Narrator: Gregory Cartier
I came upstairs just in time. There was one person left in a bathing suit. All we'd need was one. Her dirty blond hair was just skirting through the bathroom doorway, dripping just a little onto the carpet. Damn it, not her!
"Crystal, wait!" I yelled as she unintentionally slammed the door in front of my face. I wondered if that would happen a second time.
"I don't care, Dr. House, I'm not writing you another vicadin prescription!" she said through the door, pretending I was another Gregory entirely. The bastardous comparison made me wince.
"We both know tonight wouldn't end well, for either of us," I tried to reason, "if I hadn't left you."
"You planned this, didn't you! Why else would you have let me drag you into the midst of my extended social circle?" she accused. "Kieth's presence here was no coincidence. Joshua told me you even suggested that he get his brother to chaperon instead of going out to the movie theatre all night with that fag hag friend of his."
"Tell me, honestly," I urged her. "Did you not know? Ashley knew, and you don't even give her a word-by-word description of our intimacy, ever."
I could tell from the way she said it that she blamed me.
"Helping a girl in pain is one thing, but asking her out when you're gayer than Richard Simmons? Come now, Greg, I have nothing but disdain left for you now. Begone."
"Put your swimsuit back on and come out here. We need someone to dive for... umm..."
"You want me to pick up Adam's balls from the bottom of the pool, Greg? You're pathetic!"
Brent walked past us, and into Joshua's room. Joshua!
"For Joshua, please. His parents will be home in an hour. You're the only one who's still wet."
She opened the door reluctantly, a sneer on her face. "The least you could have done was apologize. How many months of my life have I wasted on you?"
"I'll apologize," I said calmly, "when I'm done apologizing to myself."
"Yup, always putting yourself first, Greg. A real man's man, in the most literal sense. Hah!"
"You didn't seem to have any problems being selfish tonight either, Crystal. And you expect me to believe that Brent spiked the punch? The biggest bulge left in Adam's pants now is the flask in his back pocket."
"Break it up, you two!" Ashley yelled as she walked down the hall from the room Brent had just entered.
"Oh, now you choose to come out of hiding and be a friend?" Crystal snarled, turning toward Ashley with just as much anger.
"I don't know how he puts up with you, Crystal," Ashley said, forcibly holding the anger in. "He's handling this with far more maturity than either of you put together."
"Brent!?" I laughed.
"No, he's just in there to get his WoW fix," Ashley said. "I was talking about CJ."
Crystal began to make a move towards Joshua's room.
She put out a hand to stop Crystal, "Don't. Leave him. He needs time to think."
"Junior and I had sorted things out before you went in there and messed with his head," Crystal seethed. "What'd you tell him, that I'm a man-eater? That I can't control my emotions?"
I bit my lip.
"Certainly not your anger," Ashley mused, and then walked past us. "Dive for the beanbag, please."
"Beanbag?" Crystal was quizzical.
"Well, were you expecting real testicles?" I asked, perhaps a bit too condescendingly.
"Not from you," she said, as she followed Ashley down the stairs.
I knew in my mind that that exchange could have gone a lot better. We both had pent up, mixed feelings about all of it. We were both hurting, but I knew I'd chosen the path of least resistance. The least pain.
"Crystal, one more thing." I said, in the nicest possible way, when she was at the foot of the stairs. I dug my hand into the pocket of my jeans, and grabbed the warm metal.
She turned to scowl in my direction.
"Catch!" I tossed her the handcuffs, then the key.
Crystal Jennings had the most confused look on her angry, crimson face that I have ever seen on anyone. It was priceless. I wished I had a camera with me. Her delicate eyebrows were now like trains, headed in opposite directions, that had crashed together on the same track. Her jaw was slanted to the side, and her nose was wrinkled up like some sort of alien from Star Trek.
I winked, and pushed a grin up against one cheek.
Then, I watched her brows flatten, and her nose fall back into place. Slowly, she realigned her jaw. And finally, we both burst into hysterical laughter.
When it was over, a peaceful smile returned to her face. It seemed stuck there, as if it were now her normal expression. I'd seen that smile before, but never for more than a few seconds at a time. And for a moment I felt envy.
However, I quickly reminded myself of the man asleep in the next room. Yelling. How inconsiderate of us. My jealousy dissipated, and yet my nose remained firmly stuck in someone else's business.
I wanted to make sure he was filling his own shoes, and not mine.
I found him staring blankly over Brent's shoulder, not quite watching the mauling of the skeletons or reading the names of the loot. CJ was pensive, with a far-gone look that seemed oblivious to his surroundings. A single tear was left on his cheek.
"Hey Greg," Brent said, somehow never taking his eyes off the screen.
"Hello," I greeted. "It looks like a nice evening for slaying the undead."
The entire time, CJ was like a statue. He hadn't reacted to my sudden appearance, or any of my exchange with Brent. I had never seen him like that.
"What's with stone-face?" I asked.
"I dunno. I dun' care," mumbled Brent, as he began a hostile pursuit of another player on the screen in front of him.
"Junior, may I talk to you?" I said it cautiously, a delicate enunciation. I didn't want to hear yet another angry voice, even if it came from my own mouth.
For a long moment, all I heard was the bashing of keys and the creepy, ambient music from Brent's game. He seemed downright catatonic. When he finally answered me, I nearly jumped.
