(This is the first of 10 preview chapters for Boys & Girls: Part I. You can see the rest of the chapters, as well as learn more about the book, on the official page).
July 19th, 2016
Kinsky, California, USA
The Birthday Party
It was the time of day when the sun cast its last golden hue before retiring to twilight. An old red pickup truck drove up and parked itself on the dirt road outside an old two-story home. A young girl came out from the driver’s seat. She wore a light summer shirt, loose but opaque. She had long blonde hair which she tied into a ponytail at the back of her head. She had on a pair of denim jeans, and a small wrapped box under her arm.
“Hey, Kat.” A boy on the porch greeted her. He was around her age. She smiled at him.
“Hey, Maurice. Trying to stay away from the crazies inside?”
Maurice shook his head. “Waiting on Emily. She should be here in a few minutes.” He picked up his phone from the metal porch table, its screen flashing for a few brief moments as he glanced at it and put it back down.
Kat nodded. “Who’s here already?”
“Just Rose, Aaron, and Sadja.”
She looked at him funny. “Cole and Lukas aren’t here yet?”
“Nah. They said they were planning something special. Whatever that means.”
She giggled, then went to open the porch door. “Whatever that means.”
In the dining room was a long wooden table with some other wrapped gifts, and a tray of frosted sugar cookies. The sign above the table read, in all caps, HAPPY BIRTHDAY MARIA, with an assortment of rainbow lettering.
Kat approached the sign and examined it for a few moments before she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around and saw a Japanese-American girl with shorter dark hair, wearing a spaghetti-strapped black shirt and a pair of jean short-shorts. Kat smiled at her as the new girl made a dramatic bow.
“May I take your baggage, madam?” She asked. Kat took the present from beneath her arm and gave it to the person in front of her.
“Where’s birthday girl?”
The girl pointed off to another room. “Over on the couch with Aaron and Sadja.”
When the girl spoke this line, there was a male voice coming from the other room that beckoned out. “Yo Kat, over here!”
The living room had a single long couch pointed towards a TV. The TV was muted, playing some football game. A speaker in the room played pop music at low volume. In the middle of the brown couch were three teens: an African-American boy named Aaron, an Iranian girl named Sadja, and in between them a Latino girl that Kat knew as Maria.
Kat sat in an armchair that faced the three teens. The Asian from before — Rose — came back in with four sugar cookies. She handed one to each of them.
“Thank you, lovely,” Aaron spoke as Rose handed him his cookie, kissing her on the cheek. Rose took the kiss and then sat beside him on the couch.
“So, we expecting a full house?” Kat asked the crew on the couch.
“For Maria? Of course we are!” Aaron spoke the words with confidence, but Maria herself came in to correct him.
“Almost. Ash had to cancel.”
Kat’s eyes widened in remembrance. “Shit, that’s right. She had her competition today.”
“She gave me my present in advance. I’ll take that as an apology.” Maria smiled as they heard the sound of the front door opening.
The group turned their heads, and saw Maurice with another girl. She had her hands in the pockets of her brown corduroy jacket. Under it, she wore a plain black shirt. Her hair was frizzy. She was dark-skinned, just like Maurice and Aaron. She had two gold earrings that shined in the light of the room. She smiled at the group. It was Emily.
Emily took the last available seat on the couch, next to Rose. Maurice stood near the door frame, by Kat’s armchair.
Kat looked up at him. “You wanna take this seat?”
He shook his head. “Nah, I’m good.”
“Alright, now it’s becoming a party.” Aaron spoke again, getting up from his seat. “When’s the pizza coming?”
Maria checked her phone. “Ten more minutes, probably.”
“Thank god, I’m starving!”
Rose looked at her boyfriend with suspicion. “You just ate like, three sugar cookies.”
Aaron continued to walk out of the room. “It’s my cheat day!”
“It’s always your cheat day!” Rose called out as he left.
The pizza arrived fifteen minutes later. Soon after came Rodrigo and Isaac.
Rodrigo was the first to come. A few minutes before he did, Sadja and Kat were on the porch. They held paper plates and took bites at the pizza resting on top of them.
“So, how are you and Isaac?” Sadja asked.
Kat shrugged. “Oh, we’re good.”
Sadja leaned her head in a bit, suspicious. “Wanna elaborate?”
The girl being interrogated looked off into the now pink sky. “Well, he’s been on that trip to Europe with his boy’s club most of the break. So it’s not like we’ve been seeing each other that often.”
