It was an uncharacteristically grey day for Newport even if it was officially winter. Southern California seemed to ignore all seasons in favor of the sun. But not today, and for that Phoenix was glad. He’d take rainy and overcast any day— it suited his mood. The holidays had passed but procrastinators hadn’t gotten around to taking down their Christmas lights. Illuminated icicles still hung from expensive rooftops. He pulled his black and white flannel tighter around him as he headed toward the main street.
He enjoyed the brisk walk allowing him to view the college students, his version of socializing, which amounted to observing others from afar. Soon, he may be one of them. But for now he had roughly five more months of life as a senior at Fairmont High. He supposed he could last that long considering he had trudged through the last three and a half years burdened by stress. Grades weren’t the problem . . . no, he breezed through his classes with A’s even if it was more time consuming than he liked. It was the people he had issues with. And not anyone in particular, just people in general. They all seemed so . . . exhausting.
Or maybe it was Phoenix who was disconcerting. Maybe his appearance produced a standoffish vibe. Most people wouldn’t consider him warm and fuzzy. Everything about his slender but muscular six-foot-one frame was something to remember. From the spiky, dark hair he had bleached white, to the multiple piercings on his face and body, Phoenix wasn’t easily forgotten. But it was his eyes that people could never erase from their memory. The palest grey ringed with slate, which turned cold as steel when he was pissed. The fact that he wore eyeliner only accentuated an already mesmerizing gaze. And his unusually large eyes were framed by lashes so long and black that it gave him an almost ethereal, feminine appeal.
A group of girls walked on the other side of the street. One called out, “Hey!”
Phoenix turned around out of sheer curiosity, only to realize her statement was directed at him.
“Can I get your number?” the brave girl with pink and brown hair, hollered across the street.
Phoenix’s shoulders slumped forward as he willed himself to disappear and he turned and focused his gaze on the pavement; he walked on without answering, ignoring the cat-calls of disappointment from behind him.
Being called out wasn’t new to him, but it never made it less awkward.
Maybe that was why he chose the piercings—to balance out the softness. There were three piercings on his left ear and one on his right. The barbell through his tongue wasn’t noticeable unless he spoke, but the hematite hoop through his lower lip was certainly an obvious accent when he wore it off school premises. And underneath the tight tank tops he was so fond of wearing, tiny barbells pierced his nipples. He wore exactly three shades of clothing: black, grey or white. And the black leather bracelet fastened around his left wrist he wore on every occasion along with his 10-hole Doc Marten’s.
From his appearance alone, one would assume he hung out with the few Goth and punk kids at school, but that wasn’t the case or his scene. Phoenix didn’t really feel like he belonged anywhere and therein lay his problem. This was one of the main reasons he chose to lunch by himself off campus rather than try to make himself fit into any particular group. Besides, this small act gave him a sense of freedom he treasured.
His few friends were ones he’d known since grade school and they’d managed to maintain their friendships despite having actually very little in common anymore. At least that was how Phoenix viewed it.
Sedge, his closest friend, had somehow evolved from an awkward kid to a football wonder over the duration of summer break between Jr. high to high school. How he had accomplished this Phoenix had no clue. His only forewarning of the change was Sedge’s brief invitation:
“Come on man let’s both join football. We’ll own the school—and the chicks!” he’d said.
Phoenix had no interest in Sedge’s grand plan, so he diplomatically said, “I’ll pass.”
But the new identity suited Sedge well and he apparently fit in with his teammates seamlessly. Sedge loved the attention, the girls, the parties, and the general frenzy surrounding him. Phoenix was amazed that Sedge had bothered to maintain their friendship seeing that he was into absolutely none of the afore mentioned. But that was how he knew that Sedge, despite their differences, was a true friend and that was a quality Phoenix valued.
Phoenix crossed the street and headed for his favorite local shop, which happened to be on his way home. The shop catered to weapon aficionados of the medieval period, a subject Phoenix was particularly interested in. He had a small collection of swords, daggers and knives he acquired through years of birthday gifts from his uncle. Phoenix kept them on display mounted to his wall as a part of his room’s décor. By the time he was twelve his father taught him how to responsibly handle a weapon. As he matured, he earned his father’s trust and was allowed to keep his swords in his own room as opposed to his father’s locked safe.
Phoenix pushed through the store doorway and the entry-alert sounded announcing his arrival. The waifish, grey-haired man at the back of the store looked up at him from behind the counter, offering a soft smile as he peered over his glasses. Phoenix gave a quick nod in acknowledgement at Henry and finally chuckled when he noticed that his glasses had slid to the tip of his nose.
“You’re back again.” Henry made it a warm statement as he rubbed a smudge off a dagger and placed it back inside the glass display case.
“I was in the neighborhood,”
“You’ve still got your eye on that Damascened sword with the twenty-four carat gold accents on the hilt, don’t you?”
The corner of Phoenix’s mouth turned up in a sly grin. “Guilty as charged.”
“I knew it.” Henry shook his head with a wistful air. “It’s always the underage ones that have the discriminating taste. You know I can’t sell it to you, even though I want to.”
“Five more months, Henry. Then I’ll get my sword and for once you’ll make a decent sale.”
