Almost perfect, p.18
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       Almost Perfect, p.18

           Brian Katcher
 
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  Sage smiled as I frowned. Sage wouldn’t be allowed to move in with a girl. She’d eventually have to turn down Laura’s offer. I wished she didn’t have to put up with so much bullshit.

  Laura brushed her hair while Sage sat at a makeup table putting on eyeliner. We were going to a frat party in a couple of hours. I lay on Laura’s bed, tossing a tennis ball at the ceiling, bored out of my skull. The girls weren’t ignoring me on purpose. It’s just that when the conversation revolved around shoes and makeup, I couldn’t add much. I smiled inside, thinking of how my sister was discussing fashion and hairstyles with a boy.

  Sage was filling Laura in about her family. “So my sister’s dating this guy from school, Rob.”

  “Jennifer’s brother,” I reminded Laura. “Redheaded guy.”

  Sage began to rouge her cheeks. “Rob’s a nice guy, but I just worry. I mean, Tammi’s my sister. I want to look out for her.”

  “You always want to look out for your little sister … or brother.” Laura winked at me. “You don’t think anyone’s good enough for them.”

  Sage had been applying lipstick, but paused. Her eyes met mine in the reflection of the mirror. “Well, a special guy deserves a special girl.” Sage’s image smirked at me. I fumbled the tennis ball, which banked off Laura’s desk and bonked her in the face.

  “Watch it, Logan.” She hurled it back at me, narrowly missing my groin. Hopefully, that distracted Laura from Sage’s odd comment. What did she mean by special girl?

  Sage finished coloring her lips. She puckered, then bit a tissue, leaving a bright red ring. “Well, are we ready to go?”

  Laura grabbed her purse. “Let’s do it. Maybe I can introduce you to someone tonight.”

  That got my hopes up. “Cute sorority chick?”

  Laura laughed. “I was talking to Sage.”

  I stood up and took a good look at my friend. Her makeup skills, I realized, had improved since I’d first met her. And the way she was dressed: a long denim skirt and dark sweater. She wasn’t wearing one of her wild outfits. The demure clothes emphasized her femininity, her long legs, her chest, her face. And she was about to go to a party with a bunch of drunk college guys. Every one of them would notice the tall, regal stranger. She’d drink, and Laura, if she truly believed I wasn’t interested, would introduce Sage to other guys.

  I was going to have to watch out for Sage. Make sure none of the frat rats got too close. Make sure she didn’t drink too much or say anything compromising.

  At the door, Sage stopped and adjusted my collar. She smiled at me, and I got a whiff of her perfume. As we left the building, I promised myself I wouldn’t let her out of my sight the whole evening. You know, for her own safety.

  chapter twenty-six

  SPRING WAS HERE. It was nearly seven at night, and the lights along Rollins Street were just coming on. I stared at my feet as we trudged toward Greek Town. In front of me, Laura and Sage laughed like a couple of sisters.

  I viewed this evening with the mixed feelings Sage was so expert in bringing out. On the one hand, for the first time in my life, I could totally cut loose. No mom waiting up for me, no cops showing up to run us off, nowhere I was supposed to be in the morning. It would be good practice for next year. Could university girls be interested in a guy from a town that only ever made the news during tornado season?

  On the other hand, Sage was here. And after what we’d almost done the other night, it would be kind of cruel to hit on other girls right in front of her. I’d be trying to get strange women to give me what Sage would happily give. And with Sage’s forced dating ban, maybe we should just stick together. Not like a date. But we’d come here together, so it would be rude of me to wander off.

  I walked a little faster and caught up with the girls. Sage looked at me warmly and slowed down. Laura was busy talking and didn’t notice.

  “Are you okay?” Sage asked.

  “Yeah. You?”

  Sage smoothed her sweater. “Nervous. Is it dumb for me to do this?”

  She deserved an honest answer. “You look great. I’ll be there with you if you need anything.”

  Sage bit her lip. “Logan, I couldn’t do this without you. Thank you so much for everything.”

  We gripped hands for a moment, trying to dispel the fear in each other’s faces. Laura, who realized we’d fallen behind, turned just in time to see me holding Sage’s hand and gazing up into her eyes. We quickly separated.

