Giselle's birthday party had brought in more people than I figured she wanted to attend. I didn't find it surprising that she had found a way to sneak out for some air. It took me a bit to find out where she was hiding, but I found her sitting on a branch of an oak tree behind Uncle Freddy's barn. The scent of weed had given her away and I took my phone out so I could use the flashlight to aim it at her. When it didn't capture her attention, I decided yelling wasn't a good idea since it could startle her and possibly cause her to fall. It'd been a while since I climbed a tree but I was old enough to keep my balance straight this time. I climbed up until I reached the branch across from hers, and saw her open one eye before closing it back up when she noticed who it was.
"Got something on your mind, Zee?" she asked as she offered me some of her joint, but I refused it and she smirked as she nodded, taking a long pull from it.
"Mom sent me out here to find you. She says its time to cut the cake," I answered and looked below me, wondering just how sturdy this damn tree was. It shook whenever I tried to move.
"Funny how she sent you instead of...well anyone else," Giselle mentioned and I raised an eyebrow at her, wondering where she was going with this.
"I was available."
"Or she noticed how quiet you've been this evening and decided I was the right person to shake you out of it," my cousin argued, turning to face me, with both eyes open this time. Giselle always had some smart ass shit to say. Most of it was bullshit. The rest was spot on. But I didn't need her cynical comments tonight. I needed her to get down from this tree, so we could cut the cake and we could all go home.
"Maybe I just have nothing to say," I replied defensively, and she took notice since she put out her joint and saved the rest for later use.
"Quiet people tend to have the most to say," she countered with a smug smile and I rolled my eyes at her while I began to climb down the tree. She joined me on the ground shortly after and cocked her head to the side, as if she were trying to look for something, like the last piece of a puzzle she'd been trying to finish for hours. I'd know because that was all Thea and I did together. It was the only activity she and I could get through without bickering. The older she got, the more buttons she liked to push. Or maybe I had gained more buttons for her to push along the way. Either way, it sucked.
"Does this have anything to do with Leah Suarez?" Giselle questioned and I sighed, looking away. Why does everyone feel the need to talk about everything? Why can't things just be without reason, or resolution? Yes, I disliked Leah. Yes, I knew exactly why. What came after that, I had no control over.
"Are we going to go cut your damn cake or what?"
"So that's a yes. Ha. Does Zach know you two have a thing going on?"
"There is no thing. And when did you get so annoying?" I contended angrily and she grinned, obviously gaining another response from me I wasn't aware I was giving. If regular girls were scary, my cousin invented the concept.
"Or does it have to do with another girl?" she fished and I glared at her, which only made her grin fade slowly into a frown. I'd forgotten we now lived in a small town, where everyone thought it was okay to spread people's business around like a game of telephone, each person distorting the truth until it no longer existed and became something else entirely. My cousin grew up here. Maybe she knew some information about Josie. Another stepping stone I could use to get closer to her. I would've gone up to her myself, but we didn't exactly pick up where we left off last time we saw each other. She was too busy aiming a gun at my face.
"Do you know Josephine Reyes?"
"She goes to Pasadena High. I've seen her around the old skate park sometimes. Although I haven't seen her there lately. Which means she’s up to no good," Giselle explained, her eyebrows hiking up in warning. I closed my eyes as I took a deep breath and tried to remember it wasn't my job to save Josie. Unfortunately for me, I had a persistent little voice telling me that I had to at least try.
"Do you know where she lives?" I asked and she only shrugged in response.
"Here's your chance to find out," she answered and I looked at her, completely confused. She turned me around and pointed towards the front entrance of Uncle Freddy's house, where Josie was climbing up the steps, a box with a bow on top in her hands.
"Did you know she was going to be here?"
"No. But I have a feeling she knew you would be," Giselle added, a slow smirk on her face as she walked towards the side entrance of the house. I braced myself, taking another deep breath as I approached Josie out on the porch and cleared my throat. She turned quickly with a surprised expression on her face as her hand froze mid air, reaching for the doorbell.
"We have to stop meeting like this," I started off with a spark of charm and a grin, which is what my Dad would often do when Mom put him in the dog house. It worked every time and seeing as I needed some kind of leeway into Josie's world, I figured I'd start with flirtation. It wasn't as hard as it should've been considering it's been ten years since I've been in her infectious presence. Her outfit of choice for my cousin's birthday party helped me ease into it. She was wearing one of those long sleeveless pretty dresses that stopped right at her ankles, leaving just enough room for me to notice her white and slightly dirty converse shoes peaking out. Her dark but straight hair was nicely tamed down her chest with a sparkly headband on her head. It was a complete contrast to the version of Josie I witnessed trying to follow through with a robbery.
And then there were her full and pink lips. Bare with no gloss or lipstick on them. I tried to ignore how bad I wanted to see what kind of a kisser she turned out to be and brought my gaze up to meet hers again. I already knew I had no business falling for another lost cause. But there was no rule that said I couldn’t flirt my way into her world long enough to gain some answers.
"Didn't peg you for the lip piercing type, Zander," she answered confidently, not bothering to hide the fact that she did indeed remember who I was, while glancing down at my lip piercing. My tongue darted out slightly to toy with it out of habit. She seemed to like the notion but I shook my head, trying to focus on the task at hand rather than the slow burning chemistry that's been pouring out of us from the moment we ran into each other at Sylvan Beach ten years ago. Sure we were five at the time, but it didn't change the fact that we'd shared a sacred friendship. Or at least as sacred as a friendship could be at that age.