Sadja shook her head. “Still can’t believe he did that.”
“Well, I mean, I was studying for the SAT that whole time. So it’s not like I would’ve been that fun to be around anyway.”
A car approached the now crowded path surrounding the house. Out from it came a Latino boy. He eyed the pizza in the girls’ hands.
“I take it I came at a good time?”
Sadja smirked at him, pointing her hand towards the house. “Pizza’s in the kitchen, Rod.”
He gave her a high-five as he walked past her and through the front door. After he was gone, Sadja continued.
“I don’t think he gives you the attention you need, Kat. That’s all.”
“Well I appreciate your input, but I’m a big girl. I can handle myself.”
Sadja sighed. “Well then, how’s apps?”
“Oh, you know. I don’t want to aim too high. Don’t want to disappoint myself.”
“I’m joking, I’m joking! I’m just… tryna be conscious of application fees and all that, you know.”
“What have you applied to so far?”
“Oh, the standards. North Cal. Simpson. Uh… Oregon.”
The last name piqued Sadja’s interest. “Oregon is not on the list of standards.”
“Really? I mean, it’s right across the border.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong! I think it’s a great fit for you, I’m just-”
A loud scream in the house. Sadja and Kat froze in place for a moment. After they heard crying they put both of their pizzas on the porch chair and rushed back in to see what the commotion was about.
There was a girl, in the center of them all. But she wasn’t like the others.
She was a child, not much older than seven. Her hair was short and black and she had the same Hispanic skin that Maria had. The same eyes, too. Light olive eyes. She looked up at the two teens as they walked in. Pearls of tears watered her cheeks.
“Aaron, what the hell did you do?” Rose asked as she looked up from the child and towards him. Aaron brought his hands up defensively.
“I-I don’t know! I just, I must’ve… moved her toys away, while she was still playing. I didn’t mean anything!”
The other teens stood still, except one: Maria, who walked through the crowded room and kneeled down in front of the child, stroking through the child’s short hair.
“It’s okay, Anita.” Maria spoke softly. “He didn’t mean it. He didn’t know you were playing.”
Anita looked at her sister. She sniffled a few times. Maria wiped the tears that rolled down the child’s eyes. The little girl looked at Kat, then at Aaron, and ran off back up the stairs.
The group watched as the girl went back into her upstairs. Emily sighed, and shook her head.
Maria turned to Aaron. “I’m sorry, I told her to stay upstairs.”
“No, no it’s fine. It was my fault. I’m the asshole this time, I guess.”
As the group dispersed yet again, the door opened behind Kat. She turned around.
There was a new boy, much taller than the rest. He had short black hair that was trimmed down the sides. He wore a plain white t-shirt with a belted pair of jeans.
“Hey.” Kat whispered as he came close.
“Hey,” he answered back. He kissed her on the forehead and then walked into the house. He turned towards Sadja, pointing to the dinner table. “Presents here?”
The pizza was finished and night had begun. Rose went around and turned on some more lights. Most of the group was now in the living room, with some overflow in the dining area.
“So, where’s your mom, anyway?” Rodrigo asked as he put his phone back down onto the coffee table in front of the couch.
“At work, on late shift.” Maria was on the couch between Kat and Aaron.
“Jeez, must suck having her miss this.”
“Oh, I mean… we’re celebrating as a family tomorrow. But yeah. Woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do.”
“Speaking of missing…” Rose came back to the group after lighting up the room. “We’re an hour in, and Lukas and Cole still aren’t here. What gives?”
“I texted them a couple of minutes ago. Lukas says they’re on their way here.” Kat responded, leaning on Isaac’s shoulder. Isaac had an arm wrapped around her, and her legs were up on the couch.
“Pretty uncharacteristic of them to be this late.”
Kat shrugged, then turned towards Maria. “What do you wanna do?”
Maria looked down at the coffee table. Her thumbs rubbed against each other in her lap. “I mean, I don’t know. If they’re coming in a few minutes, I guess we might as well start the cake now.”
Aaron sighed. “They’re missing all the food. That’s the best part.”
Kat looked at him. “I thought the friends were the best part.”
“That’s a close second.”
The group got up and met the others in the dining area. As Rose got the cake out from the fridge, Maria looked around at who was present.
“Hey Kat,” she said as Kat came close. “Can you go find Sadja and tell her that the cake is ready?”
Kat nodded. “Sure thing.”
