I flop back on the grass, already wet with dew this early in the pre-dawn night, and look up at the sky. “There’re stars,” I whisper to my ride-or-die, Cotton. Turning my head, I see her pale platinum hair gleaming like a straight satin ribbon in the moonlight. Pretty. I laugh silently to myself, thinking if her mother had known that she would have hair as pale and white as cotton, she never would have named her Emery. Her nickname suits her much better. With a giggle, I reach out to touch her hair and end up hugging her.
“Girl, you’re plastered,” she says, shoving me away.
“Am not! Never been drunk… day in my life.” I hold up a finger in front of me in an I’ll-have-you-know gesture. I’m mostly teasing. I’ve got a good buzz on, and it would be a simple matter to lay right back on this manicured lawn and sleep it off, but I’m not drunk. “Shiloh Brookings does not do drunk.” I side-eye Cotton. “Disorderly, maybe. Drunk would be unseemly.”
“Unseemly.” Cotton snorts out a laugh. “That’s us, babe. Those unseemly girls…” She glances behind us as the glass sliding doors open and noise from the party spills out. We came out to the backyard for the cool fall breeze and respite from the crush of bodies and pounding bass, so it’s with reserve that I turn when she says, “Oh, lookie. Company. Hey, boys.” Cotton’s greeting holds none of my restraint. She’s always been the extrovert to my introvert, the bright butterfly to my moth.
It’s part of the reason we meshed so well when I moved here several years ago. I was a hormonal thirteen-year-old, hurting and angry at my father and uncertain about a mother and a younger brother I hadn’t seen since I was little. I didn’t know how to make friends and hadn’t wanted to put myself out there, as my mom kept urging me to do.
Fortunately for me, Cotton didn’t need me to put myself out there. She just needed someone to pay attention to her. Her own parents were “country club” people, as she called it. Concerned with looks and status, they didn’t pay much attention to Cotton beyond making sure she dressed appropriately and was in attendance at events that mattered.
Cotton just needed a friend.
“What the hell are y’all sitting out here for? Party’s in there and your asses are getting wet!” Shane, a football player who’s been getting on my last nerve for a while, grabs me under the arms and hauls me up to my feet. “Here, let me help you with that, babe.” He brushes at my ass, his hands lingering too long for my comfort.
“Stop it, Shane!” I am so over his grabby hands. Every time I turn around, he’s lurking by my locker to beg for a date—just one, Shiloh, that’s all I need—and making me late to class. Most recently he had come straight from a supply closet hook-up with Krystal, our head cheerleader and resident mean girl. I guess he didn’t realize people told me stuff. It was getting ridiculous. It was obvious I was no more than a challenge he needed to overcome.
“Not until y’all do truth or dare with us. Come on, let’s party.”
“Y’all are obnoxious. And I love you for it. Come on, Shiloh.” Cotton loops her arm around my neck and starts pulling me inside. “You know I can’t turn down truth or dare.”
I roll my eyes and allow Cotton to lead me inside. We are out in the boonies at some freshman kid’s house—or maybe he’s an eighth grader? I don’t know. Our school has eighth grade to twelfth, and it’s hard to tell these days. They all look the same.
It’s unofficial tradition every year for the JV and varsity football teams to combine resources and host a party once school gets underway—a semi-sanctioned way to kick off and hype up the season. All the parents know it’s happening, since they also participated when they were kids, but they take a step back and pretend to turn a blind eye. In exchange, the kids keep the wildness to a minimum. It’s one of the few times you’ll see the entire football and cheerleading teams hanging out together, regardless of age, and while some things are more youthful, it’s still a fun time.
Regardless of his class status, the kid’s house has a sweet set-up on the bottom level. As we walk past them, I can see friends hanging out in the multiple rooms, playing at the billiards and game tables, making out in the darkened indoor movie theater, and drinking at the wet bar. While we rarely mix with underclassmen at all, this kid is loaded enough that most uppers will excuse the fact that he’s a freshman. Plus, his parents own a vineyard or something, so there’s always high dollar booze along with the keg. He’s a friend of Sammy’s, so I know my little brother-slash-dumbass must be floating around here somewhere, too. He’s been good at avoiding me so far, but it still makes partying a little awkward. Mom will flay me alive if he gets wasted.
