“Are you sure you don’t-“
“But you might-“
Brody sighed, leaning an elbow on the sill of the rolled down window of his bright red convertible. The cold wind ruffled through his hair, zealous despite the fact that they were not moving. The Hilton manager was pretty sure that he had not even parked in a legal parking spot, but Jay had insisted.
The Strip was definitely different from any shopping center he had ever known.
Jay leaned his folded arms against the dashboard, propping his chin up against his crossed wrists as he watched the scene unfold outside the windshield. Brody glanced sidelong at him. His friend was pale, sweating, and falling asleep, but refused to admit that he needed to go home right away. It seemed that he was just as worried about Chiara as Brody himself was.
“They found her,” Jay muttered. Brody stiffened in the driver’s seat, narrowing his eyes as he spotted the girls again.
Chiara and Holly had straightened from their resting place just outside of a dilapidated Dollar Store desperately in need of redecorating. Chiara lett her backpack drop from her shoulder and unzipped the largest pocket. Brody let his gaze wander, following their line of sight. A young woman, dressed sloppily in sweats and an oversized Yankees jersey, was jogging towards them, casting nervous glances over her shoulder as she clutched a canvas purse over her shoulder. Brody sighed, rubbing his chin as he shook his head.
“Wonder what Cheech’s got herself mixed up in now.”
Jay shook his head incredulously, leaning back against the leather seat again. “Whatever it is, I don’t think I’d be surprised. I don’t know much about her yet, but I think I’ve figured out that I never will.” Brody felt his friend direct a pointed stare at him. “You, on the other hand, are at the nickname stage.”
Brody sighed and shrugged, gesturing helplessly without taking his eyes from the scene unfolding across the parking lot.
“It just slipped out. I’ve never called her that before. Her mom was calling her that, so it just happened.”
“Wow, her mom…and brother…and dad.”
Brody exchanged a glance with his friend. Jay raised his eyebrows and shivered.
“I thought he was going to stab us both, the way he held that knife!”
“Dude, he was buttering pancakes. But we were a couple strange guys in his apartment and you did bring up his daughter in the end.”
“Thank God Mrs. Dalton was there. He was cool but we might actually have died, and Chiara would never have known.” Jay relaxed against the seat, closing his eyes. Brody turned back to watch the girls. He frowned. The new arrival seemed to be crying. “I wish I didn’t enjoy them so much.”
Brody caught himself smirking. “I knew it.”
“Don’t rub it in.”
“I won’t, but I honestly think this was a good experience for you! I know you better than anyone, and even I didn’t know how you would react to that kind of situation!”
“You mean the being-rescued-by-the-one-who-should-hate-you-and-spending-the-night-at-her-apartment-and-meeting-her-family situation?”
Brody chuckled. “Yeah, that one.”
“Can you imagine if my mom found out?”
Brody threw a glance back at his friend. Jay’s eyes were still closed as he let the cold wind caress his face. The Hilton manager swallowed. He wished he could solve all of his friend’s problems. He wished he could say a word and the whole Collective would be healed of whatever ailed them. As it was, all he could do was ask, listen, and nod.
“Has she contacted you about Chiara again?”
“Not yet. She’s going to be really busy for the next couple months, thank God. Any time with her not checking in is a good time.”
“But you miss her, don’t you?”
Jay opened his eyes, meeting his friend’s gaze evenly. “I miss the way she used to be. Not this power-hungry control freak who won’t let me live my life the way I need. You know that.”
Slowly, Brody nodded. “Yeah. I miss her, too. So she won’t be home for Christmas?”
Jay chuckled sarcastically. “Dude, I don’t remember the last time she was home for Christmas!”
“Then we’re doing it Collective style again.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”
“Nah. I just have to wonder how Chiara celebrates Christmas.”
Jay straightened, twisting in the seat to face him, his brow furrowed in thought. “I caught myself wondering that, too. When I was watching everybody eat breakfast this morning.”
Brody drummed his fingers on the glossy wood steering wheel, watching Chiara hand the woman a white envelope, talking quietly. He tried to read her lips, but she seemed to be going out of her way to avoid that situation. Her lips barely moved. The unfamiliar woman clapped a hand over her mouth.
“They don’t have a lot of money, but they have each other. They’re all there in some way or another, and they all seem to love each other. I just…can’t imagine.”
Jay chuckled softly. “It’s times like those that I kind of want to be a wallflower in the Downs and just…observe.”
