“She’s…fluff,” I finish.
“Yeah, fluff.” I shrug helplessly. “You know, not serious about anything. She’s surface level.”
Garrett pauses for a long moment, searching my face.
He stares for so long that I fidget with the sleeve of my hoodie, feeling like a specimen under his microscope. I hate that intrusive sensation of eyes boring into me. It’s a scar left over from childhood, a need to blend into the background, to be unseen.
I’m two seconds from telling him to cut it out when he starts to laugh. “Oh, I get it. I was wasting my time trying to sell you on her. You were already sold.” His gray eyes light up gleefully. “You have a thing for Dean’s sister.”
“Naah,” I say, but it’s a halfhearted denial at best.
“Really? ‘Cause it sounds like you’re trying to convince yourself that she’s not right for you.” He grins. “Is it working?”
I sigh in defeat. “Kind of? I mean, I’ve managed to keep my hands off her all night.”
That gets me a laugh. “Look, Colin—can I call you Colin?” His jaw drops. “I just fucking realized I’ve never called you Colin.”
Garrett literally shocks himself into silence, until I let out a growl of impatience.
“Sorry,” he says. “That just blew my mind. Anyway. Fitzy. On paper, Wellsy and I don’t seem like we’d work, right? But we do, don’t we?”
He has a point. When I first saw them together, I couldn’t make sense of it. Hannah was an artsy music major. Garrett was a smartass jock. They’re opposites in so many ways, and yet they really do click as a couple.
But Summer and I… We’re not even on the same piece of paper. From what I’ve seen and what Dean has told me, she’s drama-llama at full force, all the time. She craves the spotlight. I shy away from it. It’s bad enough that our games are televised every Friday night on the local New England network. And the major games make it to ESPN. Makes me cringe to think of strangers watching me skate and shoot and brawl on some huge screen.
“All I’m saying is, keep an open mind. Don’t fight it.” He claps me on the shoulder. “Just let it happen.”
Let it happen.
And, fuck, it absolutely could happen. All I’d have to do is smile in Summer’s direction, and she’d be in my arms. She’s been sending out interested vibes left and right. But…
I think what it boils down to is that she’s out of my league.
I play hockey. I’m fairly intelligent. I’m good-looking, if we go by my success in the chick department.
But at the end of the day, I’m that nerdy kid who would hole up in his bedroom playing video games, trying to pretend his parents weren’t fighting like cats and dogs.
In high school I had a brief moment where I tried expanding my horizons. I started hanging with a nihilistic crew who got a charge out of rebelling against any cause. But that came to an abrupt end when they got into a brawl with some kids from a neighboring school, and half the group was arrested for assault. I quickly reverted back to my loner state after that, not just to save my place on the hockey team, but to keep from giving my parents new fighting ammunition. I listened to them scream at each other for two hours about which one was to blame for me running with a “bad crowd.” It was easier just being a loner.
Needless to say, I didn’t have girls like Summer throwing themselves at me. And I didn’t party with my teammates after hockey games, so not even the puck bunnies wasted their energy on me.
In college, I’ve made more of an effort to be social, but deep down I’m still the guy who wants to remain invisible.
Summer is the most visible person I’ve ever met.
But Garrett’s right. I’m being a judgmental bastard. She might come off as a bit spoiled and superficial at times, but she deserves a chance. Everyone does.
Hannah’s already back at the table when Garrett and I return. “Cutting it close!” she scolds, pointing at the big clock. It’s two minutes to midnight.
I frown, because Summer’s not with her. Dammit. Where is she?
I’ve decided to take G’s advice and stop fighting it. I’m going to give in, kiss the hell out of her when the clock strikes midnight and see where it goes from there.
“One minute to go, boys and girls!” the DJ’s voice thunders.
I give the room a visual sweep. Summer’s still nowhere to be found.
I want to ask Hannah where she is, but Hannah’s got her arms looped around G’s neck, and they only have eyes for each other.
“Thirty seconds!” shouts the DJ.
