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"What? I don't believe this. She always does this. This is, like, typical Angela Chase."

"She said..." Jordan cupped his hand around his lighter and touched his cigarette to the flame. "She said that she, like, needed to be by herself."

Brian rolled his window down. "Of course she'd say that. What else would she say? She doesn't care about anyone except --"

"She also told me that she was really disappointed." Jordan blew smoke out his nose. "It was like talking to, like, her mom."

"Yeah, well, Angela's always been good at guilt trips." Brian slumped against the seat. "Do you mind turning on the heat? I'm kind of cold."

Jordan reached out and turned on the heat, the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. "Your ash is going to fall," said Brian, and turned his face toward the air coming through the window.

"I think. Like. She has a point, you know?"

"She did not have a point. She's Angela Chase. She never has a point. Her only point is to make everyone feel bad about having to, like, survive." Brian squeezed his eyes shut against the lights in the parking lot, against the smoke from Jordan's cigarette, against the tears that threatened.

His chest was tight, and it wasn't from the cigarette; he hated Angela Chase. Hated her with every fibre of his being. Hated her for what she did to him -- and hated her for what she did to Jordan. Maybe he hated her more for that, because at least Brian knew that he never had a chance with her. But Jordan? Jordan was like a big dumb puppy. All he knew was that Angela had wanted him and he wanted her, and now she was kicking him for no reason at all. She had what she wanted, and suddenly she didn't want it anymore.

Yes, he hated her. Totally.

"Man, it's like. We totally lied to her."

"We had a good reason."

"She said there was no good reason for lying. And, like." Brian heard Jordan exhale heavily, heard him tap his cigarette against the ash tray, heard him shift against the seat of the car, run his fingers over the steering wheel.

"Like what?" Brian rested his head against the door, breathing the cold air through his nose.

"Like, when I first knew her." Jordan stopped, started again. "That day, when I brought back your bike. The night before she and I, like. Talked. And I told her that I never lied to her."

"So?"

"So it's like. Now I've lied to her. So I understand why she's mad."

"She's mad all right." Brian opened his eyes; the parking lot was blurry. "She's crazy. All the Chases are."

"You're not being fair."

"You're being too fair."

"Brian... All I'm saying is, like, I totally understand what her problem is. She's like, right. Or whatever."

"Justified?"

"Yeah, she's justified. She gets to be angry and it's, like, okay, and we can be pissed off about it, but we can't do anything about it because she's angry because we did the wrong thing."

"How is what we did wrong? You felt like that about her, didn't you?" Brian turned his head to face Jordan. Jordan blew the smoke away from Brian and tapped his ash off again, and Brian felt a little jump in his stomach that Jordan would notice that Brian didn't like the smoke.

"I. Well..."

Now Jordan turned his head, rolled down his own window, flicked the cigarette out. Brian bit back a comment about littering, and felt like that really. It really showed how much he'd changed in the past few months. He'd become cooler, much less anal about everything, an easy-going guy. He'd learned to let things go. He was relaxed.

Yes, he was relaxed.

"I'm hungry," Jordan said abruptly, and Brian jumped at the sound of his voice, hit his head on the window. Maybe not so relaxed.

Jordan put the car into gear and peeled out of the parking lot, tires squealing. Twenty minutes later -- and finding out that Jordan actually had The X programmed into his car radio, which was totally weird, because Brian had this image of Jordan as being above pop radio, even alternative pop radio -- they were sitting in the smoking section, surrounded by black-clad kids who were all waving cloves around and talking loudly about music and sex, at the Eat'N'Park near Laga, the hip club everyone except Brian went to. It wasn't quite on the level of Let's Bolt, because it was all ages, but Brian never even entertained the thought of going to Let's Bolt. Laga was more his speed.

Except he didn't have any friends to go with, and he didn't wear black, and he didn't dance. Still, it was nice to have options.

Brian wondered if he could hold his breath the entire time they were inside. But if he did that, he'd probably pass out at some point, and he absolutely did not want to miss one moment of this. Brian Krakow, geek extraordinaire, sitting in a dining establishment with Jordan Catalano. It was the stuff of urban legends, really, and rumors, and not the sort of thing that ever really happened.

But Jordan ordered a Gardenburger with mayonnaise and shrugged at Brian. "I don't like to eat meat." This had to be real, because that wouldn't have happened in a dream, or even in a rumor. He lit another cigarette, and blew the smoke toward the salad bar. "What do you want?"

"Grilled stickies? And a Coke?"

The waitress nodded and moved away, and Jordan blew more smoke after her.

"I still can't believe that Angela is such a bitch." Brian took his Coke from the waitress and opened the straw with his teeth. "I mean, I totally expected it of her, but I can't, like, believe it. You know?"

