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THE RACHAEL O’BRIEN CHRONICLES

DEEP FRIED AND PICKLED


A Novel

by


PAISLEY RAY




All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, compiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, without the express written permission of the author. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the author is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials.


Copyright ©2012 by Paisley Ray

Cover Art by Chantal deFelice

Formatting by Lucinda Campbell


This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.


ISBN: 0-988552809

ISBN-13: 9780988552807 (Ebook)

Library of Congress Control Number: TXU001835116




The Rachael O’Brien Chronicles

by

Paisley Ray


Freshman: Deep Fried and Pickled (No.1)

Freshmore: Summer Flambé (No.2)

Sophomore: Shelled and Shucked (No.3)

Euro Summer: Toad in the Hole (No.4)

Junior: Johnny Cakes (No.5)

Southern Summer: Swamp Cabbage (No.6)

Senior: Praise the Lard (No.7)

Hot Tamale (No. 8)

Sunchoke (No. 9)

Deviled Ham (No. 10)




















Table of Contents


Prologue


August 1986

CHAPTER 1

Grogan Hall

CHAPTER 2

Twenty-One-Year-Old Freshman

CHAPTER 3

Blood, Drugs, and Forgery

CHAPTER 4

Holiday Inn


September 1986

CHAPTER 5

Welcome to The Bern

CHAPTER 6

Deer Steaks and Bathtub Dew, Who Knew?

CHAPTER 7

Shag, Not a Carpet

CHAPTER 8

Agitators

CHAPTER 9

Divinity Needed


October 1986

CHAPTER 10

Don’t Mess with Mama

CHAPTER 11

Dirty Green

CHAPTER 12

Scouts’ Honor

CHAPTER 13

Beefcakes and Suitcases

CHAPTER 14

Does Anyone Know a Good Therapist?

CHAPTER 15

Everyone Accounted For?


November 1986

CHAPTER 16

Planetary Disturbances

CHAPTER 17

Uh-Oh

CHAPTER 18

One More for the Road?

CHAPTER 19

Someone Please Tell Me What Happened

CHAPTER 20

One Bad Clam

CHAPTER 21

Clearing Cobwebs

CHAPTER 22

Taboo Turkey


December 1986

CHAPTER 23

’Tis the Season

CHAPTER 24

Sub-Zero Idling


January 1987

CHAPTER 25

What the Tarnation?

CHAPTER 26

Better Than a Bundt Cake


February 1987

CHAPTER 27

The Southern Storm

CHAPTER 28

That’s Not a Speed Bump

CHAPTER 29

Romance, Flowers, and Fraud


March 1987

CHAPTER 30

The Big Easy

CHAPTER 31

Busted

CHAPTER 32

Things Better Left Behind

CHAPTER 33

Hurricane Cocktails and Crawfish Kisses

CHAPTER 34

Beware of Men Wearing Green Tights

CHAPTER 35

Fake in the Grass


April 1987

CHAPTER 36

Encounters and Confessions

CHAPTER 37

Missing Masterpiece

CHAPTER 38

Easter Eggs, Jelly Beans, and The Bern

CHAPTER 39

Hidden Treasure

CHAPTER 40

Buggered

CHAPTER 41

Deranged Marshmallow Peep

CHAPTER 42

Run Like you Stole Something

CHAPTER 43

How the Cow Ate the Cabbage


May 1987

CHAPTER 44

Whipping Frayed Rope

CHAPTER 45

Bunny Boiler Goes Berserk


Epilogue


An invitation from Paisley Ray

For The Record

Acknowledgements


Sneak Preview

Summer Flambé




There are no good girls gone wrong,

just bad girls found out.”

~Mae West


Prologue



My four-year plan included getting an art history degree, losing my virginity, and partying—hopefully not in that order.

However bucket lists don’t always unfold the way you envision. Admittedly, the wealth of knowledge I obtained from my nine-month south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-Line experience at North Carolina College wasn’t overly focused on academics. Instead, I followed a nagging feeling about a painting that turned into a full-blown compulsion to uncover a fake. The little voice inside my head kept warning me, but I didn’t pay much attention until it was too late.






























August 1986




CHAPTER 1


Grogan Hall



“DEEP FRIED AND PICKLED,” my dad said as he parked the car in front of Grogan Hall at North Carolina College. “That’s the way they like things down here.”

I would have preferred driving the 436 miles from Canton, Ohio, to Greensboro, North Carolina, in a subtler, neutral-colored vehicle, but Dad liked the idea of free advertising. Before the sun had risen we’d packed his work van, a cherry-bomb-red-and-cobalt-blue block-letter billboard that read, How’s Your Art? O’Brien’s Fine Painting and Furniture Restoration.

The apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree as I was here for an art history degree. Half asleep, I’d casually mentioned the trip’s purpose—settling me into my dorm, not finding commissions for his business. My innocent comment had morphed him into Captain Buzzkill. “Young lady,” he lectured, “who do you think is paying your out-of-state tuition?” He droned on about that one from our driveway until we crossed the Virginia state line.

College campus move-in day mirrored a directionally challenged, lawless rush hour, with drivers blatantly ignoring one-way streets and no parking zones. Boiling frustration and a herding mentality short-circuited my dad’s normal rule-abiding modus operandi. Outside of Grogan Hall he wedged the van between a row of triple-parked vehicles.

When I slid the van door open, heat waves bounced off the asphalt and collided with the arctic blast that escaped its air-conditioned interior. Squinting to block the light from the unrelenting sun, I positioned my hand like a sailor looking for land and leaned against the painted logo on the sliding door.

Figuring we were sitting ducks for a parking violation, I rushed to unload my belongings and heaped them in a pile on the curb. Everyone had the same idea, and the sidewalk in front of the tower dorm looked like a flea market that had exploded.

Back inside the van, I climbed past a hanging clothes rack onto a mountain of essential stuff and couldn’t help overhear a mom and daughter two cars down in the throes of a blowout over who forgot to pack bedding. Through the open van doors, I glimpsed a man clutching a floor lamp. With his free hand, he picked up a box of my toiletries that had merged into an adjacent pile.

“Dad,” I shouted out the back, “my bathroom supplies are walking away.”

Near the bottom of a flight of stone steps, he caught up with the perpetrator. Mom and I watched him retrieve my six-month supply of toothpaste and tampons.

Rings of sweat stained Dad’s armpits, and he snapped, “Rachael, only unload what you can carry.”

“She was just unpacking. It’s not her fault,” Mom said.

“Maeve, come down to earth and help carry something.”

