Undecided, p.25

Undecided, page 25

 

Undecided
 


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“You’re sorry? I’m the one who didn’t remember. Who put your name on that fucking easel and said…said whatever.”

  I shrug weakly. “You didn’t know.”

  “When you showed up here that first day, did you know then?”

  “I didn’t know it would be you. You said your name was Matthew.”

  “But you remembered me? From before?”

  I nod, guilty. “I swear I had no intention of moving in when I realized it was you, but you had obviously forgotten what happened and then the whole break on the rent thing and I… I just…”

  “Jesus.”

  “Please don’t…” I blink rapidly and try not to cry like an idiot. “Please don’t—”

  “Tell Crosbie?”

  I nod, knowing how heartbroken he would be. How horrible it would be to learn he’s still coming in second, even in this.

  “Of course I won’t. I’m not going to tell anybody.”

  I exhale so heavily I almost fall over. “Thank you.”

  “I’ll just say I figured out who Red Corset was and she’s not the one.” He pauses. “You’re not the one, are you?”

  “No. I promise. I checked.”

  He sighs. “Yeah. I think I know who it is, anyway. I finally got in touch with one of the backpackers and she said she’s pretty sure her friend realized she had something when they got home, so…”

  “So the search is over.”

  “Almost.”

  “That’s good.”

  He shakes his head. “It’s not good at all. It’s so fucking ridiculous, this whole thing. I mean, have you ever dug yourself a hole so deep you thought you’d never get out? Because last year that’s what I did. I partied so much, slacked off, thought I was above it all, and I almost got cut from the track team. That’s why I was so drunk the night we…I… Well, you know.”

  “We both had our reasons for being there.”

  A terribly awkward moment of silence drags on. And on.

  “I’m sorry,” we blurt out at the same time.

  He laughs sadly and shakes his head. “It’ll never happen again.”

  I frown. “I wasn’t expecting it—”

  “I mean, screwing around like I did all of last year. I had this idea of what college was supposed to be like, and I totally fucked it up.”

  “I know what you mean.”

  We look at each other for a long moment. “Okay,” he says finally. “Okay.”

  I lick my dry lips. “Okay.”

  “So we’re…okay?”

  I’m still trembling, the shock of being found out almost worse than the fear of it. “We’re okay.”

  “And this stays between us, forever?”

  “Absolutely.”

  “Maybe we should blood swear.”

  “Get out of the bathroom.”

  He grins. “I know what’s even better than a blood oath.”

  “I can’t imagine that’s true.”

  He retreats and returns a second later with an armful of easel paper, a lighter caught between his teeth. Then I’m pretty sure he says, “Let’s burn it.”

  “Let’s burn down our whole apartment? Sure, that sounds reasonable.”

  “Ha ha. We’ll burn the list in the tub.”

  “That’s a terrible idea.” But even as I say it I’m wrapping the shower curtain over the rod and helping him tear up the large piece of paper bearing the first batch of names.

  “I can’t destroy the second one yet,” he says. “But once I confirm that Backpacker Two—sorry, Janna—is the one, we’ll burn it, too.”

  “Can’t wait.”

  I hold the showerhead and prepare to put out an inferno as he carefully touches the flame to one of the crumpled pieces. After a second it catches and starts to crinkle and darken, folding in on itself, consuming all his sins, our shared secret.

  It never gets out of control, just spreads to the next piece and the next, burning itself into a tidy pile of ashes I simply wash down the drain. It’s as easy as painting over Crosbie’s name on the bathroom wall; everything erased, swiftly and surely. It’s over.

  We’re safe.

  chapter nineteen

  Chrisgiving falls on Sunday, December seventeenth, smack in the middle of finals. The last day of school is officially this Wednesday, but some people, like Crosbie, have already finished their exams and are ready to celebrate. People like me, however, have tests both tomorrow and Wednesday, and really wish their apartment wasn’t hosting the inaugural Chrisgiving dinner.

  “Smells good!” Crosbie says when he arrives. He shucks his coat and heads straight to the kitchen where Kellan and Marcela wear matching aprons and do things like peer in the oven and drink wine. I’m on the sofa, frantically reading through my most recently revised set of English Lit notes and wondering why my brain has turned into a sieve.

