Ari would have laughed if she’d had it in her. “Ms. Maggie won’t hurt you.”
Rachel paled. “Seriously, Ari, it freaks me out. Stop?”
Taking pity on her friend, Ari nodded. “Sorry.”
They were quiet a moment, each assessing the other. Finally Rachel shook her head. “I don’t know what’s happened between ten minutes ago and now but it can’t be good.”
“Charlie’s screwing some girl in my dad’s bed.”
Rachel blanched. “You saw?”
Ari shrugged numbly.
Sighing, Rachel slumped down next to her. She nudged her with her elbow. “You know you’re not in love with him, right?”
“What?” Ari snapped, shifting away from her.
“Oh come on, Ari. You’re not in love with that guy!” she gestured towards the door. “You’re in love with Charlie Creagh, sixteen year old cutie and all-around good guy. He’s not there anymore. I’m sorry but he’s gone. And you have too much going for you to pine over a ghost. So will you please, please , get over him?”
The words tumbling out of Rachel’s mouth infuriated her for so many reasons but mostly because Ari knew she loved Charlie. It wouldn’t hurt so much if she didn’t love him. Right? She shook her head. “You’re wrong.”
Rachel’s delicate jaw clenched but she was silent. After a few seconds she finally stood up, holding out her hand. “We’ll agree to disagree. But for now… you’re coming with me because your birthday surprise awaits you.”
Ari found herself smiling despite it all. “What did you do?” she asked warily, taking her friend’s hand.
Rachel grinned. “You’ll see.”
“Uh…why is there a half-naked hot guy in my living room?”
Sitting on top of a table that had been covered with a vibrant blue silk tablecloth with gold tassels on the end was some buff guy dressed as a… genie??
“Strike that. Why is there a genie in my living room?” Ari turned wide-eyed to Rachel who was grinning at their surprise guest; their surprise guest who at present was holding Staci’s palm and murmuring something to her. Behind Staci was a line of girls. The guys were scattered around the room, looking a little doubtful and pissed that someone had turned the PS3 off.
“He’s here to grant us all a wish.” Rachel clapped her hands together. “Isn’t it cool? We thought we’d get, like, a psychic or something but instead we came across this guy. I tried to convince him that he was really a stripper trapped in a genie’s body but he wasn’t having any of that so what’s left of his clothes will unfortunately be staying on.”
Thank God , Ari blushed at the mere thought of having this super tall, buff, exotic man with the bald head and gold hoop earrings, naked in her house. Her father would kill her. “Question,” she murmured, her eyes washing over his bright red harem pants and Arabic curly-toed slippers. “Since when does a genie do palm readings?”
Rachel shrugged. “Oh he’s like a psychic too.”
“Birthday girl is here!” Rachel suddenly announced, grabbing her by the arm. “Make way, make way.” She pulled her to a stop, shoving Staci none-too-gently out of the way. “Here,” she said to the genie guy. “This is Ari. The birthday girl.”
When Ari finally stopped glaring at Rachel for shoving Staci, she turned to look up at the guy perched crossed-legged on the table. His deep, dark eyes immediately sucked her in and Ari lost her breath at how intense his expression was. His beautiful features tightened and he reached out to her, taking her hand without permission.
“I am Rabir. What wish may I grant beautiful Ari on this special day?”
She heard giggling from beside her and all around but Ari didn’t find it so funny with his abnormally hot hand clasped around hers. His energy seemed to flow into her, holding tight, begging her to make a wish as if it were somehow life or death to him that she did so.
“What do you wish for, Ari? Wish it inside, no words necessary, and I will make it a reality.”
Her conscience told her it was a lot of crap but her heart… her heart held on to this gimmick genie/psychic guy and it wished for something she had never even known she wanted until today.
I wish I could see my mother .
As soon as she thought it the genie let go, a wicked smile stretching his lips. Ari stumbled back at his expression, a spark of fiery red glinting in his eyes. He looked… evil.
That’s ridiculous. He’s not evil. Right? She narrowed her eyes searching his expression for light. There was none.
She laughed nervously, shrugging it off, turning to Rachel as a means of escape.
“What did you wish?” Rachel grinned.
Ari took a few more steps back. “If I told you that it won’t come true.”
“Oh boo you.” Her friend turned to the genie. “My turn!”
