“Is she, uh, still staring at me?” Quentin whispered, fidgeting with the pitch control on his turntables.
Heaving out a sigh, Phoebe alternated between hitting her cymbal and snare drum. Her head and shoulders bobbed, following her own rhythm. She flipped one stick in the air, still banging on the drum. Catching it, she glanced at the array of wooden tables, and spotting the back of Milka’s head, she rolled her eyes to Quentin.
“For starters, no. Milka isn’t watching you,” she said, lowering her voice, and a smile broke out on Quentin’s face, “which makes this the perfect time to actually deal with this problem. The ball’s in your corner, Q.”
Quentin clicked his tongue. He adjusted the pitch to a higher volume, the sound of his scratching filling the nearly silent lodge. “Dude, come on. I have no idea how to handle her,” he mumbled, idly rubbing one of the discs.
“Seriously, you brought this on yourself.”
“Have not. No way.” Quentin waved his hands. “I’m not the stalker here.”
“Listen. She’s younger than you. Of course she’s going to…” Phoebe hummed and tapped her chin with a drumstick. “...hm, behave in a way that might seem weird to you but normal for her. She did run away and live in the woods for a while when we all arrived. You and I both know her social skills are...” She bobbed her head from side to side, searching for a polite way to phrase it. “...not on our level.”
Quentin grumbled and tucked his chin to his chest. He raised his gaze, wrinkling his brow and squaring his shoulders. He gnawed on the inside of his mouth and caught eyes with Milka, who had turned in her seat the exact moment he looked. He managed to twist his mouth into a smile, which made the color in Milka’s face darken and her eyes light up. She returned his grin with one so threadbare Quentin doubted he saw it at all.
He spoke out of the corner of his mouth. “She’s doing it again.”
Phoebe smoothed down one of her band name stickers on the side of her bass drum when she noticed the corner peeling. “So, go talk to her.”
“But you love talking at people,” he retorted through gritted teeth as Milka rested her chin on the back of her chair.
Phoebe whipped her head to him, and he could have sworn he felt the air around him sizzle. “I don’t talk ‘at’ people. I talk ‘with’ them to sort out their problems,” she snapped, indignation in each word.
Quentin shushed her, his finger to his lip. He stole another glance at Milka, gritting his molars. She was leering at Phoebe as expected. It seemed he could not go a single band practice without Milka batting her eyelashes at him when she was feeling particularly bold or glaring at Phoebe with all her might whenever they had a slight difference of opinion.
“And I already discussed this at length with you. If you don’t talk about your concern, then this problem will persist,” Phoebe said, pinching her cymbal to silence it. She stood up and tucked her drumsticks into her pocket. Fixing her shirt over them, she said, “I’m gonna go. I need some fresh air. There are no open windows in here, you know?”
He nearly slipped off his cardboard box. He reached out for her, blurting. “But band practice-”
“-is over,” she finished, and she jumped off the stage. Brushing down stray wrinkles on her sleeves, she crossed her arms. “I’m tired of having the same conversations about them. When you want to talk about anything else or actually practice, you know I’ll be ready to receive your telepathic ‘I’m so sorry I ignored my social problems, Pheebs.’”
Quentin groaned behind pursed lips as Phoebe sauntered through the stretch of tables to the front door. He knew she had a point. Their recent band practices devolved into discussions about Milka or Kitty. With Milka frequenting the lodge during their practice, they had spoken in hushed tones, straining their ears to hear. It took a toll on Phoebe, and he could not blame her agitation, especially when he did everything in his power to ignore Milka’s obvious crush on him.
He supposed Milka was a nice girl, but she had taken her affections too far. Wherever he went, she followed. From the lodge, to the docks, to the boy’s cabin, she appeared everywhere. She even materialized in the corner of his eye when he gifted Kitty a lovely wildflower with petals matching the hue and softness of her hair. Quentin hardly remembered the pleasant giddiness of the moment when Milka’s scathing online remarks were posted, dampening his bliss with her quiet, turbulent fury.
Milka’s chair squeaked on the floorboards as soon as the door shut behind Phoebe. Quentin gulped when they caught eyes again. He hoped she would leave for a class, but Milka never attended. Like Mikhail who spent his long, summer days searching for bears, she used her time to observe his every waking moment.
At least, it felt that way. As she approached him, the hair on the back of his neck rose. He tried maintaining his smile, tried keeping his posture straight despite his jittery legs. He fiddled with the pitch, flicking it up and down with his thumb, and when she stood in front of him, he forced himself to leer over his turntables at her.
Wide, doting eyes met him. Milka wrapped her arms behind her back and said, “Hi, Quentin.”
“Hey, hey, Milka,” he chirped, his scarf suddenly too tight around his neck.