Mom and Dad had bickered in the car the entire road trip and hadn’t stopped, even though we’d arrived. Weird. It was the longest-running disagreement I’d ever witnessed between my parents. Until today, my PUs—parental units—had functioned as a united front, not crossing the other in front of me. Under an asinine banner of “We know what’s best,” they had managed to ruin my teenage social life with a barrage of ridiculous rules and regulations about vehicles and boys. Having a 10:00 p.m. curfew and minimal car access had crushed any hopes I’d had of dating and, by default, losing my virginity. After we unpacked, the PUs would be driving home without me, and I planned to make up for lost time.

At six feet tall, my dad wore size eleven laced suede shoes. His hair had more salt than pepper and was overdue for a cut. Reaching behind the van seat, he handed me a worn leather-bound Bible. “Thessalonians is a good read. I marked it for you.”

Dad abided by a strict Catholic code and was a regular holy day and early Sunday Mass patron. Mom and I exuded less zeal. A Bible wasn’t the sort of book that I’d browse through in my free time. He was testing me? That was the only explanation. If I refused the book he handed me, he’d probably go parental, forgoing the nonrefundable tuition he’d already paid and haul my ass back to the Buckeye State. I drilled my pupils into his and concentrated on vaporizing him, but I couldn’t muster any superpowers.

Awaiting a response, he smiled at me. I knew how to can this conversation. Years of teenage experience had sharpened my silent treatment skills. Biting my lip, I swallowed my annoyance and tucked the tattered book into one of my duffel bags while mumbling a less than ecstatic, “Thanks.”

The air inside the van hung motionless. Mom rested against the bumper and blotted her neck with her scarf. Hearing Dad’s mention of the Bible, she closed her eyes and kept them shut. Herbal tea and meditating were the newest accessories she’d added to her arsenal. Dad or I could be midsentence and Mom would go into “the zone.” She signaled this by pinching her index finger and thumb together. After recharging, she’d make herself a cup of ginkgo biloba tea—her brain tonic. I once made the mistake of sticking my nose into the tin of Gypsy brand tea leaves. It stank like an ode to dried cat piss, and I passed whenever she offered me a cup.

Until now, I’d only seen her trance out in the privacy of our home. While Dad ignored her, I felt embarrassed by her homage to the sixties and shouted, “Mom!”

Her eyelids flew open, and she ran a hand through the waves that the humidity had unraveled in her Dorothy Hamill haircut. Flapping her shirttails, she turned toward Dad, “Rachael’s eighteen. Do you really think that a Bible is going to keep her in on Friday nights?” She didn’t bother to whisper.

Mom’s words weren’t meant for discussion. She refocused and began unpacking a cardboard box full of homemade lemon squares, chocolate everything cookies, and iced brownies. Dad snuck one and midbite, I heard him grumble, “It’s always good to have a Bible.”

Moving to the passenger side of the van, Mom fumbled inside her purse and unlatched a compact case mirror. Seeing for herself how the southern humidity had transformed her hair, she chucked it back into her handbag. Before zipping it closed, she clutched a wrapped book-sized gift. Fiddling with the bow, she turned toward me. “I also have a book of sorts for you.”

My parents had already spent a fortune on supplies and new clothes, and their gifts surprised me, not that a used Bible counts. “You shouldn’t have,” I said, and clumsily reached between the seats to hug her. I let go, but she didn’t. With her embrace lingering, I asked, “Should I open it or wait?”

She released me and smiled with distant eyes, “Why don’t you save it until you’re settled in?”

Despite sauna temperatures and short-fused temperaments, attending college far from home put me in a euphoria that was ten times better than a pan of double-chocolate brownies, powdered with sugar and rinsed down with a cold glass of milk. Since the PUs’ irritation level was already high, I concentrated on hiding the bounce in my step and tried not to gloat. Being an only child, I guessed Mom and Dad would go down Emotional Lane when they pulled away from campus without me.


TOWER DORM SOUNDED FANCY, Grogan was not. A high-rise, all-girl dorm, it lacked two crucial comforts not noted in the brochure: carpet and air conditioning. Inside the elevator, Pine-Sol air clung to my skin as sweat gathered behind my ears, in the small of my back, and ten paces directly south.

I’d left the PUs on the curb. Dad’s van idled while he waited to move, and Mom guarded my pile by sitting on it. Rubbing my thumb over the notches of my room key, I ignored the duffel bags slipping off my shoulders and the cardboard box full of sunbaked confectionaries in my hands and focused on finding my room.

I spied into every open door I passed by, glimpsing power strips overloaded with mini home appliances, stockpiles of Ramen noodles, and unmade, gray-striped twin bed mattresses piled high with luggage.

Seven-hundred-seventeen had to be next. Like a can of shaken soda, the pressure inside me was ready to burst. The hallway bustled with students, siblings, parents, and grandparents; their voices seeped through my foam headphones and garbled into the Depeche Mode cassette playing in my Sport Walkman. The lid on the baked-goods box edged off, and I secured it with my chin.

Weaving around a cluster of bodies, I used tunnel vision to count down the room numbers. In a blink, something zunged my ankles and jerked my feet from under me. My teeth clipped the edge of my tongue, and I involuntarily lobbed the box of lemon bars and brownie bits toward the ceiling. In a domino effect, I toppled into two bystanders, and the three of us nosedived until we made intimate contact with the green-and-white linoleum floor.

My headphones had twisted, and one pirated my left eye. In a tangle of limbs and snarled hangers, an uncradled telephone receiver rested between my thighs and a voice called out, “Katie Lee?”

Nobody spoke until a red-polished index finger propelled into the air, and a New York accent near my ear clipped, “God damn it, I broke a nail.”

In this twisteresque body snarl a moaning noise reverberated. An unshaven leg the color of chocolate syrup rose an inch off my shoulders before clunking a bedazzled canvas slip-on back down. “With cussin’ like that, it’s no wonder we’ve been stricken down. The Lord is sayin’ somethin’. That mouth is going to send us all into the eternal inferno.”

The New Yorker wiggled below me. “Don’t Bible-belt me. I’ve been assaulted with baked goods.”

This was not how I envisioned meeting new friends in the dorm.

A medium-built brunette, who smelled as though she’d bathed in Lauren perfume, peered down at the three of us. Her bob haircut cradled her face. Like a page out of The Preppy Handbook, the green madras Bermuda shorts and pink polo she wore gave the appearance of a slice of watermelon with its collar up. Sucking wind, she gasped and, with linguistic precision, spoke in rhythm to her exhale. “Y’all dropped like a spare. I don’t see blood. Are all y’all okay?”