  Approaching Greek Town was like riding up to an encampment of angry Indians. I could hear their war cries long before I saw them. Solitary screams, laughter, and music broke through the still evening. As we passed by the Commons, I began to see the frat boys. They all wore expensive clothes and baseball caps with Greek letters stitched onto them. Several of them stared at Laura and Sage as we passed.

  Fraternity houses lined the streets, bigger than anything in Boyer except maybe the electronics factory. The houses were beautiful: white columns, brick fronts, trimmed hedges.

  We turned a corner, and Laura led us to a smaller, more compact frat house. Inside, we could hear the voices and music of the party.

  Laura danced up the steps. Sage and I paused on the sidewalk for a moment. Impulsively, I wrapped my hand around her upper arm and squeezed. Not a possessive gesture, and certainly not a romantic one. I just wanted her to know I was there with her, ready to help if she got scared. Sage returned my smile and we entered the building.

  I had expected a fraternity house to be somewhat scuzzy, but the Kappa house was at least as nice as a midgrade motel. Thirty or so students milled around in the cigarette haze, drinking out of plastic cups. Everyone was completely at ease.

  “Laura!”

  The guy looked like something out of an ascent of man exhibit. He was short and swarthy and had one eyebrow that covered most of his jutting forehead. He didn’t slouch, but it seemed like he’d be more natural dragging his enormous knuckles over the stained carpet. He looked at Laura, exposing his crooked teeth in a hungry smile.

  “Hey, Laura!”

  “Hi, Mike!”

  And then they were kissing. I think Laura only meant to give him a hello kiss, but Mike smashed his face into hers, making growling noises and grabbing her butt. I wasn’t aware I was lunging at him until Sage grabbed my arm.

  Laura pulled away with a laugh. “Mike, this is Sage, and my brother, Logan.”

  Mike’s smile froze, then shattered. He stared at me with raw panic, then extended his hand.

  “Pleased to meet you, Logan.”

  We shook. I tried to play the hand-crushing game, but he quickly yielded.

  Laura didn’t realize I was about to throw down with this guy. “C’mon, Sage, there’s some people I want you to meet. Mike, why don’t you get Logan a drink and introduce him around.”

  Laura took Sage by the hand and pulled her toward a group of laughing girls. She glanced at me over her shoulder, but I had something else to do at the moment. Mike and I stared at each other for a couple of seconds. I did not smile.

  “So, Logan. You’re coming here next year?”

  “Yes.” I folded my arms and leaned toward him, demonstrating that I was the taller one. I fought an impulse to beat my chest.

  Mike nodded rapidly. “Nice, nice. Got your housing assignment yet?”

  “Yes.”

  “Did you ever consider going Greek?”

  “No.”

  Mike stood there, trying to make eye contact and failing. When someone waved at him from across the room, he took off like a shot. I’d kick his ass later.

  It took me a moment to locate Sage through the haze of smoke. She was standing with Laura and two other girls. I couldn’t make out what Sage was saying, but when she bent and gestured at her shoes, I realized they were speaking Clothes, the universal female language. My friend seemed quite fluent. Since I only spoke conversational Clothes, I decided not to join them.

  I was thirsty, and tradition dictated that I have a beer. The keg stood
in a large common area, surrounded by a bunch of smokers. I grabbed a cup and tried to fill it, but nothing came out.

  “Dude, you gotta pump it. Here.” A skinny guy in a backward cap filled me up.

  “Thanks.” I was never much of a drinker and couldn’t identify the brand of almost orange beer in my cup. I chugged it.

  “Dude, you with the Deltas?”

  “No.”

  “Tau Omega?”

  I swilled the rest of the beer. “I’m still in high school. I won’t be here till next year.” I waited for him to blow me off.

  Frat man emptied his cup, then refilled us both. “You ought to pledge with us next year. Kappa kicks fucking ass!” Around the room, guys raised their cups and whooped in agreement.

  Huh. He actually wanted me to join his frat. I felt like much less of a hick.

  “I’m Logan.”

  “Dalton.” We smacked fists. “So, is that tall chick your girlfriend?”