The upperclassmen have taken over a few of the lower level rec rooms, while faint shrieks from the underclassmen filter in from other spaces. Now and then a bold one tries to infiltrate the upperclassmen groups scattered around and is sent scurrying back by a harsh word from Shane or Krystal or another senior. The entire thing is giving me a headache and I look for Sammy as I move down the hall and into a room, wondering if he’s ready to leave.
Like background music to my thoughts, I hear cheers and see Krystal grinding on Shane’s lap reverse cowgirl style as I settle myself on the floor beside Cotton. Krystal’s eyes lock on me in challenge, and while her moves are faintly ridiculous, Shane looks like he is having a delightful time.
I train my eyes somewhere else, not interested in any kind of competition with her. I don’t know how to make it any clearer that I’m not interested in Shane. I know his type. I’ve seen it a hundred times helping Mom on her investigations. Shane’s a typical cocky guy, full of himself and his looks, and acting as though the world owes him something for the honor of his presence. In this case, he seems to think that thing owed is me. He forgets that I’ve seen his parade of girls, though, in the past four years we’ve been in school together. I’m more than the next notch for any guy. More than a trophy. Not. Interested. Thank you, next.
“Shiloh?” A hand waving in front of my face pulls me out of my reverie. “Hello? Earth to Shiloh?” It’s Krystal.
“It’s your turn. Truth or dare.” I realize the game has been playing out around me while I’ve been out of it. I guess the lap dance was Krystal’s dare.
“Oh. Um.” Inwardly, I cringe at the idea of giving these guys any piece of myself, any truth to hold or dispense as they choose. “Dare, I guess.” Cheers rise and guys start adjusting themselves as if to prepare for something naughty. Such one-track minds. I look at Cotton and roll my eyes. Krystal’s face takes on a calculating air as she considers her play and as if on cue, shrieks come from the adjoining room. The underclassmen sound like they are having fun, at least. I steel myself for something humiliating, wiping all expression from my face. Krystal wants Shane and Shane wants me. It’s the way things have been since day one. Krystal will wish to lay me low, and I can’t believe I even came back inside for this fresh hell.
“Just a minute…” She surprises us all when she rises from where she is sitting and hurries out of the room. I shrug in response to Cotton’s questioning look, and we’re all quiet until her return a few minutes later. I decide I don’t care much for the smug expression on her face. “Okay, I’ve got it. Best dare ever,” she says, a glint of triumph in her eyes. “Shiloh, I dare you to go in there and be the next seven minutes in heaven kiss-ee for the freshmen!”
For a moment there is dead silence. Then laughter bursts out. Shane is rolling on the floor, his minions are laughing, and even I am cackling. “You want me to do what?” I gestured toward the door. “Go kiss a freshman for… seven whole minutes?”
Krystal nods. “Yup.”
“Oh, God.” My appalled laughter fades into weaker chuckles and I wipe my eyes. “I’m going to feel like a… a… fucking cougar!” I have to admit; it’s a genius dare. If I take it, there’s a high probability I lose any cool cred I’ve garnered as a somewhat popular senior. I’ll henceforth be known as that senior chick that macked on a kid. If I don’t take it, I’ll be known as a coward.
Shane chortles. “She’s going to give some kid the time of his life. He’ll probably come all over himself from a kiss!”
I give him a dirty look. “Nice, Shane. You kiss your mama with that mouth?”
“Maybe I can join the fun—” He rises to his feet and Krystal yanks him firmly back down by his belt loop.
“Nope. Not part of my dare. This is all Shiloh.” Her eyes challenge me. “You in or out?”
Cotton snorts as I consider. “Just think of it this way… You’ll be giving some kid the best first kiss of his life. He’ll remember you forever.”
I shake my head and prepare for humiliation. “Krystal, I cannot even believe you. Some of these kids aren’t even freshmen. They’re fucking eighth graders. This is so gross.” I slide off my chair and prepare for this indignity, jerking my top down over the waist of my jeans.
“Get in there, cougar.” Shane gives me a small shove, and I head for the door.
“You suck.” I shake my head. Why do I have the feeling I’m going to regret this?
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