As far as I could tell, the only things injured were Mom’s homemade baked goods and the bathroom supplies that littered the hallway outside the dorm room I’d yet to see.

“You still there?” the idle phone chirped.

The standing southerner stared at the phone between my legs. “Pardon me,” she said and tugged at its cord. Sandwiching the telephone between her earlobe and neck, she whispered, “Gotta go,” and hung up.

The girl in the sparkly shoes propped herself up on her elbows. Under her breath, she garbled, “P-shwank. Do you have a license to talk and walk?”

Focusing on Sparkle Shoes, the girl with the phone said, “Where are my manners? I’m Katie Lee Brown. I didn’t catch your name.”

“Francine Battle.”

Katie Lee busied herself collecting the panty liners that had exploded from someone’s wash bag. Delicately pointing at Francine’s left breast, she shielded a side of her mouth and offered the liners. “You’re leaking lemon curd.”

After using her thumb to wipe yellow glop from her chest, Francine said, “Lord, girl, I’m not a mini kind of woman. Those don’t belong to me.”

The New Yorker, still on the floor, opened her palm, and Katie Lee handed over the stack of feminine care pads. “I was talkin’ with my boyfriend. Nash and I are missin’ each other somethin’ terrible. I heard voices out here and thought one of you might be my roommate, Rachael O’Brien.”

The New Yorker stood, brushed off some crumbs, then raised her chin to the ceiling and mouthed, “Thank you! You got the wrong girl. I’m Macy Stephen.”

I pushed to my feet, stepped out of the remnants of the confectionary cyclone, and offered my hand to my assigned roommate. “I’m Rachael O’Brien.”

Swaddling me in a hug, Katie Lee swooned, “So glad to finally meet you.” Releasing me she held onto my wrists and swung my arms. “This year is going to be amazing.”

Francine moaned, “Um-hmm,” and massaged her lower back.

Katie Lee let go of me to lend a hand to Francine. I rescued an antique gilded frame from the floor and blew crumbs off a black-and-white photo of a toddler in cornrows. The child’s plump fingers clutched the hand of a gray-haired woman in a plain cotton dress. Francine snatched the frame from my grip; her stare softened as she became lost in the memory she held. Meeting my eyes, she spoke under a light breath. “My great-memaw. She’s an artist, you know. She’s the one who pushed me to get the education she never had.”

Macy leaned her head in toward us. “I’m hopeful that this is the start to nine months that’ll make Animal House look like a fucking retirement home.”

Wiping the humidity from my hairline, I twisted my head to make sure my PUs hadn’t appeared. “Me, too.”


NOTE TO SELF

Getting rid of the PUs—glorious.




CHAPTER 2


Twenty-One-Year-Old Freshman



I’d been away at school for one week. My body hadn’t adjusted to the southern climate’s secret double whammy: heat ‘n humidity. Between classes, I skirted into the shadows cast by campus buildings. During peak heat I conserved words, not responding when a head nod sufficed. A newly purchased minielectric fan rested on my desk shelf, blasting recirculated hot air onto my face. It dried the sweat off my eyebrows, but my thighs still stuck to my shorts and my t-shirt to my back. The broiling temperatures that started the day I’d arrived stuck on campus without any sign of relief.

Early Wednesday morning, I was still in bed when there was a knock on our door. Katie Lee asked, “Who is it?”

“It’s Macy. Come out here, quick.”

I threw off the cotton sheet and followed Katie Lee into the hallway.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Macy nodded her head toward Francine’s door, and Katie Lee gasped.

Spray-painted letters that spelled DAN dripped down her doorway.

“Who’s Dan?” I asked

Macy rolled her eyes. “It’s no ex-boyfriend.”

Before Katie Lee knocked on Francine’s door, she whispered, “It’s an abbreviation: ‘Dumb-ass-nigger.’”

The only thing mixed in Canton, Ohio, was the bicolor corn that grew in the fields, and I almost didn’t believe what Katie Lee told me until Francine opened her door. Her hand flew to her mouth, and the corners of her eyes became glossy.

Macy put an arm around Francine’s shoulder and guided her back into her room.

“Do you have any Windex?” I asked. “I think we can wipe it off.”

“No,” Macy said, “don’t touch it. Call campus security.”

Across the hall our phone rang, and Katie Lee dashed off to answer it.

I sat on Francine’s unmade bed while she fumbled to find the number for campus security. Like Macy, Francine had a single room, smaller than the one Katie Lee and I shared. She had chosen lavender for her bedding, desk cushion, and rug. A shelf above her bed displayed framed photos of big smiles and equally big hugs. At an outdoor picnic, an older man in a boat held an overgrown whiskered catfish, and I noticed the photo of Francine and her great-memaw that I’d rescued from the hallway pileup.

Francine’s voice rasped as she spoke into her phone. “This is Francine Battle, Grogan Hall, seventh floor. Racial graffiti has been spray-painted on my dorm door.”

The conversation was brief and as Francine hung up, Katie Lee shouted, “Rachael, it’s your daddy on our phone.”

Mom and Dad had arranged to ring me on Sunday mornings. They referred to it as a weekly social call, but I knew better. It was a make-sure-you’re-not-partying-too-hard-Saturday-night-since-you’ll-be-hearing-from-us-early-Sunday call. I’d been away for less than a week and besides Francine’s drama, nothing was new. I almost asked Katie Lee to tell a fib and say that I’d dashed off to class, but then thought better of it.

“Rachael, are you all right?” Dad asked.

“Of course I am,” I said, keeping my voice sharp so I’d pass his sneaky surprise inspection. I watched Katie Lee leave the room with a towel and shampoo caddy. She said something about showering before campus security showed up.

“Your mother has walked out after twenty years of marriage.” His words resonated like a winter whiteout, and my head went blank.

She’d never leave my dad. He must have done something. I wondered if he’d cheated and asked, “Why would she do that?”

Dad cleared his throat. “She scribbled a note on a piece of planetary stationery. Your mother left to be with a group of healing psychics. Says she’s gone to find her ‘inner channel.’”

My ears tuned out the hallway chatter, and an icy chill froze my insides. I went into lockdown. “Mother? Psychic? Since when?” She never knew I borrowed that twenty out of her purse or that I forged her name so I didn’t have to dissect a frog in biology. Did she?

“Rachael, I didn’t phone until I was certain that this wasn’t a hoax. I hired an investigator who has proof that your mom is staying at a private residence in Sedona, Arizona.”

“Arizona? We’ve never been to Arizona. Does this PI have a license? Why did she go there? What if she was kidnapped or drugged?”

The phone went silent. “Dad, are you okay?”

