THE zombies weren’t scheduled to attack until three o’clock.
“Trip!” Rina shrieked, but he could only see white lace arms above the mob. Central Park buzzed around him: a couple of news vans idled alongside a huge arch-banner that read “OUTRUN: ORGAN TRAIL. Zombie Runners This Way!” Trip tried to pick a path toward his friend through the costumes and New Year’s partiers starting early, but the insanity at the tents made navigation almost impossible.
His armpits slid with sweat. For December 31, the muggy air felt unseasonably warm. Afternoon sun spilled across the concrete, gilding the bare trees. Trip’s nose ran and his eyes itched, looking at all that untamed Nature; a few of his allergies were already doing the tango.
Finally, a petite hand grabbed the waist of his sweats and yanked: Jillian.
“C’mon! They’re calling people to the starting line.” Jillian sported an iridescent pink dress with a ruched pouf skirt that reminded Trip of the prom in Westchester and blowing his lab partner. Jillian had pinned a scalloped rhinestone tiara aggressively atop her black bob. On her pale, pert figure, the getup made her look like Audrey Hepburn on crystal meth.
The OutRun volunteers had set up base camp by the reservoir. An old Armenian man sold bright T-shirts to the crowds that had turned up to watch these jogging idiots gather to flee the undead beneath an upholstered winter sky.
Jillian used her delicate elbows like meat hooks to clear a path through the boisterous, costumed mob to get to the changing tents. A squad of cheerleaders. A Spider-Man. Someone dressed as a slice of pizza. A compost heap of borrowed imagination.
“We have a cameraman!” Jillian pushed him through a flap and to the left but then abandoned him and veered right to rummage out of sight on the other side of the tent.
Rina lifted her pearl-studded veil and gave him the wet Brazilian doe eyes. At a stoop sale in Harlem, she’d bought a hoop-skirted horror of a wedding gown with fluttery lace panels that made her olive skin glow and hugged her bombshell figure. Sound logic: who didn’t want to watch a busty blushing bride hunted and dismembered by a flesh-eating horde?
She rubbed his back in coaxing circles with her fingerless gloves. “You are my spirit animal, Trip! I swear.”
“And I am her spirit litter box.” Jillian returned to their corner, dragging a suspiciously heavy tote bag. She looked like a pixie walking a dead mastiff.
He consciously forced a hard sneeze back into his chest.
“We’re gonna battle the living dead on video.” With Rina, business always came first. She tucked another sprig of baby’s breath into her brown tendrilly updo. “I got like two thousand people following my blog to watch.”
“And I cannot run with a camera between my tits for three hours. The end.” Jillian didn’t even wheedle; her former life in musicals had worn her velvet away. “Where’s your Unboyfriend? Staplegun.”
“Stapleton. He’s not a—” Trip scowled. “Stop calling him that. Cliff’s my friend. And my editor. We’re colleagues.”
Holy crock of shit, Batman.
Jillian and Rina raised their eyebrows at each other. Caught between them, he almost felt their scorn frying him like a poodle in a microwave.
For four years, Trip had pined pointlessly over Cliff J. Stapleton. No secret. Just buddies. Cliff knew Trip was “like that,” and Trip hoped Cliff might be “like that” one day. “I didn’t drag my ass out here so you could talk shit about my—”
“Unboyfriend?” Rina covered her sarcastic smile with a lacy glove.
“Well, hun, Cliff ain’t your boyfriend. Did you spend the night on his couch again?”
For a split second, Trip considered lying. He shrugged and held up his sneakers. “Yeah. We watched X-Men: First Class and I crashed.”
True in its particulars. Actually, Trip threw a quilt over Cliff and resisted the urge to remove his boxer briefs, which had felt like a major moral victory.
Rina wedged more baby’s breath into her chignon, then varnished with hairspray until the wisps looked crispy. “You spend every fucking weekend with him and draw his comic instead of your own.”
