Charmless Excerpt

Chapter 1

 

            On the last day of Jeremy Knight’s old life, four weird things happened.  Five, counting the dwarf. 

Sean would have described the day as “batshit crazy” if Sean had still been speaking to Jeremy.  Which he wasn’t. That was the first weird thing. 

            “Home early?” Eva was sitting on her front porch steps, separated from Jeremy by the driveway and a well-tended flowerbed.  Her dark hair, blue jeans, and black hoodie blended into the night.  Except for the glint of her eyes she was nearly invisible.

“Spying on me?” Jeremy snapped, annoyed that his neighbor had caught him off-guard. 

One of Jeremy’s earliest memories was of playing with Sean in when they were five or six. They’d been battling imaginary pirate ninjas with tennis racket swords in Jeremy’s backyard. Jeremy had felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle, and when he’d turned around, Eva had been glaring at him from her side of the fence that separated their backyards.

As he watched, Eva had mouthed the words, “I.  Hate.  You.” 

He’d been stunned, not just by her words, but by the expression in her eyes.  She really did hate him.  Which was odd, because everyone else loved him.

While Jeremy was staring at Eva, Sean had whacked him on the shoulder, leaving a bruise that hadn’t faded for days. So Jeremy’s earliest memory of Eva involved confusion and pain. And now, on the weirdest day of his life Eva was talking to him. 

Weird thing number two.

“Did I scare you?” In spite of the darkness, he thought he saw her smirk.

“No more than usual.”

“Oh, zing,” Eva said.  “Your witty comment has put me in my place.”  This time he was sure he saw the smirk.  Heard it, too. 

“Why are you sitting out here?” Jeremy asked.

“Why not?”  Classic Eva:  obtuse and belligerent.  Sometimes, Jeremy wondered whether his neighbor was unpleasant because she was alone so much, or if she was alone so much because she was unpleasant. 

Not that he thought about Eva all that frequently.  She wasn’t the kind of girl who appealed to Jeremy.  With her acerbic wit, shapeless clothing, and perpetually angry expression, Eva wasn’t the kind of girl who appealed to anyone. 

Jeremy’s throat tightened as he thought of the girl who did appeal to him:  Caitlyn.  His beautiful, sexy, fun-loving girlfriend. 

Ex-girlfriend, as of today, Jeremy reminded himself.  That was weird thing number three:  Caitlyn breaking up with him.

He still didn’t understand what had happened, though he must have re-played the conversation a million times in his head.  Yesterday everything had been fine.  But this morning Caitlyn hadn’t met him at his locker before class like she usually did.  Then she’d skipped lunch without explanation.  And after school she’d met him in the parking lot and told him it was over.  She was breaking up with him. 

Jeremy had been happy to see Caitlyn waiting for him by his car.  He’d had a crappy day, and seeing Caitlyn always made him smile.  Caitlyn had that effect on people.  That was why she was captain of the cheerleading squad even though she was only a junior.  It was the reason she was always surrounded by a crowd of friends and admirers.  Everyone wanted to be close to Caitlyn.

But that afternoon she’d been alone, leaning against Jeremy’s car like the world’s best hood ornament.  Her long honey-brown hair had been loose, falling across her face in artful waves, hiding her wide brown eyes and partially obscuring her carefully lip-glossed mouth.  Her low-slung jeans clung to her slim hips and tapered into glossy leather boots.  Her fitted corduroy jacket was unbuttoned, and Jeremy could see the outline of her bra beneath the thin fabric of her t-shirt. 

It never crossed his mind that Caitlyn was going to dump him.  They were Lakeview High’s golden couple.  When Jeremy and Caitlyn walked into a room, heads turned.  Girls swooned.  Guys took notes.  Caitlyn and Jeremy had been a couple since middle school. They were the stuff of high school legend. 

They were in love. 

Or at least they had been until today. 

Apparently Caitlyn needed some time apart.  She needed to think.  She needed to see other people.

“I feel terrible about this,” Caitlyn told Jeremy.  She was trying to look sad, but Jeremy knew her too well to be fooled.  Her voice was soft and earnest, and her expression was carefully calibrated to achieve maximum sympathy:  puppy-dog eyes, pouting lips, flushed cheeks. 