Brody narrowed his eyes at his friend, slowly running his fingers across his lips. Jay glanced sidelong at him.
“What happened to you?” he breathed. Jay raised his eyebrows quizzically. “My Jay would be too busy turning up his nose at the Downs to wonder what they do for Christmas.”
“I’ve never had an insight. I’m quick to judge and slow to forgive and you know all that! And now I know that the Downs have pancakes.” He shrugged. “Maybe they’re not so deprived as I thought.”
Brody frowned to himself. Jay was quick to judge and slow to forgive. Chiara had described herself similarly not long before. “Still,” he sighed, leaning back against the leather seat. The new arrival seemed to burst into hysterical crying, throwing herself into Chiara’s arms. The teenager returned the embrace and Holly patted her back. “You saw the condition of their apartment. They’re trying, but there’s only so much you can do with both parents working and still barely making enough to live on.”
“Hmm,” Jay nodded thoughtfully. He winced, looking down at his ankle again. Chiara’s bandage was still tight and perfect, but his ankle was starting to swell up again. “And they still shared so much with us.”
“I just have to wonder if that’s typical in the Downs, or if it’s just Chiara’s family.”
“They’re kind of special, aren’t they?”
Brody pursed his lips thoughtfully. This Jay was not talking like his Jay. Of course, that was not necessarily a bad thing, but it was intriguing. When Brody had met Chiara, it seemed like everything had changed for the better. It had been almost two weeks, and he was suddenly smiling more, talking more, speaking up for what and whom he believed in. For the first time in years, he did not feel so trapped by the expectations of society.
For the first time, he was not so scared by the future of an eighteen year old hotel line manager. If Chiara could be brave, he could be brave.
Maybe the same thing was happening in Jay’s mind. Brody hoped so. There were years of scars to overcome and a perfectly formed facade to break, but Brody had always had hope for his friend. He had hope for the whole Collective.
His phone buzzed in his pocket. Brody held his breath as he dug it out, praying that the district manager of the hotel could handle whatever the issue was. A peace sign of fingers blocked half of Oliver’s face and his bright blue tongue disrupted his ecstatic grin. Despite himself, Brody chuckled. That had been a memorable football game. He swiped his finger across the screen and raised the phone to his ear.
“Dude, where are you? You all said you’d come to my art show and only Dante showed up! What is friendship?”
Brody sighed, throwing a baleful glance at Jay. Jay smirked, rolling his eyes. “I’ll be there, okay? Jay and I had something we had to take care of this morning, but we’re leaving in a couple minutes. I have to take Jay home so he can see his doctor, but I’ll see you in…oh, half an hour.”
“Doctor? What happened? How could you two possibly go do something stupid enough to need a doctor the morning of my art show?”
“We didn’t! I’ll be there soon!” He looked at Jay again and and the Newhall heir nodded once. “I’ll tell you what happened when we get there.”
“You’d better. I’m really…like, not even this apple fritter is helping.”
Brody raised his eyebrows. “Wow, sounds serious. Better have Dante massage your head or get you a latte.”
“Massage my head? No, that’s weird. He did get me a latte, though.”
“So everything should be fixed! Lattes always calm you down.”
“It’s working, but you had better be here in half an hour or I’m going to need another one.”
Brody chuckled. “Don’t want that. See you in a little bit, okay?”
“Fine. I’ll be waiting for an explanation.”
“Bye.” Brody hung up. “He’s pretty distressed.”
Jay chuckled under his breath. “He’s going to be even more so after hearing where I’ve been all night. Dante might blow a gasket.”
“You should have let him take the check, Jay. Dante’s more familiar with the Downs, or at least he has people here who can do him favors.”
“No,” Jay interjected, straightening. His face was set in determined lines. “This was a favor to a friend. I had to do it.”
Brody smiled with a satisfied nod. Chiara was gesturing out to the packed parking lot and the woman backed up several steps. She was still yelling at her. Brody heard ‘thank you’ over and over again. “So you haven’t really changed. You’ve always been this bull-headed about your friends.” He jingled his keys. “The exchange seems to be over. Ready to go?”
Jay frowned. “You’re the one with the crush! Aren’t you anxious to make sure she gets home safely?”
Brody cocked his head. “Are you?”
His friend’s face lit up as he laughed. “Nope! Dude, if you had seen her last night…no one dares touch her. She’s got something on everybody. Aside from Armister, it looks like she could rule the Downs.”