“Bear with me,” he said, his tone sounding small and distant. “What I’m about to tell you falls under the category of mumbo jumbo. I’ve done some research. The red rock that surrounds the town is known in certain circles for its vortex, ancient mystical frequencies, and healing power. There, I said it.”

“This is ridiculous. Have you called her? When are you going to bring her back?”

“Rachael, there are no phones, and the property is surrounded by high walls and a guarded gate.”

“Are you sure the Moonies or the Mormons don’t have her?”

Dad sighed, and I heard ice cubes clank. To deliver this news, I guessed he’d upgraded from beer to something stronger.

“I’m sure. I thought about marching out there to bring her back until I consulted a lawyer. He said if I did, I’d probably be arrested. She has to come home on her own. Hopefully this craziness will wear off and she’ll call one of us.”

After exhausting every explanation we could think of, our conversation dead-ended over Mom’s newfound calling. When I hung up the phone, my core rattled with an emptiness I’d never felt. Manic emotions floated inside me, and I didn’t know which to pick: anger, guilt, fear. Disbelief of her abandonment fermented. It seemed so bizarre; my parents were diehard Sunday Mass patrons, and we never even owned a Ouija board.

Lying on my bed, I listened to voices in the hallway. Someone from campus security named Tuke introduced himself to Francine. My mind fixated on the words Dad had spoken, and I didn’t have an ounce of extra capacity to delve into the vandalism.

Quietly I shut my door and contemplated my mom. Why did she leave? Did I miss the signs? Obviously. Mom and Dad didn’t seem unhappy. Freakin’ psychic? The only thing psychic about my mom was her ability to read my moods. But that was Mom 101 stuff. She’d started meditating. I thought that was just a stress relief thing. Except for the ride down and the Bible-burst moment, I couldn’t even remember them fighting. Was that it? They didn’t care enough to fight?

I never dreamed the day she and Dad moved me into the dorm would be the last time I’d see her. The hug she gave me in the van, our last embrace. Then I remembered the gift I’d forgotten to open and ran to my closet to find the present. I untied the bow and removed the silver wrapping paper. It was a journal and pen combo. Tipping the ink pen upside down, I stared at gold moons and silver stars bob in a sea of glitter. My back crept down a wall, and as I sank to the floor, I mindlessly fanned blank pages. The second to last had a note in Mom’s handwriting: “Be true to yourself.”

What did that mean? How long had she been planning to go? I had lots of questions, but no answers. I wished I’d said how much I was going to miss her and all the nice things she did for me. Clean-sheet Mondays, homemade mac ‘n’ cheese, buying me the ninety-dollar Gloria Vanderbilt jeans on the condition I didn’t tell Dad. I loved those jeans but would’ve returned them in exchange for Mom in a heartbeat. It was too late. She’d left, and I didn’t know how to get her back.


WHEN KATIE LEE RETURNED from the shower, voices in the hallway rose. Leaning against my open door, I batted my eyelids as fast as hummingbird wings to keep the stinging tears from forming. Crossed-armed, Francine watched a man from the campus police take Polaroid photos of her door. The red stitched name embroidered on his shirt read Tuke Walson. Wearing the kind of uniform that you see on security guards, dental assistants, and electricians, navy blue and snug, I pegged him as older than a graduate student, but younger than my dad.

“Looks like Dan has left his mark. How long you been datin’ this boy?”

“Ah, Tuke,” Macy said. “Dan’s not a guy. It’s a racial slur abbreviation.”

Tuke’s shoulders stiffened as he processed the letters like an indecipherable crossword.

Francine asked, “You southern?”

“Born and raised,” he said, and the meaning registered. A tsk slid off his tongue as he shook his head. He touched the paint with a finger. Still wet, it smeared. “Any you ladies hear early morning noises?”

Macy, Katie Lee, and I shook our heads.

Tuke walked the hallway, checked the staircases, and questioned our neighbors about last night. As the morning’s drama unfolded, I was thankful that Francine’s door distracted Katie Lee and Macy from noticing the turmoil I kept to myself. Like Francine, I’d had a jolt, but unlike her nemesis who hid behind a can of spray paint, I knew the face of the person who rejected me.

A replacement door arrived sometime later, and Tuke left after he installed it. Macy, Katie Lee, and Francine had classes, but I stayed behind. Keeping the blinds shut, I buried my head in my pillow. I wanted to believe that the news about Mom was wrong. There could have been an emergency, a miscommunication, but I couldn’t fathom a reasonable alternative explanation.

The phone rang again, and I wondered if my mother had received a cosmic signal to call me. No matter her reason, I just wanted to know that she was okay.

“O’Brien,” Katie Lee said. “Get over here. We saved you a spot.”

My head hovered in a sticky emotional web. “Where are you?”

“The nastyteria, waiting for you.”


I TRUDGED ACROSS CAMPUS DRIVE feeling strung out, unable to remember or care if I’d brushed my hair or locked the dorm door. I couldn’t be bothered. This was all wrong. I was the one who was supposed to go away to find myself, not Mom.

A burnt stink of charred frying oil suffocated the entire cafeteria, even the table in the back where Katie Lee and Macy had saved me a seat. Somewhere in the kitchen, someone was having a lousy day, and I could relate. I didn’t know why I’d agreed to meet them. Curled under the covers in my dark room, brooding about Mom was where I wanted to be. Why couldn’t she be normal and just have an affair?

The numbness that pressed inside my chest overpowered my appetite. I did little more than pick at the edges of the meat and cheese layers in my Italian sub. I wondered if I should go home to be with Dad, but staring at him wouldn’t bring Mom back. Besides, what if she tried to call me at school?

Rubbing her thumb across her blood-red nail polish, Macy randomly clicked the underside of her nails. “There isn’t shit going on. This place sucks.”

Katie Lee dipped a hush puppy into soft butter. “Y’all, I hear a decent crowd turns up at the Holiday Inn bar. We could go this Friday.”

Macy huffed a throaty guffaw. “You have to be kidding. Partying at the Holiday Inn?”

“This sounds made up,” I said. “Where did you get this tip?”

“I overheard two cute guys talking by the elevator.”

Arranging fries in a puddle of ketchup, I scoffed. “Holiday Inn? As in the cheap hotel with the bathtub-sized swimming pool and vending machines as meal service?”

Katie Lee’s eyes roamed the cafeteria. “It’s going on week two,” she reminded us, “and I’m tired of staring at our dorm walls.”

“We’ve got one problem,” Macy said. “The drinking age is twenty-one.”

Considering consequences, I ranked the humiliation of being arrested and thrown in the clinker for underage drinking at the Holiday Inn a worse offense than flunking out. “We can’t get in,” I told the girls. “They’ll card us.”

