James’ father was a lawyer and his mother worked in advertising and two of his three siblings had moved out already, leaving only his little sister and himself at home. Their big house was underpopulated. It had two stories, three if you counted the raised master bedroom, and a large garden out the front complete with carefully-planted flowerbeds. The bottom floor could have been designed with drunken teenage parties specifically in mind: dining room, lounge, kitchen, playroom, connected garage. It was all pretty sweet.
Dennis and Scott arrived together. Dennis was walking, Scott weaving a slow pattern on his bicycle. ‘Check it out,’ Scott said, pointing up at a basketball hoop on the side of the garage. ‘That wasn’t there last time.’
Music from inside kicked up a raucous riotous vibe. Cigarettes and a shared bottle by the door, three guys watching them approach. Dennis gave them a nod. Mark Keyes sneered as Scott’s wheels kicked up gravel, and Kane pointed – ‘Fuck look it’s Knight Rider.’
Mark echoed the mockery. ‘Cool wheels, Scott.’
‘It’s fucking street hawk he’s street hawk.’
There was history here, but Dennis wasn’t looking for trouble. He smiled at Phil, who was short and blond with an evil grin. ‘Phil, these guys still rely on you for lifts everywhere?’
Scott picked up the theme. ‘Yeah, you still driving these fuckers around? Fuck off without them tonight, man, make them have to call their mum for a ride home.’
Phil laughed. ‘Nah, these pissheads need someone to look after them.’
Kane growled. ‘Dumb cunt I’ll kick your ass.’
Phil turned a casual finger up at Kane. ‘If carting these dicks around was all I got out of having a car, I’d be on a bicycle too mate.’ He took a long drag of his cigarette, snatching his finger-salute back a second before Kane could grab it. ‘But there is an up side.’
Scott cocked an eyebrow. ‘Yeah? Convince me.’
‘You ever get laid on the back seat of that thing?’
Scott and Dennis both laughed, and Phil offered them the bottle. Dennis took a swig, relishing the burn as the alcohol, whatever it was, washed down. Mark and Kane nodded approvingly.
‘What’s in the bag?’ Mark asked.
Scott hefted the backpack. ‘Our dinner.’ He rattled it and all of them heard the clink of bottles.
‘This is going to be a good party,’ Phil said.
Dennis followed as Scott took the bike around the back. The back garden was unimpressive apart from the row of trees alongside the fence. While Scott sorted the bike out, Dennis took a few steps closer so he could see the pool, blue and brittle calm. It was uncovered. ‘It’s meant to be heated,’ he said.
‘Fuck that,’ Scott said. ‘Come on.’
They went in through the back door, past the bathroom and laundry, through steam and condensation. In the kitchen a cluster of people were listening to Sasha talk about her water polo team, two girls Dennis didn’t recognise and Julian with his glasses and mop of curly hair. One of the girls, a fiery redhead, turned to watch him as he passed. He gave her one glance only.
The main crowd was in the playroom. Scott handed a bottle to Dennis and slung his bag into a corner. Dennis twisted off the top, clinked with Scott, and surveyed the room. James himself was sitting with some of the crowd from school, talking loudly. Three girls cackled on a faded couch across the room. They looked over at him, two of them instantly going back to their own conversation. The third, a girl with dyed-dark hair tightly braided, sipped crimson wine from a glass and eyed him briefly before also looking away. She looked familiar but Dennis couldn’t place it yet. All around the room people were talking in pairs, never quite face-on, their voices loud to make up for how little they were saying.
Adam was on his knees by the stereo, inspecting a pile of compact discs. As soon as he saw them he levered upright and hurried over. ‘Hi, guys. Uh, how’s it going?’
‘Fine and dandy,’ Scott replied. ‘What we got on?’
‘Um, I dunno? Is it good?’
Scott pointed him towards the bag to get a beer. Dennis watched this exchange and leaned in to Scott. ‘You know those’ll get vultured before midnight, right?’
‘Awk,’ Scott said. ‘We better drink ‘em quick, then.’
When Adam got back they tapped glass and drank. Adam was the first to stop, wiping the tips of his fingers along his bulging lips. Dennis was next, keeping his head up and lowering the bottle, his eyes sliding briefly shut. Scott emptied his.
‘So hard,’ Dennis said flatly.
‘Geez, Scott,’ Adam said. ‘Should I get you another one?’
Scott nodded. ‘Why not?’
‘Wasting no time!’ Phil said, bringing the waft of smoke with him. ‘Saw you do that Scott, if you’re keen to get fucked tonight I’m sure we can arrange it…’
‘You want a beer, Phil?’ Dennis asked.
Phil shook his head and brandished his bottle, noticeably emptier than before. ‘This will sort me out.’
‘What is that stuff?’
Phil shrugged. ‘A fine carafe of something that I stole from my brother.’
Dennis nodded. ‘Always the best stuff.’
‘Can’t relate,’ Scott said. ‘I guess I am missing out on this brother thing.’
‘Fuck no,’ Phil replied. ‘Son of a bitch gave me beats until I was almost the same size as him. Now we’re evenly matched though.’