But Jeremy could see that her eyes were dry, and he knew it was all an act. He’d watched Caitlyn stage the same performance countless times to elicit sympathy from friends, teachers, and parents.  He never thought he’d see her use it against him.

“I have to be honest with you,” Caitlyn continued. “I don’t love you, anymore.  And I owe it to both of us to end things.  I know it hurts, but if we keep going, it will only end up hurting more.”

He reached out to touch her.  Maybe he wanted to hold her hand or maybe he thought he could shake some sense into her.  Or maybe he just wanted to try to connect with her one last time.  He couldn’t remember.  All he remembered was her reaction, the way she flinched from his touch, the expression of disgust that creased her delicate face.  Her rejection was a knife in his guts. 

The memory swept through him with such clarity that for a moment, Jeremy could smell Caitlyn’s unique scent, an intoxicating blend of flowery high-end hair products, fruity lip-gloss, spicy perfume, and just a hint of tic tac peppermint.  It was the smell of laughter and kisses and friendship.

But Jeremy blinked, and the memory vanished, leaving him alone in the dark with Eva smirking at him from her front porch.  Eva, whose short black hair didn’t look like it had ever seen the inside of an upscale salon.  Eva, who never smiled or smelled like flowers or fruit or peppermint.  Eva, whose only goal, as far as Jeremy could tell, was to completely alienate herself from the rest of humanity. 

Eva could have been cool, if she tried.  Her parents certainly had enough money.  Plus, they were always out of town, photographing a hot new band or a wedding or a war.  Jeremy had seen their photos on the covers of glossy magazines and displayed on gallery walls at the charity fundraisers his parents forced him to attend.  The Cohen-Lins had lived next door to him his whole life, but Jeremy could count the number of times he’d actually seen Eva’s parents on his fingers.  They racked up frequent flyer miles the way some people collected stamps.

Any normal person would have taken advantage of all that freedom – invited friends over, thrown parties, used the situation to her advantage.  But not Eva.  With a whole house to herself, she chose to spend her evenings alone in the dark.  She just wasn’t normal.  

Jeremy shrugged, turned his back on her, and headed for his front door.

“Good night,” Eva called.

Jeremy surprised himself by admitting, “Not really.”

“Lame party?”

“You could say that.”

“I always do.”

“When have you ever been to a party?”

“Wow.  Another zinger.  You should join the debate team.”

The word “team” stopped him in his tracks.  Weird thing number four:  being cut from the basketball team.  Just thinking about it made Jeremy wince with remembered humiliation.

“You don’t hustle,” Coach Nickelson had said.  “You skip practices.  You’ve got a bad attitude.”

Jeremy had shifted uncomfortably on the cracked green plastic chair in Coach’s cluttered office, trying to figure out what was going on.  When Coach asked him to stay after practice, Jeremy hadn’t been worried.  He was the star of the team, after all.

But instead of praising him, Coach Nickelson sat behind his scarred wooden desk with his bushy eyebrows drawn together, his mouth a hard, straight line under his bulbous nose, and began listing Jeremy’s shortcomings.  He looked … disappointed.  It took Jeremy a minute to identify the expression, because he couldn’t remember the coach ever looking at him that way before. Weird thing number four.

“Well?” Coach Nickelson said, “Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”

“I’m your best player,” Jeremy pointed out.  “Can’t you cut me a little slack?”

He grinned at Coach Nickelson, the same “aw shucks” grin that had been getting him out of trouble for years.  No one could resist Jeremy when he turned on the charm.

But this time, Coach wasn’t impressed.

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Coach Nickelson said, shaking his head.  “You think you’re above the rules, Jeremy.  You have skill, but you don’t have heart.”  He sighed, running a meaty hand through his thinning hair.  “I can’t let your bad attitude undermine the team.  I’m benching you for the next game.  Let me see a little hustle during practice.  Then we’ll talk.”

Jeremy felt his grin freeze on his face.

“Bench me?”  The grin dissolved entirely.  “That’s bullshit!”

“For that, you owe me ten extra sprints after tomorrow’s practice.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Jeremy sneered.  “I’m your star player.  The other idiots on this team couldn’t find their asses with both hands.  So what if I take it easy occasionally?  I’ve earned a little special treatment.”