Henry chuckled at that. “True, true. Patience is our game.” He looked at Phoenix with a knowing smile. “You want to hold him again?”
“You already know the answer.”
“That I do.” Henry turned and walked to the wall behind him. The fine sword was displayed on the wall in a place of honor above all the rest. It contrasted and shone brightly against the black velvet fabric behind it. Henry lifted the heavy Damascened Templar Knights broadsword and presented it once again to Phoenix, placing it in his upright palms. Phoenix savored the weight of it in his hands, the detailing of the of the 24-carat gold decorated Zamak hilt, the blade made of tempered stainless steel. He ran his fingers over the intricate ridges, over the emblem of the cross. He loved every detail of its surface. There was a fleeting moment when he wondered if this was what people felt when they were in love, but then the thought dissipated as quickly as it had come.
Phoenix took a final longing look at the sword and carefully handed it back. “Thank you . . . again.”
“Any time, son. Anytime.”
“You take care, Henry,” Phoenix said as he headed out of the store.
“Same to you.”
Phoenix bristled against the evening air, shoving his hands into his jean pockets. Just five more months. Five more months and the sword would be his. He could already picture the spot on his wall where it would be displayed, centered above the daggers on either side of his wall facing his bed. It would be a statement piece. And if turning eighteen wasn’t a statement, then he didn’t know what was.
Phoenix longed to share his excitement with someone. He took a detour down the road past a few empty storefronts and through the familiar neighborhoods. When he reached the gates of the Catholic cemetery he said a silent prayer asking permission of the souls to enter, and let them know he came in peace. Then he stepped over the threshold while there was still thirty minutes of visiting time and headed over to his familiar spot where he sat Indian-style on the ground next to Charlie.
Phoenix brushed aside the dirt that had accumulated on the headstone over the past week. He hated when it was dirty—it was enough to set off his temper, which he did his best to control. Usually the groundskeepers were on top of their duties but if Charlie’s resting place was neglected, Phoenix took care of it.
He lovingly brushed the dirt off of the dates: January 5, 1980- June 7, 1996. Why Phoenix’s life began on the exact day Charlie’s ended was a mystery to Phoenix, but it was no mistake that Phoenix found him. He’d been visiting Charlie for so long now that he forgot how he’d even made his acquaintance, or what led them to meet here in the first place. They weren’t related, but Phoenix felt a connection to him in spite of this. Because Phoenix had a deeply evolved but veiled fantasy life, this was normal. It was what he knew, how he lived, who he felt comfortable with, and who he chose to associate with.
“I saw it again,” Phoenix said, directing with enthusiasm all his attention to the etched headstone. “And I swear, even if you didn’t like swords, you’d get a hard-on over this one.” He smiled and dusted the dirt off his hands, and adjusted the fit of his leather bracelet. “And just five more months and its mine. Isn’t that amazing? I know, right. That’s exactly what I was thinking. I’ll have the money saved up by then.”
A scraping sound caused Phoenix to turn around. The grounds keeper was raking leaves over near the statue of The Pieta near the niches, eyeing Phoenix warily. Closing time was coming soon and it was already dark except for the few sparse lights throughout the cemetery.
Phoenix turned back to Charlie. “I’ll try and bring it by to show you—if they’ll let me. With my luck they’ll think I’m carrying a dangerous weapon and think I’m up to no good. You know how it is with people.” Phoenix shrugged. “I’ll try, but I can’t promise. Nothing’s worse than breaking a promise. So if I can’t bring it in person, I’ll bring you a picture. Cool?” Phoenix smiled. “Cool. Well, I best be going before they throw me out.” He placed his hand upon the cold stone a final time. “It was good talking to ya. I’ll stop by again soon.” Phoenix stood up to leave, being as respectful as possible, careful not to step directly on any plots.
As he walked toward the exit, his hands were still dirty but he shoved them into his pant pockets anyway. It was too cold to worry about something like dirt. He just wanted to get home now.
Phoenix turned down a side street that was off the main road. Fewer cars, fewer people, the quiet of good neighborhoods. He liked where he lived even if the houses did seem rather close together. But he couldn’t complain. He wasn’t the most spoiled kid but he knew he had things better than a lot of people. He had a nice home, a good family, a car, and a healthy allowance. He didn’t really want for anything. Except maybe one person who “got” him, though he suspected that was asking a bit much since he didn’t even fully “get” himself. Sometimes he thought he could open up to Sedge, but then Sedge would utter something inane and Phoenix would come to his senses. No, Sedge wasn’t the person he needed to talk to. If only he could figure out who was the right person.
He saw his house down the street. A two-story, tan structure with white plantation shutters. Non-descript is how he’d describe it—almost identical to every other house in his tract. Bree’s mint-green, VW Bug was in the driveway which meant she was home from dance rehearsal. He would be glad to see her. He was always glad to see her. He was grateful they were as close as they were. Not all siblings got on as well as they did. It wasn’t that they went out and did things together; it was more of a comfortableness in each other’s presence. Sometimes it seemed as if they could hold entire conversations without ever opening their mouths. Just a silly glance here, a raised eyebrow there . . . the slightest tilt of the head; it somehow all worked out. Older than Phoenix by two years, Bree nonetheless treated him as an equal. Even when he was just a toddler running around in footed sleepers, she always asked him what cartoons they’d watch when it was television time. She always put him first, and he never fully understood why. But now that he was older he recognized it and appreciated it for the love that it was. Now that Bree was older, her childhood passion for ballet had paid off. Currently, she danced with the Brise Ballet Company and he couldn’t be prouder of her for her accomplishments. Brise was an elite company and dancers vied for years just to get an invitation to audition. Very few made the cut, so Bree was ecstatic when she did. She taught jazz and ballet on the side at a local high school, Crestmount. Phoenix’s only complaint was one in jest—that she was destroying Fairmont’s dance team by working for their rival school.
