're going.”
The house was easy to spot. Lights were on in every room, and there were cars parked all over the place: the road, roadside, footpath, and on the lawn. One in a rose garden. Somebody was going to get chewed out over that - the host of this party might well be sleeping in the doghouse for a week. Not Jake's problem. He was just here to let off some steam.
A big cardboard sign loomed up ahead: Party Central.
Yup, this was the place.
“Whose house is this anyway?” Jake asked his friend, Evan.
Evan shrugged. “Some guy. Some guy who Luke knows, who Steve knows as well.”
Evan shrugged. “Seen worse.”
Every day for example, when you wake up in the morning at your house.
The music was pumping out a beat that went straight through the walls, out into the garden, under their feet. Coloured lights pulsed. Neighbours looked out of windows, some with disapproving frowns.
Jake grinned and waved at them. Just because.
The door was wide open, but a blond girl was there to usher them in. She had a drink in her hand, her glasses a little bit askew. She gestured roughly towards a corner where they could dump their coats, another gesture towards the kitchen, another towards the loo. “Welcome aboard,” she told them blearily, clinking her bottle with their imagined glasses.
“Later,” Evan already had his eye on her.
Jake's eyes were all for Meredith; he was on the lookout for her as soon as he walked in.
Evan suggested: “Does she even know you exist?”
“Shut up and act like a proper wingman.”
“Sir, yes sir.”
“Just tell me if you see her, all right?”
Meredith arrived about half an hour later. She wasn't looking for Jake. She caught him out of the corner of her eye and cast him a casual nod. She thought he raised a bottle to her – or was it to Sally? - and maybe stared for a moment or was just distracted by something behind her. She noticed it and dismissed it. She kept her eye out for the Lancasters instead. Stupid, stupid, stupid, the whole bloody neighbourhood knows what they're like...
The house, whoever's place, gave off a vibe like a jumble sale. There was so much junk just scattered in the halls; and then the lounge, all littered with eclectic furniture, most of it covered in ratty, frayed old blankets. But the darkness - coupled with incoming street lights, with the lights from a stereo or two - somehow leant an atmosphere. The right kind - the right colour - of shadows. A bunch of twenty-somethings had strewn themselves across the couches, and spread like weeds over the floor. A few of them were making out with almost desperation – faces crushed into faces, hands groping everywhere at once like there was as time limit, as if the end of the world might be coming after all.
Sally's ex was there. In the arms of a stranger.
Too late. But she shrugged it off: “Good luck there, honey.”
“Not even a little bit.”
It was just by chance then that she tripped over the pair of them as she headed for the kitchen to grab a couple of glasses. Just chance that she stomped so hard on Robbie's leg as she tried to regain her balance. She made her apology with such aplomb, whilst at the same time seeming to look right through Robbie – just some guy sucking faces with some girl – and casting a look at the girl that held a trace of pity, a trace of: really, this guy?
Meredith watched from a doorway.
Nothing on earth would ever beat Sally down.
When the next door opened, it revealed the Lancanster boys. Luke: all white-haired and dressed in leather, his shoes a roughshod red. His face had thinned since she last saw him. And Kevin. He wasn't changed. And the sight of him: she didn't choose to feel that skip in her chest, to feel it tighten, or her breath come faster. She dropped back into the shadow of a bookshelf, embarrassed, annoyed at herself.
Let him come to you.
And then, when he didn't: walk past, that's all.
She was almost on top of him before he looked up, before his eyes took her in.
“Kevin,” she tried to make it sound airy, indifferent.
“Hey,” he raised a can to her.
“You've been out of town.”
“Yeah. Sally's friend, right?”
“Meredith.” She wouldn't let her voice slip. Even as her mind went back to a night six months ago, to drowning in the way he was looking at her. Or they way she'd thought he was looking at her.
“Oh, right. Nice dress.”
“See you again before dawn.” He slapped her ass. It was flirty, casual, a dismissal.
“Yeah.” She kept it together with some effort. She slipped past him and made for the door.
Jake saw her leave.
