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Collide by J. R. Lenk - Romance>ContemporaryBeing bisexual is cool now—unless you’re a boy. Or so it seems to invisible fifteen-year-old Hazard James. But when he falls in with bad apple Jesse Wesley, Hazard is suddenly shoved into the spotlight. Jesse and his friends introduce him to the underworld of teenage life: house parties, hangovers, the advantages of empty homes, and reputation by association. So what if his old friends don’t get it? So what if some people love to hate him? Screw gossip and high school’s secret rules. There’s just something about walking into a room and having all eyes on him when just last year nobody noticed him at all.
For a while Hazard basks in the attention, and before he realizes the depth of the waters he’s wading, he and Jesse strike up a “friends with benefits” routine. It could be something more, but what self-respecting teenage boy would admit it? Not Jesse—and so not Hazard, either. Not until it’s too late. Hazard and Jesse have collided, and Hazard’s life will never be the same.
Reader Rating: 5.0 (1 Ratings)
One moment, he was dreaming about being at a Nirvana concert (which would never happen because it was 2004, after all), and the next, he was curled up in bed with his eyes wide open, looking at the digital clock by his bed and realizing that he’d hit the snooze button exactly four times already. He didn’t usually do that. He had a good habit of getting up on time. But that explained the dream about Nirvana, seeing as his alarm was set to FM and they were playing “About a Girl.”
Hazard didn’t scramble out of bed, but he hurried. He hated being late.
“I was wondering when you were going to get up,” his mom said when he scampered into the kitchen for cereal, which he ate out of a coffee mug instead of a bowl. He’d picked up that habit from Emery.
His dad was gone, off to work already. His mom leaned against the counter, polishing the earrings she was going to wear for the day. She was already dressed, sterile blue polo and white capris. She pursed her mouth to the side in thought as she studied Hazard through her lashes, adding, “You have to be at school in, what, forty minutes?”
“Thirty-five,” Hazard corrected with a sigh, adding sugar to his Cheerios. “But Emery and Russell should be here any minute to pick me up.”
Letting his radio play, he made his bed before his mom could mention it and dug around for some clothes. He changed his shirt three times before finally deciding on one to wear, washed his face to wake himself up a little more, brushed his teeth, then tried to fix his unruly cowlicks. His hair never wanted to lie down the way he wanted it to. It was always a dark tousled mess that just crowded in on his face.
He watched the morning news with his mom as he put on his shoes, both leaning against the counter on opposite sides of the kitchen. Everything he needed for the day was neatly organized in his backpack; he checked twice. Finished homework, textbooks, binder, notebooks. He ignored the notes of scorn in his mother’s morning conversation, and he glanced out the front window repeatedly to make sure his ride to school wasn’t there yet. God, he hated feeling rushed.
“Be good” was what his mom said when Emery and Russell showed up, instead of “I love you, have a good day.” Hazard didn’t take it to heart. It wasn’t like he was a bad kid or anything.
“Hey, did you get your history homework done?” Emery asked as Hazard struggled to put his coat on and get into the car at the same time while Russell idled at the curb. Russell was old enough to drive. Emery was old enough to forever claim shotgun.
“Thankfully,” Hazard grumbled, hurrying to buckle up as Russell pulled away from the edge of the driveway. “Do you need it?”
Emery wilted with a guilty smile around his simple breakfast of a cereal straw. He ran a hand through his mess of hair and nodded. “Yes.”
Hazard handed his backpack up to the front seat so Emery could copy his history homework on their way to Bethany High. They had the same history teacher, anyway, just different periods.
“Thank you, I owe you—” Emery cried, and above the rustle of papers and zippers, Russell made a sound of distaste at the whole thing. Hazard didn’t care.
Hazard leaned back, looking out the car window as Russell drove and Emery copied his homework answers, at the same time regaling them with the witty remark he’d made to his stepdad, Andrew, the night before, something about going and watching The Godfather for the millionth time instead of wasting his breath trying to get Emery on the wrestling team. That was funny, because Andrew was totally New York loud, and his nagging was annoying. Hazard had never liked Andrew, anyway.
The morning was cool and pale and a little foggy, as it usually was in a winter by Puget Sound, the neighborhood and city quiet. The world was still waking up. “Longview” buzzed from the car stereo and Hazard sighed, realizing he’d forgotten to stop his alarm while he got dressed. He slumped down and rubbed the last of sleep from his eyes. His mom would probably say something about it later, like she’d had a headache all day from the racket or something.
It felt like it was going to be a long day.
IT DIDN’T really start that winter, but it was safe to say that December was the crux. It was the turning point of it all.
THERE was nothing really special about Hazard Oscar James.
