On a recent Friday night
"Touch that curtain and you're dead meat."
Ramón Montéz barely recognized the voice. But he'd heard those words before, and hearing them again now didn't add to his confidence or peace of mind.
Although he wasn't standing anywhere near a window this time, that didn't matter. He took a deep breath—perhaps it would be his last—and trembled as he turned to face the speaker.
But instead of seeing a ten-year-old girl with balled up fists and rage written in red all over her face, he looked into the smiling, mischievous face of a placid sixteen-year-old who seemed pleased to see him.
Very pleased, in fact.
Julianne Carlson. He wasn't surprised to see her, even though her greeting had caught him off guard. After all, he was at her house attending her party. But not by her invitation.
He hadn't seen her in six years. She'd changed so drastically that—except for those all-too-familiar words—he might not have recognized her so easily. But at least she'd spoken in fun this time.
The wild-eyed terror he'd felt at first relaxed into delight, and their uninhibited laughter drew stares from the dozen or so partygoers who stood around the family room admiring one another's costumes. Soon everyone was laughing.
Everyone but Monkeybreath, that is. He kept driving one fist into the palm of his other hand. "Ouch!" he yelped. Even his closest friends—he could count them on one finger of one hand if he exaggerated—suspected that he had more brawn than brain.
More fat, anyhow.
"I'm gonna get that Montéz if it's the last thing I do," he said more loudly than he needed to.
Even though Ramón would have heard Monkeybreath's threat if he'd been paying attention, he didn't because he wasn't. Julianne had his full attention.
She'd been terrific-looking at ten. That's when Ramón still pretended to hate girls. He might not consider her pretty now, but she was definitely cute. To a guy like him, cute was more appropriate than pretty. After all, he was nobody's prize catch.
Not according to Rita Friedel, who'd just tossed him back into the Pond of the Unloved and Unlovely that afternoon. She hadn't been the least gentle in yanking her hook out, and he didn't expect the scars to heal, much less disappear.
"No need to touch the curtains," he said to his grinning hostess. "No sun in my eyes. Maybe because it's nighttime now. . . ?"
"That's the only reason you wanted to close the curtains that day?" She couldn't have looked more shocked if the tentacles of his rubber octopus costume had reached out under their own power and tickled the tip of her nose.
"I tried telling you, Julianne. But you insisted there was more to it than that."
The sparkle he'd been enjoying at meeting Julianne again dimmed as he watched her face tighten. I should have said, "You thought," not "You insisted." No, better if I hadn't brought it up again. What's past is past. But it isn't, is it? Not as far as our fathers are concerned.
"I was wrong." She sighed and held her arms up in surrender. "I'm sorry. Please forgive me."
"I need your forgiveness, too."
She wrinkled her brow at his unexpected contrition. "For what?" She narrowed her eyes. "I'm the one who started it."
"I should've gone back to my seat. I didn't have to argue with you in the middle of the pastor's sermon."
She pecked him on his rubber cheek and smiled. "Forgiven."
At an age when everyone else wore contacts, she looked good in glasses. Ramón wore glasses, too. He hoped they didn't detract from his deep-blue eyes. Even Rita had said they were one of his nicer physical features.
"How did you recognize me, anyhow?" he said. "This disguise is pretty, uh, disgusting." He'd meant to leave it at that—that's what he should have done—but he still felt a tad nervous after the potential problem they'd just resolved peacefully.
So he kept on talking. "You wouldn't believe how this rubber stinks inside. This thing's really old. Nobody would manufacture something like this now. Do I look that much like an octopus in real life?"
"When Jason called to say he wasn't going to make it to the party," she said, politely ignoring his excess verbiage and treating the octopus question as rhetorical, "he told me he'd invited you in his place. The rest was process of elimination."
"He thought seeing other girls at your party might get me out of the dumps. Good multi-purpose word. Rita Friedel just dumped me."
"Rita Friedel? Her?" Julianne's shoulders jerked involuntarily. As if Ramón had handed her a slice of pizza topped with pigeon feathers.
So Rita isn't one of your friends. Thank goodness.
"Has the party helped?"
"Now that I've seen you again?" He paused and broke into a humongous smile. "Rita who? Yay! I've dumped the dumps."
Julianne winked and gave him a thumbs-up. "You don't go to Northern High, do you? I've never seen you there."
"Northern? No, Southern. Elementary, Middle, and High School. I started out at Central Elementary—"
"Back when we used to be good friends." Julianne's tone contained equal portions of wistfulness and hope.
Ramón nodded. "My folks transferred me," he said. Should he tell her why? Why not? It wasn't his fault. "Because you went to Central." She twisted her eyebrows. "They didn't want me to attend school with any of you Carlsons."
