This is the first chapter in the two-part ending to Section One of POROUS. Next Monday I’ll release the final chapter in the first section, and these two chapters are intended, really, to be one and the same. But I wanted this final scene to be long, and dramatic, and that didn’t really fit the serialized form I’ve been working with, so this is only the first half of that scene.
Also, I got a little off on some of the names: in Chapter Ten, I referred to a friend of Noomi’s named Claire, while in Chapter Five, that same girl had the name Lissy. While writing Chapter Five, I changed her name from Claire to Lissy because there was already a character in the story named Clara, but I like Claire better for, well, Claire’s character, so Claire it shall be. I’ll go back and correct that in the edits I make for this section, and I’ll give Clara a different name.
Without further ado…
“Are you sure it’s okay?”
“Hai, kawai. You can go. Dr. Chase says it’s okay. But be careful. I don’t want to hear that you’ve been drinking, or, ten wa kinshi, smoking.”
“I won’t, kasaan. I promise.”
I throw my jacket around my shoulders and plant a kiss on Ada’s plump cheek.
“Noomi!” she protests.
“What? I just want to say goodbye to the tastiest peach I know,” I say, in English.
“I’m trying to read.” She hasn’t set her newest library book down since I picked it up for her this afternoon. She buried her face in it and almost didn’t notice when mother set a bowl of her favorite udon in front of her.
“You can read all night long, sweet pea. Give me a kiss before I leave.”
Ada glances away from the book for just long enough to graze my cheek with a kiss. Her eyes drop back to the pages almost immediately. I smile. I was like that too, at her age.
“Sayonara, kasaan,” I say, waving.
Claire’s house is just a few blocks from my own, so I leave the keys behind and instead shrug on my jacket and a scarf for the walk over. It doesn’t take long. When I turn onto her street, I notice Kalifa’s car and a few others I don’t recognize. With chattering teeth, I knock on Claire’s door and stomp my feet for a bit of warmth.
The door swings open.
“Noomi!” Kalifa welcomes me in and pulls me in for a hug. I relish the warmth that settles on me as I step inside.
“Oh my god,” I say, running my hands over the lower end of her golden hijab. “This is gorgeous.”
Her face lights up, dark eyes creasing at the edges.
“A birthday present from my parents. It’s nice, isn’t it? It’s a fabric imported from Dubai.”
“It’s fantastic.” I rub the silken cloth between my fingertips, remembering the red and orange ribbons that twisted around me in Silas’ Aurora, the slick chill as they twisted up my arms and hands. That world doesn’t exist, I remind myself sternly.
“Happy birthday!” I say, dropping the fabric of the hijab as I take Kalifa’s hands in my own. Her birthday is tomorrow, but Claire’s parents are only out of town for one day, so she decided to have this gathering tonight.
“Thank you!” She squeezes my fingers. “You’re okay, right? We were worried about you this afternoon.”
“Noomi!” Claire herself appears over Kalifa’s shoulders, grinning madly, her long red hair splashing across her shoulders. “Come in! Want a beer? Or we have vodka if you want some of that.”
I follow as Claire and Kalifa turn and head towards the kitchen.
“No thanks. I’ll take a soda if you’ve got one.”
Claire throws her arm over my shoulder and whispers, conspiratorially, “Be cool, Noomi. Basi’s here.”
“I’m always cool, Claire.”
I hear a whisper behind me, a voice I vaguely recognize. I twist my head to find the source.
“What?” I ask.
But there’s no one there.
Claire glances askance at me.
“Who are you talking to?”
I shake my head.
“Nothing. I thought I heard someone.”
We emerge into the kitchen and the lights are suddenly bright overhead. Jen and Kim, two of our friends from a different school district, are sipping from beer cans and chatting animatedly with two boys I remember meeting a while back, Daniel and Francisco. Daniel, skinny and the taller of the two, has fair hair and freckles dotting his nose and cheeks. Francisco’s much better looking, with dark skin, jet black hair, and eyes so dark he almost looks like he’s wearing makeup.
His eyes are so dark they remind me of the shadows.
I push that thought away. This is the last place I want to call them to me. I can’t think about them. Not tonight.
“Look who I found!” Claire says. She pops the tab on two beer cans and hands one to me. “Sorry, Noomi. I don’t have any soda.” She grins like a little sprite.
Oh, well, I sigh, thinking back on my promise to my mother before she let me out. One beer isn’t going to kill me.
Amidst greetings from Jen and Kim, smiles and hugs, Francisco finds his way to my side.
“Hey,” he says, smiling at me. “It’s Noomi, right?”
“Yes. Good memory. You’re Francisco, right?”
“A name like yours is hard to forget. You can call me Poncho if you want.” He leans towards me and wraps his arms around me. I stiffen, not used to such a familiar gesture from someone I’ve only met once. But his body is warm and strong, comforting, so I relax a little and pat his back awkwardly.
“It’s good to see you again,” he says, pulling away. “You remember Dan?”
“Hey,” he says, giving me a quick smile, but his attention quickly returns to Jen and Kim.
“Here comes Basi,” Kalifa whispers into my ear.
Claire almost skips over to the dark-skinned boy coming down the hall from the bathroom, though I can tell she’s trying to check herself. Just a glance at him explains why she’s been obsessing over him for the last two months. He’s tall with black skin, a shaved head and a lithe, athletic build. In a green polo shirt with fitted jeans, he looks as sophisticated as a seventeen year old can be. And when he opens his mouth and greets me with in a British accent, it’s all I can do not to fall in love with him, too.
“You must be Noomi,” Basi says, his voice almost as deep as my father’s was. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
I fight the urge to giggle.