“Twenty extra sprints.  Keep it up and I’ll bench you for two games.”

“This is a joke, right?”

“No joke,” Coach Nickelson said.  “This is your last chance to stay on the team, Jeremy.  Take it or leave it.”

 In response, Jeremy walked out of the office, slamming the door behind him.  He had assumed Coach Nickelson would come after him, apologize, maybe even admit it had all been a tasteless joke.

            He’d gotten halfway to the parking lot before he realized that it wasn’t a joke and there wasn’t going to be any apology. 

            He was off the team.  And somehow, it felt like it might have been his own fault.  He replayed the conversation in his head, trying to figure out what had gone wrong.  He remembered Coach Nickelson saying, “You don’t have heart.”  Even in his head, the words stung.  Of course Jeremy had heart!  Would a player with no heart be the top scoring athlete in the district?  Would a player with no heart lead his team to victory again and again? 

Coach was a moron, Jeremy decided.  He didn’t deserve a player of Jeremy’s caliber.  Jeremy was better off without being part of a stupid team that didn’t even appreciate him.

            But no matter how hard Jeremy worked to cheer himself up, he didn’t feel vindicated.  He didn’t even feel angry.  He just felt miserable.

He was sure his day couldn’t get any worse.

He was wrong, of course.

***

He probably should have skipped the party.  No, he definitely should have skipped the party.  In retrospect, that much was crystal clear, even if everything else was still a muddled, confusing mess.

But at the time, a party had seemed like a good idea.  Just what he needed to cheer himself up after losing both his place on the team and his girlfriend. 

Besides, Sean and Jeremy were best friends, and Jeremy had never missed one of Sean’s parties.  They were legendary.  Sean’s house – a mansion, really – was the ideal place to hang, with plenty of room to dance, a pool table, an air hockey table, a heated pool with a huge Jacuzzi, not to mention plenty of spare rooms where people could hook up.

Plus, Sean’s parents were out of town nearly as often as Eva’s, and they didn’t mind if their son and his friends drank their booze and partied in their home while they were out of town. 

After the day he’d had, Jeremy really wanted to get drunk and relax in Sean’s hot tub.   Maybe he’d invite a few freshmen girls to join him.  Seeing him surrounded by half-naked hotties might bring Caitlyn to her senses.  Show her what she was missing.

By the time he reached Sean’s house, Jeremy was feeling a little better.  He was determined to forget about his miserable day and lose himself in fun and revelry for a few hours.

The party was a wall of noise and heat.  Jeremy recognized most of the Lakeview senior class, plus a few of the more popular underclassmen, a bunch of kids from other prep schools, and a handful of people who looked like they might be in college.  He pushed through the crowd, narrowly avoiding beer splashes and elbow jabs.

The heart of the party was in the back of the house, in the formal dining room.  All the furniture had been cleared away to create a dance floor.  The room was dark, lit intermittently by flashes of cell phone screens.  High-end speakers positioned around the room blasted music, a throbbing wordless swirl of electronica.  A few people groped each other under the pretense of dancing. 

Jeremy spotted Sean, laughing with a group of kids around a keg at the far end of the room.  Sean was wearing artfully torn jeans and his favorite vintage Zeppelin tee.  His dark hair fell raggedly across his forehead, and his straight teeth flashed white in the dark as he laughed. 

Sean never dressed or acted like he had money, but somehow he always managed to look cooler than anyone else in the room.  His eyes gleamed with confidence just shy of cockiness, and his crooked grin gave the impression that he was amused by an inside joke, one he’d share with you, if you were lucky.  He didn’t care what anyone else thought of him, and it showed. 

As a result, everyone loved Sean.

Jeremy was popular, but Sean was magnetic.  Everything was more fun when Sean was around, more interesting.  Jeremy wasn’t immune to Sean’s charm.  Just seeing his best friend brought a grin to Jeremy’ face.

“Hey, Sean,” Jeremy said, squeezing into the space between Sean and the keg.

“Jeremy.”  Sean didn’t look happy to see him, but Jeremy didn’t notice.  All his attention was on the keg, a silver drum of yeasty, liquid oblivion.  Jeremy fully intended to drink himself into a stupor tonight.  With any luck, he’d kill all the brain cells imprinted with the shame and humiliation of the past 24 hours.  He could practically feel the cool sting of the carbonation, and taste the bitterness of the lager.  His mouth watered as he reached for the tap. 