Although he tried laughing that tidbit of information off, he couldn't hide his irritation. And embarrassment. "Not sure what my mama and papa thought a big bruiser like you would do to me,"—he smirked—"but I didn't agree with their decision, and I sure didn't like it."
"That's funny." Her lips curled downward. "Not funny ha-ha, either. My parents took me out of Central, too, but they sent me in the opposite direction. They didn't want me near any of your family."
Ramón watched Julianne's hair—not strawberry blonde, but Ron Weasley red—as it danced on her shoulders each time she tossed her head. The red nose of her clown costume was a perfect match.
At least he thought it was. The problem was he was colorblind—he had such a severe red-green deficiency he'd almost failed to get a driver's license. But he felt confident that Julianne's hair was red, and—unlike clown hair—hers was real. Some girls hated red hair, he'd heard. He was glad she hadn't dyed it some other color. He liked it this way. She didn't look like every other girl he knew. In fact, she didn't look like any other girl he'd ever seen.
The longer they talked, the cuter Julianne got. His compulsion to play connect-the-dots on her freckled face grew so strong he laughed aloud. Although she appeared to be awaiting an explanation, he knew better than to reveal the truth before they became more solidly reacquainted. No need to blow a potentially good relationship over something so silly.
She was a whale of a lot more fun to be with than the last time they'd seen one another at close range. For sure. This time she didn't terrify him.
A gorilla-sized shadow fell unexpectedly across Ramón's face.
"Montéz, what are you doing here?" Monkeybreath said in the typical in-your-face-with-horrendous-breath way that had given him his nickname.
He could've starred in a remake of Beauty and the Beast. And definitely not as a male version of the Beauty. He was everything he'd been six years earlier—and more. At 230 pounds, most of it fat with just enough muscle to look scary, he projected an aura of unlimited meanness.
"This party's just for Julianne's friends." He moved close enough for Ramón to see his reflection in Monkeybreath's eyes. "Get out!"
Although Ramón wouldn't ordinarily take someone wearing a Fred Flintstone caveman costume seriously, he gasped loudly—like someone desperate for air. Before he could respond, Julianne came to his rescue.
"Ramón is my friend. I invited him, and he's staying. Behave yourself or I'll have him throw you out."
Ramón didn't need to glance at himself in the mirror over the entertainment center to remember he weighed 125, the most conspicuously absent part of which was muscle. Of course, he felt heavier when his clothes were soggy. Like now.
Threat of violence—sweat of terror.
Julianne had once made him react that way.
Ramón wasn't the only one evaluating his lack of potential as a party bouncer. Monkeybreath looked at him and laughed. Not once, but repeatedly. His laughs didn't sound human, and each one was louder and coarser than the previous one.
"That's how I keep him from causing trouble," Julianne whispered. "He can't walk and chew gum at the same time. Same thing with laughing and being mean."
"We can pick our friends, but not our families, huh?" Ramón whispered back. "I'm glad he's your cousin and not your brother." He remembered that Julianne was an only child.
He didn't have any siblings, either.
Mrs. Carlson emerged from the kitchen with a large tray of what appeared to be homemade pizza in each hand. After serving several of Julianne's other guests, she wandered over to her nephew.
"I hope you're having a good time, Moncrief."
So somebody still calls him by his right name, huh? I'll bet you're the only one, Mrs. Carlson.
She held out a tray, and—grabbing three slices as if they were the last ones on earth—he began stuffing them down his throat.
"You, too," she said to Ramón without smiling or offering him the tray. She stared at him with her nose slightly upturned. Like a woman who's just discovered the hard way that the fish she'd been planning to fix for supper has gone bad.
"Very nice party, thanks. I. . ." He stepped closer and reached for a slice, but Mrs. Carlson turned her back to speak to Julianne, leaving him grasping at air.
"Baby, don't you think it's time to mingle with your other guests now?"
Ramón wondered if Mrs. Carlson had recognized him. Maybe that's why she'd cut him off and treated him like he wasn't there. Or didn't deserve to be, anyhow.
He might as well leave if he couldn't keep talking to Julianne. None of the other girls at the party appealed to him now that he'd rediscovered her. Would she mind if he called her tomorrow?
"It'll be time to open your presents in a few minutes," her mother added.
No! A birthday party? I didn't bring anything. Now I know I'm leaving.
"I'm sorry, Ramón," Julianne said as she excused herself. "Gotta do what Mom says. Want to meet me at the mall food court tomorrow?"
Okay! "Noon all right?" he said.
She smiled and nodded.
"Sounds good," he said. "This has been a, uh, it's great to see you again." He gave her an awkward brotherly hug. "And happy birthday."
She smiled and patted him on the hand.
"Noon at the mall works for me, too, Montéz," Monkeybreath said to himself.