Chewing on her bottom lip roused Katie Lee’s inner magic fairy. In an aha moment, she zipped her index finger in the air, which sparked extra twinkle from her lagoon-blue eyes. “We can go to the registration office. Tell them we’ve lost our school IDs.”

I pushed my tray aside. “What good will that do? Unless we get our birth date changed.”

Katie Lee winked while Macy stopped her annoying nail clicking long enough to ask, “Who’s going first?”

My mom, it seemed, had pretended to love my dad and me. Raw emotion grappled my insides and I professed, “I hate fakes and scams. Besides, what bar would let us in with doctored student IDs?”

As much as I thought I wanted to party and meet “The Guy,” I didn’t want to get busted in the process. I did my best to squash the idea, hoping we’d discover some place less illegal to drink and some other way to do it.

Something with apples and cinnamon was baking in the ovens and began to overpower the charred smell. “Come on, Rach,” Katie Lee said. “No one will check.”

I tried to reason with the two. “If we get caught forging an official document, chances are we’ll get kicked out of school.”

Ignoring my objections, Katie Lee stood and walked toward the kitchen. Moments later she returned with three warm apple strudel tarts. She sank a fork into one. “Y’all, I’ll go first.”


NOTE TO SELF

Fake ID: the ultimate ticket to a more meaningful university experience? TBD.




CHAPTER 3


Blood, Drugs, and Forgery



The afternoon heat sweltered, and everything but the humming cicadas stood still. Like the locked heat index, my mind stuck on Mom. I’d been away at school four days before my parents’ relationship collapsed. Dad had gone into crisis mode for two days before he called me with news. He didn’t say it, but he had to have been freaking out. I was, and knew it had to be ten times worse for him. When I returned from my afternoon classes, I called to make sure he was eating, sleeping, and not doing anything stupid.

“I’ve had a haircut, and I’m staying busy,” he assured me. “I’ve accepted a commission to refurbish six Clementine Hunter paintings for her hundredth birthday celebration.”

“That’s cool. Museum or private collector?”

His voice filled with glee. “New Orleans Museum of Art.”

“Who do you know in the South that recommended you?”

I thought I detected gloating when he said, “The artists granddaughter noticed the van in Greensboro and contacted the museum curator. Once we talked, they checked my references and awarded me the commission.”

Pride swelled inside of me. Although Dad’s personal life hung in chaotic uncertainty, professionally he’d worked hard to attain a reputation for his meticulous attention to detail. This was a big deal, and my chest weighed heavy knowing neither Mom nor I was home to help him celebrate. I still couldn’t believe she’d run off. Mindlessly, I twirled the phone cord around my finger and stared out the window at Campus Drive, waiting for someone to say “April Fools!” or “Gotcha!”—something to shake the reality of Mom’s unexpected departure. But none came, and before I found heartfelt words, Katie Lee flung our door open and distracted me. In full peacock strut, she parade-marched the length of our nine-by-twelve cell while waving her rectangular card in the air. Making an excuse, I hung up, then snatched her prized possession. “Let me see that.”

Katie Lee’s two-by-three-and-a-half-inch university photo ID card was still warm from the laminate machine. Under the university seal, she was a twenty-one-year-old freshman. She’d secured her golden ticket to a night of drunken bliss.

A milkshake of emotional anxiety and boredom can warp one’s perspective of fun. After thumbing through my wallet, I handed Katie Lee my ID and said, “Hide this.”

“Why?”

“So I can say I lost mine and get a new one with a clear conscience.”


AN OVERLYING SCENT OF formaldehyde hung in the windowless basement of the humanities and science building. The woman behind the flip-top wooden counter of the registrar’s office styled her Clairol medium-blonde locks in a bouffant and wore a shift dress with billowy sleeves. “I’ve lost my ID,” I said.

Curling her lips in a glum frown, she handed me a form to fill out. After a ten-minute wait, I paid a twenty-dollar replacement fee and left with my new card.

I wasn’t proud that I’d lied about my birth date on an official form. You weren’t supposed to do that until you turned thirty. Knowing my mom had hit the road with a group of traveling head cases and spending all my free time in the company of books while living in mock prison quarters was a recipe for emotional turmoil. If I got busted, I figured I could plead insanity.

Not lingering around, I headed to class. Finally I had plans. I’d be spending Friday night at the Holiday Inn. Since I hadn’t found any cute, witty guys on campus, I hoped that this was where they were hiding. Drinking and dating weren’t approved activities under Mom and Dad’s roof. But I wasn’t living with either one anymore.


PROFESSOR’S WEREN’T SHY ABOUT assigning heavy loads of reading requirements and after a late dinner, and some library time, I was back at the dorm, but avoided my room. Katie Lee’s hometown boyfriend, Nash, was nocturnal and always called after eleven. They’d dated for two years in high school, and she professed to anyone who’d listen that she’d found her soul mate. Trying to pace myself on the personal information intake, I ended up across the hall, in Macy’s beanbag, and hoped my roommate’s phone conversation would be brief so I could get some sleep.

Being a Greek New Yorker, Macy embodied more oompa than the average eighteen-year-old. At least more than any I’d ever met. Unpeeling my late night snack, I offered her half of my Slim Jim.

Fluttering her hand in front of her crinkled nose, she squeaked, “Eugh,” which I took as a “no thanks.”

“I’m a strict vegetarian,” she reminded me.

Despite her meat abstinence, she spewed animal magnetism when she danced with her laundry to the B-52’s. She folded a towel or t-shirt during the pauses and slow parts of the songs. Every piece of clothing she pulled from the basket was black, gray, or blue, except her panties and bras. Those were bright colors constructed from lacy fabrics. Macy’s physique resembled a roller coaster, and her bras, easily two cup sizes larger than mine, gave me feelings of inadequacy. When she opened her underwear drawer, I was transfixed by the discovery of what could only be a tunnel into Candyland. The neatly folded stacks of intimate apparel drew my eye and gave me a sense that each piece could provide a wealth of information that probably wasn’t decent.

When the late night news ended, Macy’s door swayed open and clunked against the gray plastic wall bumper. The TV provided the only illumination in the room and cast a luminescent glow around Katie Lee’s shadowy figure as her slipper sock feet made a whisk-whisk noise across the floor. Macy clicked on her study light, and we both watched Katie Lee’s curled fists window-wash mascara and tears into raccoon rings around her eyes.

Turning the TV off, Macy wrapped her arm around Katie Lee’s shoulders. “You’re a mess.”

