Zeta Zeta Nu was a madhouse, though tamer than Joe’s assumptions about frat parties had led him to believe, tinged as they were by movies and TV. He had never been invited to any in college, of course. He wasn’t a partier the way Nick was, but even Nick didn’t start his carousing until law school.
A Snoop Dogg song Joe hadn’t heard in years blared from unseen speakers, making him feel ancient as he bounced like a pinball among the bodies of beautiful young people. Jonesy and Carlos were lost to him; Nick’s shaggy head, towering over most partiers, served as his beacon, leading Joe to a staircase near the back of the house.
Someone shoved a red plastic cup into Joe’s hands. He brought it reflexively to his lips, the scent of cheap beer filling his nostrils. Technically, he was underage, but given the absurd impossibility of the situation he drank it down.
“Thanks!” he told no one in particular as a belch escaped him. He should have been more careful, he knew, as stories of date-rape drugs in drinks flashed through his mind. But the responsible adult part of his brain was on the fritz, and he really didn’t think the kind of person who would spike a drink would be looking to drug a guy like him. And even if they were, well, maybe the drugs would help him forget everything.
He tossed the empty cup aside as he caught up to Nick, who was delicately maneuvering his long legs to avoid stepping on a boy and a girl passionately making out on the steps. “Leave room for the Holy Ghost!” he said, pulling the boy’s head back and cackling as he walked upstairs.
“Excuse my friend,” said Joe, almost stepping on the confused girl’s fingers. “He was conceived at a frat party. Makes him kind of sensitive.”
“Are you drunk?” drawled the boy.
“No. Just annoyed.”
Snoop Dogg gave way to OutKast as Joe reached the second-floor landing. He knew he was still old at heart because he found himself admiring the house’s architectural beauty instead of the female beauty around him, wondering what it would look like cleared out and cleaned up. And then he thought, since when are the mid-thirties considered old? Deep in these thoughts, Joe walked face-first into a tall blonde’s bosom.
He felt a wetness on his head that spilled down his forehead and into his eyes, and for a heart-stopping moment feared he was bleeding. The smell and taste of beer as it dripped into his mouth provided some relief. But it wasn’t the beer shampoo that worried him.
He sputtered apologies as he backed up, getting a good look at the victim of his unintentional collision. She must have been a basketball or volleyball player, towering over him by about a foot. And she did not look happy.
“Thanks a lot, jerk!” she snarled, shoving Joe aside with a sweep of her arm. He bumped into a knot of people, sincerely hoping they didn’t notice.
They noticed. “Yo, what’s going on?” said one very tall, very fit specimen of young man in yellow wind pants, a ZZN tank top, sunglasses, and a dopey visor on his head. His face was flushed, but he seemed steady on his feet.
“This guy spilled my drink,” said the Amazon.
Joe’s heart sped, not looking forward to a pummeling his first day as a college man reborn. But the guy just looked at Joe and shrugged. “Get her another one, dude!”
“Right,” said Joe, assuring the girl he’d be right back with another drink. He dove back into the crowd, swimming through it towards where Nick stood by a table where two boys wearing backwards Red Sox caps played beer pong.
Someone grabbed his arm. “You alright?”
Joe turned and saw Carlos. “Yeah. Just trying to find the roof deck.”
Carlos jerked a thumb behind him. “The stairs are that way.”
“Thanks. Let me get Nick.” Carlos nodded.
Joe was about to call to Nick but the words dissipated when he saw whom Nick was talking to. Amy Pappas.
Joe had never met her, of course. But he recognized her from the news, where she had become a reporter and then an anchor for a television station in Boston.
She looked the part, even back then. Or now, Joe corrected himself. She was tall and slender with curves in all the right places, with a long neck and big brown eyes. Her hair was dyed some unflattering shade of blonde that had been fashionable when they were in college, her eyebrows betraying the true color of her hair. Joe never really understood Nick’s fascination with her: the Greek part or the tall part.
Whichever part, Nick had abandoned their heroes’ quest to correct what he viewed as a grave past injustice.
“Son of a bitch,” he whispered.
“Who?” said Carlos.
“Look at this guy,” said Joe, trying to sound more animated. “All this talk about the roof deck and he starts talking to the first pretty girl he sees.”
“He’s got to get that number, right?” said Carlos.
“I see a lot of pretty girls here,” said Jonesy, who had found them amongst the mass of partiers.
Carlos shrugged. “Good for him. He’s got balls. Me, I could use some fresh air.”
“Big balls,” said Jonesy. He looked at Nick like a teenage girl staring at the heartthrob du jour. Which, at this time, had been the Backstreet Boys. Or N*Sync. Was Joe really doomed to relive the boy band craze?
Joe grabbed Jonesy by the shoulders and pointed him towards the towering blonde who stood waving her empty hands while talking to a friend. “Tell you what, Scott: go get that girl a drink and strike up a conversation.”