In December of his freshman year, he was fourteen years old. He was an only child born at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle after two miscarriages, and he’d lived in the same house on the same street in Bethany, Washington, for his whole life. That winter, Hazard didn’t drink yet, he’d never gotten high (except for maybe a contact buzz), he’d never been to a party, and his best friend was Emery Benjamin Moore. Sometimes he felt like Emery was all he had.
Hazard’s family was the perfect family, except nobody was ever home. His dad was the head of an advertising company in Seattle, so he spent a lot of time working and commuting. His mom didn’t have to work, but if she did, she wouldn’t have liked it. She liked cleaning the house and getting her nails done, and watching Entertainment Tonight and talking politics with her friends, who’d all married businessmen and preferred the pampered life too. The house was always spotless and Hazard had grown accustomed to the scents of air freshener and cleaning products. Everything had to be in order, everything had to be neat, and everything had to be in the best working condition.
Hazard was smaller than he thought was very good for his reputation, five foot two and just under 125 pounds. He had thick, messy dark-brown hair that was always in his eyes, which were blue and big in a pale, kind of petite face. He thought it made him look a little too girly, which wasn’t cool because his name already made him different enough.
He wasn’t very good at science. He had to pay a lot of attention in history, although he liked it, but his favorite classes were art and English. Admittedly, he was kind of quiet and kind of moody, and maybe a little anxious sometimes. He liked alternative rock (his favorite songs then were “All That I’ve Got” by The Used and “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana), Vanilla Coke, and Chuck Taylors, and his jeans were always too loose on him. He wasn’t super cool, but he wasn’t a loser either. Nobody even recognized him as a skater, even though he’d hung out with them the past year and a half. Sometimes people in class stared at him, but otherwise he was just kind of there and nobody noticed—except for Emery, of course, and Emery was the sort of best friend you could call your brother.
Emery wore shirts from the kids’ section of Target. His mom raised him on Jewel and Tom Petty. He wore surfer necklaces and hemp and sported bumps and scrapes from friendly scraps with pals. He had a collection of Converse in every color and design he could find. He was honest, funny, and had a hot temper, and nobody could resist his roguish smile, so older kids at school treated him like a well-loved little brother, which made him just a stone’s throw from being relatively popular. He drew on his hands in ballpoint pen when he was bored in class, and he’d just turned fifteen, but from some angles he still looked like he was twelve.
Emery and Hazard liked to go to the bookstore to sit around and read. They liked to stop in the stores in the mall where the massage chairs were set up to try, so they could drink slushies and get back massages and snicker together while they people watched. They liked to shoot basketball in Emery’s driveway and play video games until late at night, and when they were younger they’d thought Jesse Camp was ridiculous in a good way.
Hazard had met Emery in second grade. He knew Emery like the back of his hand—how he liked horror movies and Swedish Fish, how he knew just how to sneak out of his bedroom window, how he’d broken his wrist in fourth grade, how he hated his stepdad, Andrew, and especially how Emery idolized Russell Leroy, whom he’d known since kindergarten. If Emery wasn’t hanging out with Hazard, he and Russell were practically a boxed set, and everyone knew that if you wanted to get on Russell’s good side, you had to go through Emery because Russell only ever listened to him.
“Russell is so cool,” Emery said a lot. He’d always thought that, even when they’d been in grade school and they’d all made blanket forts in his living room to watch scary movies. Russell never jumped at scary movies. Hazard always jumped.
Russell was a year older than them. Hazard didn’t really like him, mostly because Russell was kind of aloof and he’d known Emery longer than Hazard had. He’d been Emery’s friend forever, and Emery thought Russell was even greater now that they were in high school. Russell was suave and cool. He was good at sports, he was good at guitar, he was good at French (only because his grandparents were from Canada) and probably just about everything else that mattered. He had blond hair somewhere between surfer and rocker, electrifying blue eyes, quiet commanding stares, and an apathy that for some reason drew everyone in. He wore thermals under all his T-shirts and yellow shoelaces with smiley faces on them, and all the girls liked him, but he didn’t care.
Hazard hated Russell.
But that was when Jesse Wesley showed up, after all, with his red leather and cigarettes—that December.
THE noise in the cafeteria of Bethany High was a roar, too many restless students ignoring the way eating teachers glared at them. Outside the wide windows and glass doors, the sky was cold and gray, pale sunlight filtering through during a lull in the Washington rain. At the lunch table, Emery’s face was pinched in frustration, and he grumbled, “I can’t learn anything in math class because my teacher has this dumb lisp.”
“What do you mean?” Hazard asked.
“Instead of saying ‘slope’, she says ‘schlope’, and I can’t concentrate because I’m constantly trying to figure out what she just said.”
“So ask someone if you can copy their homework questions.”
“Ha, ha, you’re hilarious,” Emery huffed, referring to all the homework he’d copied from Hazard. “Do you have Mr. Rippe for math?”
