DAY 0: “THE PARTY”
“DID YOU SEE HER?” Piper whispers, lifting the same plastic cup of wine she’s been holding the past two hours as if it hides her. It’s a prop. She’s sober. She always is. She’s also hopelessly prone to melodrama.
I nod, face carefully blank. Of course I saw her. I’ve seen every single girl that flirts with Nate at these parties.
I’d rather not be a witness to it, but that’s one of the downsides to being me: I’m expected to be at every party. Like Piper and the rest of our crowd, I am here because it’s who I am and what I do. Nate isn’t one of us, hasn’t been for a couple years, so he doesn’t always attend, but when he does, he inevitably goes upstairs or down a darkened hallway with some girl. I pretend not to care. My act works on everyone but Piper and Grace, who sit on either side of me.
“She’s not even that pretty,” Piper lies.
Grace says nothing.
The girl is no prettier than us, but she’s not less attractive either.
Nate is a lot more than good-looking. Tall and lean without being gangly, short dark hair that’s cut in an almost military style, and muscles that make it hard not to find an excuse to touch his arms. Even with the fact that he has no social standing, he has to use exactly zero effort to convince girls to wander off into the dark with him.
We used to be friends. He used to be my best friend. Then his parents got divorced, and he became someone I didn’t know. I still watch him, but I never speak to him. I haven’t since the start of sophomore year. Every time I see him glance my way as he walks past with a girl, I think of the last time I tried to talk to him.
It’s the first party of the year, and my parents are away again. I’m sitting with Grace, a new girl who moved from Philadelphia to tiny little Jessup, North Carolina.
“Who’s he?” Grace asks.
“Nathaniel Bouchet.” I look at him, standing in the doorway surveying the room like a hunter. He doesn’t look like my Nate anymore. He’s always been wiry, but now he looks like he works at it. I swallow, realizing that I’m staring and that he can tell.
“Excuse me a minute,” I say.
Robert and Reid are sitting with us, but I excuse myself to walk over to him. It’s been forever since we spoke. He hasn’t called or come to see me in weeks. I never catch him at school either. I miss him. Even after he stopped being around the rest of our friends, he was still my friend. I thought that would never change, but now, I think I might be wrong.
I’ve had a couple drinks, and it gives me the courage to ignore his dismissive glance and walk up to him.
“Nate,” I start.
I only want to talk, to go back to the way we were, but he looks right at me, his gaze roaming from my sandals up my jeans and over my blouse and ending on my face. “Not interested.”
Then he steps around me like we’re strangers. He just walks past me like I’m not there, like he doesn’t know me, like we haven’t been in one another’s lives since we were in preschool. I feel like everyone there is staring at us, but if they are, no one mentions it—not to me, at least. My last name protects me from that, and for a change, I’m glad to be a Cooper-Tilling.
Nate, on the other hand, has just sealed his pariah reputation. It was bad enough that his parents divorced, and he suddenly seemed to forget that there were clothes in colors other than black. Now, he’s rude to me in front of everyone. If he was trying to make the rest of my friends declare him invisible, he just succeeded.
On Monday, I find out that he slept with Piper’s cousin, Julie, who was visiting. She’s three years older than us, a freshman at Duke. After that, it became a thing to talk about which girl he chose for the night when he turned up at parties. After that, I never tried to talk to him—or let him see me watching him—ever again.
Piper is waiting for her cue, for me to tell her what to think. It’s how things are in Jessup. She’s one of the elite, but I’m the one she follows. My parents are the top of the food pyramid here. It’s not a situation I cherish, and I pretend not to notice.
I simply play my part, fulfill their expectations and smile. It’s the best plan I have.
I know that Piper is hoping for permission to tear Nate down, but I’m not going there. “She’s no different than the last three. He’ll leave in the morning with her phone number, but he won’t use it.”
“What are you two whispering about?” Reid asks as he flops down next to Piper and drapes an arm around her shoulders. They’re not dating; he simply has no awareness of personal space.
Piper shrugs him off. “Losers.”
“I’ll protect you,” Reid promises.
“Who’s to say you weren’t on that list?” Piper says, but she doesn’t mean anything by it. Reid is one of us.
“Yeung.” Reid glances at Grace and nods at her, then turns to me. “Eva.”
“I have a first name!” Grace snaps.
Before they start bickering Piper quickly redirects the conversation. “Did you guys want to go to Durham for the Bulls game? Daddy has a bunch of tickets that he said we could use.”
I tune them out. It’s far too easy to do, really. The conversation, the people, the whole party is like most every other Friday for the past couple years. Sometimes I want to ask them if they’re happy, if they enjoy their lives or if they feel like they’re just playing roles like me.