“You think? What drink?”
“Beer,” said Joe.
“Cheap.” He gave Jonesy a push. “Tell her you saw some asshole spill hers and thought she might like a new one.”
“Okay. Hey, how’d you know my name?!”
“You told me,” said Joe.
“Just go get that number. Go!”
Jonesy sailed into the crowd, his small body bouncing around but staying upright. Joe smiled as he saw him grab a cup from somewhere, walk over to the angry girl and offer her the drink. The girl’s glower turned to a smile as she accepted it. Jonesy started talking and pointed back at Joe. The girl laughed and ruffled Jonesy’s hair like he was a small child. Which he was, come to think of it.
“Wow,” said Carlos. “I didn’t think he had it in him.”
Joe looked at Nick, deep in conversation with Amy. “You’d be surprised.”
* * *
The roof deck was rather nice after the clutter and commotion of the house, commanding a view of downtown Hollister and the forests beyond. The town felt secluded despite its proximity to larger cities like Dover and Portsmouth and the sea; if you stood on Main Street and looked in any direction, all you saw were brick buildings, old houses, and trees.
A few stars were visible, the music softer, and Joe could almost call the atmosphere relaxing if it weren’t for a boisterous crew of football players and ZZN brothers standing in one corner. Joe knew they were football players because he saw him. Zack Henderson, beer bottle in hand, smiling and nodding at what a friend had said.
Zack was a big, solid black guy, about six-foot-two and covered in muscle. He was slated to play running back for the NHU Lions. He had a shaved head and an easy smile, standing with his free hand against the railing. Two crates of Keystone Light were on the ground by his feet.
A cheer arose from the group. They clinked bottles and drank. One of the guys busied himself getting another beer. Joe’s heart lurched as he saw Zack sway, steadying himself against the railing.
“Nice up here, huh?” said Carlos. Joe didn’t respond. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Fine,” said Joe. He kept his eyes on Zack, planning his next move.
“You’re sweating, man. You sick or something? Let’s go. It was stupid to come here anyway.”
“No,” said Joe, grasping Carlos by the shirt. “No, I need . . .”
“Take it easy! Need what?”
Joe let his hand drop, feeling strangely numb. He blinked away the sweat that dripped into his eyes. What time was it? What time did it happen?
Zack staggered again to more cheers and someone yelling, “Drink up, boys!” Joe walked towards the group.
“You know those guys?” said Carlos after him.
Joe’s focus sharpened; he became hyperaware of every sensation. Each footfall echoed like the steps of a giant. Each breath sounded like a dragon’s growl. Yet he seemed no closer to the drinking, smiling Zack Henderson, tilting his bottle back as he edged closer to the railing, closer . . .
He heard Nick’s booming voice. “Hey, there you are! Guys! I’d like you to meet someone!”
“Nick,” said Joe, quickening his pace across the roof deck. “Nick, get over here!”
He was running. Dimly, he realized Nick ran with him. Zack leaned back to drain his bottle. One of his laughing, smiling friends stepped back, elbowing Zack in the stomach. Spitting beer, Zack bumped into the crates at his feet, losing his balance and tipping over into empty air.
Joe leapt and somehow, miraculously, caught Zack by his arm. But Zack was bigger and heavier, and Joe felt himself pulled towards the edge, his thighs bumping into the railing, ready to be tipped into the void. So this is how it ends, he thought, death by good deed.
And then his forward momentum halted because Nick had has arms around Joe’s waist and his feet braced against the railing. Joe’s shoulder was nearly pulled out of his socket, but he held onto Zack’s arm and pulled with one hand on the railing for balance.
Somehow they pulled Zack high enough for him to grab the railing and hoist himself back onto the deck. Awareness of the near-catastrophe dawned on his inebriated friends, a collective gasp rising into the night like a burst of flame. Carlos and the others ran over to see what had happened. One of those people was Amy Pappas.
Zack’s friends crowded around where they knelt, thanking Joe and Nick profusely, patting them on their backs and shoulders and heads like they had completed some daring play. Zack Henderson breathed heavily, sweat pouring down his face and his eyes cartoonishly wide. He was shaking and looked about to cry.
“You’re alright, you’re alright,” Joe kept saying, patting the bigger man on the chest. “It’s alright, we got you.”
“Saved my life,” said Zack, nearly hyperventilating. “Saved my life. Saved my life.”
“Nice catch,” said Nick, patting Joe on the shoulder. “Football joke, get it?” He turned and smiled at Amy, giving her a thumbs up. She beamed back at him, and Joe understood why Nick had really wanted to come here. Saving Zack Henderson’s life was just a bonus, a means to the end of winning the girl of his dreams. Joe thought deeply and seriously about throwing Nick over the edge instead.
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