As Phoenix approached his driveway he noted from the warmth emanating from Bree’s car that she just arrived home. Another late night of practice. He didn’t know how she managed to push so hard, be so driven.
When he walked through the front door the room was heavy with the scent of cumin and coriander which signified the pleasant surprise that his mom was home early for a change. Only she had the talent to whip up Indian cuisine when she wasn’t creating new dishes for the restaurant she’d been a chef at now for years. From her back, he saw she wore a half apron. Sometimes she brought her work habits home with her.
“Smells good,” Phoenix called out from across the room as she busily fussed over the stove.
She turned around and smiled. “It’ll be ready in about an hour.”
“She just took off with her friend.”
Phoenix scrunched his brows, gestured over his shoulder. “Her car’s in the driveway,”
“They took his car. She wanted me to meet him before they went out.”
Him? This was new. All Phoenix thought to say was, “Oh—“
“So it looks like it will just be the two of us for dinner.”
Phoenix smiled again. “Sounds great. I’m gonna go wash up.” He headed upstairs to his room and flopped down on his bed. He was tired after his walk and really wanted a short nap. Maybe just a few minutes before dinner. Then I can ask mom about Bree’s friend, and . . . before he could finish that thought, a deep sleep took him and he never made it back downstairs for dinner.
On the other side of the wall he heard a faint giggle coming from his sister’s room, which, before long, slowly mutated into something else entirely. Unable to make out the muffled sounds, of what might be considered conversation, Phoenix became thankful for the meager obscurity the walls provided.
Focusing again on his essay, he tried to weigh the pros and cons of approving genetically modified organisms’ for production. A loud thud against his wall made him jump in his seat. He looked up to see his paperbacks tumble, one after the other, from the mounted shelf, to the floor. The disharmony now emanating from his sister’s room had nothing to do with music—and her sounds were clearly distinct from a deeper male’s. He felt nauseous. It was impossible to concentrate. He put down his pencil and went downstairs to the kitchen.
He poured himself a glass of water and took a healthy gulp. At the breakfast bar, he set the glass down on the granite countertop, needing to clear his mind, kill some time. Phoenix reached for the remote control and turned on the TV. He flipped through the stations rapidly. There was nothing interesting on so he settled for the news. The clock on the wall read 5:17PM. A few more minutes, then he’d head back upstairs. He reached for a grape from the fruit bowl on the kitchen counter and glanced the at news with disinterest. He looked back again at the clock; 5:30. He stood up, turned off the TV, and turned around, startled to see a shirtless stranger in the kitchen doorway.
It was a freeze-frame worthy moment. A sweat-soaked guy modeling nothing but mussed hair, bare feet and boxer briefs.
The shock on the stranger’s face registered with wide eyes and a slack jaw. “Shit—Bree said no one was home.”
“Obviously, Bree was wrong.”
“Yeah . . . “ The guy retreated. “I’ll go throw something on.”
Phoenix watched him go.
After pausing a moment to take a breath, Phoenix headed out the kitchen entrance the same way the half-naked stranger had. He trudged back up the stairs, catching a final glimpse of the guy disappear into Bree’s room and shut the door. Once in his own room again, Phoenix closed the door. It was muffled arguing now which he heard, but he supposed he preferred to muffled moans.
There was a knock on his door. “Phoenix?” His sister’s voice.
He cracked the door until he saw Bree’s anxious expression. She pushed the door wider. “Why didn’t you tell me you were here!”
“Between which moans should I have made my presence known?”
“Oh my God!”
“Yeah . . . I heard that too.” He walked away and she pushed the door open and barged into his room.
“So sorry . . . uh, I guess you already met Evan?”
“You mean the half-naked guy in our kitchen? He didn’t stick around for an introduction—and I didn’t mind.”
“Well, you guys need to meet normally. Sorry.” She looked back over her shoulder and called out quickly, “Evan—come ‘ere,” before Phoenix could object. She turned back to her brother and hissed in undertone, “Be nice!”
A moment later a fully-clothed guy dressed in a navy polo and jeans showed up behind Bree. His dark hair had been finger combed back into presentable shape. His cheeks were still flushed from his earlier exertions but at least he looked presentable.
Bree reached back, touched his arm, urging him forward. “Okay. Less than ideal circumstances, but . . . Evan, this is my brother, Phoenix.” She looked at her brother, eyes pleading. “Phoenix . . .this is my boyfriend—Evan.”
Evan spoke first. “Sorry about earlier.” He sounded sincere.
