Illusions begin, p.31
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       Illusions Begin, p.31

           N.L. Greene
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  Chapter 2

  Thankfully my first possible social disaster wasn’t so bad. Mel ran damage control, telling people things like Casey’s breath stank and that’s why I didn’t want to kiss him, or that his lips were dry and it grossed me out. I felt really bad at first, because of course this caused everyone to make fun of Casey instead of me. But honestly there wasn’t much I could do. Mel was talking, everyone was listening, and no one was making fun of me.

  Before I knew it, the school year was more than half way over. Mel and I both turned thirteen, and we chose to celebrate by going to the movies on one of our many sleepovers. We also gained a new friend. This development was the biggest deal of all, though. Mel and I both had other friends, but none of them had ever threatened the foundation of our rock solid friendship. Ashley did. She moved in across the street from Mel just a few months before school ended, and she and Mel hit it off right away. I soon found myself spending as much time with Ash as I did with Mel.

  Honestly I didn’t mind, because Ash was a year older and had her own set of friends; plus, she was really nice and super cool. But I knew that Mel thought all of those things too, and it made me wonder if she would still like me the best. Ash was better than I was! Why would Mel keep me around? With these thoughts, I found myself trying to do whatever I needed to do to please Mel more and more. It was only little things at first. I started showing more of a surly attitude with my parents, and I became a little bit more daring with what I would wear out, even though I knew my parents might catch me. But the biggest change happened about a month before school ended, on a night I was sleeping over at Mel’s.

  It was Friday evening and the bus had just dropped us off. I hurried home to do my chores; excitement building over going to Mel’s. Ash was going out of town with her parents, so this would be the first weekend Mel and I would be hanging out, just the two of us, since Ash had moved in. As I did my chores, I thought about how Mel always teased me about how my parents treated my sister and I like slaves. We had a regular list of chores that had to be done daily, and then another set to do over the weekend if we wanted to have any sort of sleepover or activity. Keeping our room clean, doing the dishes, feeding the dog, vacuuming the house, and doing the laundry pretty much made up the list. I never really thought it was that bad, because half of the things on the list were my own stuff (or my sister’s). But then Mel started telling me how my parents were just using us as their personal slaves so they wouldn’t have to do it themselves. That made sense. I mean, I was just a kid! This wasn’t my house to run! That’s what my parents were supposed to be doing - taking care of their kids. So of course, courtesy of my new attitude, I started making smart remarks about being treated like a slave under my breath. At first my mom ignored me, but that didn’t last long. I knew I would get grounded for the weekend if she heard me mutter any of those words now. Not wanting to be grounded, especially since Ash wouldn’t be at Mel’s, I hurried up and finished all my chores before my mom and dad even got home from work.

  By the time they got home from work around six, I was all ready to go. My chores were done, my bags were packed, and my sister and I were actually getting along. Being only thirteen months apart was more of a curse than a blessing for the two of us, so this in itself was a small miracle. My parents already knew I wanted to go to Mel’s because I had asked them earlier in the week, but I knew that if I started pestering them, they would just say no. So I waited patiently until they finally told me I could go. My dad told me he would drop me off, and I sighed inwardly. I hated it when he dropped me off. He would always lecture me on the way there - even if I hadn’t done anything wrong lately - about what I should and shouldn’t be doing. He was always warning me about drugs and alcohol, the dangers of being around boys, and whatever else he could think of in the short five minute trip it took us to get to Mel’s house. I had to fight to keep from rolling my eyes, but I did…just barely.

  “Love you daddy!” I yelled, jumping from the car as soon as we pulled up; hoping to get away without further advice.

  “You need to be home by nine tomorrow morning,” he called out of his lowered window.

  I stopped and turned to him with what I hoped was a look he wouldn’t be able to refuse. “But daddy, we’ll just be getting up at nine in the morning! We won’t have any time to hang out before I have to leave!” I could hear the petulant whine in my voice, and I hoped it would appeal to his softer side.

  No such luck. “You asked to spend the night, not the day. Home at nine, or you won’t go next time. If you really want to hang out that bad, I guess you’ll have to get up earlier, won’t you? And be good,” he warned as he pulled away; leaving me no more chances to argue or plead. I huffed and stomped to the front door, and then let myself into Mel’s house like I always had.