  Crosbie’s pained shout has me looking up in time to see him clutch his hand, Kellan wielding a wooden spoon and a stern expression. “Do not touch the potatoes!” he orders. “Out of the kitchen!”

  “Aren’t there hors d’oeuvres at this party? Chrisgiving sucks.”

  “Chrisgiving is amazing, dipstick.”

  “Merry fucking Christmas.”

  They grin as they flip each other off, and Marcela and I exchange eye rolls. Crosbie snags Kellan’s wine glass before strolling over to join me on the couch. As per the evening’s strict dress code, he’s wearing a white button down with a pale green tie and dark brown pants. I’m wearing a fitted gray knit dress and kitten heels, and beneath their aprons, Marcela and Kellan are similarly attired.

  “You look nice,” Crosbie says, closing my laptop and setting it on the coffee table. “And study time’s over. Have some wine.”

  “I was reading that.”

  “Read my lips instead: it’s Chrisgiving. Time to par-tay like it’s a fake holiday.”

  I smile in spite of myself. My stomach’s been in knots for days. Last year at this time I’d been partying my face off, not bothering to crack a book, figuring I’d retained enough information from the few lectures I’d actually attended to earn a passing grade. I’d been wrong. But not nearly as wrong as I’d been a few months later, when I employed the same study strategy and came out with two failing grades to show for my non-efforts.

  Crosbie kisses my cheek. “You okay?”

  “Just nervous about exams.”

  “You’re going to be fine. If I can pass, you can pass.”

  “You don’t know that you passed.”

  “There’s that supportive spirit I know and love.”

  I laugh and take a sip of his wine. “Sorry.”

  “No problem. It looks great in here. Who decorated?”

  “Guess.”

  “Mr. Chrisgiving?”

  “Mm hmm.”

  To be fair, it does look nice. A little over the top, maybe, but nice. We’ve got everything minus a Christmas tree, though Kellan drew one on the easel, strung lights and garland around the frame, and stuck presents underneath. There’s fake snow sprayed on the window, fairy lights line the perimeter of the entire apartment, and evergreen boughs hang along the television console. He’s added a leaf to the dining table so it’ll now seat six, we’d borrowed chairs from our neighbor so everyone can sit down without taking turns, and the white sheet is back to serve as a tablecloth, though the votive candles are thankfully absent.

  Old Christmas carols play on a low volume, and with the scents of turkey and pine in the air, it really does feel like Chrisgiving.

  “Are you looking forward to going home tomorrow?”

  Crosbie shrugs. “Yeah. It’ll be nice to see my family. Not so nice not to see you until the New Year.”

  “That’s what Skype is for.”

  “I thought that’s what porn was for.”

  I laugh and drink more wine. “Whatever works, pal.”

  The doorbell rings and Marcela and I immediately lock eyes. “I’ll get it,” I announce, standing and hurrying down the stairs.
>
  Despite her fur coat, Celestia is shivering on the front stoop. Nate’s not faring much better, clutching an umbrella overhead to protect them from the not-quite-rain but not-quite-snow that’s been spitting down all day, making the streets a slippery, treacherous mess.

  “Come in, come in,” I urge, stepping back. “Welcome.”

  Nate passes me a bottle of wine. “Burnham’s finest.”

  “Thank you. Hi, Celestia.”

  “Hi, Nora. It smells good in here.”

  “It’s going to taste good in about ten minutes,” Kellan says from the top of the stairs, looking like a movie star. “Glad you guys could make it.”

  Nate’s jaw twitches. “Glad to be here.”

  “A triple date,” Kellan muses. “How rare.”

  I make a face at him and he retreats as I lead Nate and Celestia to the living room. “Something to drink?” I offer. “There’s a bottle of white already open, or we could open this. And we’ve got beer.”

  “What kind of white is it?” Celestia asks.

  I draw a blank and turn around to read the bottle Marcela hands me. “Tell her it’s a no-fat, half-decaf nectar blend from the wilds of Papua New Guinea,” she whispers.

  “Chardonnay,” I say instead, extending the bottle.