What was Phoenix supposed to say? He didn’t feel like saying anything. Instead, he toyed in annoyance with the ball of the metal barbell through his tongue and gave a brief nod.
“Were gonna take off,” Bree said. “We’ll talk later.” She pulled the door closed with Phoenix staring after them.
Phoenix wasn’t sure which bothered him more, the fact that he’d overheard his sister having sex with her boyfriend, or that she had a sex life and he didn’t. What does it matter? She is nineteen. Still he couldn’t help feeling protective of her even if he was two years younger. She was so delicate and frail, and perhaps a little naïve. He would always feel as if it was his duty to keep her safe.
He slumped on his bed, raked his hands through his short, spiky hair, gripped tight, and pulled hard. He found this relaxing and did it habitually whenever stress interfered with his life, which lately seemed to be often.
Phoenix’s mind wandered again over the events that happened in Bree’s room. He’d had an intimate experience once. One he’d like to forget.
It had been the evening of his junior prom. Phoenix, Sedge, and their dates had rented a hotel room, loaded with booze courtesy of Sedge’s older brother. They started drinking once they arrived. Thirty minutes later, the four were bombed, and Sedge—who wasn’t a virgin—wasted no time getting physical with his girl in front of Phoenix and his date. Phoenix, feeling nowhere near as confident, even in his state of inebriation, took verbal cues at Sedge’s urging.
“You’re ignoring your date, man,” Sedge said between kisses and gropes.
Sedge’s statement was soon followed by Phoenix’s date instigating the lead. Her hand was on his thigh, and it quickly moved to his groin. At least his body cooperated. Which, considering his fuzzy head coupled with slight fear, was close to a miracle. From the point when she undid his pants and proceeded to take him into her mouth, it became pretty clear to Phoenix that this was going to be where and when he lost his virginity. And so he discreetly watched Sedge for the “how to’s” as he fumbled through his first time having sex with a girl he barely knew in front of his best friend.
After it happened (and after the alcohol haze lifted) he knew he had no desire to do it again. Not like that. He managed to pull off the act—barely—but definitely didn’t think he could manage a repeat performance.
He hadn’t had sex since that night. Unless you counted sex with himself. But he didn’t even want to focus on that. No, thinking about that would mean he’d have to acknowledge the thoughts that occupied his mind during those times. And he was irritated to admit that they had nothing to do with voluptuous females. He was irritated to admit that they had nothing to do with females at all.
He found this truth so unnerving that he decided it was better to avoid people altogether. With the exception of Sedge; his utterly clueless friend. But that’s exactly how I want it, Phoenix reminded himself. Because in ignorance, was how Sedge knew him, related to him and it kept their friendship rolling on an even keel. That balancing act he could handle.
It was the trickier issue of Sedge’s best friend Zack that proved challenging, a homophobe of the most extreme. Phoenix secretly couldn’t stand him but had learned how to tune him out if not avoid him at all costs. He had morphed from class clown to school bully over the summer, and, for whatever reason, his favorite victims of choice were those unfortunate few he tagged as gay, nerdy, or poor. Luckily, for Phoenix, he didn’t feel he fit into any of these groups so he was relatively safe. But he’d seen Zack in action and it always turned his stomach.
Like the time they were at school and the bastard had bullied a poor sophomore by calling him a cock sucker, the word faggot scrawled in permanent marker on his locker. The boy had been reduced to tears. And it took a janitor’s fresh coat of paint to get rid of the slur, which didn’t happen until the following day. What bothered Phoenix even more was that he never had the balls to stand up to Zack. And his inaction left him feeling lower than low, an emotion that would sit with him for days. For this reason alone Phoenix wished Zack would somehow get swallowed up by a black hole, though it didn’t seem likely.
Phoenix felt for the kid, he really did. He didn’t know him but part of him wished he did. At times he wondered if they were similar, but most of him prayed they weren’t. Because behind Phoenix’s hard exterior of bleached hair and multiple piercings, he wasn’t sure he was really the badass everyone assumed he was. But that was the beauty of a good cover. Hopefully it would save him from the kind of humiliation the poor sophomore had suffered.
Phoenix’s cell rang. He knew by the ringtone it was Sedge. He answered with, “Hey.”
“Got a bite for you, man.”
“Ha—I bet. What’s it this time?”
“That chick I was telling you about last week. She and her friend wanna go out Saturday. I told her you’d be down.”
A moment of panic seized Phoenix and he tried to think up an excuse—any excuse to get out of the situation—but realized it was a lost cause. He clicked the barbell against the back of his teeth in irritation. “Saturday—got it.”
“I’ll get back to you with the details,” Sedge said.
Phoenix hung up the phone. Even if he had come up with an excuse to get out of the double date, Sedge would without a doubt reschedule, so it would just be postponing the inevitable. Better to deal with it sooner than later, he reasoned. Then he’d be able to put the event behind him and move on. But it irked him that he felt it necessary to go through the motions of a game he was tired of playing.
How many more set ups could he stand? How many more times could he find excuses to skirt the physical intimacy issues that always seemed to surface?
And he tried his best not to lead his dates on; he hated that the most.
But what else could you call going on a date when you were simply feigning interest for a few hours. Phoenix wondered what this girl would be like. Please let her be decent and not pushy. He dreaded having to come up with the excuses—one for the girl and several for Sedge—why there wouldn’t be a second date.