She fiddled with the hem of her shirt. “I liked listening to your music just now. It was as good as yesterday’s and the day before that.”
“Oh, killer! You know I like pleasing my crowd.” He chuckled, his smile not reaching his eyes.
She hummed and nodded. She narrowed her eyes at the drumkit next to him. “Was Phoebe giving you a hard time?” she asked, an edge in her voice.
A lump formed in his throat, and he choked it down. “No, no, that was just, uh, band, um-” The name escaped him, and he tugged at his scarf, wondering if it really was cutting off the blood circulation to his brain.
“It was a game of band fight,” she corrected.
He snapped his fingers. “Yeah! That is totally it. Band fight. We do it all the time just to keep people on their toes. Brings in the drama all the entertainment shows love. Lots of musicians do it to get the tabloids writing about them.”
Milka rested her elbows on the ledge of the stage and cupped her cheeks. “Oh, so, you two like thriving off negative attention?”
“Uh, I...wouldn’t call it that?” He shrugged. “It’s just a game like a ‘will they, won’t they’ sort of shenanigan.”
“Huh.” She glanced back at her belongings, a box of crayons and a few pieces of paper right where she left them on the table. “It makes sense why you’d hang on to Kitty now. You like when she makes you dance for her.”
The accusation slapped him in the face and forced his mask to clatter to the floor. He gawked at her, irritation and confusion etching on to his features. Shaking his head, he tapped his foot on the box and said, “Hey, don’t talk about Kitty that way. You don’t know her like I do.”
“I know a ho when I see one,” she casually replied, hardly raising her voice.
Quentin gasped. His front teeth hit together, sending a jarring wave of shock throughout his body. He thrust his arms out and shook his hands, blurting, Whoa! Whoa, whoa, whoa!” His fingers fidgeted as if typing on invisible keyboards. He tried regaining control of the conversation, insisting that she did not know Kitty like he did. They had spent three summers together, each more memorable than the last, and he could have lost himself in his reminiscence if Milka eased her glowering.
“If you chilled with her, then you’d understand. She’s mesmerizing in the dopest way. Just-” He vaguely gestured at both doors. “-give her a chance. Maybe you should let her braid your hair? You know, girl stuff.”
His skin crawled as Milka stared at him. Her expression hardly changed, but a tightness formed in her jaw while he stumbled through his offer. The way her eyelids seemed to peel back to show the full whites of her eyes and hints of grayish-red veins churned his stomach. There was something off-putting about how she allowed the silence to grow between them, thick and tangible, filling the lodge with a sudden humidity that made the sweat beading on Quentin’s brow start to slither down his cheeks.
“You’re wrong,” Milka finally said, dispelling the tension.
He uttered a nervous chuckle. “I, uh, don’t think I am.”
“But you are,” she insisted, frustration making her cheeks burn. “I know her. I see what she and Franke and Lili do. I’m not blind.” Her voice softened, renewing a gentleness in her face that made it seem fuller. It only appeared when she observed him during band practice. “And you shouldn’t be blind, too. I just, you know…” She rubbed the heel of her worn sneaker into the floorboard, twisting up a lopsided nail. “...want you to see her for who she really is.”
He seized the opportunity she presented with a bright smile. She was offering him a Get Out of Jail free card. He plucked it out of her hand. He thanked her with as much emotion as he could place in his voice, ignoring the churning sensation in his stomach that it would not be enough.
“I think I know where you’re coming from. It’s a good place, a cool place,” he mused, “but if you actually hung out with me and Kitty, then you’d see what the real hubbub is all about, y’dig? We can all chill together, and you’ll think, ‘Oh, man, Kitty is wicked, and so is Quentin, but maybe I wanna pal around with Kitty more since she’s awesome’ or something like that. Makes sense?”
Milka’s lips parted, but she pinched them shut. Her nostrils flared, and she clenched her hands into fists by her sides. Snorting, she marched back to her arts supplies, her slightly choppy locks of hair bouncing with each step. Gathering her crayons and papers, she stormed out of the lodge, ignoring him when he called her name.
He scratched through his scalp. “What did I say?” he asked aloud, but it was silenced by the door slamming shut.
Quentin placed his hands on his discs. His reflection gazed back at him, equally bewildered and disconcerted. Sighing, he wondered if he should have convinced Phoebe to stay and mediate, but he chose to ignore his doubts and closed his eyes. Taking in a breath, he held it, then slowly exhaled.
He winced, a new coolness settling in his front teeth. Running his tongue over them, he groaned when he felt a slight chip in the back of one. It was a mere cosmetic blemish, but he wondered if Kitty would notice the difference.
Shoulders slumping, Quentin looked to the spot where Milka once sat and hoped she would sit elsewhere for dinner.