I softened my voice. “What’s going on? Did you have a fight with Nash?”

I didn’t mean to send her over an emotional waterfall, but my question opened her tear ducts, and by the time she calmed down she’d filled the garbage can to the rim with tissues.

“Nash was in a car accident. I should be with him, but I’m stuck here. Y’all, it happened in New Bern, near my house.”

“When was this?” I asked.

“Yesterday. Late afternoon.”

Macy guided Katie Lee to her twin bed and offered her a pillow. “What happened?”

“To miss an oncoming vehicle, his Chevy truck lurched into a ditch, and he knocked his head into the steering wheel.” She sniffled and blew her nose. “His windshield broke, and glass cut his hands and face. He probably had a slight concussion but managed to walk over to our house to lie down.”

Macy sat upright. “Why didn’t he call sooner?”

Katie Lee’s voice cracked. “He passed out in my bedroom and didn’t feel well enough to call me until now.”

Holding the beanbag to my backside, I moved closer to the bed. “Wait a minute. Your dad’s a doctor. Did he examine Nash’s injuries?”

“Mama and Daddy are attendin’ a medical conference in Beaufort. They aren’t due back until this evenin’.”

“How did Nash get in your house?” I asked.

Crimping her eyebrows at my questioning, she enlightened me. “Southerners don’t lock doors.”

“For real?” I asked, and Katie Lee brushed over my astonishment. My father was a lock addict. He added dead bolts to doors and even locked his toolbox that he kept in the latched cabinet behind the padlocked garage. At my house, we always locked doors.

“Nash called some friends. They came over to give him a tow and help get him home.”

“Is he okay now?” Macy asked.

“He says so, but his voice sounds weak. I think he’s keepin’ some details of his injuries from me so I won’t worry. I should be home takin’ care of him.”


FRIDAY, I AWOKE TO a dull ache behind my eyeballs and a knot in my stomach. I’d stayed up consoling Katie Lee, but tonight I might be the one who needed solace. If I was caught using my fake student ID, my dad might get a call from the police to bail my ass out of jail. The thought made me queasy, and I reached for the Pepto-Bismol. Normally I didn’t touch the stuff, but I had a morning lecture to sit through, so I chugged from the bottle.

The phone cord snaked into the hallway and I guessed she’d been out there most of the night. Knowing Katie Lee worried about Nash, I speculated that she’d leave for the weekend to be with him. Her boyfriend woes were my only nonwussy excuse for bailing out on the planned outing at the Holiday Inn. As I sharpened my pencils and arranged them from tallest to shortest, I asked, “Did you talk to Nash this morning? Are you going home to see him?”

“He’s doing better. I don’t have a ride home, and he convinced me to stay. It’ll do me some good to get off campus for a drink.”

My stomach corkscrewed. “Do you think there’s a chance we’ll get busted?”

Katie Lee spritzed perfume above her head and walked underneath. “It’s just a night out. The worst thing that’ll happen is they’ll turn us away.”

She pulled a robe and a plastic basket of shower essentials from her closet, and I asked, “Why did you put on perfume if you’re going to shower?”

“It reminds me of Nash,” she said and headed down the hall toward the communal bathrooms.

I stayed in bed. Her words didn’t subdue my skittish stomach. Thoughts of drinking illegally triggered a hiccup, a nervous habit I’d developed as a kid. I knew the best way to stop them. Holding my breath, I sucked water from a straw and let a drizzle down my throat. I imagined the meadow behind my home in Canton. The blades of the wild grasses, the notches on the lily pads in the stream-fed pond. The serene thoughts cleared my mind of the potential negatives of underage drinking, like eating hot dogs and burnt grilled cheese for the rest of my life at the women’s correctional facility. That last thought was not helpful, and as I breathed deeply to erase it, the phone rang.

“Rachael, Mrs. Brown here. Put Katie Lee on, will you?”

“She went to the shower.”

“Be a dear and fetch her. It’s important.”

My roommate had grown up in a small town along the North Carolina coast. Before college began, she and I had spoken long distance a couple of times. Over the phone, she’d told me, “Last year was my debutante party at the New Bern Country Club. We live on the historical side of town. My girlfriends come over all the time and hang out on our screened-in porch that overlooks the Trent River.”

Katie Lee’s life had sounded like one continuous party. I had the only parents I knew of who enforced curfews to the minute, kept car usage to a minimum, and made sure that the money from my low-wage after-school job at my dad’s restoration shop went into the bank. A minute ago, I would’ve swapped my life for hers, but as I fast-walked to find her I had second thoughts.

I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but as I dressed for class I could hear Mrs. Brown’s voice clearly transmitted from New Bern and was thankful that the phone wasn’t on my ear.

“There’s been trouble at the house.”

Katie Lee squeaked water out of her loose ends, and bubbles stuck to her fingers. “What do you mean, Mama?”

“We didn’t get home until dinnertime last night. When your daddy pulled up to the mailbox, he found an empty whisky bottle tucked in with the bills and letters. We headed up the driveway and could see beer cans scattered around the magnolia trees. We became alarmed when we noticed the open garage doors.”

Our room’s cement block walls trapped suffocating air, and I opened a window. Hearing Mrs. Brown’s voice rise an octave, I scrambled to gather my books for morning class.

“Inside the house, I found dried blood on the carpet, bed linens crumpled, and wine missing from the cellar. You know how your father feels about cigarettes. The smell inside our house makes The Split Happens bowling alley seem like a perfumery. Do you have any idea who could have done this?”

Katie Lee and I locked eyes. I hadn’t met Nash Wilson, but a picture of him in an orange jumpsuit with shackles on his ankles sprang to mind. I hoped he’d be like my second cousin on my mother’s side who lived with some indigenous tribe in the South Pacific. I’d never met him and never would. Placing my bottle of Pepto-Bismol next to Katie Lee, I whispered, “See you when I get back.”


THE WIND CONTINUED TO kick through campus, and by late afternoon I’d resorted to fastening my tousled brunette shoulder-length hair in a messy ponytail. Intermittent gusts had broken the stagnant heat and invigorated me. Five hours had passed since I’d left my room. My stomach had settled, and I’d sat through my lecture without incident. I’d even eaten a light lunch and hung out in the library to start a psych paper on paralleling codependent relationships and addiction.

I wondered what awaited me in my room. Perhaps Katie Lee had taken a bus home? If that were the case, I could tell Macy it didn’t feel right going without Katie Lee since it was her idea in the first place. This would postpone the attempt at entry into the Holiday Inn, and hopefully we’d find another way to meet cute guys.