“All of the dickiness, none of the dick. Ergo: Unboyfriend.” Jillian rummaged in the tote and extracted a pile of folded aqua cotton. “Costume.”
“Costume?” Trip’s eyes bulged. Maybe he should bail. He unfolded a set of surgical scrubs, size large and stiff with newness. Even worse, Jillian had bought them for her husband, and Ben had about thirty pounds on him, easy. Great. “I’m too skinny to wear these. And I’ll freeze to death.” Total lie: the humid air smeared him with sweat.
“No bitching.” Jillian’s pretty, angular features turned the demand into a children’s game somehow: Duck duck puke. She flapped her hands at his clothes. “Strip!”
And then, somehow, he found himself standing in Central Park wearing a pair of striped lavender boxer briefs, clutching his munchables.
At least he’d worn underwear.
Trip glared at them. The good mood from waking up on Cliff’s couch had evaporated, and he felt like a credulous tool. He stuffed his legs into the stiff unwashed scrub bottoms. Now he wanted to be gone.
Except Jillian and Rina had trained and planned for the zombie run for three months. They’d blogged and twatted all their preparations to the website fans. Then last Saturday, Jillian’s husband cracked a crown at a bat mitzvah.
Exit coordinated cameraman. Enter spastic gay friend.
Please don’t let me rupture something.
Trip sniffled. “So… the humans all run and fake zombies chase us? Or is it like an obstacle course where they pop out?”
“Both.” Rina crouched in her huge gown and stapled the scrub-legs shorter so he could kill himself more easily. “Ghetto hem.”
He shrugged into the chest harness.
“You don’t have to wear the surgical mask if you don’t want.”
“I do want.”
“Don’t you dare!” Jillian smacked his shoulder and snatched the cotton mask away. Of his two closest friends, she worried the most about his personal life. “There’s, like, a zillion hot fellas in the park.” She hooked an arm through his. “A fucking tsunami of geek beef. You can’t wear a bag over your face.”
Funny thing: they wanted him to have a boyfriend way more than he did. Hell, they watched more gay porn than he did. As the gay friend in these situations, he always ended up in the corner holding someone’s purse.
“Fine. No mask.” Fuck this.
“Tons of comic buffs out here, too, y’know. Killer PR for you.” Rina finished stapling and stood, then wiped leaf mold off her hands onto her bodice, blinding white against her coffee-and-cream cleavage. “Who knows what you’ll catch?”
“Malaria.” He scratched his arms.
Jillian piped up, “A real boyfriend.”
Trip examined the tent flap. He couldn’t walk out, but maybe he could miss the starting line. “I don’t want a real boyfriend.”
“Which is why you have a fake one.” Jillian bent and snapped the digital camera in front of his sternum. “’Cause jerking off over your straight boss and waiting for him to green-light your comic is so fulfilling.”
“Cliff is my editor, not my boss.” Trip scowled at the top of her head. “We collaborate.” He sniffed hard. By the end of the day, the pollen and mold would probably kill him. “Ugh. Nature.” I can’t cope. Would the girls forgive him if he just left?
Rina wrapped a belt with Velcro flags around his waist. Ka-klamp, klamp.
He peered down at the camera strapped to his chest like an electric barnacle. “Take the camera. Bladder break. I need a waz.”
“Pain to reattach. Just turn it off.”
Damn. Maybe he could “get separated” during the run and ditch.
Jillian jabbed at the camera till it bleeped and tapped her watch mock-sternly. “Tickety-tock, biological clock.”
Rina nodded, all business. “You got fifteen, and then we gotta get down to the start. New York One is shooting live.”
He stepped into the mosh pit outside the tent and struggled upstream through the crowd. His throat burned. He should’ve taken a nuclear antihistamine before setting foot in the park.
At the porta-pissers, the lines stood fifteen deep. He imagined a sprint through the crisp air with a gallon of coffee sloshing around in him.
Trip veered toward a wide clump of forsythia. A ruptured bladder trumps a public indecency ticket any day. He prayed the muggers had slept in.
