Sisterhood Of Fear
“Have you lost your mind?” Ryan shouted, staring, slack-jawed at his friend. All around them, the noise and clamor of a crowded bar on a Friday night rippled, paused, and recommenced, absorbing the sound and dispersing it.
“Not at all,” Jack replied, “and you look like a trout. Close your mouth, man. Now, if you’ll settle down and really think about what I’m asking, you’ll see that it could be a great idea.” He took a sip of his beer and sighed in appreciation of its savory, balanced flavor.
Ryan took a larger, more fortifying gulp from his own frosty mug. “I don’t have to think long to tell you it won’t work,” he reiterated, though at a lower volume
“Why not?” Jack raked his fingers through sandy hair that walked the line between brown and blond, making the coarse strands stand on end. “Try to see it from my perspective, would you? As my friend you at least owe me that much.”
“Jack, you just asked me to marry your little sister. If you have a reason why that’s a good idea, I’m all ears.”
Jack sighed and took another drink. “Remember about a year ago, when my parents died in that car wreck?”
Ryan nodded. “Damned shame. They were great folks.”
“They were,” Jack agreed. “Best parents ever.” He rubbed his eyes as though tired, but when he opened them the whites had taken on a reddish tone that contrasted with the bright blue of the irises.
I don’t blame him, Ryan thought. They were more parents to me than my own. I think I miss them almost as much as their own kids do.
Jack inhaled and then released the air in a deep sigh. “Well, you might recall I was all set to go to grad school right before it happened.” Ryan nodded. “I deferred enrollment for a year so I could stay with Olivia. She was only seventeen and not ready to be on her own. But if I don’t go now, I’ll lose my spot. Listen, Jack, I hope I don’t sound like a selfish bastard, but my whole future is on the line here.”
Ryan didn’t point out that if Jack lost his place in the MIT graduate school, he would certainly be accepted with joy at any number of other universities around the nation, including ones closer to home. It’s the name he wants, and the program. Anything else would be a consolation prize he has no need to accept. “Well, yeah, I understand that. I mean, this is MIT we’re talking about. But, Jack, Olivia isn’t a kid anymore. Didn’t she just turn eighteen? She doesn’t need you anymore.”
“Well, yeah,” Jack agreed. “She is eighteen, but—”
“But nothing. She’ll be fine. She has the house, right?”
“Right,” Jack agreed, frowning.
“And the insurance money. She shouldn’t need to worry about groceries or anything, right?”
“Right.” Jack opened his mouth to say more, but Ryan interrupted.
“This isn’t necessary. I’ll stop by often, help her out, make sure she’s okay, but marrying her? There’s no need for that.” Relieved to have solved his best friend’s problem without any unnecessary drama, Ryan sank back into the soft vinyl cushion of the booth and took a swig of beer. The moment he closed his lips around the mug, Jack burst into the silence.
“No, that won’t work. Listen, Ryan. I know my sister. She may be eighteen, but she’s still in high school. Has another year to go. And don’t forget, Mom always babied Olivia. She’s not ready to be on her own. Not even close. She needs someone there to keep an eye on her.”
Ryan swallowed and shook his head. “You present a compelling case,” he drawled, sarcasm dripping from every word. “Your sister is too babyish to be left alone so I should marry her. That’s the kind of wife I always dreamed about. Will I have to change her diapers, too?”
“Shut up,” Jack snapped. “That’s not what I meant. Can’t you seriously think about my idea?”
“Your idea is insane.” Ryan gulped down his drink. “Sorry, man. There’s no way. If she’s too immature to be on her own, then she’s also too immature to be married. Let her live with a friend until she graduates and goes off to college. As I said, I’ll be happy to look in on her from time to time, but marriage is out of the question.”
“Nice.” Jack scowled. “What a wonderful person you are, Ryan Lawrence. How many weeks at a time did my parents take you in when your mom was too drunk to stand up from the couch, or when your dad went on a drug-induced rampage? How much time and energy did they spend untangling your sorry life to be sure you didn’t go down that path? How much money did they spend taking you to college interviews? Whose home did you stay at for every Christmas, Thanksgiving and summer break for the last four years? Do you really think the pittance of rent you paid makes up for a lifetime of them parenting someone else’s kid? Maybe they weren’t as successful with you as they always thought.”
The words provoked an instant reaction. Rage and guilt twirled in a tornado in Ryan’s belly, until he wanted to retch with it. “That’s a low blow, man,” he managed to choke out.
“Maybe so, but I’m not sorry,” Jack replied. “I’m moving halfway across the country and leaving my teenage sister alone with a huge old house to take care of. She’s never lived by herself, and she still has to finish high school. I won’t feel right about this unless I know she’s in good hands. You’re one of the few people I trust. You’re practically family already. Please, Ryan. At least consider it.”