Feeling hot and thirsty Ari snuck out of the room as the girls grew more animated about getting their wishes granted. She pulled the refrigerator door open and enjoyed the chill that wafted over her skin, trying to shake off the weird guy in her living room.
“Did you like your surprise?”
Having already been wondering if and when Nick was going to corner her, Ari wasn’t surprised when she shut the door to see him leaning back against the kitchen counter. She shrugged. “Typical Rachel to pull something this weird on my birthday.”
Nick chuckled. “The girls seem to like him.”
“That’s because Rabir is built like Jared Padalecki and is half-naked.”
He laughed. “Yeah.”
An awkward silence fell between them and Ari took a gulp of Diet Coke hoping when she drew breath he’d be gone. He wasn’t. Still unsettled, Ari pulled out a chair and flopped down into it. “You enjoying the party?”
“I was until Rachel shut off the PlayStation .”
Ari snorted. “Yeah, sorry about that. When Rachel wants something done a certain way…”
“Yeah, I know, she was my lab partner this year.”
That made her laugh. She could just imagine how much torture Nick had undergone. She smiled sympathetically and watched his eyes brighten.
“God, you are so special, you have no idea.” Nick shook his head
Uh oh . Ari felt her stomach roil. She did not want to do this again. “Nick—”
“No, don’t.” He held up a hand to interrupt to her. “I know you just want to be friends, Ari. I do. And I know it’s because of that knob Creagh. So OK. Let’s be friends. Let’s hang out this summer?”
Blushing, Ari looked at the floor, unable to meet his eyes as she replied, “You don’t look at me like you want to be just friends, Nick.”
“That’s because I don’t. I want more.”
“Then we shouldn’t hang out. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
“I know where you stand. I do. I can be friends with you without making you uncomfortable. Just… give me a chance. Please?”
Feeling bad, Ari grimaced, finally drawing her eyes up to meet his. “Nick… I want to hang out with you this summer but I can’t if you keep saying things like ‘I want more’.”
He laughed and stood up away from the counter. “OK. I won’t. I swear.”
“Do you know how many girls would kill for you to say that to them? You should be back in that living room, choosing one of them .”
He shook his head. “I want someone special. I’ll wait for her. And while I’m waiting I want to hang out with my friend Ari.”
Flattered, despite it all, that he thought her so special, Ari stood up, pulling a fresh beer out of the refrigerator for him. “Come on,” she said, clinking their bottles together. “Let’s go get that PS 3 turned back on.”
Nick and A.J . kept her mind off Charlie for the rest of the night with their antics. She laughed a lot with them, letting her worries disappear as she spent one last night with all the kids she’d hung out at high school with for the last few years. The genie mysteriously disappeared an hour after his arrival, an hour before his booked time. Rachel had been pissed because she’d paid to have him there for the two hours. Somehow, Staci talked her down. Personally Ari was glad he had left. The guy gave her the heebie jeebies and as for the thing she’d wished for… well… she didn’t even want to think about that.
For a brief moment, when A.J. wasn’t cracking a joke and she was left quietly sipping her drink, Charlie and the girl upstairs crossed her mind and the breath whooshed out of her body. She took a moment, not even pulling away when Nick wrapped an arm around her shoulders and hugged her close. The party played out around her in a blur of movement and color. Words were spoken, hands touched, lips kissed a cheek. But none of it meant anything to her. She let it happen, glad for the distance between her mind and it.
It was late when people started to leave. Rachel and Staci wanted to stay behind to clean up but Ari just wanted everyone out. Maybe she was more like her dad than she thought because all she wanted now was to be alone. She wanted silence. It took a lot of energy, and some pleading with her eyes at Nick, but between the two of them they managed to persuade Rache and Staci to leave. She hugged her friends as they stepped out into the cool night air, throwing themselves into the back seat of Staci’s dad’s car. God, she hoped they didn’t throw up. She shut the door.
Alone. At last.
Ari turned the lock on the door and strolled slowly back to her living room. Paper cups, streamers, and wrapping paper littered every available space. Her gifts were scattered all over, some of them already broken. Drink spilled onto furniture, food was crunched into the floor. Just the thought of cleaning it up exhausted her.
“I’ll do it in the morning,” she mumbled, turning for the stairs.
The strange events of the day buzzed in the background of her mind and echoed in raw pain in her chest but exhaustion won out. Kicking off her shoes, Ari climbed into her huge bed with her jeans still on and collapsed back against her pillow, sinking into the cold mattress.