  It was seven in the evening, so I knew Mel’s parents weren’t home. Not that they would have cared even if they were. They were really cool about Ash and I both coming and going as we pleased, but I knew they were probably already up the street at the corner bar by now. The truth was I probably wouldn’t even see them this time, since they always got home way after we were asleep. I wouldn’t see them in the morning either, since I’d be the only one up at the crack of dawn so I could walk home, by myself. My parents thought Mel walked with me halfway, but she never even got up to tell me bye, much less walk with me. The first few times it hurt my feelings when she told me it was my parent’s fault that I had to get up so early, so why should she have to suffer too? I was used to it now though, so it wasn’t really a big deal anymore.

  I had been so lost in my own thoughts and anger at my parents for being so strict and making me go home so early, that I didn’t notice the room full of people as I walked into the house until James spoke up.

  “’Sup Nat?” His voice was soft and a bit slurred. I glanced up to see Mel’s brother James slouched back in the recliner with heavy lidded eyes and his feet propped up. There were three other guys sitting on the couch looking equally relaxed, with their feet propped up on the coffee table in front of them. With my attention finally on my surroundings, I noticed the thick smog and smell of pot in the air. The coffee table was covered with bongs, pipes, rolling paper, bags of weed, full ashtrays, and beer bottles. This was the normal scene whenever I came over, even when Mel’s parents were home. Mel and I weren’t allowed to partake in the activities because they said we were too young, but James and his friends were sixteen so anything they did was cool with their parents.

  I smiled at the guys, because I knew all of them. “Hey!” Ray, Allen, and Austin had been best friends with James since Mel and her family moved there. They were all over at the house as much as I was, if not more. They were all pretty cool too, treating Mel and I like little sisters. James was the only exception. He’d stopped treating me like a sister a few months before. It started out pretty subtle at first, so much so that I didn’t even notice it until Mel pointed it out with a smirk. Now he wasn’t quite as subtle, proving this when I moved to walk between his chair and the couch to Mel’s room.

  James reached his hand out and snagged my wrist. He gave a small tug, which knocked me off balance and caused me to drop my bag and fall into his lap. I immediately tensed up, not liking James’ interest in me or how he was able to just make me do what he wanted. He didn’t notice my hesitation though, because he was way too high.

  “Hey baby. How you doin?” he whispered in my ear. One of his arms snaked around my waist, not tightly, but still holding me to him. The other hand was on my leg, his thumb rubbing back and forth over my jean–covered thigh.

  I’ll admit James was cute, with dirty blonde hair left just a little too long, brown eye, and a tall, thin frame with a little muscle. Most of Mel’s friends thought he was hot – Ashley was practically in love with him! - but I didn’t like him that way. I’d known him for years, and really did think of him as a big brother. Besides, to
be brutally honest he was pretty much a loser, and I didn’t see myself with that type of guy. I knew Mel would just make a big deal about it, asking me if I thought I was too good for her brother or something, so I chose to stay quiet about it. I just let James hold me for a second, knowing that he’d want to get back to his friends and drugs sooner rather than later. Plus, he actually was a nice guy. I knew he wouldn’t make me do anything I genuinely didn’t want to do.

  “I’m good. What are ya’ll up to tonight?” I glanced at the others, not wanting to make eye contact with James with our faces that close. I didn’t want him getting the wrong idea, or taking advantage of my nearness.

  “Party,” Ray answered, not sounding very enthusiastic about the party; more like he would rather go to sleep. I couldn’t stop the snicker that escaped my lips as I looked around at all of them so stoned.

  “What are you laughing at?” James asked with a squeeze to my thigh, before moving his hand up just an inch further.

  I felt my cheeks heat but didn’t move. “Umm, nothing. When are you leavin’?” I asked, hoping he’d say soon so I could get off his lap.

  He ignored my question and asked one of his own. “You wanna come with us?”

  “You know I can’t. If your parents found out you took me and Mel to a party, they would kick your ass.” I smirked at him, knowing it was true and thankful for the handy excuse.