“No. Sorry. But I heard he’s open to tutoring through lunch.”
“Did you know Mrs. Whitehead charges you for tutoring?”
“That’s stupid. No, Mr. Rippe is cool.”
Emery looked up hopefully as Russell sank down beside him with a tray of food, having finally escaped the slow-moving lunch line and the group of girls in it who insisted on talking to him. Russell glanced over skeptically, like he was suspicious of Emery’s imploring stare.
“Would you help me with geometry?” Emery pleaded.
Russell sighed, pushing white-blond hair out of his eyes. He opened his chocolate milk and took a long drink. “Yeah, sure,” he finally said after subjecting them to his usual nonchalance. “Get out your homework.”
“Maybe you should worry about this before lunch, seeing as you have math next.”
“Leave me alone, Russell.”
“I can’t. I have to help you with geometry.”
Hazard ate, watching as Russell tried to explain to Emery how slopes and their formulas worked. Grunting something about how math sucked, Russell’s friend Clay plopped down beside them, followed by Becca and Cody. Hazard didn’t know why, but watching them kind of made him mad. He thought slopes were incredibly easy. He wasn’t going to tell Emery that, though.
The table filled up with more students, some kids Hazard knew from Biology and English. He greeted them, then ate in silence, offering Emery his last tater tots, although Emery was concentrating very hard and had barely touched his own.
Hazard passed the skaters’ corner of the cafeteria on his way to toss his trash and return his lunch tray. Some kids sat near the vending machines and on the steps down toward the hall, eating their lunch there with trays resting on their backpacks or skateboards, which would probably be confiscated soon judging by the way Ms. Cavanaugh was eyeing them unsympathetically from the teachers’ tables.
Hazard paused by the table nearest to the stairs to say hi to his friends Tom and Peyton and Olivia. In eighth grade, he’d fit in perfectly with them at the lunch table with the rest of the skaters and underachievers, but not so much anymore. That was okay.
“Tommy,” Hazard said, leaning down next to him, “I can smell your gum all the way over there.”
“Shut up,” Tom snorted with a grin, elbowing Hazard away. “I can chew gum all I want. It’s lunch.”
“Ms. Cavanaugh’s coming,” Olivia reported, playfully acting inconspicuous. But Ms. Cavanaugh didn’t come toward them; she went to the kids at the stairs and asked them to put their skateboards in their lockers or in the office until classes were over, and Tom patted Hazard on the shoulder as Hazard hurried off to the trash cans with his tray.
Closer to the big windows of the cafeteria, where the rain was starting again, he could see Russell and Emery and Clay still hunched over Emery’s math notebook. Clay seemed a little amused. Russell looked tetchy, hand buried in his hair, while the expression on Emery’s face read frustrated impatience, and Hazard didn’t really pay attention to the guy who’d come up to the trash cans beside him until he said with perfect disgust:
“Oh God, you really ate that mac and cheese?”
Hazard bristled, looking over with wide eyes. He vaguely recognized the guy who stood across the trash can from him, but he was more offended by the way the guy’s face held perfect revulsion and the way that cocky disparaging expression could make Hazard feel like such a loser. What was the guy’s name again? He was a junior. Hazard had heard about him plenty of times. Red leather jacket, patent attitude. He was tall and thin; the top of Hazard’s head only reached his shoulder.
Jesse. That was it: Jesse Wesley. Even though he wasn’t the most popular, like Blake Monroe, everyone knew Jesse, and everything he did or said was worshiped in one way or another. He was notorious, and for what, exactly, Hazard couldn’t even think of at the moment. Getting in trouble? Beating people up? Partying and screwing girls? All of that sounded right enough.
Hazard looked down at his lunch tray, a few tater tots left on one side and the remains of mac and cheese on the other. Admittedly, the noodles had been so dried out, except for a residual puddle of cheese, that it hadn’t tasted as mac and cheesy as it should have, but it hadn’t been that bad, and it was more identifiable than the cafeteria’s frequent beef stroganoff, so—
Wait, that wasn’t the point here.
Hazard frowned, meeting Jesse’s eyes. Jesse was chugging the last of his chocolate milk, staring with irritating self-importance.
Hazard glared across the trash can at Jesse. “Yeah, but I overheard Mr. Nash talking earlier about how they’re worried the school’s milk cartons have a false expiration date on them, which means everyone’s drinking bad milk, so I’d be more worried if I were you.”
Jesse lowered his carton of chocolate milk and stared at Hazard across the trash can. He looked as if he hadn’t swallowed his mouthful of milk yet and seemed a little surprised by Hazard’s reply. Truthfully, Hazard was a little startled by his own comeback, too, but he tried not to seem that way.