‘My brothers stopped hitting me when I was eight,’ Dennis said. ‘I came after them with a hacksaw. They left me alone after that.’
Scott and Phil looked at each other.
Phil laughed. ‘You’re a fucking psycho, Dennis.’
‘When we go out for food we don’t let him use knives,’ Scott added. ‘Richard cuts his food for him’
Bullshit line of humour, but Phil seemed to be entertained. Dennis let it slide.
Adam reappeared and handed a replacement beer to Scott. ‘Where’s Richard? We came together but I don’t know where he went.’
‘He’s around,’ Phil said. ‘I just saw him in the hall.’
Adam went to find him and was replaced by James the moment he stepped away. ‘Shit,’ James said. ‘I get so sick of telling stories. You guys talk to me for once.’
‘Hey James,’ Scott said. ‘Good party.’
‘Thanks man,’ James said.
‘No bikinis,’ Phil said ruefully.
‘Yeah, well that’s probably ‘cause of how you acted around them last time, dick.’
‘Hey, the point of the bikini is to parade, right? I was just watching the parade.’
‘One of those girls was my girlfriend, dumbass.’
‘And you see her naked all the time, so shut the fuck up.’
‘Not the point!’
‘He’s right,’ Dennis said. ‘A little clothing goes a long way. Naked, there’s nothing to wonder about. No mystery, just a little cunt and some nipples. Over it.’
Phil laughed loudly and slapped James in the arm. ‘Fine, fine, put her in a bikini!!’ He grinned back at Dennis, who faded back just a little, leaving only James and Scott implicated in the conversation. On the other side of the room, the girl with dyed-dark hair was watching.
‘Nice one,’ James said, not pleased. Scott just looked disheartened.
Phil coughed pointedly, nodding past Dennis. Crossing towards them was a smaller, longer-haired version of James. As she got closer Dennis could see differences in her cheekbones and her eyes, but she and her brother were very much alike. Which made it strange to acknowledge just how pretty she was.
‘James,’ she said, forcing three syllables out of the word. ‘I’m going now, okay? I’ll sleep over at Em’s tonight.’ She had hands on her hips. Dennis noticed that her hair was wet, with one long dark strand clinging to her forehead. He glanced at Scott and Phil, who were clearly distracted. He remembered the warm touch of steam in the back corridor.
‘Fine, whatever,’ James said.
‘Don’t let anyone in my bedroom, all right? I mean it!’ Her eyebrows crashed down on her eyes.
Her lips gathered into a discontented pout. ‘Fine, thanks a lot,’ she said to her brother angrily. ‘You’re a real big help.’ She headed for the door.
‘See you Paula,’ Phil called across the room.
‘Keep my room safe, Phil.’
‘You know you can count on me!’
Paula gave him the finger and left.
‘Well, shit,’ James said conversationally.
Phil waited until James had wandered off before leaning over to Scott and Dennis. ‘You know, I remember when that girl was in nappies.’ He thought about this for a moment. ‘Though I didn’t want to fuck her then.’
The first drag from a cigarette was the whole benefit. Warm smoke in his lungs eased him down when he hadn’t even known he was tense. Dennis didn’t smoke often, only socially, when he was drinking usually. Couldn’t afford it, and wasn’t interested in getting addicted. But that first drag was always good.
Outside, under the driveway light, gravel underfoot. The music from inside kept going, but no-one was dancing. It wasn’t that kind of party. People were hooking into each other, or planning to, and talking lots of shit, and getting wrecked. Business as usual. It wasn’t really his scene, or it hadn’t been. As though he had a scene.
The door opened and Richard came out to join him. ‘Hey,’ he said. The American accent was still there, attenuated but Dennis picked it up. Couldn’t hide it. Like his badge of honour or something. A little vibe in the voice, Rich had been drinking.
‘You know James doesn’t care if you smoke inside, right?’
‘How’s it going?’ Rich leaned against the wall next to Dennis. ‘Another James party. Shit.’
Talkative. Dennis offered him a smoke. Richard picked one out, lit it off his, took that first drag. Dennis listened to him breathe it out. ‘My Dad says you have leadership qualities.’
‘He said what?’
Dennis didn’t elaborate, so Richard carried on.
‘I get things done okay. But you’re the one who puts the people together, Den. On my first day you came up and adopted me. Met Adam through you, then Scott, and that was that. Never looked back. You did the leading.’
They stood smoking in silence for a minute. Dennis looked at his shoes. Scuffed-up sneakers. He needed to buy new ones. Richard had worn the new Jordans at the game yesterday. Need the right stuff to play the game.
‘It’s all going too slow,’ Richard said.
Dennis flicked his butt away. ‘What is?’
‘Everything. Seems to take forever to get anything done. I suppose I should be enjoying it.’
‘All under control, anyway, now, at least. You know this already. You and Scott, you guys notice more than you let on.’
Dennis nodded, slowly. ‘So you got a question?’
Richard paused, then grinned. ‘Damn.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me about Kirsty?’
This question, now. That might count as interesting if he could bring himself to care. Instead he just shrugged. ‘Would you really have wanted to know?’