Kat opened the door to the porch, only to find no sign of Sadja. No sign of Cole or Lukas, either. She moved her way to the back door, to the small yard the house had. There was a cheap plastic slide, some outdoor toys thrown about, and a dog house that hadn’t been used in many years. No Sadja.
As the others began to sit down at the dining table and Rose placed the candles into the cake, Kat walked past them and up the stairs. She was about to knock on the bathroom door when she saw a sliver of light and some inaudible whispers coming from the room opposite. Anita’s room.
She opened the door a tad. Anita was standing there, looking at Sadja. Sadja looked back, kneeling down in front of the girl, holding the child’s arm and rubbing her hand. When they heard Kat come in, both of them looked up.
“Hey, Sadja… cake is ready.”
Sadja smiled, and got up. Kat turned toward the little girl.
“You can come too, Anita.”
Anita looked down at her feet. Her eyes were solemn. “Um,” her little voice whispered, just loud enough to be audible. “Is he here?”
Katie looked confused. “Is who here?”
The conversation never continued beyond that. Just then, the two teen girls on the second floor heard the front door open one last time. A symphony of happy cheers and chuckles could be heard downstairs.
Katie left the room, and looked down to the bottom floor. There, in the door frame, were the two people she knew better than anyone else: Cole Mulaney and Lukas Schrodden.
Cole had short black hair, which in the shimmer of light almost appeared to be a navy blue. The hair was styled to be an organized mess. He sat on an extra chair leaning against the dining room wall. He wore a gray shirt with the words KINSKY HIGH in blue with a white eagle logo below it. He crossed his legs and sat listening to the conversation of the others, his head resting on top of his arms.
Lukas stood behind the birthday girl, watching as Rose brought the lit-up cake to her. He had blonde, wavy hair. He was more on the slim side — in comparisonr to Maurice and Isaac, who were well-muscled — and wore a white t-shirt with a fashion logo of some kind.
“So, are we singing?” Rose asked as she sat down the cake.
“No, no, no. We are absolutely not singing.” Maria waved her hands around in defiance.
“You gotta at least make a wish,” Cole called out from the side.
She thought for a moment, then smiled and shrugged. “That I could do.”
“Just be careful, it might come true,” Isaac spoke from the other end of the table. It elicited a couple of laughs.
Maria closed her eyes, took a deep breath in, and began thinking. The lights of the birthday flames danced across her face. Lukas and Rose leaned in, entranced by the lights themselves. The others, both at and away from the table, watched on in anticipation.
Finally, Maria opened her eyes again. She took another deep breath, and blew out the candles. The room turned dark.
Kat barely took a bite of her cake before Lukas patted her on the back.
“Hey, Kat, can you check something out for a sec? I need your opinion.”
Kat put the cake down on the drawer next to her, and followed Lukas into the backyard. As he unlocked the fence gate, Kat took a good look at him.
“Does this have something to do with the ‘special’ thing you had planned?”
Lukas smiled. “Ah, so Rose told you.”
“Maurice, actually.” Lukas began opening the gate as Kat spoke. “I just hope it’s something good enough to justify you guys missing most of the- oh, holy shit!”
Out on the dirt road behind the house was a green car. It was old, and perhaps in a bit of disrepair, but it was a car in full form. Cole was out standing beside it; when the two walked closer, he brought his arms up and looked at Kat.
“Eh? Ehhhh?” he said, expecting her reaction.
“How… how much did you guys pay for this?” As Kat got closer, Lukas moved towards the back of the car, inspecting some parts behind one of the tires. Cole replaced him, standing next to Kat and basking in the full extent of the vehicle.
“Well, here’s the part you can’t tell Maria. We, uh… got it used, down in Montgomery. We split, and each paid…” Cole looked toward Lukas. “Two-fifty?” Lukas nodded. “Two-fifty. So five hundred total.”
Kat’s face morphed into one of concern. “Does… does it work?”
“Well, we… uhh…” Cole looked at Kat, then looked at the car, then looked back at Kat again. “We drove it here, at least.”
“It was a fixer-upper, but it should work now,” Lukas called out as he continued to walk around the car, inspecting it. “We’ve been working on it all week. It’s the main reason we were an hour late.”
“You know, we figure… having to borrow someone else’s car, or take the bus, this far out from everyone else… it’s gotta suck.” Cole scratched the back of his head. Kat stared at the car for a little bit longer. The summer wind blew her bangs into her eyes, and when she wiped them away she had a smile now, brighter than any one she had earlier in the day.
“I think she’ll love it.”