“I’ve heard a lot about you too,” I respond, taking a swig from the can in my hand. The bitter, sour flavor washes through my mouth and I try not to let my distaste show on my face.
“Claire says you’re quite the scientist,” Basi says, cracking a beer himself.
“Noomi,” I hear someone say over my shoulder, a disembodied voice floating up to me. I recognize it. Whose is it?
But when I turn, there’s no one there.
A chill runs up my spine. Why am I hearing these voices? This has never happened to me before. Trying to quell my fear, I turn back to Basi, smiling nervously.
“Sorry. I thought I heard my name. What were you saying?”
“Basi!” Claire pops up next to us and cuts him off, her hand on his shoulder. “Want to play a game of pool?”
“I’d love to,” he smiles at her, and I can tell just by the way he looks at her that, behind his sophisticated demeanor, he’s a little nervous in front of her, too.
I follow them down to the basement, sipping occasionally and listening to the chatter around me. Francisco comes to stand by me while Kalifa, Jen, and Kim flirt with Daniel. The doorbell rings and two more boys show up, neither of whom I recognize. Lissy introduces them to me as Lin and Ben, but they drift off quickly to talk to the other girls.
“Want another beer?” Francisco asks.
He points to the empty can in my hand.
“You seem to have finished that one. Want another?”
No, I think.
“Sure,” I say.
He smiles and heads back upstairs while Claire sinks the eight ball in her game against Basi.
“How did you do that so quickly?” he asks, staring at the table in wonderment.
“I’m a ninja,” she says, winking at me.
When Francisco returns and hands me a second can, it occurs to me that I might already be feeling the alcohol a little bit. The room seems brighter than usual, but somehow distant, as though I’m seeing everything through dirty glass. I take a swig and make a face.
“Not a fan?” Francisco asks.
“I don’t usually drink,” I say.
“Ah,” he says, a smile drifting onto his face. “Feeling it a little bit?”
I try to play it cool.
“Not really. Not yet. But I don’t like how it tastes.”
“Well, if you’ve never had a drink before, you’ll probably start to notice it pretty quickly.”
Blackness swims at the edges of my vision. I glance around the room, unsure if I’m feeling the adverse affects of the alcohol, or if the shadows are creeping at me again. I focus on the bright green pop of color on Basi’s shirt as he loses a second game to Claire, and the blackness fades away. But the haziness remains.
“So where are you from?” Francisco asks me.
“Here,” I say. “I was born and raised here in Oregon.”
He laughs, a low, rumbling sound that seems to come from his chest more than anything. It occurs to me that I’ve never really seen Silas smile. Only once, in his color world. Francisco, though, seems to do nothing but smile. His demeanor is kinder, softer. Silas seems protected by a hard outer shell, some sort of intensity that must be broken through before you can feel any tenderness from him.
“No, I meant, what is your ethnic heritage? You look very different from most other people I meet around here.”
“Oh! My mother is Japanese and my father was from Mexico.”
“’Was?’” He raises an eyebrow.
“He passed away when I was ten.”
There’s a long silence. I take another swig. I’ve learned by now to ignore the bitter taste, the slight burn at the back of my throat from the carbonation and the acid. I hate it when people ask me about my father. I have no choice but to respond, but it murders any prior conversation.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“It’s okay.” I turn to him, to meet his eyes. “I don’t really like to talk about it, though. What about you? Where are you from?”
“My mother emigrated from Mexico. But my father is Egyptian. My mother was illegal, but we got her papers and documentation last year.”
“Yeah. It was a big deal.”
I hear footsteps coming down the stairs and see Claire carrying a baking tray full of dixie cups.
“What the hell is that?” I ask.
“Jello shots!” Kim shouts back at me, from across the room. “Jen and I made them earlier today—we just had to wait for them to set!”
I glance at Kalifa, standing to the side with her arms crossed. She meets my eyes and rolls hers skyward, but I can see a smile playing about her lips.
“You don’t mind, do you, Kal?” Claire asks.
“I would never deprive my friends of fun,” Kalifa calls back.
“Noomi? Poncho? Dan? You want in?”
I glance at Francisco, who’s looking at me as though waiting for me to make a decision. I throw my hands up in surrender, and he grins.
“I’m spending the night here, right?”
“That’s the spirit!” Claire hands me a dixie cup full of radioactive-red jello. I watch the other girls tear the sides of their paper cups and follow suit.
“Cheers!” Claire says, holding her shot in the air above her head. She tears into hers and everyone does the same. I put the dixie cup to my mouth and bite into the cold jello. The falsely sweet flavor almost tastes like the color it is—an artificially bright red, an impossibly sweet cherry that doesn’t exist anywhere in the natural world. I suck it down, tasting the harsh accent of what I assume is vodka, and immediately regret it. But Francisco looks over at me and laughs, his hands cupped over his face.
“You look like you just ate roadkill.”
“I kind of feel like I did,” I confess.
“Jello has a very special place in the world, and it’s usually at the bottom of a trash can.”
I can’t help but laugh, even as I feel the blood rushing to my head and the pounding in my veins that tells me I’m definitely feeling the alcohol now. I look up at Francisco and notice he’s a little fuzzy around the edges.But his eyes are deep and dark, and the soapy, musky smell of his skin draws me closer to him. He takes my hand in his, and the world seems to roil like the waves on the river. I fall into him, leaning against him, and he steadies me.
“Noomi,” I hear the voice behind me a third time, the whisper I’ve been hearing all night.
I turn my head, disbelieving. I already know there’s no one behind me.
But there is.