He had a pretty good idea what'd just gone on there. Kevin Lancaster was a shit after all; he was totally crap to women, and it was only his halfway good looks – Jake acknowledged them grudgingly – that let him get away with it. And so: Meredith was interested elsewhere. That should have been a bad sign, except that he turned it around in his head: she'd also been rebuffed, so maybe, running into a nice guy, who was clearly interested, who was flattering, who listened, who presented himself as something so much other than a total prick...
He was so going to be her hero.
Jake waited just a couple of minutes before he followed her out into the hallway. He found the hallway empty – aside from a lounging, black-and-white spaniel – and so he threaded his way through the nearest open door. A study, by the looks of it, tidier than the rest of the house, almost and oddly sedate. There was a quiet about it that made him think about a playground at midnight.
Her voice startled him. Not Meredith. Another girl. She was a waif, and a strange looking thing. Not unattractive, but there was a strange tone to her skin, an almost melted look to a face that shone slightly, framed in ebony hair, all braided and twisted around her head. She stood with her fingers clasped against a textured white dress. Silver-blue eyes fixed on his position from beneath heavy, moonless-black eyelashes.
Jake nodded, “Hi. Sorry, didn't see you.”
“I don't make much of a disturbance.”
A weird one. He didn't mind weird ones... “Having fun?” He asked her.
“I... I used to live in this house.”
“Oh right. You just wandered in to check out what's changed?”
“A lot,” she said thoughtfully, as if the idea had taken her by surprise. “Much.”
“Oh, well, it would.”
“It would.” She made it sound like an actual echo.
“Hey, I don't suppose you hid a stash of weed or anything in here when you lived in the place?”
“Oh. Gotta ask.”
“All right. Not really gotta. I'm not even sure why I said that. I'm Jake.”
Meredith escaped into the narrow back garden. It was crowded, so she pushed her luck a bit further, finding a little vegetable patch behind a dilapidated greenhouse. She sat down beside a stunted bush and put her face in her hands. She felt like such a loser. Why had she ever imagined a player like Kevin was going to give her the time of day twice? Should have fucked him while I had the chance. But that was a road that flowed straight downhill into a mire ofregret. She knew enough girls who'd sailed that sea. But was remembering my name really too much to ask for?
She wasn't sure when she first became aware of a presence, another person hovering in silence beside her. She turned her head, and at first the moonlight made him seem elongated, it distorted his head into a long cone, his eyes into little gold coins, his shoulders seemed to almost outgrow his forehead. Then her vision shifted, and she was staring into the eyes of a young man, about mid-twenties, slightly reddish hair, soaring cheekbones, a nose that reminded her of clay – sculpted and then pressed inwards, flattening out to almost blend into his face.
“Sorry,” she hadn't meant to stare for so long.
“Do you live here?” He asked her.
“Do you know your way around?”
He gestured outwards. The neighbourhood.
Meredith shrugged. “More or less.”
“Is it... nice...?”
She barked a laugh that almost became a mixture of hiccup and cough. “Is this neighbourhood
“It's not then?”
“Hey, when you leave, you should probably go with a friend.”
“I came with some friends... I don't see them right now.”
“Oh. Maybe inside. I'm Meredith by the way.”
“You can call me Michael.”
“I lived here with my brother and his wife.” Belinda folded herself onto a small chair in the corner and studied Jake with those powerful eyes.
She wasn't the sort of girl he usually went for, but still, there was something. The term mesmerising seemed a little bit over the top, and yet he did seem pretty fixated on her. Something about the way her eyes moved, and the way the colour kept tricking him, picking up shades of rust or violet, or inky blue-black. A luminosity about her skin, the way it seemed to exist almost underwater; a strange, dark, drowned impression that she gave.
Belinda added: “She was awful.”
She pressed her lips together. “Vicious, really.”
“And your brother knew?”
Another quick, turned away nod.
“And he was okay with that?”
“She was... his wife. She... Alison, she shared his bed. I was more of an... encumbrance. When my parents moved away he felt like he had to take me in. He didn't want to.”
“But you moved out. All's well that ends well, right?” Or had he stepped in something else? Was her current situation even worse?
She steepled her fingers, pressed them against her lips. “I suppose.”
“You look sad,” Michael observed.
“Do I?” Meredith wasn't sure how much she wanted this stranger to know about her.
“Too much? Too intrusive?” But he'd sat down beside her, so close his arm and hers were almost touching.