Jesse dropped the empty milk carton in the trash and swallowed deliberately, holding Hazard’s stare the whole time. “That’s a good one,” Jesse said, not at all humbly, shoving his hands in the pockets of his jacket. He narrowed his eyes and peered at Hazard some more with something like appraisal, mouth set in a hard line. “Except,” he added, “that if they really thought that, they wouldn’t have allowed us to take milk today. And also, you have chocolate milk on your tray. Nice try, though. Seriously. I applaud your efforts.”
Hazard stiffened against a tiny pang of embarrassment, dumping his tray and the milk carton on it into the trash can. But Jesse didn’t seem to be finished. He lingered there on the other side of the trash can, staring. His eyes were a piercing green. They made Hazard nervous. He had a straight nose and thin lips and softly angled cheeks, like what some people called a pretty boy except with a viciously cocky frown. His lashes were dark. So was the skin around his eyes, like he worried too much or didn’t get much sleep. He looked like he’d fit in with pretty much anyone he wanted to, not because of clichés but because he’d take over. His hair was dark and choppy and tucked behind ears pierced just like his left eyebrow. Hazard had heard he was really rich, but he looked pretty normal with the baseball tee and neat jeans below his renowned red leather jacket.
“What?” Jesse grunted, raising his brows.
Hazard’s stomach sank. God, he was staring like an idiot. He wracked his brain for something to say, frowning darkly. “Nothing, just that—I’ve heard you’re such an asshole, and it’s true.”
“Oh, like nobody’s said that before. Honestly, I like to think I’m just conversationally blessed.”
“More like conversationally cursed.”
“One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”
“That doesn’t even apply here.”
Jesse raised his brows as if to say You don’t think so? and pointed at the wide trash can between them. Hazard rolled his eyes. He laughed a little, scornfully, and Jesse smirked while he scratched idly at the bridge of his nose. Hazard caught a tiny flash of black, the symbol for Scorpio, on Jesse’s middle finger. Maybe he drew on himself like Emery did. Or maybe it was a real tattoo.
“Oh, I’m funny now?” Jesse muttered, somewhat to himself.
Hazard frowned just to spite him. Across the cafeteria, he could see Russell and Clay laughing at a very flustered Emery over his homework. Hazard’s stomach soured a little. “Look,” he said with a sigh, shifting from foot to foot. He was still holding his lunch tray, stupidly. “I’m sort of in a bad mood already, so just—if you’re done bugging me….”
Jesse raised his brows, smirk still lingering at the corners of his mouth. He held his hands out, stepping to the side. “Carry on,” he said.
Hazard wandered off to return his tray, but he wasn’t dumb. He could feel Jesse’s eyes following him. Apparently, their rocky conversation was not over yet, because as he passed the trash cans again, Jesse made him stop by gesturing demandingly.
Hazard sighed again and stepped out of cafeteria traffic, crossing his arms where he stood next to a poster for the Secret Santa party the Spanish club was having.
“What—?” he started, but he shut his mouth halfway through his question because he realized with a sudden pinch in his gut that Jesse was looking at him with no scorn and no arrogance anymore, just a spark of curiosity. That was sort of alarming and flattering all at once, and Hazard wasn’t sure what to think of it or the way a few people at a table just a couple rows away kept glancing at them.
Other kids passed them arbitrarily, dumping the trash from their lunch trays. Jesse grunted, “So… you know Clay Bentley?”
He knew Clay a little because Russell knew him, but Hazard shook his head. “Not really. Why?”
“Because I know Clay’s friends are sort of stuck-up, and I’ve seen you around him before, so I was just wondering.”
Hazard laughed, because Russell was Clay’s friend and Jesse had just called Clay’s friends stuck-up. But then he paused, glancing at Jesse skeptically. I’ve seen you around him meant that Jesse had noticed him a few times before. Hazard shrugged, dismissing that because it was weird-feeling, like the way people stared at him in class sometimes. Jesse Wesley, noticing him?
“Do you know Clay?” Hazard asked.
Jesse shrugged, rocking back and forth with his hands in his pockets. He looked totally indifferent to their conversation again, like now he was just waiting to go back to his table. “I had gym with him last year. Why?”
Hazard raised his brows. “He’s a sophomore. I thought you were a junior.”
Jesse’s complacency faltered a little. Something shifted in his expression, and with a cruel light in his eyes, he briefly looked Hazard up and down. Hazard leaned back a bit, wondering if he’d just stepped on a landmine. But if Jesse didn’t like his prying question, he didn’t show it any further than that.
“I failed gym freshman year. I had to repeat it.” The tone of Jesse’s voice declared that that was the end of that discussion, but then suddenly his face changed, softened a little, although his eyes still felt like they burned right through any pretense to the core, and he asked, “You’re not afraid of me, are you?”
Hazard shrugged. “No,” he lied, because he couldn’t deny that Jesse was sort of intimidating, but he wasn’t going to say that.