  Down the corridor, I could just make out Sage’s back. She was talking to someone, but I couldn’t tell who.

  “She’s just a friend.” I downed my drink.

  “Whoa, Logan,” said Dalton. “Take it easy. Beer before liquor, never sicker.”

  I filled my cup again but just held it. The two beers I’d slammed suddenly hit me, and I felt less steady. I made my way back to the main room.

  Whoever was in charge of the sound system must have been worried that people in Omaha couldn’t hear the music. I could feel the sonic waves echoing off my lungs. I couldn’t locate Sage in the hazy crowd, and she was not usually hard to pick out of a group.

  Laura emerged from the shadows, grabbing my arm. “Hey, Logan!” she hollered.

  “Have you seen Sage?”

  She either didn’t hear or was ignoring the question. “Come over here. I want you to meet someone.”

  She dragged me over to a couch held together with plywood and duct tape. A couple of girls sat there sipping mixed drinks. Laura propelled me to an empty cushion.

  My sister leaned toward the nearest girl, one of the few female guests in jeans and a T-shirt. “Erin, this is my brother, Logan. Logan, Erin.”

  Erin was short, even sitting down. Her brown hair was long and almost impossibly straight. She had such dark eyes that I couldn’t see her pupils. She wasn’t wearing any makeup, though that accentuated her naturally pretty face.

  “Hi, Erin.”

  Laura took a drink from someone else’s cup. “Logan’s coming here next year. He’s quite the track star. I’ll be right back.”

  Erin scooted toward me, I guess so I could hear her over the noise. “Laura’s told me a lot about you.”

  Normally, your sister is the last person you want to describe you, but this whole situation had setup written all over it. I glanced around, but still couldn’t locate Sage. What the heck, she could take care of herself for a few minutes.

  “So, Erin, are you a freshman?”

  Erin, I learned from our screaming yet intimate conversation, was a psychology major from the Kansas City suburbs. She knew Laura from work. She didn’t usually go to frat parties, but my sister had asked her to come.

  I popped open a beer from a cooler near the couch. It must have been about eighty degrees in the building. Erin’s hair was damp with sweat. Over the next six-pack, we exchanged bellowed life stories as the Greeks around us danced, smoked, and made out.

  When the stereo began pounding out “Y.M.C.A.,” the crowd joined in, slurring the chorus and doing the dance. Conversation was impossible. Erin, whose face grew cuter with every beer, smiled shyly at me. Someone collapsed at the other end of the sofa, shoving us together. We didn’t attempt to separate.

  Just as I was raising my arm to drape over her shoulders, a loud squeal of electronic feedback split the air. I looked up to see a man in a Kappa sweater standing on sort of a dais, talking half into a microphone.

  He hollered incoherently for several minutes, but the audience cheered anyway. Eventually, someone turned down the stereo, cutting off the screech from the speakers.

  “… third annual Tex-ASS hold ’em contest!”

  The frat boys lifted their drinks and howled like wolves on crack.

  “What’s he talking about?” asked Erin. “Poker?”

  “Nah,” said a man who was busy holding up a doorway with both arms. “They get chicks to try to hold up cups of beers with their knockers. It’s hilarious.”

  By golly, he was right. Already, a girl in a low-cut sweater was supporting a plastic cup, using only what God had given her. The MC poured a bottle of Heineken into the container until it overcame her assets and spilled down her front. She giggled, her face somehow expressing Oh my gosh, I just spilled beer all over my enormous chest! How wacky!

  “C’mon, who’s next?”

  Erin had a look of intense distaste on her face. I tried to look equally disgusted as the next two contestants competed shirtless, in just their bras. I noticed a girl who looked suspiciously like Laura walking toward the stage. She glanced in my direction and quickly ducked into the kitchen. I’d pretend I hadn’t seen that.

  “Logan, let’s go for a walk.” Erin was standing, trying to take me by the arm.

  A walk. Away from this noise and smoke. A stroll through Greek Town in the cool night air, a chance to clear my head. Me and Erin, alone under the streetlights. I got up.

