These little get-togethers were invitation-only, and the guest list was one of the few things Darius didn't delegate these days. He knew damn well that this was her first time here and had undoubtedly not invited her until now because he was backlogged with all the other beautiful young employees his personnel department had amassed.
"Are you having a good time?"
"Really good!" she saidnot quite gauging the new sonic environment correctly. The answer, or more precisely, the overly loud and nervous delivery of it, seemed to please Darius. "I was...I was just talking to your friend," Tina said. "He was telling me about his job." She turned to me, a little wider-eyed than she'd been earlier, willing me to speak and make sure she didn't make a fool of herself in front of DariSoft's President, CEO, and Svengali.
Darius's head swiveled in my direction, but his body remained squared to Tina's. It was hard for me to see him the way Tina did. I'd become accustomed to how hot he burned, but I'd experienced his initial effect on people enough times to understand a little of what she was feeling. I pretended to be jostled by the throng behind me and stepped into Tina again, shoving Darius aside.
"Man, it's crazy in here," I said. "Why don't we catch up with you outside, Darius. I know how much you hate crowds."
He looked at me the way my father used to when I back-talked him. "You trying to get rid of me, Trevor?" We locked eyes for a moment, and I backed up a step.
"So he was telling you about his job, huh...," Darius said to Tina, glancing over at me as he spoke. Thoughts of twisting his head off like a bottle cap flew across my mind, but instead I just stood there.
"Let me guess. Porta Potties?"
I stared down at my beer-soaked feet, but I could feel Tina's eyes on me. I wasn't sure whether that was out of growing suspicion or the fact that gazing upon Darius with the naked eye was difficult for some people. I took another shallow drag on the cigarette she'd given me.
"No?" I heard Darius say. "Hmm. Electric nose hair clippers?"
No audible response from Tina, but I guessed that she was shaking her head.
"We're not back to those little felt things you put on chairs, are we?"
Still nothing from Tina. Nodding, I suppose.
Darius slung an arm around my stooped shoulders and laughed, then took a dramatic pull from the bottle of Jack Daniel's that he was rarely without at these parties.
"So your family didn't invent those felt things?" I heard Tina say.
You'd think I'd have devised a clever way out of these types of situations, but for some reason I never had.
"Are you kidding?" Darius said, giving me a friendly squeeze. "Trevor's family practically invented the tobacco industry in this country."
And there it was.
I dared a quick peek and, as expected, she was looking down at the cigarette in her hand.
The next few seconds would be critical. In my experience, nine out of ten young, healthy smokers halfheartedly supported the industry that provided them with such a pleasurable, relaxing, weight-controlling, image-enhancing product. The other one acted as though they'd met their future murderer.
"Another liar from the tobacco industry," Tina said, dropping her cigarette into what was left of my drink. Darius and I watched her push her way through the crowd and finally disappear through the doors that led to the pool.
"Bitch doesn't have much of a sense of humor, does she?" He had an expression of what could only be described as anesthetized pain on his face. I frowned.
"What's that look for?" he said, putting his bottle to my cup and filling it, despite the fact that it still contained Tina's cigarette. I kept my disapproving glare aimed at him, and he glared back.
Copyright 2003 by Kyle Mills. All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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