“What’s there to be scared of?”
“Oh, damn! Silver tongue you got there.”
“Look, I told you, I’m not in the best of moods right now—”
“I made you laugh earlier.”
Hazard blanked. He looked at Jesse, brow knotted, and he could feel the incredulous impatience on his face as he said, “You’re an idiot. That’s why.”
“Whoa! Oh, yeah?” Jesse scoffed a little, hands deep in his leather jacket’s pockets as he shifted from foot to foot. But the way he was looking at Hazard wasn’t at all vindictive. It was interestingly sly and innocent at the same time, that spark of curiosity, and cowing as it was, it seemed authentic enough. Jesse’s cocky scowl transformed suddenly, becoming another smirk as he said, “Hey, you’re ruining this mean thing for me, you know. You’re too funny to be annoying.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Hazard mumbled sarcastically, glancing over his shoulder at the lunch table where Emery and everyone else were. And there, those people who kept glancing at them looked away quickly like he wouldn’t notice their stares. He met Jesse’s eyes again, realizing with a little blush of embarrassment that the subtle shift he felt in his chest was that of making a friend.
Hadn’t his attitude pissed Jesse off? It occurred to him then that it was a joke, that some other juniors had sent Jesse over and they were going to use Hazard for entertainment during lunch. What else could possibly compel someone like Jesse to talk to him? Most juniors—especially cool ones—hated freshmen.
Jesse stared at him hard for a moment, thinking. Then he declared, plainly enough, “You should hang out with me and my friends sometime.”
“What?” Hazard gawked. He raised his brows dumbly. Hang out with Jesse Wesley? He didn’t believe it, but he understood all of a sudden that there was no joke. Jesse was completely serious.
Jesse shrugged limply. “Yeah,” he said. “I mean, Brianna would probably like it. Do you know Brianna? Brianna Macintosh?”
“Well.” Jesse shrugged again, glancing around almost impatiently before catching Hazard’s stare. “You’ll meet her. Hang out with us or something.”
Hazard didn’t mean to sound reproachful when he grunted doubtfully, “Why?”
“Usually people don’t argue with me. But you do, and it’s hilarious.”
Jesse said it like it was something cute or endearing, probably to make sure Hazard understood that they weren’t on the same level yet. Hazard already understood that. He also understood, by the look on his face, that he’d piqued Jesse’s curiosity. He eyed Jesse from below his lashes: messy hair, red leather, irritating nonchalance. A teacher walked by, lanyard swinging.
Hazard could tell by his peripheral vision that everyone at that table a few rows down was glancing at them again. He thought about Emery and Russell and the way all the sophomores talked to Emery because he was Russell’s friend. The same thing would probably happen to Hazard—if he was Jesse’s friend, all the juniors and other cool people would notice him. Something kind of warm and curious swelled in his chest. He glanced at the clock on the far wall of the cafeteria; lunch would end in ten minutes. He said, more bravely than he’d expected, “Give me your number, then, if it’s not a joke. Because I don’t believe you.”
Jesse scoffed. He dug in his red leather jacket pocket and pulled out his cell phone, handing it to Hazard discreetly, so teachers didn’t see. “Give me your number. If you think you’re worth it.”
Hazard hesitated, heart pounding. Hang out with Jesse Wesley. He took Jesse’s phone and started to program in his number with clammy fingers, glancing over at the lunch table where Russell and Clay were still trying to help Emery understand geometry. Something wicked inside him begged Emery to look up and see them and get jealous because Jesse was cool, and he was talking to Hazard.
“Oh, yeah? You think you’re worth it, hunh?” Jesse curled into an infectious grin, somewhere between honesty and a smirk, as Hazard handed his phone back. He ran his hand through his hair and regarded Hazard through his lashes in an altogether intimidating and evocative stare. It struck a chord somewhere in Hazard’s chest, maybe something like the click when it just felt natural to talk to someone.
Jesse shrugged idly, looking at the entries in his phone. “I’ll text you, loser. I think you already know, but I’m Jesse. Hey, where’s your name in here?”
Hazard shrugged too, pointing. “I’m Hazard,” he said, and just as abruptly as it had begun, it seemed their conversation had drawn to a close.
Jesse laughed as he walked away, heading for the vending machines as he muttered, “Seriously, who names their kid Hazard?”
Hazard felt bruised in the chest, strangely insulted and embarrassed and yet totally thrilled at the same time. Was that normal? He lingered there stupidly for a moment, then wandered back through the tables to where Russell had finally gotten Emery to see why some lines had undefined slopes and others had a slope of zero.
“Did you get lost?” Emery grumbled absently, not looking up from the problems he was trying to finish before lunch ended.
Hazard laughed, slumping down beside him. “No, but I talked to Jesse Wesley.”
Emery glanced up skeptically. Russell looked up too, arms crossed and head resting on his backpack like a pillow.