            Sean reached toward the keg, and for a second Jeremy thought Sean was offering to pour him a beer.  But Sean took the tap out of Jeremy’s hands and leaned close, speaking in a low voice that somehow managed to cut through the noise of the party.

            “You shouldn’t be here,” Sean said. 

“Very funny.”  Jeremy tried to take the tap back, and glared when Sean didn’t let go.  “Cut it out, Sean. I’ve had a crappy day, and I need a beer.  Stop dicking around, alright?”

            “I’m sorry, Jeremy,” Sean said, but he didn’t look sorry.  He looked annoyed.  And maybe a little angry.  “This is a private party,” Sean continued.  “You can’t just walk in here.”

            “I can’t just – what?”  This was beyond weird.  This was unbelievable.  “Sean, we’re friends.  We party all the time.”

            Sean looked uncomfortable.

            “We used to be friends,” Sean said, patiently, like he was explaining something obvious to a little kid.  “But you’ve changed, Jeremy.”

            “Since yesterday?”

            For a second, Sean seemed confused.  He stared at Jeremy with a disconcerting intensity, almost as if he was trying to figure out who Jeremy was.  Jeremy felt like a bug under a magnifying glass, but he forced himself to meet Sean’s piercing gaze without squirming.  He thought he saw something flicker in Sean’s eyes, a flash of recognition, but then Sean shook his head sharply, like a swimmer knocking water out of his ears, and the flicker was gone.

            “We used to be friends, but we can’t hang out, anymore,” Sean said.  “We don’t have anything in common.”

            “Sean,” Jeremy said, “I don’t know what’s going on, but if this is some kind of joke, I’m not in the mood right now.  Coach Nickelson cut me from the team today.  Then Caitlyn dumped me.  I can’t handle it if you freak out, too.”

            The group around the keg had grown larger, some people eavesdropping on the tense conversation between Jeremy and Sean, others just waiting for beer.  Out of the corner of his eye, Jeremy saw guys from the basketball team, girls he’d hooked up with, people he’d partied with for years.  All his friends. 

But none of them looked friendly right now.  In fact, they looked hostile.  A growing buzz circulated through the crowd as people began snickering and whispering.

“Did that guy just say Caitlyn Hannigan dumped him?”

“Why was Caitlyn dating him in the first place?”

“Maybe she felt sorry him.  She was probably just being nice.”

“Nobody’s that nice.”

“Why doesn’t Sean just kick him out?”

“Why doesn’t Sean just kick his ass?”

A girl giggled.  Someone shouted, “Loser!”  Someone else threw a half-empty bag of chips at his head, inciting more laughter.

Jeremy felt like he was watching everything from far away.  This couldn’t be happening to him.  It was some other guy, some pathetic loser who had crashed a party and tried to pass himself off as one of the cool kids.  

            I’m not a loser, Jeremy thought.  I belong here.  But for the first time in his life he didn’t know whether that was really true or not.  He felt something tighten in his chest, a hard, clenched knot of anxiety. 

            “Cut it out!”  The room grew silent in the wake of Sean’s command.  Jeremy felt the tightness in his chest ease.  Sean was defending him.  He hadn’t meant what he’d said to Jeremy.  It was all a dumb joke.

            “Jesus, Sean,” he said, grinning with relief, “you really had me going there for a minute.”

            But Sean didn’t return Jeremy’s smile.  His expression was kind but serious.           

“It’s time for you to leave, now,” Sean said.

“Sean, please,” Jeremy was begging now, too upset to care about being publicly humiliated.  “We’re friends.  We’ve been friends for years.  What the hell is going on?”

            “Take it easy, man,” Sean said.  “I don’t want any trouble.”

Jeremy was beginning to panic.  He could feel his heart racing and his throat tightening.  The whole situation felt like a nightmare, but it wasn’t a nightmare.  It was real.  It was his life.  And it was awful.

He searched for the right words, the words that would make Sean understand how insane this was.  How wrong it was to throw away years of friendship.  But the words didn’t come. 