"People change," I began, hoping this would lead to her opening up to me a little bit, so I'd have the excuse to ask about the robbery, and why she ended up in a gang. What I knew of her home life back when we were kids didn't justify her abiding by the rules of the streets.
"Some don't," she argued, chuckling as she looked away. I suspected there was some hidden meaning behind her statement, but I didn't push. I didn't want to give her any reason to pull away. We both looked up towards the front door, where the party was raging on beyond it as they began to sing happy birthday.
"Come on in. My aunt made enough cake to feed an army," I mentioned nervously and she shrugged as she nodded. I stepped up to hold the door open for her and she sent me a sly smile as she brushed passed me and entered the house. The crowd of friends and family had surrounded the dining room table in my absence. Giselle was standing in the middle of Uncle Freddy and her mother, Becca, who'd just gotten out of prison today. I had no idea what the deal was between them. I just knew things had been awkward all evening long and it was obvious to me my cousin had no intention of catching up with her mother.
I watched Josie place her gift on top of the gift pile in the living room, and she followed me into the dining room. Her face perked up when the ending of the song came and she began to clap along with the rest of us as Giselle blew out her candles and began to pose for the pictures everyone started to take on their phones. Zach and Thea spotted me standing near Josie and took it upon themselves to join us. I braced myself for their teasing and crossed my arms as they smiled towards Josie.
"Josie?" My brother greeted her with a confused expression when his gaze traveled over her face. Followed by a surprised smile, throwing one my way afterwards as he gave her a hug. The three of us used to rule the playground ten years ago. Forging kingdoms and crowning our other friends as knights and maidens. Glancing over at Josephine now, I wondered what kind of kingdom she had built for herself while we were gone.
My brother's smirk was implying something I didn't want to think about when he caught me staring at her. Josie had blossomed into a beautiful girl, but I had no intention of taking it any further than friendship. I just wanted to get through the next two years of high school without the drama that came with falling for a pretty girl with a hidden agenda. All I had to do was get my answers and then I could move on.
"Josie? Is that short for Josephine?" Thea asked and Josie nodded after sending a short smile over to my brother.
"So you're the girl my brother keeps talking about in his sleep," Thea's words made me want to crawl into a hole from the embarrassment. Sleep talking as well as insomnia also plagued me at night and I had no idea my little sister could hear every word I said when in my short spouts of slumber. My brother pulled me out of my shame by pushing into her shoulder a bit, causing her to glare up at him. She'd probably heard me saying Josie's name in my sleep since her room was inconveniently placed between mine and Zach's. Normally she kept whatever she heard to herself, but it looked like Thea had other plans cooking up in that eccentric mind of hers.
"Excuse her. She's young and doesn't know how to mind her own business," I claimed through a gritted smile and Josie turned to look at me, my reaction capturing her attention.
"You're still dreaming about me?" Josie inquired, with a soft tone in her voice. She knew I talked in my sleep when I was stressed since we took naps together during those long days my mother worked at the sanctuary. I don't remember what had caused five year old me to stress out at the time, but apparently I'd done enough sleep talking for Josie to be curious about it. I opened my mouth to explain myself, but we were interrupted by Dad and the plates of cake he was carrying in his hand. Josie looked up at Dad briefly before refusing her plate and excused herself from the group, heading towards the door.
"What are ya'll three up to now?" Dad asked suspiciously and while Thea and Zach shrugged and took their plates of sheet cake, I followed Josie when I spotted her trying to leave and stepped in front of her.
"Let it go, Zander," Josie went straight to the point, warning me to steer clear of whatever it was she thought I was blindingly heading into. It was a trait of hers I always admired and had adapted into my own personality since we met. She'd always looked so free when the truth slipped from her lips. I wondered if freedom tasted the same now at sixteen as it did back when the world didn't feel so heavy.
"You didn't pull that trigger," I reminded her, taking a breath after her gaze met mine. Her dark hazel eyes were dripping with anger, but I wasn't sure if she was angry I knew it was her behind that ski-mask during the robbery, or if she knew I wouldn't fulfill her wish to let this slide. She stared up at me for a moment before she stepped closer, closing her eyes, reaching for my arms as she wrapped them around her and pulled me in.
I felt an overwhelming wash of relief crash over me and held her as tight as she would let me, reminding me of the last time I'd been this close to her, and the innocent kiss that had followed. We were five and had no idea what kissing meant, but we'd seen the other kids doing it and decided we should be each other's firsts. No one else knew but us, making it the first of many secrets we kept between us.
"Thanks," Josie mentioned and I raised an eyebrow as she raised the piece of jewelry she had dropped while fleeing the scene of the crime from my back pocket. I had only kept it with me to avoid anyone else finding out about it and I had no idea how she even knew I was carrying it with me tonight.
"How did you—" Her lips pressed into mine, forcing me to embrace the familiar feeling of her kiss and how my brain suddenly decided to shut down shortly after. I could feel her pulling away, and my fingers decided to dip into her soft hair, pulling her back to me. Our tongues swept and collided, igniting something I wasn't prepared for, a war I knew we'd both lose. Cursing, I pulled away from her and looked away when I saw the hurt in her eyes. Her shoulders squared and her chin slipped up sharply, a familiar gesture I recognized as Josephine Reyes getting ready to lock you out of her kingdom, leaving you to rot in the numbness of the cold once again.
"You owe me," was all she said, her gaze hardening before she climbed down the porch steps and forced me to watch her fleeing the battlefield our kiss just created.