“Jesse Wesley?” Emery said, raising his brows, not without a hint of distrust.
“Yeah, why?” Hazard asked, frowning.
“I don’t know.” Emery shrugged. He seemed to notice that he’d offended Hazard a little. He looked apologetic. “Just—Lily said Sophie said she saw him once at a party and he’s pretty out of control—”
“He is,” Russell confirmed, nodding on his arms but still looking kind of bored with everything. “Clay had gym with him and—”
“I know,” Hazard interrupted, throwing a sharp glance at Russell. He didn’t want any advice from him. Russell glared back, but Hazard ignored it. “He’s an asshole, I know. But he said he wants me to hang out with him and his friends sometime. What am I supposed to say? No?”
Emery stared, but he seemed lost in thought, like he mistrusted Jesse or didn’t understand why he wanted to hang out with Hazard. Maybe a tiny bit of it was jealousy, but most of it appeared to be concern. Russell slouched on his backpack and frowned, fiddling with the key chains he’d put on his zipper.
Hazard shrugged in response to both of them. “I’ll be careful,” he promised. “If he’s even telling the truth, I’ll just hang out with him once or twice. Just to be nice. Because he asked.”
The bell rang, and the commotion in the cafeteria rose to mayhem as throngs of students filled the space between tables with startling speed. Emery hissed, “Shit!” and hurried to put his things back into his bag. Russell helped him. Hazard waited patiently so he could walk with Emery to fifth period.
JESSE LOGAN WESLEY was not at all the kind of boy anybody wanted their kid to be friends with. He was a partier, and Hazard had overheard once at an assembly that he’d gotten suspended last year for punching a teacher. There was also speculation he’d been busted for drugs. In the bathroom near the auditorium, where the lights flickered over the back stall and everyone wrote gossip on the far wall, Hazard read that a girl claimed a while ago to be carrying Jesse’s baby, but lots of scribbles underneath argued the falsity of that because “the girl is a skank anyway.” That was a direct quote.
Hazard had to admit he was a little leery still, but Russell was tutoring Emery on slope all week, and Tom and the others weren’t skating because it was too rainy, and part of him wanted Emery to be jealous, so Hazard gladly took Jesse up on his offer.
Jesse texted him. Hazard texted back. It was intimidating but kind of exciting to have somebody so popular and wild talking to him casually. He was a little cowed by Jesse’s friends, who looked unruly or at the very least too talkative for Hazard’s comfort, so he didn’t sit with Jesse at lunch, but they texted.
Hazard added Jesse to his phonebook under the name ASSHOLE. He was confident there was no joke being played on him, nothing clandestine or malicious at all. He didn’t know how he knew; he could just tell. Jesse’s attitude was a little daunting, but he was sarcastic and funny and Hazard was hooked. They bantered together through texts for two hours one night.
On the Friday the week before winter break started, Jesse stopped to talk with Hazard at lunch. Hazard was startled. Emery stared and Russell scowled, then went on talking to Becca and Clay.
Jesse leaned down by Hazard and ignored Emery’s wide, curious eyes. He said, “There’s a party tonight. You wanna come?”
“Sure,” Hazard mumbled, a little flattered and sheepish, and very nervous because it hit him then that Jesse was his ticket to a different side of high school.
Jesse said, “Cool, I’ll text you,” and left, clearly satisfied.
Hazard looked over at Emery.
“I’m not jealous, because I don’t like partying,” Emery snapped immediately. He looked tense. “But that’s just my opinion. You have to tell me what it’s like to hang out with Jesse.”
Hazard mulled it over for a minute. “Could I stay at your house afterwards, Em?”
“Sure.” Emery took a long drink of his chocolate milk, glancing away. “There you go, you rebel. You have an alibi and everything.”
JESSE tried many nicknames before finally finding one that he liked. One of his friends suggested Rookie or Dukes because of The Dukes of Hazzard. Hazard frowned. Jesse tried Biohazard, but Hazard did not approve. Jesse tried H, which he pronounced Hah. Then he tried Z. After that was Haz, which quickly became Has-Been, but none of them seemed to work right except for the last:
“Have you ever been to a party, Danger?”
Hazard sighed curtly. “I told you my name is Hazard, not Danger.”
Jesse scoffed. “Seriously, who names their kid Hazard?”
Blue eyes clashed with green as Hazard met Jesse’s disdainful stare. “My mother,” he said miserably, and he could see in Jesse’s eyes that he was amused by this game. Hazard frowned tightly, wondering whether or not he should answer the question. Have you ever been to a party?
“Yes,” he whispered, following close after Jesse. They’d parked a block and a half away from the house they were headed to, which was in the more redneck part of Bethany. Jesse’s other friends walked a few paces ahead. “I’ve been to a party before,” Hazard said, a little louder. He was lying.