Instead, he found himself thinking of the lyrics to ‘Lean on Me’.  He and Sean had lip-synced to it for the third grade talent show.  They had worn matching outfits and done this really dorky dance that ended with them standing back to back with their arms folded across their chests.  Everyone had applauded.

            “What the hell?” Caityln’s voice broke through the awkward silence.  “What are you doing here, Jeremy?”

She pushed her way through the crowd to stand beside Sean.  Her glossy hair was swept into a complicated ponytail, and her eyelids shone with glitter.  She was wearing a simple black dress that clung invitingly to her curves and high heeled black boots with tarnished silver buckles.  Seeing Caitlyn so close, smelling the floral sweetness of her shampoo and the spicy scent of her perfume, Jeremy felt his heart break all over again. 

Caitlyn crossed her arms and glared at Jeremy.  “Are you stalking me now?” she demanded. 

A low murmur swept through the room.  Anyone who hadn’t already been watching the drama was definitely paying attention now.

            “No!”

            “Then what are you doing here?”

            “Sorry,” Jeremy snapped, stung by Caitlyn’s snotty tone.  “I didn’t realize breaking up with you meant I was banned from partying.”

            I broke up with you,” Caitlyn reminded him.  “I should have done it a long time ago.”  

Her voice dripped with revulsion and disdain.  She was looking at him like he was a cockroach.  Jeremy could taste bile rising in the back of his throat.

“It’s time for you to go,” Sean said.  He put a hand on Jeremy’s shoulder, and Jeremy shrugged it off.

“I’m going,” he muttered.

The crowd parted in front of him as he walked out of the house, people moving away from him like he was a leper.  He could feel his face burning with shame, his throat tight and his jaw clenched.  He managed to make it to his car without crying, salvaging the last shred of his dignity.

As he drove away, it hit him:  his life was really over. 

***

            Impotent fury unfurled in his chest as images of the party flooded his thoughts.  He lashed out with one foot, kicking the porch railing in an explosion of helpless rage. 

“I always thought that porch was a son of a bitch,” Eva said. 

He’d forgotten she was there.  

“It’s been a shitty day,” he muttered, embarrassed by his display of temper.

“I heard,” she said.

“What did they do, send out a memo?”

“I have to admit, it was ballsy of you, crashing that party.”

“I didn’t crash the party.  What are you doing out here, anyway?” 

“I find the night air soothing.” 

Typical Eva weirdness.  “Whatever,” Jeremy said, rolling his eyes and climbed the stairs to his front door.

Enchantée,” Eva said in a thick, fake French accent.  She twiddled her fingertips at him, in a languid good-bye wave.

He stepped into his house and left her in the dark.

The foyer was unlit, the house quiet and a little chilly.  It wasn’t as grand as Sean’s mansion, but Jeremy knew his home was luxurious by most standards.  His parents redecorated every couple of years, and the latest renovations included removing most of the carpeting.  His mother had pronounced the end result – acres of polished wood floors, high ceilings, and minimalist décor – lovely.  Jeremy thought the house felt like a museum.

Luckily, his parents let him have free reign in the huge, finished basement, which contained his bedroom, his private bathroom, and a giant rec room. Unlike the rest of the house, the basement was furnished with comfortable, overstuffed furniture, the walls were covered with posters, and the floor was wall-to-wall thick, soft carpet.  The rec room was outfitted with an enormous plasma screen tv, several different varieties of video game equipment – including a couple of vintage arcade games – a top-of-the-line sound system, lightning-fast wifi, and a fridge stocked with junk food.

Sean’s house might be fancier, but Jeremy’s rec room was his own personal kingdom, and he loved every inch of it.  Which was a good thing, because after the scene at Sean’s party, it looked like he was going to be hanging out by himself for the foreseeable future.

Right now, Jeremy intended to raid the fridge, play some Gran Turismo, crawl into bed and put this entire, craptastic day behind him. Tomorrow morning things would be better.  Life would be back to normal.  He’d get Coach Nickelson to put him back on the basketball team, even if he had to sit on the bench for a game or two.  Sean would apologize for being a jackass.  Caitlyn would realize that dumping him had been a mistake.  Life would make sense again.

But that wasn’t going to happen.  In fact, Jeremy’s life was about to go from weird to worse.