Chapter 11: Houston We Have a Problem

The hummer stopped in front of a quaint two-story house with slanted styled windows, and although the blinds were partially closed, Brandi could still see the streams of coloured lights that seemed to pierce through the shades. Getting out of the car, she did her best not to stare at the strange faces of the other teenagers while the other two girls made their way towards the entrance. All the while, Brandi tried to figure out if Jason was just some random guy that Teresa had picked up in the public library, her only other regular haunt.

Taking a moment to scrape some chewing gum off her shoe, she watched the other girls go in, suddenly feeling apprehensive, knowing that if her mother ever found out she wouldn’t get away with some petty chore like washing the dishes, which was something she was almost certain her mother could do in her sleep, as her hands moved along the counter sometimes almost aimlessly when she talked. A habit that Brandi was almost certain had started with the new job at Marshall’s and Luxley’s. One of those more trendy places, where she couldn’t afford the salad, with her meagre allowance of twenty five dollars, if she remembered to take out the trash, help with the cooking and do her homework.

But looking around this lush environment with its miniature gnome, decorated lights and outdoor foliage, she was sure that although these parents may have cared with keeping up appearances, their kids didn’t mind too much about hanging out, going places, and having fun, whenever the need arose. Teresa flashed her a smile at the door, as if she could tell what Brandi was thinking and then ushered her inside.

Brandi took a deep breath after crossing the threshold. Wondering why she was getting a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, when she had already assured herself that everything was going to be fine. Unless of course, the house was somehow telling her that she shouldn’t be there. She frowned, deep in thought, wondering if she was the one who was thinking all of this or if her brain was flying solo. She shook her head and passed a hand over the pendant, as if to reassure herself that everything was fine.

A girl wearing a bit too much mascara gave her a kooky grin, as if she was mysteriously checking herself out in front of some invisible mirror and Brandi shook her head, explaining to herself that that was definitely not possible. Then the girl raised her eyes and walked away, leaving Brandi to stare into space, somehow speechless about what had just happened, as Teresa motioned towards at her.

“Wait here. I’ll get us something to drink.”

Brandi nodded, hoping it was a reference to water because she couldn’t handle anything heavy. In fact, one Christmas when uncle Ken had spiked the punch, without her knowing, she had unwittingly drank a mug or two after losing to Avery at a game of gin rummy. Sure, they shouldn’t have been playing. And sure, Brandi shouldn’t have been such a sore loser that she’d challenged her cousin to a second game that included a dare of the spiked punch; but then Brandi hated losing to Avery who she sensed had everything she had always wanted. A dad. A house. And some roots that she swore she would kill for. Not that she had ever gotten that far. Nevertheless, she had made a fool of herself in front of their dinner guests by puking on the Thanksgiving turkey and then burping all through the toast. She shut her eyes, hoping to dispel the memory that she had long since forgotten. Remembering how embarrassed her mother had been, turning her head after she had sent Brandi up the stairs, to Avery’s room, to sleep off the after-effects, as she and aunty Pam had gone down on their hands and knees – in their good dresses – to clean the floor and the lily white tablecloth.

Avery had barely looked at her then, as if to say that it hadn’t really been her fault and Brandi had been the one responsible. But Brandi knew better. Two years older than her, she felt, that Avery should have ’fessed up and accepted part of the responsibility because they had done what they did together. Come hapless soul or high water.

Now though, she pressed her back into the wall, wondering if there was anywhere that she could hide and take her medicine when Teresa handed her a bottle of cold water. “Thought you’d need it since it’s heating up inside here,” she said, casting a quick glance around the room.

Brandi watched her friend, taking in the kids slowly, as if somehow between the time of first seeing the girl with the heavy mascara and now, she had forgotten where they were. In one of the corners of the room, she spied Latoya, talking to some good-looking Asian guy who seemed to be a year or two older than them. She pointed, steering Teresa in their direction. “She knows people here?”

“Of course,” Teresa said, pushing Brandi’s hand down. A bangle with charms jangled on her wrist, as her lips formed into a tight line. “She was the one who invited us.” Brandi’s eyebrows raised as Teresa waved at some blond haired guy who was propped up by one of the open curtains talking to a group of athletic guys. “That’s Jason.”

Brandi followed her with her eyes, not really seeing the attraction as Teresa flickered her wrist again, and she took in the shape of the aikido charm and the kendo body armor. When had her friend started to collect such things? she wondered, feeling something change within her as she felt the faces of some of the other kids turn to appraise her.

She shrank back. Was their something wrong with her lip gloss? Or teeth? she wondered, moving towards the hallway mirror and taking a look. Teresa’s hand relaxed at the side of her dress and Brandi felt herself shift away, as if somehow she was being singled out. “Oh, he seems fine,” she said, nodding towards Teresa, who seemed to be waiting for her approval. “Maybe you should go, I’ll just find something to eat and take a tablet.”

Teresa looked down at her purse, as if not wanting to part with her. “I will…I mean we came together and I would hate it, if anything happened to you on my watch,” she said, scrutinizing the dance floor. “Besides, you don’t know anyone here.”

Brandi put a hand on her friend’s arm, reassuring her. “I’ll be fine,” she countered. “I mean there’s no way I can get lost in a small place like this.” She looked at Teresa, waiting for her eyes to offer some assurance.

For a little while none came.