“Should be in bed.” Trip grumbled. He couldn’t flee with their only camera. He’d double back and shuck the camera before the gun went off.
He fished his dick over the waistband of his scrubs and did his thing against a scraggly oak that probably wished it had sprouted a hundred miles north. He muffled his sneeze. A twig snap reminded him his privacy was imaginary, even if he was hidden under the crest of bare branches.
He would fake an asthma attack. That’s it. He’d go back, have trouble breathing, hand over the camera, and meet them at the finish line.
The underbrush rustled. Hmmm. For all he knew, it was pigeons humping or a rat taking a stroll. Maybe another hyperallergic wuss trying to escape.
He tucked his tool away and managed a casual glance over his shoulder.
The bubble of silence seemed exaggerated. He heard the milling crowd and the faraway rumble of Central Park West. But where he stood, the cotton-ball quiet raised the hairs on the back of his neck. Was someone watching him?
Jesus Christ, he’d end up mugged with no ID and borrowed hospital scrubs in broad daylight during a publicity stunt for his bestest fruit flies.
Something ripped the seat of his pants. Trip spun to see a mangled, grayish hand holding one of his flags in its dead fingers. A beefy zombie knelt in front of him, grinning like a demented jack-o’-lantern.
Oh yeah. The run.
“Has it started?” Trip shook his head, confused.
The zombie looked gigantic down there, shoulders like a prizefighter. He shook the flag and winked. He must have taken a shortcut, seen Trip, and crept in to attack. Graveyard humor. Har de har.
Gray and olive shaded the undead face dramatically, really subtle even this close. One jagged foam latex cut stretched across his skull and up into his hairline. Bright hazel eyes. A square-square chin. Jinkies. His thick hands appeared tattered and gnawed open, but his meaty forearms glimmered a smooth silvery green that showed off the striations of muscle.
I’m cruising a corpse. Again a sneeze tried to squirm out of Trip and he choked it back.
Trip held up his hands in surrender, and the ghoul rose to his feet. Five ten and thickset under the tattered sport coat… like the Incredible Hulk in shades of grave. He had calico-colored hair, a springy dark-blond that probably went brindle in summer.
The hot zombie fanned his gory fingers. His eyes were set just a little too far apart and slightly slanted under the arched brows, which made his smile look like a rakish invitation.
The long forsythia stems screened the rest of the runners, hiding the two of them in their little bubble under the oak in the cold, bright air: fake doctor and fake zombie, ready to hit the Organ Trail.
Mr. Monster scuffed closer and offered him the flag. A reminder to be vigilant during the run? His filthy split shirt exposed a rugged torso and some unbelievably realistic ribs with guts glistening behind.
“Amazing.” Without thinking, Trip reached out and touched the painted wounds. “So beautiful.” He traced the trompe l’oeil heart with his fingers. The zombie flinched. Ticklish, apparently.
“Oh!” Trip yanked his hand back and shook it as if he’d scorched his skin.
“Thanks. Sorry.” Deep hoarse twang. Saw-ry. The zombie grimaced. His nipples had risen hard and small under the paint.
Trip had almost forgotten he was touching a person. “I—that was rude. Airbrush?”
The zombie smiled then and wagged his head. “We’re not supposed to speak. But I’m bad at rules.”
Was he flirting? Trip squinted in confusion and struggled not to sneeze all over the most attractive man he’d spoken to in a year. Trip prayed his itchy eyes hadn’t gone bloodshot just yet. “Not airbrush? Are you sure?”
“No, it is. I painted it. I was just… I saw you sneak off.”
Trip twisted back toward the tents where Jillian and Rina counted on him to return. He felt like he’d forgotten his lines. What was the plan again?
“Shortcut to the holding area.” The zombie jerked his dimpled chin toward the white tents but didn’t leave. That raspy drawl made every word sound like mischief.
“My name’s Silas.” He offered his hand.