"I guess I deserved it."

"I don't think so. I mean, isn't it enough for her that you, like, have feelings for her? What does she want? Like, blood?"

"She wants truth. And beauty. And love. And honesty. And loyalty. And strength. And. Like. You know." Jordan stabbed the cigarette into the ashtray. "Stuff."

"That was kind of poignant."

"Whatever."

"You could have written that letter yourself. It's like you did write that letter yourself and I was just the vessel. And. Like. If she can't appreciate that -- if she can't appreciate your poetry for her, then. She doesn't deserve you!" Brian frowned. That didn't come out quite right. But who would have thought that Jordan Catalano really was a poet? Or, at least, not an illiterate fool.

Just a fool. Only fools smoked, and Jordan was lighting another cigarette. But even though Brian knew cigarettes were bad and gross and made your lungs black and your heart beat triple time and your arteries expand and contract, and, over time, made you die, he still. Couldn't help but think. That. Like. Jordan did smoke well. He smoked like Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe, like it was an extension of his, like, body or something. Like he was born with a Marlboro hanging out of the corner of his mouth.

He was so tough.

"I don't feel like that."

"What?"

"Grilled stickies and a Gardenburger. Mayo's on the side, hon, okay? I'll refill this. Holla if'n yinz need anything else." The waitress deposited the plates on the table, took Brian's empty glass, and walked away.

"Jordan. What?"

Jordan left the cigarette hanging out of his mouth and focused on his burger and fries. The burger he doused with ketchup, the fries he stacked on the ketchup, and the mayonnaise he spread onto the bun. Brian felt kind of nauseated, just watching him pick it up. When he took the cigarette out of his mouth with one hand and bit into the burger that was held in the other, Brian closed his eyes. When he reopened them, there was a Coke in front of him, and Jordan's cigarette stubbed out in the ash tray.

"What I am trying to say is that I just can't -- I can't, like, believe. That anyone would break up with you," Brian finished lamely. He picked up his fork and knife and cut off a piece of the sticky bun.

"Uh. Thanks. I think." Jordan took another big bite of burger, and Brian swallowed hard. He hadn't quite meant to say it that way, but it was what he thought -- what was wrong with Angela Chase anyway?

#

"I need to stop at Tino's house. He's having a party or something, and he needs this tape."

"Is it an important tape?"

"Kind of. It's, like, my band. My new band. The one Tino's not in."

The tape was the kind that has fifteen minutes on one side and twenty minutes on the other. It didn't have a label, but someone -- Jordan presumably, since Brian recognized the weird way he made, like, an X instead of a t -- had used silver crayon to write "Terrors" on it.

"The Terrors?"

"No, it's like the Night Terrors. You know, like when you wake up all scared and sweating?"

"That doesn't sound like a good name for a band."

"Well, my last band didn't have a name and the band before that was the Frozen Embryos, so it's not --"

Brian wished he'd never said anything. "I like The Terrors. That's what you should be. Or just Terrors. Like Tenors, but not."

"So do you mind? I could take you home first."

"No, it's okay. I've never been to a party before. Unless you count, like birthday parties and stuff. And if you do, then I have. But if you don't, I guess I haven't. And I'd like to -- go, I mean. Because I haven't ever been, and --"

"Just don't talk to anyone," said Jordan.

#

Jordan sat Brian down on a ratty couch that had definitely seen better days and probably a lot of questionable body fluids, and had shoved a beer into Brian's had before Brian could stutter out that he didn't drink. Brian watched him circle the room, talking to bunches of different guys and girls who clustered around him. Jordan was definitely a rock star. Not just because he drew people to him, but because he kept them there with his stupid dark eyes and his stupid pouty mouth and his stupid halting speeches.

Brian hated people like Jordan, people for whom everything came so easily. Except Brian knew that nothing came easily to Jordan, that even though he looked in his element, he felt as awkward and uncomfortable as Brian did. Brian knew that underneath it all, Jordan was Brian, except Jordan couldn't read as well and therefore didn't contain as much knowledge.

And Brian hated knowing that. There had to be some fundamental difference between them -- something basic, something that separated them on a level that was possibly atomic.

Otherwise how did anything mean anything? If Jordan Catalano could be a geek, Brian Krakow could be cool. And if Brian could be cool, that meant that all along he could have had Angela. But for the want of a bit of stuttering?

Maybe it was fifteen minutes before Jordan circled back to Brian, maybe a little longer. Time was fuzzy -- the music was loud and the people ignored him and all the smoke made everything hazy.

"Do you want another?" he said, nodding his head.

"Another hat?" asked Brian, bemused.

"Beer."