In fact, Phoenix found it borderline comical that Sedge hadn’t yet picked up a clue . . . if that wasn’t a sad truth. Because Sedge had certainly set him up with a variety of girls, and Phoenix managed to find a fatal flaw in every one of them. Sedge accused Phoenix of being a perfectionist. But Phoenix merely responded that he was selective—it was about quality, not quantity—a different value set for Sedge to digest. So far, he’d gotten away with that thin excuse, but he began to wonder how long it would hold up to scrutiny.
Enough worrying about this today. He had plenty to fret about already with the upcoming discussion Bree apparently wanted to have with him. What will we possibly discuss? Scheduling issues? Secret knocks? It all seemed absurd to Phoenix. What he needed right now was an escape.
He reached across his bed to his nightstand and dragged the book to the bed. He found his bookmark and reopened Mediaeval Weaponry, anticipating getting lost at least until his sister returned.
“Yeah?” he called out in a crackly voice.
Bree didn’t wait for an invitation, she walked in and sat on the bed next to Phoenix, making it bounce.
“I said we’d talk, “ she said, face beaming. “Sorry I’m late.”
Phoenix sat up straighter and closed his book. From Bree’s bright-eyed expression he knew she wasn’t leaving anytime soon.
“So who is this guy?” Phoenix began. Might as well get right to it.
“This guy is Evan Milleno, and he happens to be the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Phoenix rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “How did you guys meet?”
“He’s a dancer at Brise. He’s been with the company a long time—well, longer than me.”
“And you’ve just now met?”
“We didn’t get to really know each other until recently.”
Phoenix’s brow arched. “Is that what you call what I heard earlier?”
Bree swatted his arm. “Don’t be a douche. We’ve been together for a month. And what you heard was a recent development.”
Phoenix nodded slowly. “So what’s so great about him?”
Bree let out a sigh that spoke volumes. “Seriously, Nix . . . it’s hard to know where to begin.” She tried. “He’s just so different, you know?”
Phoenix didn’t but he was listening. Mostly because he had never seen his sisters eyes actually shine like they did now, full of happiness and light. She’d never looked this content either, except maybe those fleeting moments when on stage. So something about this guy was different, he supposed.
Noticing this distracted him.
“ . . . the same things,” she continued, “ He plays the piano, and oh—you’d love this—he’s totally into fencing . . . actually belongs to a fencing club. And he loves medieval history just like you.”
Now that tidbit surprised Phoenix. Because fencing wasn’t a common sport or hobby for most people living in California. So at that news, Phoenix’s interest grew genuine.
“Really? What club?”
“The South Coast Fencing Club. Have you heard of it?”
Had he heard of it! “He’s a member there?”
Bree nodded. “Supposedly there’s tournaments and everything. He does all of it.”
Phoenix was not only impressed, he suspected a part of him was even a little envious—wanted to be that talented and lucky. He decided to switch the topic if only a little. “You say he’s into medieval history too?”
“Teaching history was going to be his ‘fall back’ plan if dancing didn’t work out. So far he hasn’t needed it.”
Interesting and talented. So far Bree was doing okay for herself. Maybe next time he ran into Evan they would actually have something in common to discuss. But even if he was willing to give the guy the benefit of the doubt for the time being, he didn’t necessarily want a repeat of what he’d been an audience to earlier today. Cool or not, Bree was his sister. How to phrase it tactfully? “Uh . . . you think you could give me a heads up next time you two are gonna be here alone?”
Bree’s face flushed. “I’m so sorry. I really had no idea.”
“Yeah, I kinda figured.”
Bree held up three fingers. “Scouts honor. I’ll do my best.”
He could live with that.
“So what about you?” she asked redirecting the conversation to include Phoenix. “Are you seeing anyone right now?”
Ugh. Here it came. The dreaded subject. “Sedge and I have a double date on Saturday.”
“Who’s the lucky girl?”
“Blind date. No clue.”
“You know, you’re good looking enough to get dates without Sedge’s help, right? I mean, maybe pick a girl you’ve met . . . or like . . . or recognize for once?”
“Nah, I’m good. Why bother when Sedge delivers them to me?”
Bree shoved him playfully. “I know you’re not that big of a pig.”
“I know.” She shook her head, but then looked hopefully at Phoenix. “Eternal optimism. Maybe this one will be the one, huh?”
Within a second Bree’s attention shifted again, giddiness grabbing her. “So what did you think of him?”she asked quickly. “I know you don’t know him, but I mean he’s cute, right?”
Phoenix groaned. “God, Bree . . . I wasn’t checking out the guy. This is where you need to talk to your girlfriends, not me.”
“It didn’t hurt to try.” She stuck out her tongue at him. “Okay, fine. I’ll leave you be.”
Bree stood up and walked to the door. As she closed it behind her, Phoenix called out, “Hey—I’m happy for you. Really.”
Bree peeked inside, smiled at her brother and then turned off his light.