"If you're here to warn me," CJ said, "you're too late. I already know what was in store for you. It was a fate I nearly inherited by having the wrong feelings at the wrong time."
I could tell that he was speaking cryptically so that Brent wouldn't bother eavesdropping. It was smart, and I gladly kept it up.
"I trust you not to abuse the situation. However, I think I can read her better than Ashley." Brent hates reading, he'll tune this out. "That toothless smile of hers is new to the status quo. I'd hate to see it lost."
"What if there are more important things that I don't want lost?"
He nodded. "I can't start the way you started, can I?"
"Not with her. She's reached a point in her life where she's ready."
"With the assumption that men are always ready," CJ added.
Brent interrupted, "What the fuck are you guys talking about?"
"You answered your own question, Brent," CJ said, gently guffawing through a grin.
I barked a laugh, too loud and too late.
"What do you think I should do?" CJ asked.
"I think you should take the plunge into the unknown. You've strayed away from it, as if it were poison, for so long."
"You mean you want me to do exactly what you just did? Well, y'know, clearly not exactly, I don't play for your team."
"You don't play at all, CJ. And I bet that's why you're so damn depressed. You escape, you evade, you shy away. Those shadows under your eyes, these last two years, have only gotten worse!" I stopped, realizing I'd brought him to tears. I had forgotten, for a moment, how highly sensitive he was.
"I'm b-buckling under the stress, Greg, and it's b-bad if a near-stranger like you can see it. M-maybe it's not a pill for the pain that I'm to be waiting for."
"Please don't make a House reference, whatever you do, I'm getting sick and tired of..."
CJ laughed, again, despite his sadness. Then he sniffled. "I'm on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds right now. I feel like my life is falling apart, and I don't even know how much longer I can stay in school. This may not be the best time in my life for me to be..."
"Love heals all wounds," I quoted the proverb. "It has absolutely nothing to do with physical wounds, CJ." I tapped a finger to my forehead.
"My parents will think I'm nuts... and their love certainly isn't healing anything."
"Make sure you don't confuse love with a sense of responsibility and ownership," I spoke sternly, trying to keep my mind away from my own parents. And then I tilted my head to indicate Brent, whose back was turned to us. "You'll end up like him."
CJ nodded, "Thanks, Greg."
I knew, now, that he had a myriad of dark thoughts running through his mind. More than I had imagined. He had been brooding, here, that's what it was. Plotting his escape.
"If we're using that same example," CJ began, eyes darting briefly to Brent, "then let's also not confuse lust and love."
"Don't make it about those two," I gestured at Brent once more. "This is about you. Lust is a part of love, CJ. It's the part of it that you've feared all this time. I watched you squirm in the hot tub. You were enjoying yourself, but you were scared."
"Yes, I was."
"Maybe, then, you also need to confront your fear."
CJ's eyes widened, and his candour became blunt, "Are you asking me to fuck the girl you just broke up with?"
Brent's head spun around at the sound of the F-word, perhaps inducing whiplash.
He repeated himself louder, a tone of unmistakable disgust in his voice, "Are you asking me to fuck Crystal?"
CJ was one of those people who seldom swore. But when they did, on rare occasions, it was all the more poignant. He said the word 'fuck' as if it was the worst possible thing someone could do to her, as if there wasn't even the slightest connotation of affection in the act. It was full of hostility.
Brent looked like a curious, impish monkey, staring at us. He practically had his hand up to volunteer instead. Clearly, he wanted to say something, because of the subject matter, but knew that the conversation was too personal for him to get involved.
I shrugged, ignoring Brent and leaning back against Joshua's dresser. "If that's what it takes, man. I mean, we both know you certainly won't let her get knocked up. Especially after what your sister went through."
Brent frowned, and whispered, "CJ knocked up his own sister?"
"Ashley tried to convince me, in not so blunt or as many words, that Crystal was a shallow tramp." His tone was devoid of emotion. To me, the notion was absurd.
"Based on what? Falling for a gay guy as her first and only boyfriend before you came along? If she had cheated on me, she would have told me in the midst of the conniption she just had." I paused to gather my thoughts. "Shallow tramps don't plan weeks in advance for one special night, sprinkling rose petals and placing scented candles all over their dorm rooms."
"But she did misplace her feelings," CJ pointed out.
"Which is a perfectly human thing to do!"
He nodded in agreement.
"Is that going to stop you from starting a relationship?" I asked, worried now for both of them.
"No. I believe I've eradicated the unwanted inheritance," he said smugly. He'd used enough big words that Brent returned his attention to the PC, to find that his character had been slain while his back was turned.
"How can you be so sure?" I asked Junior, making sure to say it as peacefully as possible.
"Because we're polar opposites, Greg. I made sure that Crystal realized that."
"That toothless smile... you're good for her, kid," I told him. I walked to the doorway, and turned around.
"Making sure to leave her in good hands?" CJ asked, exasperated.
"No. I came here to make sure that those hands, good or bad, aren't going to be wearing my gloves," I told him. "And I also wanted to check your wrist size. An odd gift. Neither she nor I had ever wanted to wear them."
"Huh? Are you still talking about metaphorical gloves?"
"I didn't say anything," I lied, as I walked down the hall, smirking, towards the stairs.
"You're up to something," CJ accused.
"The cat's in someone else's bag, now," I told him. "You'll find out soon enough."
That's when someone's abandoned cellphone started ringing, and the real trouble began.