Brian looked down. The cup in his hand was empty and his mouth tasted sour.

"That probably wouldn't be a good idea," Brian finally said. Jordan shrugged. "Are we leaving?"

"Sure. I guess Tino isn't here. Nobody's seen him."

"I thought this was his house?"

"That doesn't mean he's here all the time." Jordan flipped out a cigarette and lit it.

Brian blinked smoke out of his eyes and looked around at the crush of people, then back to Jordan. "Does Tino mind that all these people are, like, having a party in his living room while he's not here?"

"Why do you ask so many fucking questions?" Jordan huffed a little. "Come on, we're leaving."

#

"So I think I'm kind of drunk."

Jordan glanced over at him. "One beer isn't enough to even, like, get someone tipsy."

"I've never had a beer before."

"What are you -- like some kind of Mormon?"

"No, I'm just a loser." Brian meant to sound bitter or angry, but only felt tired. He leaned heavily on the door, the seatbelt taut against his jaw. His fingers were tingling, but it wasn't from the cold. They were hot, in fact, and so were his toes, and he was pretty sure he was drunk.

Jordan didn't say anything, just kept driving and smoking, and driving, and smoking. Every time he finished a cigarette, he stubbed it out in his car's ashtray, threw the butt out the window, and lit another one.

Brian didn't watch him. Brian watched the road go by, the lines on the road, the reflectors, the signs.

"Where are we going?" he finally asked.

"I don't know." Jordan lit another cigarette. "Maybe to get coffee or something."

"I don't drink coffee," Brian said automatically, then bit his lip.

"Why not, because caffeine is bad for you?" From anyone else it would have been a nasty question, but Jordan only sounded curious, and Brian swallowed.

"I just don't like it."

"Me either."

"Then why do you drink it?" Brian turned his body toward Jordan, away from the cool press of the window and the lure of the trees on the side of the road.

Jordan glanced over at him, and Brian realized he'd been blowing the smoke out through the crack in the window. Because Brian didn't like it. That was totally considerate.

Angela Chase was crazy.

"Because," replied Jordan. "I do."

"Okay."

"Don't you do anything just because you just, like, do it?"

"Do I look like Rayanne Graff?" Brian asked, and turned back to the window.

#

Brian yawned, and realized that he had been sleeping. He had slept through his first beer buzz. What a let down. He reached out and turned the radio down. "Where are we?"

"Passing the Tower of Stupidity." Jordan turned the radio back up. He must have stopped recently, because the ashtray was empty again.

Brian craned his neck and looked up. "The Cathedral of Learning? Why are we over here?"

"I want coffee."

"But we were all the way outside Pittsburgh. We were all the way out in Vandergrift! We were --"

"Kiva Han." Jordan stopped the car at the curb, and turned off his lights. "You don't have to come in unless you want to."

Brian thought for a minute. He was kind of sweaty from sleeping in his coat and hat, and now that he thought about it, he was choking where the seat belt pressed into his neck, and he -- yes, he definitely had to use the facilities. "I'll come in," he said. "Do they have a bathroom?"

They did, up a narrow flight of stairs, and Brian shivered a little at the cold, still air, and the freezing water on his hands.

When he came back down, Jordan handed him a cup.

"I don't drink coffee," said Brian. "The caffeine makes me --"

"It's not coffee. It's tea. No caffeine. No sugar. Just a little bit of, like, milka."

"Milka?"

"Um." Jordan sipped from his own cup. "Like, cream. But not."

"Half and half?" Brian sniffed at steam coming out of the lid. "In tea?"

Jordan squinted at him. "Whatever. You don't have to drink it." He pushed out of the store, and paused, and then turned toward his car.

"No, I'll drink it." Brian took longer steps to catch up. "Thanks. It sounds good." It sounded horrifying, actually, and Brian didn't drink tea either, but how often did Jordan Catalano buy him tea? Jordan had paid for their food at Eat'N'Park, too, even though Brian had pulled his wallet out.

Jordan let Brian into the car first, then climbed in, and settled his coffee into the cup holder on the dash. Brian's palms were sweating, the cardboard cup radiating too much heat. Jordan turned on the car, and the heat went on with the engine. The car hadn't had a chance to cool down, and the heat was shocking against Brian's face.

Brian carefully balanced the tea between his legs and pulled off his hat and unzipped his coat. Too warm. He peeled off the lid and sniffed the tea again. It smelled sweet and spicy at the same time.

"I love this song," murmured Jordan, and turned up the radio. He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes, his hands resting lightly on his thighs, fingers tapping.

Jordan had changed the station, and Brian realized he didn't know the song.

"Who is this?" he asked, bringing the cup to his mouth.

"What?" Jordan's mouth curved into a smile. "Are you, like, for real?"