Phoenix relaxed into his pillow, stared into the darkness. He blinked. Bree was so excited. And he was both excited and worried for her. For her sake, he hoped this Evan guy was everything she had made him out to be. God knows guys could put on a good front when necessary. And Phoenix was speaking from experience. But she’d known Evan through dancing for a while. That counted for at least something. He was sure they had mutual friends. If the guy was a jerk it wouldn’t be a secret for long. That made Phoenix give him the benefit of the doubt. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath. Saturday would come around before he knew it. And what came with Saturday made Phoenix’s stomach weak.
“ Just breathe,” he said quietly. “Just breathe.”
It was Saturday, which meant his lip ring could go back in without worry. He eased the hematite hoop through his lower lip and screwed the backing on. Good. He felt better now. Rushing to his bathroom, he wet his hands with water then ran them through his hair and mussed his short spikes in a passable style. At least he’d be presentable incase he saw anyone. He heard Bree and Evan talking downstairs, and now their footsteps as they headed upstairs. There was a knock on Phoenix’s door.
“Yeah, come in.” Phoenix called.
The door opened and Evan and Bree entered. Phoenix was still waking up but he was awake enough to realize he wished he’d had more time to look better. Standing across from him was a guy who he was seeing as if clearly for the first time . . . and the sight unnerved him. Maybe he’d been too pissed-off before, maybe it was all the new favorable information he’d learned about Evan, but how could he have missed his striking features? He felt a little dumbstruck and wondered for a moment if this was really the same guy his sister had been getting busy with just days ago.
“Nix, you okay?” Bree asked a second later.
“Fine. Just waking up.”
“I feel you,” Evan said and smiled.
Phoenix’s body came alive at Evan’s words and he shifted his stance ever so slightly.
Bree said, “I told Evan this morning on the phone about your sword collection. I hoped you could show him.”
So he’ s here to see me . . . sort of.
“Sure,” Phoenix said.
“I’ll leave you two. Evan, I’ll be downstairs when you’re done.” Bree left the room and the two of them were alone.
“Sorry to just spring this on you, but Bree said you wouldn’t mind. It’s not often that I meet someone who shares my passion for medieval weapons and history.”
“Yeah, I hear that. And no worries. I’m happy to show you my collection if you’re interested.”
“Interested? Hell, I hopped in my car while we were still on the phone.”
Phoenix chuckled. “Well come on then; they’re throughout my room.”
Evan walked further into Phoenix’s bedroom.
“Actually, let me take some of them down so you can hold them and really see them.” Phoenix walked around his room taking swords out of cases, daggers off the walls, and knives out of drawers. He set them neatly aligned on his bed and Evan sat beside them.
Evan suddenly looked up at Phoenix who was staring at him. “Sorry, I should’ve asked first. Is it okay that I’m sitting on your bed?”
Phoenix was all too aware that Evan was sitting where he slept. And he realized . . . that he liked it. “It’s fine,” he said in a falsely casual tone.
“Where did you get all these?” Evan asked, picking up the nearest dagger.
“Gifts from my uncle over the years.”
“You have a cool uncle.”
“This is a rarer piece. Don’t see them often,” he said, examining the blade closely.
“I got lucky with some of them.” Phoenix sat down on the opposite side of the bed. “Here . . . check out this one.” He passed him an assassin’s stealth knife that was beside him. When he reached over the bed to hand it to Evan, their hands touched and the sensation startled Phoenix enough that he dropped the weapon when he pulled back his hand. “Sorry,” he said, recovering his expression.
“I’m okay” Evan said. “Are you?”
Phoenix’s lie went over smoothly and Evan refocused his attention to the knife.
“Whoa—I’ve never actually held one of these before. I can’t believe you have this!”
Phoenix’s chest filled with pride at Evan’s enthusiasm. He watched Evan’s concentration as he handled the knife, changed his grip and toyed with various angles of attack. The guy knew how to handle a weapon. And if that wasn’t hot. But what Phoenix kept focusing on was the slight cleft of his chin, the sharp angle of his jaw line and how his chocolate chair rested just above his ears. Evan’s lips moved but Phoenix wasn’t hearing the words.
“ . . . sometime.” Evan raised his gaze to Phoenix’s when he got no response.
Phoenix was caught in Evan’s soft brown eyes and half stuttered, “What?”
“I said, could I look at these again sometime?”
“Of course. Anytime.”
Evan smiled and the warmth in them melted Phoenix to the core.
What the fuck is going on?
“We were gonna head out for breakfast. Care to come with?”
Although Phoenix wanted to go he found himself saying, “Thanks but I’m waiting for a call. Have a date tonight.” It seemed safer.
“Next time then.” He smiled at Phoenix. “Thanks again. Have a good time tonight.”
Evan left the room and Phoenix realized he was staring after an empty doorway. He returned to his bed and put away everything he’d brought out. Phoenix chewed his lip. No wonder Bree is so enamored with the guy. Even Phoenix felt a bit mixed up over his response to him. This isn’t normal, Phoenix told himself. And the truth behind Phoenix’s piercings and bravado was that underneath it all, he really did just want to feel normal around another guy. Without his mind wandering about other things . . .
Phoenix’s phone rang.
“Okay, got the deets on tonight,” Sedge said.
Her name is Miranda and this chick is a ten. Like seriously, I wish we could trade.”
“You’re a mess. Where are we going?”