“Hey.” Trip shook it, afraid to look up until he did. If I’m bailing, I need to do it now. He tried and failed to stop ogling the brawn under the wounds. “Texture’s beautiful. Even this close, I can’t tell it’s fake.”
A big proud smile, teeth blinding white against the painted skin, made the undead face eerily handsome under the latex. “I’m part of the makeup crew today, but one of the star creepers didn’t show up.”
“I’m here by accident too.” Trip thanked all the gods Jillian’s husband was beefier than him; the scrubs were roomy enough that no embarrassing bulges would advertise his interest. He was supposed to escape, wasn’t he?
Silas leaned in as if confessing a terrible secret. “The zombie actors tend to be pretty flaky.” A drowsy blink followed, and the deep dimple of his grin punctuated his scrutiny of Trip’s body.
Without warning, Trip’s breath caught and his eyes widened, widened, as a massive sneeze battled its way out of him.
Silas widened his eyes, too, and seemed confused, as if he expected Trip to burst into song or vomit.
“Agh-ka-chooo!” At the last minute, Trip twisted away. “Ugh.”
“Bless you!” Silas whistled. “Wow.”
“Sorry. Allergies.” Trip wiped his nose with a tissue from his breast pocket and ignored the heat of his blush and his sinuses. “I should get back to my friends.” Why did I say that? “I’m filming for their site.”
Silas’s painted face shone with questions. “You make movies!”
“No. Oh no.” Trip wanted to stay here talking all day, costume or no costume.
“I do gore on a cop show out at Silvercup. In Queens?” A phone buzzed somewhere, and Silas wrinkled his nose.
That got a smile out of Trip. Once a fanboy, always a fanboy. “Monster gore?”
“TV thing. Gunshot wounds and scars mostly.” He mock-snored and stuck out his very pink tongue.
Trip dried his palms on the scrubs. Heaven knows what the hell kind of pollen he’d aspirated out here. He didn’t know how to offer his number or ask for one. That dimple. Where was he going again?
“Well, sir, I’ll be your zombie this afternoon.” A chuckle. “I look forward to hunting you down and eating your brain later.”
Trip laughed finally. Hot, talented, and funny. “Trip. I’m Trip.”
“Figures.” That dimple took no prisoners. “I bet plenty of people fall for you.”
Full-frontal deep-fried zombie attack. That was on purpose.
Their eyes met.
“Not really.” First response Trip thought of that didn’t sound like a slutty come-on. His brain had short-circuited.
An air-raid siren cranked into a protracted wail. At first he thought he was imagining it until Silas sighed and grinned. Oh. Yeah. The OutRun.
Silas regarded Trip’s flag in his hand, then reattached it to the strap on Trip’s waist, his knuckles firm against the hipbone. He smelled like vanilla and magic markers.
Trip stood frozen under the big digits, really boned now and curious what came next.
A breath. Another breath as they stood a little closer than necessary.
“C’mon. Anybody who had a pulse….” Silas swallowed, as if he was about to confess something and then thought better of it. “I mean, I’m not really a zombie….”
“Well, I’m not really brainy, so that’s okay.” He shook his foggy head.
The dimple made another appearance in the undead cheek, and again Trip had the weird sensation of double vision, the ghoulish veil over the healthy male. Silas licked his lips and opened them to say something, maybe something wonderful.
Suddenly, running through Nature wearing a camera barnacle sounded like the perfect plan.
The forsythia branches shook and rustled. A small sandy-haired woman poked in to hiss, “Si-las.” She saw Trip and nearly recoiled. “Oh! Oh jeez, doc. You scared me!”
Silas started and stepped away, guilt written all over him. He scowled at the intruder.
“Kurt’s asking for you.” She dissected Trip with her eyes, whittling him down to a sickly nub. “Quit humping the civilians.”
Who’s Kurt? Boyfriend, probably.
Trip turned away. He probably looked like liverwurst. With his luck he had poison ivy on his eyelids. Rina and Jillian were counting on him, and obviously Silas hadn’t offered a number.