  Celestia studies it and purses her lips. “Maybe I’ll just have Perrier.”

  We all pause.

  “We have tap water,” Kellan offers tentatively. “And ice?”

  Marcela is glaring daggers at Nate, as though it’s his fault his girlfriend likes the finer things in life. Nate, in response, is glaring right back, seeing through the matching aprons for the charade this whole thing is.

  “Maybe beer,” Celestia says. “Any type is fine.”

  “I’ll have the same,” Nate adds.

  I grab two bottles from the fridge and hand them over.

  “Very festive,” Nate offers, nodding at the easel. “Your work, Nora?”

  I choke a little on my wine. “Ah, no. Kellan drew it. And collected the branches.” I point at the greenery decorating the television console, desperate to draw attention away from the easel, despite the fact that it is quite literally lit up like a Christmas tree. Because beneath the drawing on the top page is the remaining page of the sex list. Kellan crossed out Red Corset like he’d done with the others, leaving only the remaining backpacker behind, but refuses to toss the list until her identity is officially confirmed.

  “They’re pine boughs,” Kellan says, straddling one of the dining chairs and pointing at the console. “I like the scent.”

  “It does smell great in here,” Celestia agrees.

  Marcela pulls up a chair and crosses her legs, exposing miles of skin beneath her mini-skirt. “You said that already.”

  “Did I?”

  “Are those real gifts or did you just wrap up cereal boxes?” Crosbie asks, changing the subject and earning himself a very grateful hand squeeze.

  “Fake,” Kellan says. “It’s too early to start shopping.”

  “Christmas is a week away.”

  Nate looks intrigued. “Surely you two have exchanged gifts,” he says, looking between Marcela and Kellan. “What did you get each other?”

  “You heard him,” Marcela snaps. “It’s too early.”

  “I got Nate earmuffs,” Celestia chimes in. “They’re lined with fur.”

  I die a little.

  Marcela’s face turns red.

  “The food must be ready by now!” I exclaim, jumping to my feet. “Why don’t we eat? I’m starving.”

  Right on cue, the buzzer sounds and Kellan smiles. “Perfect timing. Let’s go get the food, sweetie.” He strokes Marcela’s hair and turns that gorgeous smile on her. It’s fake and awful and I feel nauseous.

  “If I weren’t so hungry, I’d fake an illness and leave,” Crosbie mutters.

  “Don’t you dare abandon me,” I whisper back.

  In order to keep Celestia and Nate apart from Marcela, Crosbie and I take seats on either side of the table, Celestia next to me, Nate next to Crosbie. This leaves only the opposing end seats for Kellan and Marcela, and once they’ve loaded the table with turkey, potatoes, cranberries, rolls, and the perfect gravy, they sit down. Crosbie and I now serve as a buffer between Marcela, Nate, and Celestia, and I figure Kellan can fend for himself, since he’s wielding the carving fork and slicing the turkey like a pro.

  “You’re good at that,” Celestia says. “And the turkey looks perfect.”

  Truth be told, it does look pretty good. As someone who has only succeeded in eating roast turkey twice in the past fifteen years, the fact that there’s any turkey at all is noteworthy.

  “Dark meat or white?” Kellan asks.

  “Oh, I’m vegetarian,” Celestia says.

  Marcela mumbles something that sounds like you have to be fucking kidding me.

  “But I brought some fake turkey,” she continues, pulling a little plastic-wrapped lump out of her purse and setting it on her plate. “It’s just as good!”

  Kellan looks alarmed, but Crosbie quickly stands and extends his plate. “White or dark is fine by me,” he says. “I’ll eat anything.”

  “Me too,” I say, shoving my plate forward.

  We all proceed to load our plates in even more loaded silence, the quiet cut by the sound of Celestia sawing through what might just be a piece of gray putty. The only other items on her plate are half a dinner roll and a cranberry.

  Marcela looks ready to have a conniption fit and when I see her mouth open to make some offensive remark, I blurt out, “So, Nate. Earmuffs. They must be handy on days like today!”

  He’s got a mouthful of food so he looks around, chewing as fast as he can. “Very warm,” he agrees, the words garbled.

