“What’d you say your name was again?” she asks, her words all running together.
When Joel emerges from his bedroom, I don’t bother answering her. He freezes in the hall, shirtless and barefoot with his mohawk soft and messy like he just woke up. His skin has lost some color, and his eyes are hangover-red. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
“He says he’s not coming,” Adam tells Shawn from behind Joel, but Joel never breaks eye contact with me.
“Why the fuck are you here?” he asks, his voice holding not one ounce of the boy who told me he loved me less than a week ago.
“To make sure you come home,” I answer sadly, but Joel just laughs and rakes both hands over his scalp.
“So let me get this straight,” he says, “you tell me to go home, but when I go home, I’m not allowed to fucking stay there? Where the fuck am I supposed to go, Dee?”
“This is her?” his mom growls from the couch. She finally manages to get the leg rest down, and she sits forward, pointing an unsteady finger at me. “You’ve got some nerve coming to my house.”
“I’m not leaving without Joel,” I state calmly, realizing I mean it. He doesn’t belong here, with this selfish woman who stole his childhood. He belongs with his friends, with people who love him.
His mom’s finger jams farther forward. “You’ll do what I tell you, you stupid little bitch!”
“Mom!” Joel barks, silencing us. Claws scratch into the carpet as the cat glued to my legs darts down the hallway and into Joel’s room.
Joel’s mom glares at him and then me. “You break my son’s heart and think you can just come in my house and take him away from me?”
I want to tell her that someone should have done that a long fucking time ago, when he was young enough for it to matter, but that’s between Joel and his mom, and it isn’t my place to say. I fist my hands at my sides and bite the inside of my cheek until I’m sure the words aren’t going to burst free the second I open my mouth. Then, with pleading eyes, I look at Joel and say, “Joel, please.”
He’s staring at me like he’s debating coming with me when his mom says, “She ain’t even that fuckin’ pretty.”
“Mom,” Joel warns, but Darlene isn’t done.
She locks eyes with me and snarls, “I used to be prettier ’n you.”
“And look at you now,” I counter, and a molten red flush erupts across her cheeks. She begins trying to stand, and if she were sober, I don’t doubt she’d be in the midst of yanking my hair out. Instead, the couch cushion gives under her palm and she struggles to find her footing.
“YOU THINK YOU’RE BETTER THAN ME?” she hollers while teetering dangerously to the side. “YOU AIN’T NOTHIN’ BUT A DUMB FUCKIN—”
“SIT THE FUCK DOWN!” Joel bellows, and his mom literally falls back into her seat. She gapes at him for a second before resuming that ugly mask of anger again. Shawn and Mike, who were moving closer to the couch to intervene on my behalf, just stand there frozen in time like they’re not sure what to do with themselves. Adam puts his hand on Joel’s shoulder, but Joel barely seems to notice.
“You’re going to take that slut’s side over mine?” Joel’s mom asks him.
“She’s not a slut,” he snaps back.
“She doesn’t care about you!”
Joel laughs, quietly at first and then louder. “There’s some money in my room,” he says. “Keep it. Pretend I’m still here for a while. We both know that’s the only fucking reason you’ve ever wanted me around.”
“How dare you talk to me like that in my own goddamn house!” his mom shouts.
“I PAID FOR THIS FUCKING HOUSE,” he thunders, “so yeah, I’m going to do whatever the fuck I damn well please!”
Joel and his mom stare each other down, and then she starts to cry and he rolls his eyes.
“I’m out of here,” he says, snatching a set of keys off the counter and practically steamrolling me out the door. The rest of the guys follow. I hear Joel’s mom yelling behind them, apologizing and begging him to stay, but he ignores her. With his hand on my back, he ushers me down the porch stairs, and then he pulls away like I’m carrying something contagious. He walks to his car, opens the door—
When he turns around, the world stops turning and I’m caught in one of those moments—the kind that have the power to change everything or nothing. A crossroad. A turn in the tide. A moment you can never come back from. “Why did you come here?”
I give him the simplest answer there is, the one that says just enough and not too much. “Because I wanted to make sure you went home with Adam.”
If there’s a right answer, I know the one I’m about to give isn’t it, and yet I give it anyway, because it feels like the safest. “You would’ve done the same for me. I owed you.”
“You owed me?”
When my response is to say nothing, his gaze lowers to the ground beneath his bare feet and he turns away from me. He climbs into his car, waits for Mike to climb into the passenger seat, and then they’re gone.
On shaking legs—still rushing with adrenaline from my near fight with Joel’s mom, and weakened from watching him drive away—I manage to get myself into Adam’s backseat, and he takes his sweet time lighting a cigarette before starting his black Camaro and heading toward home.