A Webster’s dictionary held our door open, as gusty winds from the window swept my desk papers into disarray. Still wearing her robe, Katie Lee lay with the back of her head hanging off the foot of her bed. Four Pepsi cans that had missed the garbage can littered the floor.

“What’s going on?”

“I just hung up with my dad. He says the New Bern police questioned Nash for forgery.”

She ambushed me with that piece of information. “Forgery? For what? Where’s he now?”

“Valium. I don’t know. I can’t find him.”

“How can you forge Valium? Start from the beginning. Tell me what your dad said.”

Her soapy hair hadn’t styled well, and blotchy, red patches created a highway that ran south of her eyes to just north of her collarbone. She held a cold compress in her hand. “Honestly, Rach, I’ve never heard Daddy yell so loud. Not even the time I sailed the Sunfish out with a pony keg and nearly sank her because I forgot to plug the bottom.”

I shut the window. “Start from the beginning.”

“‘Do you know who I just finished talking to?’ Daddy asked.” Katie Lee exhaled her frustration. “Like how would I?”

Dropping my book satchel, I perched on top of my desk. “Who was your dad talking to?”

Katie Lee sat up and blew her nose. “Ray Saunders. Apparently he’s some kind of detective with the New Bern Police Department. He told Daddy that Nash attempted to fill a prescription at the pharmacy in town for Valium, written on Dad’s prescription pad. The pharmacist, Kitty Klum, recognized Nash and called to verify the prescription.”

“Holy shit. Was it Nash?”

“Couldn’t have been.”

“So why is Nash a suspect?”

“Dad’s receptionist told Kitty that Daddy was in Beaufort and had been for two days.”

Unsure where this story was going, I was curious enough to keep listening.

“I tried to tell Daddy everyone thinks teenagers all look the same. The pharmacist probably saw someone who resembled Nash, but he talked over me.”

“Like who?”

“Rachael, that’s not the point. He just blasted my ear. Said, ‘I didn’t write any prescriptions and certainly none for Nash.’”

Speechless, I shifted my seat.

“It gets worse. Daddy got all negative about Nash and gloated, ‘Unfortunately for your boyfriend, Kitty stalled and called the police.’”

Pulling two Pepsis from our mini refrigerator, she tossed one to me. “By the time the sheriff arrived at the pharmacy, Nash—or his impersonator—had left.”

She popped the top and slurped with her eyes closed as if she wished she were drinking something stronger. “Daddy railed on me. Said he’s mad as hell at that boy. I asked if he was sure about all this. I think he was drinking. I heard him drain a glass. He told me a patrol car caught up with Nash at the 7-Eleven. With an expired license plate and refusing to answer questions, the deputies took my boyfriend to the station.”

Not wanting to make Katie Lee feel worse, I told her, “If Nash didn’t forge the prescription, they’ll have to let him go.”

Lying down, she covered her eyes with a wet washcloth. “Daddy said Detective Saunders know Nash and I date. That detective wanted to know if Daddy could shed some light on the situation.”

“Did he?” I asked.

Katie Lee sat up. “Daddy’s wiring short-circuited over the phone. ‘Katie Lee,’ he raged, ‘I don’t have any light to shed. Do you?’”

I searched the library in my head for comforting words. My card catalogue opened on “your boyfriend is an idiot.” Keeping quiet, I hoped that a sympathetic gaze would suffice.

Peeling the washcloth off her face, she rolled on her side. “Daddy’s tongue went all kinetic. ‘That boy is on a path of self-destruction. Nash Wilson is tarnishing the Brown family name.’ His temper was barely below ballistic when he said he’s deciding whether to press charges for trespassing and forgery. I’ve been so upset I’m skipping all my Friday classes.”

Katie Lee moped in a puddle of turmoil, but managed to confide her father’s final words as she struggled to dam the drips that overflowed her eyes. “Daddy warned me, ‘That boy is trouble, and I don’t want you having anything to do with him. You hear me?’”

“He forbid you to see Nash?”

She nodded.


EARLY THAT EVENING, NASH called Katie Lee. He’d been released from the police station without being charged. Katie Lee confronted him about trashing her parents’ home, and he modified his story from the previous day. He now claimed a concussion had erased portions of his postaccident memory.

I’d only spoken to him a few times via phone, and my experience with a boyfriend was zero, but I was fairly certain that I could find one less prone to trouble.

Around dinnertime, I heard Katie Lee speaking to her mother. “He did a stupid thing, and he admits it. Mama, Nash didn’t have the upbringing that you and Daddy gave me. Give him another chance. He’s really a good person.” The conversation lowered into a whisper zone until she hung up.

“Maybe we should stay in tonight?” I suggested.

“Like hell. I need a drink.”


NOTE TO SELF

Suffocating in the stickiness of the Carolina heat and humidity. Find myself lingering in the air-conditioned non-dorm buildings. A tricky ploy to get the students to spend more time in an academic setting. I’m not fooled.


Macy’s underwear intimidates me.


Nash Wilson is not someone I ever need to meet.




CHAPTER 4


Holiday Inn



Roaming the empty halls at the Holiday Inn with Macy and Katie Lee, I found myself thinking about my aunt Gert. She had a personality like pistachio ice cream, out of the ordinary, and tolerated by few. The air in her cluttered house, a concoction of gardenia carpet powder and pipe tobacco, was a replica of the motel’s. Pushing those thoughts aside, I decided to concentrate on the positive possibilities. The Holiday Inn could be a secret hot spot, and this could be the night I become a woman with experience.

We stopped at a corridor near an ice machine. Macy’s New York banter vacuumed me out of my head fog. “Don’t tell me, there isn’t a bar in here.”

Since dinner, Katie Lee had contained her emotional tsunami. We’d worn the topic of Nash out and hadn’t discussed him for nearly an hour. Springing into action, she said, “Y’all sit tight. I’ll ask at the desk.”

“We’d better wait outside,” I whispered. “Don’t want to look like we’re casing out a room to rob.”

Initially I’d been nervous. Not about the flaming shots and relentless flirting, but about the logistical specifics of how to get into a bar with my student ID. Fast-talking myself into an opportunity or out of a predicament had never been a strength. A soft night breeze cleared my hesitations. I determined I’d be fine once I held a drink. This was college life. I was supposed to get my party fix. In four years, I could leave my wild ways behind to become a responsible adult and contributor to society, or some bullshit like that.

After tucking her red bra strap under her black shirt, Macy hooked her arm around mine. “I’ve got something in my purse to occupy us.”

My tongue skirted over my crooked eyetooth. “You scare me when you say things like that.”

She unzipped her Gucci. “Cigarette?”

