“…but I thought she just wanted to open the fridge!” the guy with the red jacket says, prompting yet another round of laughter. It’s his turn in the game, but no one at the table really cares how long it’s taking.
Meanwhile, you’re sweating even though you don’t have to say anything yet.
I chuckle a bit later than everyone else as the shadow creeps behind me and places its hand on my shoulder. Its whisper remains audible despite all the noise in the room.
They’ll notice. Sooner or later, they can tell what you are.
My hand clasps the end of the table as if the stiff plastic would keep me safe. The laughter dies off but gets replaced with banter from other sections of the party. Red Jacket finishes the turn before getting up to grab his second beer from the kitchen. The round passes over to Yellow Shoes, who carefully avoids knocking over the empty can adjacent to her spot on the table. Her smile remains constant even though she doesn’t laugh as loud as the others.
She is much calmer during her turn but starts to eagerly look around to see how everyone reacts at the end of it. The owner of the game readjusts his thick glasses to ponder the move, and the senior student with painted nails leans over to stare intently before nodding in agreement and returning to her wine. In the end, Thick Glasses doesn’t comment but prepares for his turn next.
You’re after him. And you haven’t even looked at your cards.
Thick Glasses is about to speak but doesn’t get far. Red Jacket comes back and asks: “Is it me yet?”
The senior student rolls her eyes. “You weren’t gone that long.”
Yellow Shoes tries to push the empty can away from her spot and closer to Red Jacket as he is taking his seat, the chair’s legs dragging across the floor. He doesn’t notice, being too busy opening the next can and answering: “Time passes wild. When it’s fun, right?”
With a grin, the senior raises her wine glass. “Time doesn’t matter now. Praised be the weekend.”
I wonder if I should laugh but no one else does, so I just fake a smile and move on. Yellow Shoes makes a gesture of lifting a glass even though she doesn’t have a drink. I don’t either, which might be why she raises the imaginary wine towards me.
The shadow grips my shoulders a little tighter while I shift on my chair and open my mouth:
“Praised be… long walks to the fridge.”
Yellow Shoes smiles before looking down at her shoes. Both the senior student and Red Jacket accept my hideous joke with a quick nod. I survived. The shadow lets go, and my shoulders relax.
But I feel it slinking near me.
Thick Glasses clears his throat. “Back to the game, people.” It was his turn, so returning to the game mostly meant everyone else being quiet. Which is fine, if it distracts from what I said.
His turn is over before I know what to do. He turns to me.
As if you ever had time to prepare.
“I thought you played this before?” Thick Glasses asks me. Yellow Shoes is busy checking her cards. Everyone else must already know what they’ll do on their turn.
“I have, just need a sec…”
“It’s fine! We have time”, the senior says with a wave of her hand.
“Yeah, no rush”, Thick Glasses says, “It takes a moment to make a plan. Some of us are playing their turns a little too quickly…”
“Why were you looking at me when you said that?” Red Jacket immediately responds.
“Your turns take time, but I still don’t get what your plan is”, Thick Glasses says and folds his arms. I attempt to come up with some easy move while everyone else laughs. Red Jacket finishes his laugh by taking a sip from his beer. I’m not sure where exactly the strongest stench of alcohol is coming, so I just try to ignore it. It’s everywhere, anyway. A short silence gives me an opportunity to act.
“…I’ll just do this.”
“Yeah, that works”, Thick Glasses says, “Next up...”
We wait for a while as the senior student considers her play. She has more points than me, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be in last place. I lean towards Thick Glasses and say:
“I felt like it was the best move, so...”
“Yeah, it might be”, Thick Glasses says before turning away and smiling at the senior student, “Hey, I think you have enough to beat him now.”
Red Jacket tilts his head. “I know I lost, but you three have more practice at this than me”, he says with a wide sweep of his arm at everyone except Yellow Shoes, “Meanwhile, us poor rookies must make do with what little we have…”
“I don’t play that often...”
“You can’t give up yet, dude”, the senior student says to Red Jacket, who can’t contain his smirk despite being last. As they keep chatting, I shrink back in my seat and stop listening.
It doesn’t matter if you win or lose here. They’re still having fun despite that.
Thick Glasses leaves for the bathroom. The senior is taking her time with the turn, preferring to argue with Red Jacket instead. That leaves an awkward silence between Yellow Shoes and me. Some madness causes me to open my mouth again:
“You’re not drinking either?”
Yellow Shoes shakes her head and finally speaks, now that I’m the only one listening: “Nah, I don’t like the taste.” Her voice doesn’t hesitate. Just stating how it is for her.
“Oh... Me neither.”
“Yeah, I just like being in good company. That’s enough, y’know? That everyone enjoys their time”, Yellow Shoes says and shrugs. I slowly nod as I feel the shadow’s chill nearing.
You can’t do anything right. You have no excuse, because she has fun even without alcohol.
She notices me backing off and raises an eyebrow. I don’t know how to talk to anyone here.
“Sorry, I think I need a break. N-not my turn yet anyway.”