Jesse grinned, as excited as a five-year-old with a surprise. It reminded Hazard of Emery.
Jesse’s friends stopped at the curb outside their destination to light a cigarette or two. Lights spilled forth from the windows. Cars were parked up and down the sidewalk, and there was the muffled sound of organized chaos that rattled Hazard down to his bones. He began to panic for the second time that night. He’d breathed through it in his bedroom an hour earlier, getting ready to go and frantically trying to decide which shirt made him look coolest while he insisted to his mother that he’d be fine eating something at Emery’s house even if it meant a late dinner, and yes, Emery’s mother was okay with him staying over. Seeing Jesse in his red leather and Calvin Klein jeans had made Hazard nervous all over again, but not compared to this uncertainty he felt as he followed Jesse to the door of a stranger’s house. He was afraid of making a complete idiot of himself.
Jesse rang the doorbell three times and then just opened the door of the house. The sleepiness of the street was butchered by the sudden rush of loud music and voices.
Two people brushed past Hazard rather rudely, bumping into his shoulder. Hazard scowled after them. They were the boy and girl who had been in the car when Jesse picked him up—Hey, Mom, this is my friend Jesse. We’re going to see his aunt at the hospital. Emotional support and all, and Emery’s meeting us there and I’m going back to his house with him to stay the night, and yes, his mom is okay with it, I swear.
Hazard stood in the light falling out on the stoop, a little cowed and a bit anxious as he gawked in at the party. He could already smell the alcohol and cigarette smoke. He could see the milling bodies; he could hear the laughter and friendly shouts. The scene inside tempted him. It looked fun and inviting and totally worth it.
Hazard squeezed through the doorway with Jesse, eyes wide as he took it all in. It felt surreal. Somebody almost ran into him, and Jesse tugged him out of the way at the last second. It was a small house, living room and kitchen already packed. Hazard recognized mostly juniors and seniors, but he saw a few sophomores and even a couple freshmen passing in and out of the crowd. There were people from all over the spectrum of clichés. How many were there? Thirty or forty, all smashed into this house, and whose house was it, anyway?
He was very curious, but his stomach flipped. The music was blasting a song with a good beat. There were cans and bottles of beer sitting around, half-gone or empty. The cigarette smoke was horrible because everybody was smoking inside but nobody had opened a window at all. Everyone was loud and laughing and having a good time. Some people were dancing.
“Hey,” Jesse grunted, capturing Hazard’s attention again. “Look, don’t let me down, okay?”
Hazard frowned defensively. “What are you talking about?”
The front door slammed as a few more people squeezed in. The music’s volume increased with the intensity of the song, and Jesse leaned down so Hazard could hear him clearly. His breath tickled the cartilage of Hazard’s ear, striking him motionless as he said, “I just get this vibe from you, like you’ll fit in with us, like you won’t freak out.” Jesse paused. “You can handle this, right?”
Hazard was surprised but flattered and still very nervous. That was a lot of pressure on him: the pressure of impressing everyone and making sure he didn’t embarrass himself. He frowned, looking at Jesse over his shoulder. “Of course.”
“Listen,” Jesse husked. His eyes were smug. “You’re here with me, so all I’m saying is don’t make a total loser out of yourself, because it’ll reflect badly on me and my friends, and I don’t want that. You get it?”
“What, you think I’m gonna get totally smashed and start dancing on the table? I’m fine. You’re an asshole, Jesse.”
Jesse seemed a little caught off guard by the blunt, moody insult. Hazard fought a smile. Jesse straightened up, looking amused. “Good movie reference,” he grunted, then sighed dramatically and ruffled Hazard’s messy dark hair. “Ah, shit, I feel like a mentor.”
“Asshole, right.” Jesse smirked ever so gently. He wandered off and left Hazard trying desperately to fix the mess he’d created by touching his unruly hair.
Hazard watched as a group of guys welcomed Jesse with pats on the back, calling out his name. Hazard frowned darkly. He didn’t know what to do. He kind of wished people would welcome him like that—that everyone would light up when he walked through the crowd or forget what they were doing just to say hi. Hazard wondered what even made people do that when Jesse moved through the room, anyway.
Hazard went into the kitchen. He tried to avoid the regulars and the weirdos, debating nervously whether or not to grab a drink while there was no pressure on him about it yet. He’d never really had alcohol before, so he didn’t know when the drunk point came. He and his friends had always wondered about it, but nobody had ever braved Peyton’s dad’s cooler of Bud or Emery’s mom’s vodka cabinet.
He tried to be inconspicuous. He looked around, peeking silently at the other people in the kitchen, who really didn’t seem to notice him at all. Each hand had a fresh bottle or cup of something, and nobody was paying attention to him.