"Fine, whatever," said Brian. "It's not like I care. I was just wondering. Because I'd never, like, heard this song before. But if it's --"

"I didn't --"

"I know. You didn't see Wayne's World. Man, you are, like, culturally retarded." Jordan shook his head, but before Brian could make a sufficiently indignant response, he continued. "I'll make you a mix tape."

No-one had ever made Brian a mix tape. This, Brian knew, was because no-one liked him, and people only made mix tapes for the people they liked. Liked. With a capital L. Liked, like the kind of like that you had for people you kissed in the boiler room. "Uh."

"It's like. You're a baby. With nothing in your brain. And you need to, like, learn about the world." Jordan picked up his coffee and sipped it, kept it in his hands. "It'll be okay, though. I have, like, a huge collection. Of the stuff."

Brian let the tea slosh onto his lips, and he licked it off before replying. It was surprisingly not as disgusting as he thought it would be. "A mix tape would be cool. I mean, I just haven't been exposed to. Stuff. It's not that I don't like it. I just don't --"

"Know about it," interrupted Jordan. "But I do. So it could be. Like. My thank you to you. For, you know, helping."

"Helping Angela break up with you? Yeah, you're welcome." Brian sipped the tea, then took a larger swallow. The cup was hot but the half and half had cooled it off enough that the tea itself was the perfect temperature for drinking. It tasted almost like the condensed milk his mom made cookie bars with, but without the chocolate chips and coconut flakes and graham cracker crumbs. And not thick. And, like, hot.

It was interesting.

"Brian, you know what your problem is?" Jordan stared out the windshield, not looking over. He had pulled out his crumpled pack of cigarettes, but wasn't lighting one or anything. Just holding it.

"I'm a loser?"

"It's like you have this idea of how the world works, and when it doesn't, like, do what you want, you don't. You know. Readjust." Jordan pulled a cigarette out of the pack and looked down at it, tapped it against his fingers, and then put it in his mouth and talked around it. "You're totally like Angela."

"Except not!" Brian frowned. What? He was so not like Angela at all. She was the most illogical person he knew, in fact.

"Except you totally are." Jordan smiled as he stuffed the cigarettes back into his pocket, and pulled out his lighter. He bent his head to the flame, and pulled it, eyes closed, then opened his eyes and exhaled at the same time.

"Except I am totally not."

"You are. You're just like Angela. I keep trying to tell you stuff, and you just don't listen."

"Look, if this is about --"

"It's like, if you don't want to know, that's fine. But don't, like, drive around with me and sleep in my car, and then pretend like you don't want to know when you really do." Jordan raised his eyebrows at Brian and it was like he was speaking a different language.

"What are you talking about?"

"The letter!"

"I don't understand."

"That's because you don't, like, pay attention." Jordan sipped his coffee again, then tucked it back into the cup holder and turned the car lights on. "I'm not pissed at Angela because I get it. And, like, I don't care anymore. Because it's not about her anymore."

Brian could feel his eyebrows pulling together, knew he was frowning, knew his mouth was kind of open. His brain was working furiously, but nothing was making sense. Maybe it was the residual effects of the alcohol. Maybe the tea really was caffeinated.

"So what are you saying?" Brian asked.

Jordan pulled the car out of the parking space and turned down the radio as the song he liked ended. He didn't answer for a moment, just puffed on his cigarette. Brian knew the song that was on now -- it was Tom Petty, he thought. The video was about skateboarding; Angela's little sister liked it.

"All I'm saying is, like. That was a cool letter. And Angela really liked it. And I did too. But it's okay that, like, she found out you wrote it. Because that's... you know. The cool part. Okay?"

Brian sat back against his seat and pulled his seat belt on. "Okay."

"D'you need to go home soon?"

Brian looked at his watch. Almost ten. He was always home by supper, unless he had called to say he was going to be late. He didn't think his parents had ever noticed -- and he didn't think they would notice he wasn't there. And he wanted to stay in Jordan's car forever, even though the smoke made his throat itch, and it was either too hot or too cold.

"No," he said. "Not for a while."

Jordan turned his head and smiled, and Brian kind of understood what Jordan had meant when he said it was okay that Angela didn't like him anymore.

Brian felt like he was changing, evolving, becoming someone new and different -- the kind of person Jordan Catalano sat in dark cars with and listened to classic rock with, the kind of person who drank beer at parties held at the houses of people who weren't at home. The kind of person who could hang out with Jordan Catalano and sit in Eat'N'Park and laugh about their waitress's heavy Pittsburgh accent. The kind of person who no longer had a crush on Angela Chase.

The kind of person who maybe had a crush on Jordan Catalano. Whatever that, like, meant.