  “They’re fur-lined,” Celestia reminds us.

  “Isn’t that weird?” Kellan asks. “Being a vegetarian and wearing fur?”

  She stares at him. “How do you figure?”

  “What did you get Celestia?” I ask Nate, sensing Marcela winding up again.

  “An angel,” he mumbles. “For her tree.”

  “Oh. That’s nice.”

  “He said it looked like me,” Celestia adds. “It’s beautiful.”

  A lengthy, painful silence follows.

  “What’d you two get each other?” Kellan asks eventually, using his knife to point between Crosbie and me, nearly taking out Nate’s eye.

  Crosbie and I both freeze. We hadn’t actually talked about gifts, though I’d secretly gotten him something. I hid it beneath the passenger seat of his car, figuring I could text him on Christmas morning to tell him where to find it.

  “That’s a surprise,” Crosbie says, taking a gulp of wine. “For…later.”

  “Yes,” I say, as though I too, have not bought a gift. “Later.”

  “Huh.”

  “And you?” Celestia says. “What did you buy for Marcela?”

  “Lingerie,” Kellan answers promptly.

  “I’m wearing it now,” Marcela adds.

  Celestia looks startled. “Oh. How…personal.”

  “How about you, Marcela?” Nate asks. “What’d you get Kellan?”

  “A video game,” she lies. I know they didn’t get each other anything at all, since they’re not actually in a relationship and this charade is fine so long as they don’t have to spend any money.

  “Oh,” Nate says, doing an excellent-if-sarcastic Celestia impression. “How…personal.”

  Marcela glares at him.

  “Kellan, this gravy is amazing,” I say, pouring a little more than necessary on my potatoes. “Well worth all the taste testing.”

  “It’s the white pepper,” he replies. “Who knew?”

  Nate polishes off his beer. “Who indeed?”

  Celestia pushes away her plate, half her tiny food portion still sitting untouched. “I’m stuffed,” she announces. “Do you have any Perrier?”

  “Still no,” Marcela snaps.

  With
Celestia just sitting there watching us placidly, the sound of everyone chewing suddenly feels incredibly loud. And as though we all hear it, we all start to chew faster, just so it’s over.

  “Why don’t we play this new video game of yours?” Crosbie asks when the tension grows to unbearable proportions.

  Kellan face goes comically blank. “It’s…not here.”

  “Where is it?”

  “At my place,” Marcela supplies. “I bought a console so Kellan could be there all the time.”

  Nate snorts.

  Crosbie shrugs. “Whatever. Let’s play something else, then.”

  “Go ahead,” I say. “Marcela and I will clean up.”

  “I cooked!” Marcela protests.

  Now I snort. Marcela can’t cook a piece of toast. She just wore the apron and stood next to Kellan for a few hours.

  We all stand, the boys slumping on the couch to digest and blow things up, Marcela and I rinsing plates and loading the dishwasher. Celestia pulls out her phone and starts texting, and Nate wanders around, taking in the decorations.

  “What’s this?” he asks.

  I turn to see what he’s referring to and freeze. He’s lifted the Christmas tree drawing to reveal the list of crossed off names underneath.

  “It’s a…list,” Kellan says.

  Crosbie pauses the game. “Kellan was trying to—” He breaks off coughing when Kellan elbows him in the ribs. My heart is pounding as I wipe my hands on a towel and hurry into the living room.

  “Trying to track down an old friend,” I finish. “To say hi.”

  Nate frowns at the list. “Why don’t you know your friends’ names?”

  “It’s been a really long time.”

  Celestia gets up to join Nate, frowning at the easel. “Smells Like French Fries?”

  Kellan looks at me frantically. “I have a poor memory.”

  “Backpacker One – Freckles?”

  “Er, yeah, she was sweet.”

  “Wasn’t there dessert?” I ask desperately. “Didn’t we buy cheesecake?”

  “We certainly did!” Kellan says, jumping to his feet. “Who’s ready for dessert?”

  “We just ate,” Crosbie says. “Let’s wait a bit.”

  But Kellan’s rushing into the kitchen. “Chrisgiving waits for no one.”

  Nate looks confused. “Who?”

 
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