  “Well I didn’t invite Mel, so only your parents don’t need to find out. Mine’ll be too drunk to even notice,” he offered with a smirk of his own.

  I opened my mouth to try and get out of his invitation without saying the wrong thing, when I heard the door open down the hall.

  “James! Is Nat…?” Mel started to yell, but then stopped when she saw me in her brother’s lap. “God, James, you’re such an ass! Let Nat go, we got shit to do!” she yelled at him as she reached for my hand and pulled me from his lap, thankfully. James just laughed and slapped my butt when I bent over to pick up my bag. I straightened quickly and followed Mel down the hall into her room, where she slammed the door shut behind us.

  I turned to her to apologize, but she spoke before I could. “Don’t tease him like that, Nat. You know he likes you.”

  “I wasn’t teasing him! I tried to walk by and he grabbed me. He wouldn’t let me go!” I tried to defend myself, hating that I even had to.

  “Whatever.” She rolled her eyes. “Just don’t tease him.” Then she gave me a look like I should know what she meant by that, but I didn’t have a clue. I was not a tease! “Come on, we got shit to do.”

  I looked around for whatever it was that we had to do, but I was lost. “Umm okay, what?” I asked, not seeing anything promising.

  She rolled her eyes at me but at least she explained. “I made sure not to empty the ashtrays today so we would have some cigarettes for tonight. We gotta go find some smokeable ones, though. You need to go distract my brother and those idiots while I hunt for some. Otherwise they’ll never let us live it down if they see what we’re doing.” Oh, that.

  Mel had started smoking when she was like ten, but she never really pressured me into trying it. Actually, she did the opposite. She always told me I was too young to do it, and that I wouldn’t be able to handle smoking. I ‘need to grow up some first’ she would say. I tried not to be offended by her questioning my maturity, but I honestly didn’t want to smoke anyway. My parents had always told me how bad it was, and that if they ever caught me doing it I wouldn’t live to see the next day. I believed them, so I never tried it.

  Well, all that changed when Mel wasn’t the only one of my friends who smoked anymore. Now it seemed like they all did. I felt like I was the only one who wasn’t doing it, and Mel actually confirmed that by telling me that a few people even mentioned how weird it was that all my friends smoked but I apparently thought I was too good to do it, too. That wasn’t it at all! In fact, I thought all my friends were so much cooler than I was. So I knew that I needed to do this. If I wanted my friends to truly believe that I was with them and totally supported them, I needed to be more like them, right? When I told Mel this, she nodded her head in complete understanding. She reassured me that I was exactly right and said she would even teach me.

  So there I was, I guess, getting ready to smoke my first cigarette. Mel hadn’t warned me that we would be doing it that night, so I started to get a little nervous. But before I could address that issue, I had to address the whole ‘distract my brother’ thing. “How do you expect me to distract them?”

  “Well you were doing a great job just a second ago. Do that again.” She waved me toward the door.

  “What? You just got done telling me not to tease your brother. Now you want me to go do it some more?” I asked in complete confusion, feeling a bit used.

  She just smirked at me and pushed me toward the door. “Told you that’s what you were doing.” I opened my mouth to argue, but she shoved me out of the door and whispered with a look in her eye that told me not to argue. “Just go! Jesus!”

  “Fine.” I rolled my eyes and huffed at her, but turned to do what she told me to do. What choice did I really have?

  I walked slower than usual down the hall, trying to figure out what I was going to say without being obvious that I was trying to distract them. I turned the corner and sagged in relief when I saw that the guys were standing up around the coffee table, cleaning all their stuff up. They were getting ready to leave.

  I strolled into the living room with much more confidence than before. “You guys leaving so soon?”

  “Yep. What are you and Mel up to tonight? Playing dolls?” Allen asked with a laugh and a wink, letting me know that he was only teasing me. Allen and Austin were twins, and they had to be two of the nicest guys ever. They weren’t that cute, but their personalities more than made up for it. I liked them both a lot.

  I rolled my eyes playfully back at him. “Whatever. Ya’ll better be careful,” I told them as sternly as I could. I knew they wouldn’t be. They were already high and well on their way to being drunk, but it made me feel better to at least say it.