I struggle out of the chair and leave the table. “Okay...” Yellow Shoes says. The senior barely notices as she is frowning over her cards, but Red Jacket pauses and follows me with his eyes. The shadow stalks behind me.
I retreat to an empty corridor, away from the rest of the party. My hand moves to cover half of my face, I don’t really know why. The shadow stands on the other side, so that I can see it.
Idiot. Why did you come here? What did you think you could possibly accomplish? Their reality is diff-
I peek between my fingers to see Red Jacket.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he asks and shakes his head.
See? Now they know, now-
“Just stop that, I asked you a question.” Red Jacket steps forward.
“Yeah, you. How long were you planning on keeping that up? Telling what someone can or can’t accomplish? And what do you know about my reality?”
The shadow glares at Red Jacket before speaking again:
This isn’t about you, it’s about...
Red Jacket spreads his arms. “So, I’m supposed to just sit there and not do anything?”
Shut up! I wasn’t done talking...
“You should have been. Fuck, we never invited you here. Are you a student? I don’t think you are. So get lost!”
The shadow doesn’t respond. I finally realize I had been holding my breath like a frozen statue. A frightened decoration. I slowly lower my hand from my face and breathe.
“You okay?” Red Jacket asks and leans against the wall, shaking his beer can to see if there’s still any left. I’m not sure if that’s the first thing he’s said in this hallway. I take another deep breath before talking, a little louder this time:
“I don’t get parties.” I keep my voice clear. No one from the living room is going to hear us anyway.
“What’s there to get?” Red Jacket seems genuinely confused. Not just messing with me, like I might have assumed in a different situation.
“What I mean is”, I say, slower this time, “there’s no reason for me to be here. I might as well have stayed home.”
Of course, he of all people isn’t going to understand me. If only I had this talk with someone else. “Maybe you have a reason, but…”
I raise an eyebrow. “One…?”
Red Jacket smiles faintly and lowers his head. “Why do you think I’m here?”
“You like being around people? You like talking to others, you…”
“I make jokes so that I’d have something to say. Like, that’s all I do.” Red Jacket sighs and rests his head against the wall. “If I wasn’t here, I’d be home, drinking by myself. I don’t care or remember why they organized the party. I don’t care about the games, and I just pray that no one figures out how little I want to be here.”
“Well… okay, but…”
“And everyone else? That guy is only here because of his game. That’s the reason he showed up, that’s all he talks about.” Red Jacket discreetly points at Thick Glasses, who is returning to the table. “The seniors organized the party, but the one on our table is only here to drink. She’s okay at the game but she isn’t going to stay that way or really care, trust me.”
I don’t interrupt, since Red Jacket seems too caught up with his explanation.
“And that last girl…”
“The one with the yellow shoes?” I ask.
Red Jacket nods. “Got no clue why she’s here, but she doesn’t care about the game or drinks and she doesn’t really talk at all, so she probably doesn’t have any more reason to be here than we do.”
I look towards the living room, where we both hear the senior triumphantly announcing her move. “But she listens”, I say, “I think I have a little idea why she’s here.” Thick Glasses is calling out for everyone to return, including the senior who apparently left after her turn.
“Well yeah, do you need more than a little idea? To be here?” Red Jacket places his hands on his hips, and I struggle to find words to disagree with him.
“I guess that’s enough. Still…”
“You want to leave?”
“You read my mind.”
“No, I didn’t. I’m such a shitty mind reader that I had to ask.” He raises a finger at me. “No one is stopping you from leaving. But you’re not a mind reader either, are you? So why don’t you ever ask? Why do you just answer or repeat stuff for others?”
“What am I supposed to do?”
Red Jacket throws his hands up in the air. “I dunno! Why would I decide for you? Do anything. Find company you actually like. Do things that make you happy and also keep you happy. Play that game, since you’re better with the cards than me. Or make your own party, but with blackjack and…”
“Look, I get it”, I say and start walking out of the corridor, “I’ll think about it.”
I bump into Yellow Shoes at the corner. We both stumble backwards. “Are you leaving?” she asks and blinks, “I mean, fine, but it would be impolite without saying goodbye.” I guess our conversation hadn’t been as discreet as I hoped.
Red Jacket slides past us towards the kitchen and waves. “It’s also impolite to eavesdrop.”
“I was worried!” Yellow Shoes shouts at him, “And besides”, she turns back to me, “I was going to leave first, right after the game.”
Thick Glasses almost drops his cards. “We weren’t done yet! And the first place is still up for grabs. Or we can start a different game.” He’s the final player still at the table, because the senior was also getting a refill in the kitchen. She and Red Jacket didn’t seem too interested to re-join them.
“I did promise to try one game”, Yellow Shoes mutters, “and I’m not sure if that counted. But if we stayed, we would have to ask for fresh players?”
Other students were moving about. People I didn’t know. Couldn’t have known yet.
Out of all the banter from the small crowd of the party, I see Red Jacket staring at me from the kitchen. Waiting. The only shadow I’m casting is my own. So, I’m the only one to decide for it.