“Well,” Brody sighed, pushing the key into the ignition. “She’s got that type of personality. When you two first met, I thought the same thing about the school.”
“No…we rule the school.”
“Your mom rules the school.”
Jay sighed, nodding slowly as Brody backed out onto the street again. “You’re right. That’s going to be an issue really soon. Chiara doesn’t seem the type to take blows lying down.”
“Nope. What do you want to do? No one wants to make things worse between you and your mom but Ollie, Dante, and I will always be on your side.”
“I know.” Jay slowly rubbed his temple, running his fingers over the soft gauze Chiara had layered over the wound the gravel had left on his skin. He was thinking. Brody smirked to himself, guiding the car through the impossible intersections. Ever since he was four, Jay Newhall had been unable to hide his intense thought, tending to tap his fingers against his leg, rub two fingertips together, or tap his lips. He was impossible to make bets with. He always lost, as the other three boys had learned to read all of his tells. That was one thing he had never learned to hide while building the person the Ups needed to see as the heir to the Newhall fortune. Jay drew in a sharp breath. “We’d always been taught that the Downs were different than us. They have always been inferior and we never asked any questions. Then here comes Chiara, turning everything upside down, and I know we’ve always been lied to. We’ve been to her home and see how they live.”
“You were also attacked by a couple.”
“And Chiara emphasized how wrong that was and how it didn’t used to be that way. How he used to be different. All I could think was…” He folded his hands, pressing his forefingers against his lips. “Is he different because of what the Ups have done to them?”
Brody frowned. “So…The Downs aren’t the issue with our society. It’s the Ups?”
“I’m not saying that particularly,” Jay hurriedly replied, looking out the open window. The rushing wind shoved through his hair. “But we’ve always known that it was the Ups working so hard to make the Downs better by enforcing Up hold on everything. We’re chauvinistic and we never saw it that way. For things to get better, though, it takes cooperation from both sides. Instead, the Downs hate us. They’re willing to attack any Ups who walk around at night.” He shook his head. “We’ve been sheltered from this for so long, Brody, and it just blows my mind. And it’s because Chiara was stubborn and wouldn’t leave the Globe.” He chuckled ruefully, rubbing his fingers across his eyes. “She’s just a continuous headache,”
“But you don’t regret it.”
Jay glanced up again at Brody. The Hilton manager smiled tightly.
“You think about her even when you don’t want to. Thinking about her makes you think of things you would rather avoid because the world is simpler when you pretend it doesn’t exist. When you’re around her, you feel guilty for a lot of things, but it’s…an empowering guilt, right? Like…now, you have the power to go do something about that guilt so you can get rid of it. Then all you want is to be around her, because things get fixed when she’s around. The world looks just as dysfunctional as it is, but you can finally do something about it.” He rose his eyebrows, his eyes fixed out the windshield. The Downs were certainly crazy drivers. “Am I right?”
There was a long silence before Jay nodded.
“Yeah. You feel that?”
Brody slowly nodded, turning at a stop sign that had been painted over with what Brody assumed was a gang symbol of some kind.
“That’s what it’s like liking her.”
“Oh.” Again, silence reigned. Then Jay stiffened, shaking his hands emphatically. “It’s not that I like her or anything! I don’t know her that well and you like her so I wouldn’t-“
“Jay!” Brody laughed. “Cut it out! It’s okay, all right? Even if you did like her,”
“Fine, okay, she’s not your type. You need someone a little slower with the comebacks so you can enjoy your victory for a little longer.”
“Yeah, Chiara shoots them down pretty fast. I feel so helpless around her. But you were saying?”
“Yeah. Even if you did like her, it’s okay. It’s your right to like who you want and I wouldn’t have an issue with it. In the end, it’s up to her, anyway.”
Jay sighed sharply, crossing his arms over his chest. “Why are you so…righteous?”
Brody scoffed. “What?”
“If we did end up liking the same girl, she would always choose you. You’re so…gentle and handsome and understanding and handsome and chivalrous and handsome. And then there’s me.”
Brody rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to rant about how handsome you are, Jay.”
“Aw man. Worth a shot.”
Brody laughed and Jay joined, leaning back against the leather headrest again with a content grin.
“I need to throw up.”
“Hold it until we get to a bathroom. I just cleaned the car.”
“Nature doesn’t wait, my friend.”
“I’ll pull over.”
“You got it.”