Ryan glared. “Do you think Olivia will give the slightest attention to this cockamamie idea? For all I know she already has a boyfriend. Besides, you’re right – I’m like family, so that makes her more my sister than anything else. Gross, man.”
“Oh, give it up. You never acted like her brother. I never saw the slightest indication of it. You never teased her or wrestled with her. And I’ve seen you checking her out,” Jack protested. “Deny it.”
Ryan sighed. “Okay, yes. Your sister is very pretty. That doesn’t mean I want to marry her, or that she wants to marry me, just because you’re leaving, and—”
“And she doesn’t have a boyfriend,” Jack interrupted. “I asked.”
Ryan raised his eyebrows. “Does she know about this?” If she knows what he’s up to, it’s a completely different question.
“Not exactly,” Jack admitted. “She knows I don’t like having to leave her alone, and I know she’s not happy about it either, but she gets why I have to.”
“Everyone gets why you have to, Jack,” Ryan said. He rested his elbow on the table and leaned his forehead into his hand. “No one – not Olivia, not me – no one wants you to miss out on MIT. And I do get why you’re worried about your sister. Living alone while finishing high school will be hard on her, but I still don’t understand why I can’t just check in on her a couple times a week. She’s not helpless. Besides, have you really thought through what marriage means? Is this supposed to be a temporary arrangement just for the year? Am I supposed to annul it and send her off to college, or do you mean a real marriage, Jack? Do you want me to sleep with her?”
Jack frowned. “I don’t know. That would be up to you and Olivia to decide. Please feel free not to share the details.”
“Uh, in case you didn’t notice, I haven’t agreed,” Ryan reminded him. “I think this plan is crazy. We can’t arrange Olivia’s marriage behind her back. That’s stupid. There’s no way you or I can make a decision like that for her. I mean, we couldn’t even if we wanted to. She’s an adult, even if she is young. Legally, she has to agree.”
“Ask her, then,” Jack urged. “I think she would appreciate not coming home to an empty house every day. She’s still grieving our parents, you know? It’s been a rough year.”
“I’m sure of that,” Ryan said. He closed his eyes and called to mind the image of Jack’s baby sister. She is beautiful, he admitted to himself. And I have checked her out. I’m not a saint. She has a nice lean athletic shape… and those eyes. But that doesn’t mean I want to marry her. I’m twenty-three. I have a lot of living left to do before I settle down. Wild oats to sow. Although… the image in his mind changed from Olivia the way he normally saw her, fully dressed and moving; jogging, kicking the soccer ball, cleaning, or curled up on the couch reading a book, to a different image, one that caused an instant and painful physical reaction. If I did marry her, I could sleep with her, and Jack wouldn’t be able to say a word. I could undress that toned body, watch those ice blue eyes turn soft with passion, kiss those pretty pink lips… He opened his eyes dispelling the image. “But that doesn’t make this a good idea.”
“I know I’m asking a lot, Ryan,” Jack admitted. “I’m at my wit’s end here. I can’t just leave her to her own devices. If something happened to her, I’d never forgive myself. I have to know she’s okay. I have to.”
Olivia’s not the only one who’s still grieving, Ryan realized. You know, it might not be a bad idea to talk to her. Tell her what her brother’s up to. She’s a smart girl. Maybe we can come up with an idea that would put Jack’s mind at ease. One that doesn’t involve being half husband, half babysitter. “I will not agree to anything,” Ryan said. “I think this plan will lead to disaster. However, I will talk to her. See what she has to say, what she wants. We’ll figure out something, okay? But, Jack, how I watch over your sister will be for her and me to decide, not you. You’ll have to agree with whatever we decide. Understand? No more meddling.”
“Thank you, Ryan,” Jack said. “And please, don’t dismiss the idea of marriage altogether.”
Like a dog with a bone, always. Good for his education and career, but not so much for his friendships. “I won’t dismiss or decide until I’ve talked to Olivia. Ultimately, it has to be her choice.”
The raucous noise seemed to assault Ryan from the outside, pounding his eardrums until they felt like they were bleeding. Bleeding like his heart. He scanned the crowded, noisy club. Intoxicated young people tossed down shots and swilled cheap beer from pale bottles. Some – girls clad in belly-baring, off-the-shoulder tops and guys with sleeveless shirts and torn jeans – gyrated and shimmied to the sound of Pat Benatar and Styx. Many groped one another with unsteady hands as they lurched around the packed dance floor, held upright by the shoulders of their neighbors. If you pulled one down, they would all tumble like dominoes, he thought irreverently.
A tug on his shoulder turned his attention to the pretty blond, her long curls hanging down her back. She stared at him with wide brown eyes. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
At least, he assumed that’s what she said. The noise obliterated the soft tone of her voice, so he had only the movement of her lips to inform him.