“Dinner, then to Elysium Park. Don’t say I never did you any favors.”
Yeah, right. “The time?”
“Five o’clock. I’ll be at your pad by four-forty-five.” Sedge hung up and Phoenix stared at his phone. He prayed the night went quickly. And that Miranda had something interesting to talk about that went along with her looks that Sedge was coveting. The dinner part he figured he could handle without too much of a problem. He had before numerous times. But the addition of the park excursion? Phoenix could’ve really done without it. No doubt Sedge was trying to score some alone time for both of them with the girls, but it seemed to hold disastrous potential to Phoenix. He certainly didn’t want to have to do more than he wanted to with Miranda, and private time in the park just seemed to broaden that possibility. One crisis at a time. Just get through dinner and see how it goes.
Sedge was there exactly when he said he would be. If it was one thing you could count on, it was Sedge to be punctual when it came to dates.
“Tight. You look sharp man,” Sedge said as Phoenix slid into his black Dodge Charger. “You’re gonna be stoked on Miranda. Just wait.”
Before they knew it, they headed off to Fiona’s house where they would pick up both girls. When they emerged from the house, Phoenix noted that Sedge hadn’t been lying. Miranda was definitely something to look at with her long wavy blonde hair and a body that would be the envy of most girls. Phoenix got out of the car to let the girls in.
Fiona said, “Phoenix, meet Miranda. Miranda, this is Phoenix.”
They shook hands awkwardly then the two of them got in the back seat. Miranda smelled sweet. Like some sort of fruit cup. But he was tense as he sat beside her, eager for the car ride to be over. When they finally reached the restaurant, Phoenix could breathe again. The chaos of other voices, the bustle of other people was a welcome distraction. They took their seat at the table and once again he was seated next to Miranda. But now it was okay.
“So Phoenix,” Sedge said, “Guess who, along with your sister, is our rival at next week’s game?”
Sedge had to be referring about the football game because 1: that’s the only sport Sedge talked about, and 2: the Fairmont and Crestmount rivalry was a big deal in the community.
Phoenix cocked his head toward Miranda. “You go to Crestmount?”
She gave him a sassy smile. “Does that make us enemies now?”
The slightest corner of his mouth turned up. “I’m debating. What year are you?”
“Senior. I’m just marking time now. Can’t wait to get out of that place. What about you?
”The same—on both accounts. Is it me or are these last five months seriously dragging?”
“It’s not you,” Miranda assured him, then took a sip of the water that the waitress had left them.
Fiona and Sedge were conversing amongst themselves so Phoenix and Miranda continued to talk.
“So where you planning to go next?” he asked, as he mindlessly tore a napkin into pieces rather than look at her.
“If I’m lucky UC Davis. They have a great veterinarian program.”
Phoenix nodded as if saying ‘cool’. He was halfway present and halfway in another world.
Miranda turned to face him more. “Do you have any pets?”
“A cat named Jinx.” Phoenix shook his head, thought about the cat. “He’s a loveable pain-in-the-ass though.”
“Then we have something in common. I’m a cat-lover too!”
Phoenix quit fussing with the napkin and looked at her then. Really looked at her. Miranda’s face shone. She was so unpretentious, her enthusiasm so genuine, that it caught Phoenix off-guard. She wasn’t like any of the other girls he’d met through Sedge. I actually like her. Maybe we could even be friends.
Dinner came and as they ate they continued to chat, mostly about the absurdity of cat behavior. Miranda was laughing and Phoenix had to admit that even her laughter was a beautiful sound.
Phoenix was relaxed enough that he was enjoying the company of his date. But then the bill came and after they paid it, he remembered with dread that there was a second part to this evening.
Sedge said, “You still want to go to the park?” to the girls.
Phoenix’s stomach fell. Especially since they’d been having such a good time. He would hate to spoil what was a passable date.
Both girls nodded. Shit.
The easiness he had come to feel with Miranda vanished once they were back in the car. Tension held to Phoenix fast and he was suddenly hyper-aware of every muscle in his body, the proximity of Miranda sitting beside him, the scent of her fruity perfume. When they reached the park, Phoenix couldn’t get out of the car fast enough. He needed the fresh air, the space.
“The lake’s over that way,” Sedge said to Phoenix, indicating where to head. “Fiona and I are going to check out the view from the top.”
Phoenix took his cue and he and Miranda headed down to the lake. He tried to stuff his hands in his pockets but his pants were too tight. Fuck. She took hold of his hand on the walk and he swore his arm felt like lead. When they reached the bank she lead Phoenix to a nearby tree.
“Thank you for dinner,” she said. “I had a really good time. You’re much more personable that I imagined.”
Phoenix smiled at her but was completely out of sorts. “Sure. It was fun,” he managed to say.
“The picture Fiona has of you makes you seem much harsher.”
Fiona has a picture of me?
“I really like you, Phoenix,” she said.
He was trying to think of something to say, anything that was nice but wouldn’t lead her on, but his mind was drawing blanks. It didn’t matter though, because before he could think of a response she came at him with her own.
She kissed him and he let her, not because he wanted to but because he didn’t know how to say no without hurting her feelings. She was pretty, she was nice but it really didn’t matter. His mind was somewhere else and he was miserable, disconnected.