The group gathered out in the back. Cole sat cross-legged on the car’s hood while Kat brought out Maria, covering the girl’s eyes with her hands.
“Alright, we’re here,” Kat whispered. She removed her hands from Maria’s eyes. Maria took a few seconds to blink. And then her eyes widened.
“Oh… guys… Oh my god…”
Cole got up from the hood, and both he and Lukas brought their arms up for a high-five with Maria. But she dodged their arms, and instead wrapped hers around the two in a tight hug.
“Thank you, both of you… so much.”
Rose gave a little cheer, which caused a cascade of clapping from the others. As the small lamp posts among the fence lit up the occasion, Katie stood by the gate, hands on her hips, watching the three.
Cole was standing by the living room door frame, eating his cake, watching a few of his friends play a board game. Out from the corner of the couch, he saw Anita play with a little doll, shimmying it along one of the windows. When it hit the other side, she turned around and caught a look at Cole. Cole smiled at her. Anita looked down and walked briskly back behind the couch.
“She’s shy today,” a voice behind Cole said. It was Maria, who had a plastic cup of soda in her hand. She leaned against the other side of the door frame, leaving just enough room for people to pass through.
“Yeah, of course.” Cole took a fork to his cake slice. “If I was a kid and all these people were here, I’d be a little freaked out too.”
Cole took a bite of the cake. Maria looked down and rubbed her foot into the carpet.
“Hey, Cole… thanks.”
“Oh, I-” The statement caught him off guard, and he coughed a bit as the cake went down. “Well, it was mostly Lukas. He found the Craigslist ad, and he told me about it, and I just gave him some mon-”
“No. I mean, for everything.”
Cole looked up from his plate. His glance met Maria’s. In the light he could see her green irises glistening, shining off the lens of her eyes. She continued.
“Helping us, while mom was gone. It… wasn’t easy getting used to the new schedule. You, Rose, Sadja, Lorenzo — I don’t know what I would have done without you guys.”
“Oh. Yeah, of course.” Cole looked back down to his plate, and cut out another piece. “How’s Mama Cortez been doing, anyway?”
“She’s been well. Despite everything, of course. She’s gotten used to the changes now, I think.”
Cole smiled. “I’m glad. Hopefully things eventually come back to normal.”
“Well, once I move out — for college and all that — it’ll just be her and Anita, and maybe that will make things a little bit more manageable.”
“I still can’t believe he up and left like he did.”
Maria waved her hand. “I don’t want to linger on that.”
“Don’t worry about it. I just want you to know… you’re welcome here.”
The conversation between the two slowed down after that. Their eyes turned towards the friends playing at the table, and they watched in silence until it was their turn to join in.
It was now 9 pm, and the party was over. Kat walked down the front steps, her arm around Isaac’s, when the two were stopped by Cole.
“Uhh, hey, Kat?”
Kat turned around and saw the black-haired boy with Lukas coming down the steps behind him. “What’s up?”
“So, uh, minor lapse in judgment…” Cole pointed over beyond the Cortez House. “Lukas and I drove together in the car, that we now… gave to Maria. So we need a ride outta here.”
Kat briefly let go of her boyfriend’s arm to approach Cole. “That’s no prob. I can drive you two back in the pickup. One of you will have to be in the bed, though.”
As Kat got close, Cole took a hand and pulled her aside. He leaned over to her ear, and whispered.
“Or, we can take the pickup and you can go home with that man of yours.”
Kat looked over and smiled at Isaac. Isaac, hands crossed, smiled back. Kat leaned into Cole’s ear.
“Just don’t break anything, alright?”
“Please. We’re car lovers, not car breakers.”
Kat broke away from Cole, giggling. “God, you’re so dumb.”
Cole began to walk backwards towards the old red pickup truck. He stuck out his hand, and gave an exaggerated wave towards Kat. “Have fun!”
But there was one detail neither realized. When Lukas began following Cole to the truck, he saw the two lovers head together in the other direction. Isaac put a hand around Kat’s shoulder. Kat laughed. There was something to the occasion that dropped his heart, something that made him feel sick, even though he didn’t show it. He watched the two from a distance as they entered Isaac’s car.
Isaac’s blue sedan drove across the dirt roads, away from the house and back into town. The light bumps and sounds of the road calmed Kat. Relaxed, she put her head on Isaac’s shoulder. The feeling and smell of his shirt, the light up-and-down of the vehicle, made her feel safe. Her eyelids slowly closed, and she eventually drifted off to sleep.