“Where is Olivia?” he asked, not bothering to yell. What’s the point? She won’t hear me anyway.
The blond – what did she say her name was? Tina? Tammie? – shrugged and waved at the sea of underage humanity. He lowered one eyebrow at her, and she flinched. For such a pretty, bubbly-looking girl, she seems defeated. Like a cheerleader who’s been cut from the squad.
Ryan moved away from his companion, trying to get as close to the wall as possible, still scanning the crowd. Livvy is pretty, but in a room like this, even the prettiest brunette won’t stand out, and she’s not particularly tall either. Good luck, man.
Carefully he skirted the dance floor, peering at each face until his eyes felt bruised and his head pounded. Where is she? This isn’t that big a room. I wonder if Tawny or whatever her name is made a mistake.
The slender curve of a narrow waist snared his eye first. Then the dark, straight hair. Straight in a room full of perms. No backcombing, no tower of bangs rising above the head. She sat on a sofa. Sprawled, more like, and some idiot in a denim jacket clutched her tight, lips locked to hers. The blond girl, Olivia’s roommate, attempted to capture her attention, but Olivia brushed her away.
“Come on, hon. Please, you need to stop.”
Ryan had moved close enough to hear the girl’s voice over the din.
“Go away, Taylor,” Olivia snarled as the man, deprived of her lips, began to kiss her neck.
“I’m not kidding, Olivia, let’s go.”
Taylor? Yeah, that was it, Taylor Hines, Ryan recalled as he clamped his hand down hard on Olivia’s shoulder. She jumped, nearly knocking the other man to the floor as she flew to her feet and whirled around. Her eyes bugged out.
“Just what the hell is going on here?”
“Back off, dude.” The man, a bulky blond more than a head taller than Ryan, rose to a menacing height, his shadow blocking out the club’s inadequate lighting.
Ryan shook his head. “Sorry. Not happening.”
He cracked his knuckles.
“Not even if you threaten me,” Ryan added. “See, this one’s not on the market. She’s my wife.”
The man blinked, brows furrowing. “Wife?”
“Yes. Tell him, Olivia.”
Olivia hiccupped but didn’t answer. He turned his attention to her, just as her muscles seemed to melt. Her eyes rolled back and her knees buckled. Ryan caught her before she could fall and hoisted her against his chest. Her companion stared. Neanderthal.
“Mister, if you’re really her husband, get her the hell out of here,” Taylor urged. “This is not a good place. None of us are safe.”
Nervous kitten, this Taylor. “Let’s go.”
Pushing past the still-bewildered man, Ryan carried Olivia into the cool evening air. Her eyelids fluttered, but she didn’t wake. “Any idea how much she had to drink? Does she normally go overboard like this?”
Taylor bit her lip. “I don’t know.”
“Aren’t you her roommate?” he snapped, alarmed by his wife’s unresponsiveness.
Taylor scowled. “Aren’t you her husband? You tell me.” Her hard gaze immediately turned worried, and she placed a hand on Olivia’s forehead, and then on her throat. Her eyes widened. “Her heart is pounding. This is not right.” She shuddered, and he could see that something about Olivia’s condition struck a deep chord with the woman.
“How do you know?”
“I’m pre-nursing, mister, with a semester of classes almost completed. Plus, I’ve been a lifeguard since I was fourteen and I have a lot of CPR training. Let’s get her back to the room and see if she wakes up. If not, I’m calling an ambulance.”
“Okay.” Not knowing what else to do, Ryan trailed after Taylor, carrying Olivia’s unconscious body close to his chest. She weighs more than I remember.
The bar, across the street from the university, spilled loud music and drunken students into the night behind them, but they never stopped moving to look. Taylor led Ryan along a twisting cobblestone walkway under the shadow of dark and empty buildings, back toward the sorority house, their place of safety. She did not speak, but drew closer and closer to Ryan as the shadows crowded deeper, coiled in places into solid-seeming shapes poised to spring. Olivia twitched and muttered in Ryan’s arms, at times nearly wrenching herself from his grasp, but still far from coherent.
They hurried the last few feet past a building with multiple, spidery window-eyes that reflected the moonlight with an eerie luminescence. Naked trees became hairy, waving limbs in the darkness. Beyond, a pool of welcoming golden light spilled through a glass-fronted door. The sign mounted above showed two Greek letters, a circle with a thick line slashed vertically through its center and a large, fat letter ‘O’. Ryan’s semesters of Greek studies in high school and college allowed him immediately to recognize them. Phi Omicron. Must be the name of the sorority.
Taylor opened the door and peeked in. “Come on,” she whispered. “Hurry. The desk gargoyle is gone.”