Demurely, Hazard looked at all the bottles of liquor and cans of beer and tall mixer bottles with gleaming silver tops. Who had even bought it all, anyway? Quickly, Hazard grabbed a bottle off the counter. It was slick with condensation. He examined the label curiously: Smirnoff Ice, watermelon flavor. It tasted good, even with the bite behind the watermelon.
Two guys came to his side of the kitchen to raid the fridge. They were very loud and obnoxious and probably jocks. Hazard slipped back out into the living room. He looked around for Jesse, trying to avoid people and nursing his drink absently. He was still freaking out, but he hoped he didn’t look it. He hoped he looked comfortable with the lack of space and crazy people everywhere.
Hazard looked down the hall. There was an open doorway at the end of it from which a haze with the pungency of pot was beginning to creep toward the living room. Some of the bedroom doors hung open. There was toothpaste all over the bathroom mirror and a few girls sitting in the tub laughing hysterically. Hazard got out of the way of people worming down the hall into the living room.
The cigarette smoke made his nose stuffy. Hazard found Jesse again, sitting with a few others in the corner of the living room, leather jacket draped over the arm of a chair. He was wearing a faded T-shirt that looked like he’d gotten it off the racks at Goodwill. It had two cherries on it and said hole. There were more tattoos on Jesse’s arms. Hazard wanted to see them, but he kept himself from looking. He didn’t want to stare.
He sat down beside Jesse quietly. Jesse looked happy to see him, like he hadn’t even left him in the first place. He held his drink out. “Want a sip?”
“No, thanks.” Hazard held up his own bottle, showing Jesse he’d really just started it.
Jesse properly introduced Hazard to his friends: Felix Wilton, Lexie Morgan, and Brianna Macintosh. Brianna was a freshman too. Hazard remembered Jesse mentioning her in the cafeteria, and he didn’t feel so mistrusting anymore. He actually felt kind of proud to be the other freshman Jesse had invited to hang out with them.
They sat together in the corner of the living room where the music was loudest and Hazard had to lean forward to hear them clearly. Somebody put on a CD with a good beat, and a couple of people started dancing around again.
Jesse and his friends talked about everything. Hazard talked with them. They talked about music. Hazard told them his favorite bands. They commended him on his great taste. They talked about movies and which were the best and which sucked. They talked about idiots at school. They laughed at party fouls like the girl who kept spilling her drink everywhere.
Hazard got drunk quickly. He didn’t mean to. He was just having fun, and when Lexie made trips back to the kitchen to grab everyone more to drink, she made sure to bring Hazard a fresh bottle too. Jesse and his friends were loud and fun. Hazard liked them. By the time he was starting his third drink, Hazard wasn’t nervous anymore. His face felt hot. He felt super comfortable, like everything was okay and he could fall asleep or think forever.
“He’s a lightweight,” Jesse’s friend Felix said, which he looked like he thought was adorable.
Jesse slung an arm around Hazard’s shoulders. Hazard could smell his cologne, his laundry detergent, cigarette smoke on leather, and alcohol and warm skin.
“We like you, Danger.” Jesse leaned down to say it so Hazard could hear.
Hazard stiffened. He swallowed hard, glancing up at Jesse. “What do you mean?”
The girl named Brianna started laughing really hard with Felix about something. Lexie got up and left for the toke room. Hazard felt kind of edgy, kind of thrilled, kind of confused, and kind of impatient all at once. He wanted Jesse to stop breathing down his neck, because it sent chills along his spine and it was weird.
Jesse smirked. With it, Hazard relaxed completely. “I just meant that you’re kind of cool,” Jesse murmured, like it wasn’t something he usually said. Maybe it wasn’t. That meant something, right?
“What?” Hazard mumbled, muscles tingling from the alcohol, or maybe because Jesse’s words made him feel shy. He wondered what Emery would say when he heard that Jesse Wesley thought he was kind of cool.
Jesse looked at him curiously, then smirked like he was trying to win a game. “So, Danger,” he said next, casually, “are you gonna be our rookie?”
Hazard sighed heavily. “My name isn’t Danger. It’s Hazard. My mom read it in a book when she was younger and….”
Jesse wasn’t really listening. Hazard frowned. His brow furrowed. Rookie. What did that mean? Was Jesse officially asking Hazard to be one of his friends? Jesse said they liked him, after all. He was kind of cool. Hazard found that a little hard to believe, but he wasn’t going to argue.
“I’ll hang out with you guys,” Hazard agreed, hoping that was a good enough answer.
Jesse seemed satisfied with it. He got up and started dancing around with Felix to the rock song someone put on.
Jesse dropped Hazard off at the corner of Emery’s cul-de-sac around one in the morning. Emery helped him climb through the window. He was his alibi, after all, and Hazard thanked him over and over for being such a good friend.
CollideBy: J. R. Lenk