Trip opened his mouth to make an innocent excuse or to say something brilliant and irresistible to Silas, but instead held up both hands with his fingers spread—Nothing up my sleeves—and stepped away, right back into the tangled hedge behind him.
The slight woman closed her lips in a knowing smirk as if she’d discovered a dildo in a dishwasher.
“This is—” Silas turned to him.
“I gotta—” Trip unsmiled and spun to plow right into the forsythia, ignoring the bare branches that whipped his swollen face.
Air horns and applause revved up about fifty feet away.
He backtracked to the tents in a daze and found Rina wringing her hands, her veil thrown back. “We thought you….” Jillian’s tiara sparkled at him.
Shell-shocked, he shrugged. Central Park loomed around them.
Up ahead, three white news vans with mounted satellite dishes had parked diagonally across the sidewalk where camera crews paced and prepped. The winter-bundled crowd jostled and elbowed at a police barrier erected around the risers and the podium.
Trip checked his watch. Five minutes past eight. Silas could be anywhere by now. No number, no last name. Unfair somehow. He sighed hard. “We should get to the starting line.”
Jillian jogged his elbow. “You feel okay?”
How did he feel? He didn’t want to tell them about Silas but didn’t want to miss his chance, either. Trip studied the scrubby plants lining the path. He snorted. “I feel insane.” But anticipation simmered under his anxiety. He thought of a million things he should have said. He swabbed the smile off his face.
Rina hugged him, smooshing him against her bosom. She smelled like cucumber perfume. “Sorry, papa. We shouldn’t say that stuff about Cliff.”
Jillian lifted a wicked eyebrow and adjusted her tiara. “Yeah-we-should, but not now.” She tilted her head, and they walked between the ropes herding the army of runners into a holding tent clouded by fake fog that had a fruity chemical tang. Volunteers confirmed their numbers and flags. Finally another siren split the air and the tent flaps opened. Trip heard guttural moans and hisses as he stepped into the murk.
For three hours, they ran for their lives.
In the end, Jillian and Rina reached the finish line in spite of Trip. He almost got his friends “killed” several times when he slowed down to eyeball hunky zombies while the girls harangued him to keep up, but Silas never grabbed him. At the end, Trip had a single flag left and no idea how to find his zombie.
Twenty yards away, they got their invites to the OutRun bash that night, a fund-raiser and thank-you to the survivors, courtesy of Unbored Games. Like he needed more humiliating disappointments to crown his year.
Stiff with dried mud and fake blood in his baggy, borrowed scrub suit, Trip snuck away in search of the makeup tents to leave the generic “Big Dog Comics” business card he took to conventions. Nope. Zombies milled and joked around him. Silas hadn’t returned. Trip scribbled his name and cell number on the back and left it with a frazzled volunteer. Maybe Silas would remember. At least now he’d know how to find Trip.
Rina and Jillian were eager to get rolling by the time he returned. The battered trio caught a cab, and Trip stared at the trees as they pulled into traffic. “I don’t know about this party thing.” He gestured at the muddy scrubs and sore legs. He looked like hell in a nightie and felt pretty certain he stank even more.
“We ran the race, now we got free booze,” Rina crowed, flush with victory. Her veil was a tattered wreck and bloody handprints decorated the skirt of her gown. Her baby’s breath updo was starting to look a little oh-no-she-didn’t, mainly because she was planning to make an “I survived” splash at the party.
“What was with you today? I thought we were goners.” Jillian eyed him skeptically from under her crooked tiara. “Maybe jogging should be your New Year’s resolution.”
He stared out the window at the Lincoln Center as it rolled past and wondered where Silas had ended up. Away. “I hate resolutions. I never keep them and they never change anything.”
“Yeah: no resolution is still a resolution,” Jillian teased. “Maybe your resolution is to stagnate in a swamp of loneliness, despair, and anxiety.”
“Fuck you, Jilly-bean.” But he smiled back. She was right. No one could tread water in a river. “So what is my resolution?”