She pulled away breathless for a moment, just long enough to say, “I’m not usually this forward but Sedge told me that you like a girl who’s aggressive. I hope this is okay.”
A flash of anger hit Phoenix when he heard that, pulling him out of his confusion. Fuck you, Sedge. Seriously. He worked to gather himself. “Uh, taking it slow is fine with me too. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression,” he tried.
“Normally I’d agree . . . but we hit it off so well at dinner. Besides, we’re both here because we want to be. And I think you’re gorgeous and an amazing kisser.” She smiled up at him, ran her fingers through his spiky white hair, gazed deep into his cool grey eyes. “So if things move a little faster than I’m used to, it’s okay with me.”
She began kissing him again, and Phoenix began to panic. Faster? Just what does she have in mind?
She slowly pressed her body against his, looking for closer contact. With his back pressed against the tree Phoenix felt trapped. If she stopped at the body contact and kiss, everything would’ve probably been fine. But she didn’t. She genuinely liked him and was just working off of Sedge’s advice. She moved one of his hands to her breast . . . and it sat there, unmoving. Then holy crap, her hand began searching over his pants, up his thigh, and toward his groin for a reassurance that wasn’t there. At that sobering realization, Phoenix tried to pull away before she embarrassed them both but he was too late. He hadn’t been able to wrap his mind around the moment and damnit if his body wouldn’t respond. Her tiny hand was cupped over him now and he had never felt more humiliated in his life. He wanted to crawl into a hole and hide. What to say? He felt so small. He would kill Sedge for this!
Heat burned his cheeks. “I’m sorry . . . I—“
“Phoenix, why are you here?” she asked hesitantly.
“What do you mean?”
She took a tiny step back. “I asked you to come tonight because I thought you’d like me—like I like you . . . but obviously . . . ,” She shook her head. “I want to know why you agreed to come.”
“Sedge said you guys wanted to double date.”
“Do you always do what other people want you to?”
Phoenix pulled away at that. Unprepared for the simple truth behind her words. It stung to hear it and he didn’t know how to respond.
She shook her head again, embarrassed. “I can’t believe I just did that. I can’t believe I listened to that fool,” she continued. “Look, I’m sorry about what just happened. I guess I wish you would’ve just told Sedge ‘no’ outright.” She worried her lip looking at Phoenix’s awkward expression. “We can just be friends if you want.”
“You mean you’re not pissed?”
She half-chuckled. “Pissed? Not even. Confused? Definitely. Disappointed? A little. And I have to admit, I do feel kinda stupid right now.”
“Don’t—it’s not you. You’re beautiful, Miranda.”
“Then what is it?”
His eyes which wouldn’t meet hers grew uneasy. “It’s complicated. Just . . . can we keep this between us?” He looked at her then. “Please?” It was the tone of his voice; the look in his eyes. There was so much unsaid behind them.
“Phoenix, can I ask you something without you being offended?”
“You can try.”
“Do you like girls at all—I mean, sexually?”
Fuck if something hadn’t caught in his throat at that and he had to turn away. Because he’d be damned if he’d fall apart in front of her. Please, keep it together. He took a deep breath through his nose. He felt unbearably mixed up. No one had ever come straight out and asked him that before. Could this night get any more awkward?
But he couldn’t respond. His voice was betraying him.
By his silence he knew she’d made her assumption.
She put her hand on the back of his shoulder, and that small touch undid him. “Seriously, it’s okay Phoenix. I won’t tell anyone.” She paused for a moment, as he collected himself. “And I meant what I said about us being friends. We can even play this out for Sedge if it makes your life easier.”
Phoenix couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Couldn’t believe he would actually have someone to confide in and someone nice enough to help him out. Short of finding what he really wanted, it was more than he had the right to hope for.
He blinked rapidly, trying to disperse the welled up tears before he turned around to face her. He hadn’t cried but he’d come damn near close. “You’d do that for me?”
“We’re friends right?”
He gave her a tentative smile then nodded. “Friends.”
She leaned in and gave him a hug, and he hugged her back, both grateful and weary from their earlier exchange. She pulled back and looked at him then reached for her purse. “Here,” she handed him her Visine. “Use that now before Sedge gets back. You need it if we’re gonna pull this off.”
He gratefully accepted the drops, tilted his head back and squeezed the bottle. He handed them back. “Thanks.”
They quickly discussed their plan of action. As Sedge came around the corner with Fiona, Miranda grabbed Phoenix’s hand. She leaned into him with her head on his chest, a content smile curving her lips.
“Did we come back too soon?” Sedge asked with a wry smile, looking at the new couple.
“It’s okay,” Miranda said. “We already set up our next date . . . alone.” She emphasized the last word getting her picture across to Sedge.
The corner of his mouth curled up. “Sweet.”
“I need to head back though,” Miranda said. “I have an early morning tomorrow.”
“No problem,” Sedge said and he gave Phoenix the thumbs up sign behind Fiona’s back as they headed to the car.
Before they reached Miranda’s house she and Phoenix exchanged numbers. When he walked her to the door Miranda kissed him for show since Sedge was taking in every move.
“Call me, “ she said to Phoenix with a wink. And then she was gone.