All around me, people are coupling up or gathering with their group of friends. Allie and Dean are already making out. Hollis has reunited with the brunette he was dancing with earlier.
Still no Summer.
“TEN!” everyone yells.
The red numerals on the clock tick down in time with the crowd’s screams.
Each passing second brings another jolt of disappointment.
And then I spot her. Or at least I think it’s her. The strobe lights are going off now, zigzagging over the sea of bodies crammed in the bar. Each burst of light helps me form a clearer picture of the girl against the wall.
White dress. Red ballet flats. The ponytail.
It’s definitely Summer.
But she’s not alone.
I wrench my gaze away the moment Hunter’s mouth hungrily collides with Summer’s perfect lips.
“HAPPY NEW YEAR!”
I wake up the next morning without a hangover. That’s what happens when you only drink three beers and are back in your hotel room before one a.m.
On New Year’s Eve.
Aren’t I the poster boy for good behavior?
My phone informs me of a dozen messages and missed calls. Dragging a hand through my messy hair, I roll onto my back and sift through the notifications.
My parents each texted at precisely 12:00 a.m. I can just imagine them sitting in their respective houses at 11:59, hands hovering over their phones like they’re preparing to slap the buzzer on Family Feud, each one desperate to be the first to get a message through. They’re so frickin’ competitive.
MOM: Happy New Year, sweetie!! Love you so so soooo much! This is going to be the best year ever! YOUR year! Woot woot!
Oh dear God. Mothers are not allowed to say “woot woot.” My dad’s text isn’t much better.
DAD: Happy New Year. We got this.
We got this? Got what? Parents trying to sound cool is a whole other level of secondhand embarrassment.
My friends’ messages are more entertaining.
HOLLIS: Where da fuck r u?? Patty’s just getting started
* * *
* * *
* * *
HOLLIS: Party!!!!!! FUCK THIS PHONE
* * *
GARRETT: Happy New Year!! Where’d u run off to, Colin?? (Still feel weird calling u that)
My old teammates Logan and Tucker send their New Year messages to our various group chats. Tuck and Sabrina include a picture of their baby, which prompts about a million heart-eye emojis from our friends.
Pierre texts something in French.
My teammates blow up our team thread with well-wishes and random videos, grainy and impossible to hear, of the various parties they attended.
One teammate’s name is noticeably missing from the group chat and my phone in general. Shocking. No word from Hunter.
I bet he was too busy to text anyone last night.
Busy, busy, busy.
I ignore the sharp clenching in my chest and force all thoughts of Hunter and his busy, busy night out of my head. I continue scrolling through my phone.
A girl I knew in high school sends a generic note. For some reason, she still has me in her contacts list, so any time a holiday rolls around I get a message from her.
Hollis sends a few more texts that make me chuckle.
HOLLIS: Yo. bar’s closing. where u at. assuming getting a bj or sumthin?
* * *
HOLLIS: after patty at Danny’s house. new buddy. u’ll luv him
* * *
HOLLIS: OK then
* * *
HOLLIS: gunna assume u ded
* * *
HOLLIS: hope ur not ded, tho!!! I <3 u, bro. new year, new us. word.
Oh man. Someone needs to confiscate that dude’s phone when he’s wasted. Still laughing, I click on the next message in my inbox. It’s from Dean.
My humor fades the moment I read it.
DEAN: Happy New Year!! Was hoping to talk to u before u took off. I need a huge favor, bro.
* * *
DEAN: Are u guys still looking for a 4th roommate?
Two Weeks Later
The assistant dean is putting on a fake British accent.
I’ve been sitting in his office for about seven minutes now, and I’m convinced of it. I want to grill him about where he grew up, but I don’t think Mr. Richmond would appreciate the interruption. He’s clearly receiving way too much enjoyment from this lecture.
“…academic probation,” he’s droning. His voice has a weird, raspy croak to it. Like if a frog could talk, that’s how I imagine it would sound.
A nickname forms in my head—Asshole Frog.