“Makeover!” Rina offered as she applied glossy eggplant lipstick.
“No. Not a makeover. The last time you did a makeover on me it took two months for my eyebrows to return to normal.”
Jillian fluffed the skirt of her beslimed prom dress and rested her delicate hands on her lap like a little lady. “Therapy.”
“Fuck off, Miss Stone.” Trip sniffled and laughed. He read the invite again: “Trip Spector + 1” written in ballpoint. Silas had been working and maybe he expected Trip to celebrate like a normal person.
West End Avenue seemed oddly quiet for New Year’s Eve. The cab swung east on Thirty-Third, well below the tourists mobbing the ball drop.
How bad could the party be? He swayed into Jilly as they hit Columbus Circle. “Okay. Gotham Hall. One drink.” Trip hugged his chest under the scrubs. After all, Silas might be there, right?
“Fucking up!” Jillian gasped and slapped his arm sharp enough to sting. “You have to do one awful thing a day.” She narrowed her eyes and pointed a slender finger at him. “Some batshit idea.”
Rina dug in her big scary purse and extracted some kind of data cable. “Mmmh. I like that. Misbehaving. Rogues and randiness.” She could turn anything into a bodice ripper.
Trip thought of Silas under the makeup, his sly hazel eyes and his Bruce Wayne chin. “Well….” He peered at the girls before he took the plunge. “I sorta met someone. I think.”
Rina’s dark eyes went wide. “No sir!”
Somehow, confessing to them made finding Silas more possible. “A zombie. Well, he did the makeup, but today he’s a zombie.”
Jillian squealed. “Mr. Right of the Living Dead! Did you get his number?”
“What? No.” Trip goggled and chewed his lip. “He may not even be interested.”
“Then we’ll get his number and ask him. I say we go zombie hunting for New Year’s.” Jillian nodded slowly, as if she were Mother Superior of a convent for closeted gay singles. The hiiiiills are alive….
Rina removed the chest camera from its harness and plugged it into her iPad. “I wanna check the footage.”
“I need a Kleenex.” Trip wiped his nose. Silas must have hidden, for them to miss each other, but he’d probably go to the party. Trip had a chance. He felt a sweet twinge at the thought. Ready or not. “C’mon. I’m not gonna stalk some stranger. He was just a nice guy.”
Jillian stroked an imaginary beard on her sharp chin. “He’s one of the official monsters. He’s gonna unwind. New Year’s kiss, my friend.” Her tone brooked no argument.
“Superheroes stalk people all the time.” Rina looked at Jillian with meaningful intensity.
“They rescue. Different deal.” Trip wiped his damp hands on his bloody scrubs. He didn’t need a napkin because his entire body was a napkin. “Hell, I only know that his name is Silas. He might be a total dick.”
“So? Everything you want cannot fit in one person or one job or one drawing. Yeah?” Rina fiddled with her iPad. “All these good-idea, backpedally, unrocked boats have kept you single in a cubicle drawing caped dildos and watching Netflix for the past four years.” She had stopped teasing. “Perfection sucks. It’s a trap, papa.” She dropped her sequined veil back over her face.
Jillian swapped her running shoes for matching pink kitten heels. “This party’s gonna be like a robotic sushi bar and he’s the maki roll. We find a comfy bar, and you can grab him as he swings past.”
The cab slammed on its brakes and they lurched forward. Their driver cursed at three drunk kids staggering against the light.
“Oh my God.” Rina straightened with her mouth agape. “We taped him. The zombie!”
“Silas?” Trip peered down at the little evil nodule.
She stifled a giggle. “Jillian didn’t turn it off.”
His face heated quickly. “Wait a sec. You spied on me peeing!” He gawped at them, vulnerable in the thin scrubs. “Ugh.”
“By accident.” Jillian scoffed. “And it won’t show your baloney. Though it does have audio.” She peered at the iPad. “What’s that big red thing?”