“I’m not a smoker.”

“Take one. It’ll relax you.”

Outside the lobby doors, Macy and I huddled near a raised planter window box where I flicked ashes into the overgrown ivy that choked pink geraniums.

“For God’s sake, Rachael, you’re in tobacco country. Don’t mock them. At least make an attempt to smoke it.”

Up until now, I’d only inhaled secondhand smoke at Aunt Gert’s. Trying to save face from additional verbal scolding, I sucked hard on the white filter until I gagged and hacked like an old man dislodging a lugie.

Emerging from the revolving glass door, Katie Lee pinched the cigarette from my fingers for a drag. “Y’all know these things will kill you.”

“Thanks for the news flash. Where’s the bar?”

“There isn’t access from the hotel. The entrance is around the corner.”


A NARROW CEMENT STAIRCASE led down to a lime-colored neon sign. We were just a few feet away from the entrance of “The Lounge,” and my heart palpitated in a synchronized rhythm with my flip-flops. A cue ball head bouncer who wore clip-on shades positioned one leg on the ground and the other on the crossbar of a barstool. Max, according to his pin-on nametag, bore a resemblance to a neighbor in Canton. The one who turned his lights off and blocked his front door with garbage cans every Halloween. Would I be denied access to this drinking hole? Holding my breath, I kept my feet moving, but before I passed, he stuck out an arm. Not bothering to look up from his crossword puzzle, he asked, “Who wrote A Clockwork Orange?”

This had to be a trick question.

“Anthony Burgess,” Macy said.

“Thanks.”

We were in.

With a name like “The Lounge,” I expected mirrored walls and purple velvet high-back booths. My mind threw a complete miss. The subterranean drinking establishment was tricked out in hunter green and mauve jungle décor.

Katie Lee’s drama had spilled into my psyche, and I’d worked up a thirst for drinks garnished with fruit, and although thankful to be in a bar, the ease of entry had me wondering why I’d parted with a twenty for a new ID.

Macy and I followed Katie Lee past a window air-conditioner that hummed as it sent beads of rust-tinted water down the tropical wallpaper. Musty air smelled of fermented yeast, and oak veneer tables dotted half of the dimly lit room. In the far corner, a dance floor, smaller than my dorm room, meekly beckoned for company other than the jukebox that flashed SOS signals.

Slapping her purse on the counter top, Macy said, “This place is a dump, and it’s empty.”

A bartender wearing a straw fedora planted one foot on a keg and fiddled with a TV remote, eventually settling on stock car racing. Over his shoulder, he asked, “Ladies, what’ll it be?”

I whispered to the girls, “Is that a canary on his shoulder?”

“That’s not a canary, that’s a stuffed cockatoo,” Macy said.

“What’s your bird’s name?” Katie Lee asked.

The bartender moved toward us. His nametag read Stone R. Stroking the still feathers, he leaned toward me. “Give Lolita a pet. She’s friendly.”

I used one finger to touch the taxidermy bird.

He smiled. “Your order?”

As long as the bartender didn’t stir my drink with a feather plume, I was happy to ignore the winged accessory he’d fastened to his shoulder.

Katie Lee straightened the edges of a napkin pile and picked up a handful of snack mix. “Three Fireflies with pink lemonade and a lemon twist.”

“What the hell is Firefly?” Macy asked, making me feel less amateur.

“Trust me. You’re gonna love this drink.”

“Is it a green flaming shot? ’Cause I’m not comfortable swallowing fire.”

Macy strummed her nails against the bar. “With the right attitude, you can swallow just about anything.”

Dipping into a roll of quarters from my laundry money I bought the first round. We settled around a high bistro table, where my feet dangled from the pleather-upholstered stools. The sweet drink gradually warmed my face from the inside out. I traced the darkened water stains on the tabletop with my finger while the three of us hashed out the pros and cons of our freshman classes.

Macy’s stool faced the door. Clunking an empty glass down, she asked, “Where is everyone?”

“I don’t know,” I said, thinking the entire student body vanished on weekends. None of us had cars, but it seemed the rest of the students did.

Resting her elbows on the tabletop, Katie Lee slurred, “Y’all, boyfriend or no boyfriend, this is not a fast start to experiencing freedom and intermingling with coeds.”

Stone delivered a round on the house, and Katie Lee quizzed the bird-loving bartender. “Why the fascination with cockatoos?”

Sliding a stool up to our table, he said, “I’m studying to be an ornithologist. The US needs to ramp up security in airports and at border crossings to stop the illegal bird trade.”

Macy placed her hand on top of his. “You’re wearing a dead cockatoo. That doesn’t exactly set a righteous example.”

“Lolita brings about curiosity. Curiosity sparks conversation—the beginnings of awareness.”

The phone under the bar rang, and he left to answer it.

Having listened to a bunch of bird talk from a guy who had a fixation with feathers, I plunged into a buzzed funk, dismayed at yet another uneventful weekend. The truth serum disguised as Firefly freed my lips, and I confessed, “This is not the college life I envisioned. I’ve never been with a guy and at this rate never will.” I threw my arms up in the air and clonked my forehead onto the table. “I feel cheated. Almost an entire month—and nothing. No obsessions, chance encounters, or drunken romps. Zip, zilch, zero. Not even a sniff of romance.” About to throw the towel in for the night, I felt Macy’s nail tips pinch my forearm. “Ouch.”

“I think those are students coming in past Max.”

We watched a steady stream of underage students surge in. The jukebox fired up, and the night didn’t seem entirely lost.

In less than fifteen minutes, the bar had filled with late night revelers. I’d been happily sipping my drink and darting my eyes around the room as we ranked all the guys that had piled in. Macy startled us with a warning. “Oh no. Don’t look, but here comes a blond guy, cowboy boots—redneck looking. So not my type.”

If you tell someone not to look, it actually means look, but carefully. I needed to see this one for myself. As I rotated my body, some klutz from behind knocked my elbow, propelling my arm forward. The cocktail I’d been enjoying launched out of my hand. “I wasn’t finished with that,” I said to the schlub behind me, before I caught sight of a tall, soggy redhead who, thanks to me, was plucking ice cubes from her cleavage.

Standing a few feet from me, the buxom redhead snarled, “Bitch!”

I turned and looked behind me. No one else faced my direction.

Under normal circumstances, I would’ve just apologized for my clumsiness and hoped the situation would go away. Unfortunately, Katie Lee didn’t share the same etiquette philosophy. Energized with liquid courage, she leapt off her barstool. Gripping my arm, she anchored me to her hip, puffed out her chest, and delivered a scolding. “Back off. It was an accident.”


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