  Austin, probably the most responsible one of the group, reassured me as they finished cleaning up and all started to walk past me; each giving me a quick one-armed hug. “We’ll be cool, Nat. See ya later.”

  “K.” I smiled at him and watched them go. James was the last one, and his hug was with two arms and a quick nuzzle to my neck that I tried to ignore with a forced smile on my face.

  “Later, babe,” he whispered in my ear, before trying to kiss me. I turned my face quickly, so his lips only got my cheek. Thankfully he wasn’t offended. He just chuckled as he walked out the door and pulled it shut behind him. I quickly locked the bolt before running back to find Mel in her parents’ room digging through ashtrays.

  Her head jerked up guiltily when she heard me run into the room. “What are you doing?” she hissed, and glared like an angry cat.

  I couldn’t help but laugh. “Relax! They left.” She opened her mouth, but I answered her follow up question before she could ask it. “And I locked the bolt. They’ll have to knock to get back in.”

  She relaxed and lost the glare. “Okay, cool. Now help me look for good butts.” She held one up to show me what I should be looking for, and together we scoured the ashtrays for all the cigarette butts that had even the littlest amount of tobacco left in them. We found about seven or eight; all together they would probably equal a half of one whole cigarette. Not much, but I was cool with that. It meant I didn’t have to smoke that much.

  Mel lit the first butt and took the first and only drag off that one. She did it like a pro, and I guess she sort of was one, since she had been doing it for like, three years already. She put it out and showed and explained what to do, and then it was my turn. I took the butt in my fingers and put it to my lips. It was so disgusting! There was pink lipstick from her mom on the white paper, t
he end was a dirty brown color from already having been smoked, and it smelt like old, stale ashtrays. I tried not to gag when my lips touched the pink-stained paper, and I almost didn’t succeed. I quickly brought the lighter up and flicked it. The flame was way closer to my face than one had ever been before, and I flinched; dropping the lighter and the unlit cigarette. Mel laughed.

  “You have to flick the lighter away from your face first, you big dummy! Then bring it closer. You do it like that again and you’re going to singe off your eyebrows. Then you’re going to look like such a dork!” she got out between fits of hysterical laughter. Wanting to impress her and not wanting to look like an idiot again, I took my time and tried to light it again. I flicked the lighter and slowly brought the flame toward the end of the butt. When it touched, I inhaled and immediately started hacking and gagging. The smoke burned my lungs and tasted absolutely awful. I knew it would, but still, it was nothing like I’d imagined.

  Mel just laughed even harder.

  I huffed at her as I tossed the cigarette butt into the ashtray and threw the lighter at her. “That’s so gross! I don’t want to do it,” I told her defiantly, with my arms crossed over my chest.

  “God, you’re such a baby. It takes a few tries. You aren’t going to get it the first time, or even the second. Once you get used to it, it’ll taste better. Trust me,” she said as she tossed the lighter at me again before digging through the ashtray for the longest butt. I eyed it skeptically when she started to hand it to me. She rolled her eyes and became more insistent. “Just do it.”

  I rolled my eyes back at her but did what she said. I repeated all of the same steps with similar results. The first puff ended with more coughing, but once my lungs cleared I brought the lit cigarette up to my lips to try again.

  “Try to actually inhale it all the way this time,” Mel helpfully advised.

  I thought I was inhaling, hence all the coughing! But instead of pointing it out, I took another puff and held it in, only coughing a little that time. Satisfied, she took the butt from me and put it out in the ashtray before taking one for herself. She got about two drags from that one before she put it out, and then handed me another. “Okay, last one. Make it count.”

  Determined to make her proud and keep her from laughing at me, I did.

  I inhaled that time without coughing it all back up. I smiled with triumph, but it quickly faded when I began to feel light headed. I put my hand to my forehead and Mel burst out laughing.

  “Oh my God! You got a buzz from a few puffs of a cigarette. You are so lucky!”

  Lucky was not what I felt. I felt like I was going to puke, but I held it in as we made our way out of her room and into the kitchen to throw away the evidence of our smoking session. We heated up leftover Chinese food and ate while we watched movies, and then we both fell asleep in her bed. Thankfully I never puked.

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