He let the question hang. Enough of this. There were beers to consume.
Dennis closed the door to the bathroom. The room was large and blue, with the toilet right on the far side. The air was still a little damp from Paula’s shower before, the mirror fog-streaked like the lick of hair down her forehead. He unzipped, thinking about her.
Behind him the door to the bathroom opened. He’d forgotten to lock it. No worries. A girl, he could work the angles, instant intimacy over shared embarrassment. No problem.
He turned his head and saw Shane swaggering across the tiled floor with his hair gel-slick and wearing sunglasses. Sunglasses inside, at night. Cool.
Dennis shook off the last drops and zipped up. ‘Learn to knock, man.’
‘I gotta drain the weasel!’
‘Why, you embarrassed about the size of your cock?’ Shane laughed noisily. ‘Or something else, huh? You been jerking off in here?’
‘Yeah,’ Dennis said, grinning. ‘Your turn now.’ He went for the door.
Shane interposed himself and started unbuttoning his fly. ‘Dennis. There’s something I wanna show you.’
Dennis raised an eyebrow.
Husky-voiced: ‘It’s only natural to be curious, Dennis.’
No way to get around him. Big, strong. Dennis tensed, ready to make a move.
Shane laughed and dropped his pants. ‘Check it out!’ The trousers gathered at his ankles. There on his upper thigh, just below the fading green underwear, Dennis saw and understood.
Shane kicked open the door to the hall and waddled through it so everyone could see. ‘Check it out! Look everyone, look at fucking me!’
Scott was out there, waiting – he followed Shane’s gestures and gawked. ‘Shit! When did you get that?’
‘Last night man!’ Shane boasted. ‘Ain’t I cool?’
Dennis started to laugh. On Shane’s thigh was a tattoo, a cartoon devil with middle finger raised and sunnies like Shane’s own. The skin around it was still red and tender. ‘Did it hurt?’ asked Scott.
‘It would’ve hurt any normal man – but I ain’t a normal man! I am extraordinary, see, and it didn’t hurt one bit!’
He was still laughing. The expression on Scott’s face just made it all funnier, that mix of fear and admiration. He laughed more, and fuck it, losing the plot completely now, shaking with the force of it. The whole moment was a thing of beauty.
Shane was looking pleased with himself, standing in the hall with his pants around his ankles. When Dennis bounced off the wall it must have got too weird for him. ‘Come on,’ he said, trying to shepherd Dennis out.
‘Yeah!’ Shane said, hoisting up his pants. ‘You can fuck off now. I gotta wee wee!’ He hobbled back into the bathroom then stopped, spinning toward the shower. ‘This where that Paula gets naked every day? Da-amn. Pity I didn’t walk in on her! Woulda given her a real close-up look at my little devil!’ His pants dropped again and he started pelvic thrusting madly with sunglasses facing up to the roof: ‘Ar ar ar arr arr arr ararararrr!’
Scott shut the door on him.
Dennis subsided against the wall, still grinning and laughing quietly. ‘He’s crazy.’
‘He’s a fucking danger to society.’
Dennis, still smiling, punched Scott hard in the gut. Scott coughed up air, shocked. ‘It’s a dangerous world,’ Dennis said.
People moved past him, he moved through them. Against the current. The sixth and seventh form from SFC, an array of girls from other schools. Some of the girls pretended not to notice him. He avoided eye contact for now. Not interested in playing any of those games. He wasn’t drunk enough, he wasn’t relaxed enough. That shit could get serious when he was in a mood like this.
Whatever the hell mood this was.
Richard and Scott were talking in the hall. Richard noticed him approaching. ‘Hey, man. We’re talking about the game. You played well.’
Scott nodded emphatically. ‘God yes! You got to pop your moves… and getting brutalised in the key, man, fuck, if the refs were worth a shit you would’ve got a bunch of whistles too. Bad fucking luck.’
Dennis nodded. ‘We won.’
‘Hell yeah,’ Scott said. ‘Good way to start a season, man.’
‘Are you talking about the game?’ Adam asked, joining their small circle. He thought about it for a second. ‘I sucked so much.’
‘You were fine,’ Richard said.
Adam shook his head, stubbornly awkward. ‘No way. I missed easy shots.’
‘You got that great block. Your defence was good.’
Adam shrugged and Scott jumped back in. ‘So who top-scored, Rich, you?’
‘Not me,’ Richard said. ‘Viane I think.’
‘Yeah, he was on fire. We’re gonna do all right, I reckon. Into the playoffs!’
‘Not with me.’ Richard spread his hands, giving the others a moment to give him attention. Then he said, ‘I’m not going to be here for finals.’
‘What?’ Adam was surprised.
‘Yeah. I’ll be gone by finals time. They’re after I go.’
Scott looked unhappy. ‘Man! That sucks.’
‘Hey,’ Richard said. ‘It’s not all bad. Opens a spot for you in the starting five, right?’
‘Fuck off, Richard,’ Dennis said abruptly.
The other three stopped and looked at him.
‘No one’s impressed. Just fucking go, all right?’
It felt like coming to the surface at last.
He walked away.