“His heart.” Held up an annoyed hand. “Eww. Not like that. Latex. His chest was in front of—” Trip blew air out of his nostrils. “You’re both horrible. I hate you.”
“No…. You love us!” Rina high-fived Jillian. “We can track him down. Your… Silas.”
Trip blinked. Could they? Should they? Silas had no idea who he was and vice versa. He might be better off as a sweet anecdote. Trip ditto.
The cab glided to a stop, and Jillian swiped a card to pay for it before she climbed carefully onto the sidewalk and offered Rina a steady hand. Blinding magenta spotlights lit up the side of Gotham Hall, and a giddy crowd had gathered to watch the red carpet.
He began to sweat in earnest, willing his feet to step out of the taxi. He rummaged for his inhaler and huffed a puff.
Rina hauled herself out onto the concrete curb and studied the velvet-roped lines of paparazzi. A couple flashes turned their way. Trip emerged last, his creased invite and the crumbled grocery bag with his clothes in his clammy hands. More flashes. Just get inside.
“Tits?” Rina adjusted the bodice of her dress and shifted for confirmation. She favored him with a happy, anxious blink of mascara. He clicked his tongue in the affirmative and gave the okay sign. “Let’s go get ’em.” She plowed into the lights.
Jillian hung back a moment. “We just don’t want you to be lonesome on New Year’s Eve.”
“I’m not lonesome.”
Lie. He thought it, and from the doubt in her eyes, she knew it. She wouldn’t look away, so he couldn’t either. Why couldn’t Silas have attacked him during the run?
What would he say if he did find his zombie? No clue.
Trip hated dating for exactly this reason: the idea of everyone coping till they simply gave up. No way could he or Silas live up to any expectations they had about each other. Only strangers can be perfect.
Up ahead, Rina tipped her head in confusion and then beckoned to them. She fidgeted in her grisly bridal finery, but excited too. What are we waiting for?
“He’s in there.” Jillian fanned her pale face with the invitation, but she didn’t turn. “Might be worth a shot.”
Trip shrugged. “Maybe.” Hell, for all he knew Silas might appear any minute with a date on his brawny arm. If so, Trip wanted to be long gone.
Jillian picked up Rina’s backpack and cradled it like a cat. “It’s only a party, booger.” She eyeballed the costumes drifting along the velvet rope and the searchlights. “You could even wear a mask, go in a different disguise. We’ll be with you.”
Trip shivered in the chilly air for the first time that day. He shook his head. “I can’t, Jilly.”
Rina abandoned the bank of cameras and flounced back to them, frowning. “You’re bailing?” She harrumphed and reclaimed her backpack.
“You swear to call him?” Jillian crossed her heart. “Or I’ll go full psycho stalker and track him down.”
He hugged her. “Maybe.”
“There’s video. We’re stud hunters, y’know,” Rina chided and raised her veil to kiss his cheek.
“Gross.” Trip smiled, sadly, while he literally ran away from the possibility. “You’re both evil and must be stopped. I hate you.” He laughed and wiped his eyes.
No argument from Rina. Obviously she knew a lost cause when she saw one. She tossed a breezy farewell over her shoulder like salt. “G’night, Romeo.” And with that, she picked up her foofy white skirt and marched off down the aisle for the cameras.
Trip dredged his raglan shirt out of the grocery bag and tugged it over the grubby scrubs. He coughed. “I’d rather fuck this up alone.”
“Listen.” Jillian crossed her arms a moment. The cameras flashed behind her, and her rhinestones threw fake fire back at him. “If this Silas could be something, if you’re attracted and he’s smart and interested and willing to take you on, meet you in the middle, then you need to make room for him in your life. Don’t expect a hundred percent; if he’s even half a hero, you need to be willing to adapt.” She glanced at Rina up ahead and then back.
“Well, shit.” Trip swallowed as she stepped closer to hug him good-bye. Her muddy prom dress rustled between them on the cold curb. “No pressure.”
“No.” She nodded, dead serious. “Pressure.”