  We were almost to the door when I heard a commotion over the many other commotions in the building. Two guys had grabbed a girl by the arms and were dragging her toward the stage while another one pushed her from behind. She was protesting and trying to twist loose, a look of fear on her face.

  It was Sage.

  Without a word to Erin, I dashed through the room. My experience with the hurdles paid off; I was at Sage’s side in seconds. I’d been prepared to threaten her kidnappers and fight all three of them if I had to. But right before I reached them, they all let go of Sage and ducked off in different directions. Apparently, I’d looked frightening.

  Sage grabbed my wrist with a look of profound thanks. Her makeup was smeared and her hair messy, but she seemed okay. I led her to a quieter part of the house to make sure she really was all right.

  “Logan …” Sage suddenly stopped, and I realized we were not alone. Erin had followed me. She seemed unsure if I was a hero who’d rescued a woman in distress or a jerk who was ditching her for someone else.

  Luckily, my awkward explanation was cut off by the appearance of Dalton. He was now wearing a giant foam #1 hand on his head. The stench of alcohol in the air informed me that he had forgotten his beer before liquor advice.

  “Logan!” he sang, and embraced me. Booze had turned me from a complete stranger into his brother. He hugged me to the point of awkwardness, then jerked away.

  “C’mon, we need more players.” He gesticulated wildly to another room. Sage immediately followed. With an apologetic look to Erin, I followed Sage. Erin walked after me. I could feel her angry stare at the back of my neck.

  We arrived in some sort of a dining area, where six other people sat around a table (seven, if you count the guy facedown in the onion dip). Various bottles covered the tabletop.

  The four of us took our seats. The girl at the head of the table began reading from a pile of cards.

  “Player number three, pass an ice cube to another player, using only your lips.”

  Another participant slurped a cube from his glass and popped it into the mouth of the girl sitting on his lap.

  Ah, a drunken party game. There was a board and spinner, but I think everyone was beyond such details.

  “Player number four, chug your drink while humming ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”

  My brain felt like it had been massaged with Elmer’s glue. I found a mostly full bottle of cola and poured drinks for myself and the two girls. Being a gentleman, I took the cup with the cigarette ashes.

  We’d sit here for a few rounds. A nice, silly game, and a safe place to leave Sage when
Erin and I took our walk. Erin, in fact, didn’t look like she was enjoying herself at all, so we’d have to go fairly soon.

  “Player number five, kiss another player on the lips.”

  I turned to see who would be doing the kissing. Just to the left of the guy who’d drunk to the national anthem sat … Sage.

  Everyone was staring at her. She didn’t look panicked, but she didn’t look comfortable, either. Several guys at the table were trying to catch her eye.

  Sage smiled a naughty smile and kissed me rapidly on the cheek. As the game master picked up another card, Dalton objected.

  “On the lips. C’mon!”

  In order to avoid further argument and humiliation, I leaned in to give a quick kiss to the air in front of her face, figuring no one would know the difference. Sage zigged when she should have zagged, unfortunately, and our front teeth cracked painfully against each other.

  Erin stood up, annoyed, and looked at me intently. That was my cue. Exit Logan, stage left. I guess I hesitated too long, because she turned and stormed out. Sage stared at me, then gestured after Erin with her head. I could follow her if I wanted to.

  But I didn’t. The thought of chasing after a girl I barely knew, apologizing for something I wasn’t sure of, and walking off to a nonspecific location suddenly seemed like a dull task. It was easier just to stay here with my new friends and act silly with Sage. Sage was comfortable, familiar. At the moment, that’s all I wanted.

  “Player number six”—Dalton pointed his finger hat at me—“do your best belly dancer impression.”

  I groaned and attempted to stand. Sage cracked a smile. Something told me this would be a night I’d remember for a long time, whether I wanted to or not.

  chapter twenty-seven

  THE PARTY BROKE UP around four in the morning out of sheer inertia. Bleary-eyed Greeks halfheartedly attempted to remember where they’d left their jackets, keys, and girlfriends. A tearful sorority chick screamed, “Don’t talk to me!” to her boyfriend, who was passed out in another room. A man in a football jacket stumbled across someone’s attempt at a beer can pyramid.

 
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