“No... it's... it's just me being stupid, that's all.”
“You don't look stupid.”
“Huh, look a bit closer. I feel like an idiot. I just fall for all the wrong guys, that's all. I can't be the first girl ever to do it.”
He craned to keep eye contact. “What did he do to you?”
“You don't want to know.”
“I do though.”
“I could help, maybe.”
“Fuck off! I mean... sorry... I just mean there's no help to be had for it.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“It'll sound very stupid.”
“I don't mind.”
Yeah, she always found the weird ones. Meredith tried to take him in, see if he was just taking the piss. He didn't seem to be. There was a spark there of what seemed to be actual, genuine kindness. “His name's Kevin. And I knew from the first day I met him that he was womaniser, and a fuckwit, and so forth, etc, ad nauseum. I heard about him before I met him. He came with more warnings than a carton of cigarettes. But I still had a thing for him. A massive thing. We never slept together, but we got most of the way there. You know what I mean. We danced. We sat up on the roof talking for ages, and him sticking his tongue down my throat, going for the full grope. Then the next time I see him it's as if we'd barely met.
Out loud: it did sound stupid. It sounded insane. Unreasonable. “Look, Michael. Whoever you are, I'm just being a dumb bitch, okay? I just read too much into nothing, that's all.”
“All the same, I'm sorry it was like that for you.”
She rolled her eyes. “You and me both.”
He was keen to keep her talking. That was about the size of it. Keeping her talking meant keeping the sound of her voice weaving it's way through his ears. And Jake really wanted to keep that happening. It was voice full of rough edges, frayed but musical. And when she talked the light did such magical things with her eyes, brought out movement and colour. And she: she seemed so soft and ethereal, as if she could all but melt away.
So he asked her: “What was it like? When you lived here?”
“Smaller. They've added a couple more rooms.”
“He didn't have children.”
“Oh, right. On purpose?”
“Not on purpose. He was... sour about it.”
“He doesn't still own the place...”
A soft, echoey laugh: “No, we couldn't afford to own.”
“Right, it's probably been through shitloads of tenants.”
She seemed to have drifted away from him, maybe into memory: “The kitchen was different too, the oven's been moved, and all these new benches and cupboards. It was just shelves along that far wall at the time. There was a wall where one of the benches is now. One of the windows in the lounge is new. There was a window seat, but that's gone.”
“Pity. Those are cool.”
“I liked it. I could sit there are watch everyone coming and going to work and all that.”
“I guess they still can, but it's not as cool.”
She wasn't fully listening. “They've changed my room too. And they've wrecked it. Holes in the walls, and there's mould all up one side. I hate it. Come to think of it, I really hate it.”
“Happens,” he tried not to sound flippant.
“I know,” she agreed, “but I don't have to like it.”
“You like the stars then?” She was sitting next to Michael while he stared up at the sky, shifting his head in different directions to see more clearly.
“I suppose. Yeah. I've studied them a bit.”
“Oh, you're educated. You've got a degree and shit?”
“Yeah. Or certificate or whatever. I wish I was that smart.”
“You could be.”
“You really don't seem stupid.”
“Huh. Yippy for me.”
His face fell.
“Sorry. That came out snarkier than it was meant to. Hey, tell me about the stars.”
He did. Meredith followed his voice more than his words. There were too many names to remember, and they were hideous contortions anyway, she wasn't even sure how he got some of them out his mouth. There was some science thrown it, which she half listened to. She was mostly trying to decide if she was interested or not. Was she going to take this guy for a spin?
Indeed, he seemed like a prospect. He was leaning so close to her, his forehead touching her temple, tilting his head and gently pressing hers to follow, guiding her eyes. “And that one's mine,” he picked a star out amongst the vista.
“I didn't know you got to choose your own.”
“I mean: it's where I'm from.”
She found herself turning very slowly. It was there again: the elongated face, the bright little gold eyes, the bones in his shoulders that stood the full height of his eyes, hemming in his face. A whiter face, green tinged, his mouth tugged down at two places to give an almost fanged impression. “What did you say?”
“That I live... there...”
“And by neighbourhood...?”
“This world. It seems nice.”
(picture credit/discredit: author's own work)