“I’m sure you’re right,” Teresa said, turning away from her. “And I would hate to have gone to all this trouble and not at least spend some time with him.” Brandi smiled, watching her go. All too aware that in that department she was definitely flying solo. It wasn’t like there was anyone at school who had her back. Or any boy she felt that she could trust.

Jason’s face lit up when he saw Teresa. Brandi watched their short kiss feeling a tinge of jealousy, regret and doubt. Her mother had said that she wasn’t at that age yet, but watching Teresa and Jason go at it, she begged to differ. Her face turning into a scowl as she watched the night become even darker. She spun out of the room, her eyes taking in nothing in particular until she caught sight of a familiar red and blue baseball cap. And she almost smiled when the sound of a familiar piece of waltz music streamed through the room and she heard a unanimous groan.

A head popped up and Roger’s eyes appraised hers. “Funny, seeing you here. I would have thought that with a cold you would have decided not to come.”

In the kitchen, she dropped the bottle of water on the counter and unscrewed the cap, wondering if he was referring to the bizarre note that had gotten her caught in the downpour, or if he had sent some other sign that she was still unaware of. Brandi took a sip of water, as the music increased. Listening to it, she remembered the dance lessons her mother had sent her to, before they had moved into her father’s house. At first they had occurred once a month on Sundays. At around 10:30 a.m., the time when according to some of the other students Mrs. Redman, the dance instructor would give her husband his sleeping pills. But unlike them she hadn’t been too snoopy, because she realized that it had also been the only time her mother took a rest, because uncle Ruiz had agreed to carry her grandmother out.

Brandi looked up at the clock on the wall and saw that it was exactly 10:30, something turned over in her stomach and she broke out into a cold sweat. Her other hand reaching into her purse to extract the bottle of cough syrup that she had tried to nudge down.

Roger moved closer, peering at her face. “Is everything alright?” he asked. “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”

Brandi looked down, trying to steady her hands as she searched around the room for a spoon to pour out the cough syrup. “No, everything’s fine,” she said, moving towards the sink and opening a couple of drawers, as her breathing became a little uneven. “It’s just the music.” Her voice hung in the room as she removed a spoon, and took two tablespoons, ignoring the instructions. She looked out the window as if sensing some impending doom, and offered him a strained smile. “I think I’ve heard it somewhere else before.”

Roger took the bottle of cough syrup from her hand and held it up to the light. “You sure you’re not taking too much of this stuff?” he asked, taking the spoon. “Says here, the serving size is one teaspoon.” He pointed to the directions section, forgetting the can of orange soda he had been nursing a few minutes earlier. “Maybe it would have been wise if you weren’t here.” With a light touch, he smoothened the hair at her temples, taking her in.

Brandi took a step back, wondering why the space between them was suddenly getting smaller and smaller, as a dimple appeared on his cheek and the music in the background changed to the fox trot. I’m not supposed to be here, she thought, reading into his suggestion. Knowing that something about this seemed strange. And it wasn’t just the people outside there that she had no knowledge about. But this boy, here who seemed very concerned.

Brandi glanced at the dance floor, where Jason and Teresa sauntered across the room. Maybe they had talked, she thought, remembering her conversation with Teresa who hinted that Roger wasn’t her type. That they’d have nothing to talk about. His forehead creased and she wondered if that had all been a lie. Some tale to get her here. To have her make a fool of herself. “You don’t have to pretend to care,” she said, closing the bottle and stuffing it into her bag. “I can do many things on my own.”

Roger pulled back, and returned to the sink as if he had been insulted, and emptied his soda. “It doesn’t take much to care,” he said, his back stiffening against her. “But…when it comes to you, I have a job to do and I can’t back down.”

Brandi watched him, wondering why his tone seemed so edgy. Hard. When she was only trying to make him see reason. Because she didn’t need a guardian. And whatever it meant, by having the pendant, she would handle it on her own.

His eyes grew furrowed, as his fingers clenched into fists. “Haven’t you learned anything from being shot by that arrow?” he asked as she glared at him, wondering if he meant to embarrass her. Not caring how he knew. Or why it seemed so important.

“I am not your concern.”

“No, of course you’re not,” he said, putting the baseball cap on his head. “I was wrong, you’re just like your father. But sometimes the world doesn’t revolve around you.” She raised a hand to slap him, and he caught it, just as her hand reached the side of his face. He grimaced, shoving the purse aside, as he held her fingers down, by the sink. “Like I was saying, tonight is not a good night for creating new memories.”

Brandi stared at him, as if he was saying something that she could only partially understand. The scar above his right eye becoming even more prominent than it had been before as she looked directly at his face. When had he been injured? Why hadn’t she noticed it earlier? He relaxed his face.

He watched her, letting her arm drop to the side of her dress as his hand stopped right over the side of her dress where her scar was located. “Not everything is made visible,” he said, as if looking directly into her. She flinched and pulled away, feeling a sudden raw energy connect him to her.

She raised a finger and poked his chest. “You may know about my father but you know absolutely nothing about me.”

Roger stared down at his shoes, bowed and held out a hand. “But I can,” he said, leaning closer as he took Brandi’s hand and placed it on his arm. “If you allow me this one dance.” In the background the music changed again and they were both transported to some 60’s dance floor, where couples wore numbers and judges held placards. Looking around the room, Brandi let out a deep sigh. Houston, I think we have a problem.