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The After Party

Max Christopher lives in the eastern United States. When he was forty-five he was diagnosed with autism. He is older now. Sometimes his knee hurts.

The memory-wipe gummy is illegal, of course, but I guess Nicolette knew somebody. What did kids do in the old days, before you could erase the previous hour's embarrassment? It must have been a nightmare. Imagine working up the courage to spill your heart only to be shot down? Nuts to that.
Anyway, when Nicolette invited me to this memory-wipe party I was super pumped. I had a speech prepared for her, and the other three girls who'd been invited were pretty cute. Who knew what might happen? I didn't know the other boys.
I wondered why she invited Chip, since she was all ice to him. If I asked Chip he'd say it was his overpowering charm, which accounted for a hopeless derp like me being allowed to tag along. Otherwise I'd never get invited anywhere.
Maybe Chip is torching for Nicolette too, I thought. Pretty girl, handsome boy.
We met in Nicolette's basement rec room. Nicolette's mom was there to make sure the fun stayed harmless.
It didn't work.
Nicolette was crying in a beanbag chair when the fog cleared. Nicolette's mom was kneeling by Chip, pressing a baggie of ice to his eye.
"I knew this was a bad idea," she said. "God, wait till your father gets home."
"My father doesn't come home," said Chip. "Ouch."
"I meant Nicolette's father. Here, you hold it."
Nicolette cried harder. "Don't tell Daddy," she said.
"Your father will blame me, as usual. God forbid Jock Exley's little princess..."
My hand hurt. One knuckle looked raw.
"Why'd you hit Chip, Terry?" Nicolette said.
"I don't know," I said.
"He lashes out when things get too much," Chip said. He touched his eye gingerly. "Usually not so sudden. Or violent."
I looked around. "Where are the others?"
Chip said, "The other girls chickened out and the boys left with them."
Mrs. Exley said, "Then this young idiot started pouring it all out. He'd been in love for years but never worked up the courage to lay it on the line. Huh!" she said. "He did today."
"I got carried away," Chip said.
"You think?" She looked at me. "And you." Her face softened. "I suppose I can't blame you. But you did set my daughter up for disappointment."
"You were very sweet, Terry," Nicolette said. She honked into a tissue.
"How are you remembering? You were supposed to take the gummies," I said. "Both of you." My face felt hot.
"Well, we didn't," Chip said.
"Take them. Before too much time goes by."
"It's a bit more complicated than that," Mrs. Exley said.
"It doesn't have to be," Chip said.
"Please, let's just take them," Nicolette said. "I want to forget this horrible day ever happened."
My hand flared with pain. "Did I hit you when you confessed you were in love with Nicolette too, Chip?"
"What?" Chip said. Nicolette choked. Chip dropped the ice baggie and covered his face with his hands. "Oh, Terry." It came out muffled. "It was when Nicolette started crying."
"It was going to be perfect," Nicolette said. "And at first it seemed..."
"You were manipulating out of your weight class," Mrs. Exley said. "It happens. Good lesson for a girl like you."
"You told Nicolette you had a thing for her," Chip said. "All this flowery mush. You and your damn books."
I said, "And then you told her your feelings?"
"Oh, he told everybody," Mrs. Exley said.
"And I guess she picked you," I said. "I can't blame her."
Chip looked up. "You can't?"
"Well, you're you and I'm... just me."
"Yeah. Just you."
"Nicolette, why are you crying?" I said.
"Idiot," she said.
"Still, I can sort of see it," Mrs. Exley said, looking at me with her head tilted to one side.
"See what?" I said.
"You hit me when Nicolette started crying," Chip said.
I blinked. "When was that?"
"After I kissed you," he said.
"Why did you kiss me?" I said.
Nicolette made a little squeak.
"Was I sad because Nicolette shot me down?"
"You're not out of the gummy yet," Mrs. Exley said.
"It's not the gummy," Chip said.
"You can't mean he's always this thick."
"It's kind of a miracle he lives through a day."
"Sometimes Chip kisses the top of my head when I'm bummed out," I said.
"It wasn't the top of the head," Mrs. Exley said.
"He filled his chest," Nicolette said. She snuffled. "He walked over to where we were standing."
"He was very purposeful," Mrs. Exley said.
"So forceful," Nicolette said. "I was thrilled. He gently separated our hands--you were still holding my hand, Terry." She smiled prettily at me, eyes glistening with tears. Then her face closed. "He dropped my hand and took yours in both of his. He--"
"Nicolette, stop," Chip said. He rose smoothly and stepped over to me. He had a pretty good shiner coming in.
"I told you I love you, you big dumbass," he said.
"You what?"
"And that's what you said."
"Same blank stare," Mrs. Exley said. "Like you filled a sock with nickels and brained him with it."
Nicolette had regained some composure. "The dear fool, I thought, so verklempt with love for me, he doesn't know what he's doing. Then I saw this hot, dreamy look in his eyes while he looked at you. This yearning. Nobody's ever looked at me like that. Not even you, Terry, when you were saying those lovely things."
"Then I kissed you." Chip closed his eyes. "It was worth getting punched."
Mrs. Exley said, "It was a hell of a kiss." She shivered. "Woo."
"Mom!"
Chip said, "Then Nicolette started bawling, loud and startling--"
"Her father likens it to an air raid siren."
"He does not!"
"--and you clocked me, and I guess that knocked something loose. Maybe I was counting on the gummies, but I spilled it all. Including some, uh, highly personal daydreams."
Mrs. Exley said, "And you told me he only thought about sports, Nicolette."
Chip groaned, scrubbed his face with his hands. "You listened for a while, or seemed to. Then you held up a hand and looked away. You reached past the pens in your nerdy pocket protector, fumbled out the gummy and swallowed it. Your hand shook."
"I can still taste it," I said. "Like earwax threw up."
"I'll get you a water," Mrs. Exley said.
"Why didn't you guys take yours?" I said.
"I was devastated," Nicolette said.
"Remember, this all just happened," Chip said. "How's the hand, Terry?"
"You're worried about his hand?" Nicolette said. "Look at your face!"
"He doesn't know how to punch."
"Why did you kiss me here?" I flung my arms around, shooting a wave of pain to my hand. "Now?"
"Maybe it was the things you said to Nicolette. You were so--my heart just--I imagined you saying all that to me, only less rehearsed. And less about little denim skirts."
"How long, ah--"
"Years. Since your family moved here."
"Dude, we skinny dipped in your grandfather's pond. That time I caught cold and felt like I was freezing to death, you climbed in bed with me to keep me warm. You held me all night while I shivered."
"Best night of my life, mucous and all."
My hand throbbed like a second heartbeat. "You tossed Freddy Nunn in the ditch when he called me a fa-- oh, God."
"It's all right." He smiled. That warm, amused smile. No wonder Nicolette was crushing on him.
"There!" Nicolette piped up.
We looked at her.
"I've taken my gummy," she said. "Yuck."
"Here." Mrs. Exley handed around bottles of spring water. "I wondered how long you could stand seeing somebody else in the spotlight."
"That's not nice."
"You'll forget in a minute."
"That's going to swell up," Chip said. He stepped away and scooped up the baggie of ice. He whipped a red kerchief out of his pocket and was back to me in what seemed like a second. I had always envied his effortless movement. "Here." He took my throbbing hand in his, arranged the ice baggie over my knuckles, then lashed the kerchief into place. Secure but not constricting. Done well, like everything Chip did.
He reached into another pocket, then the glistening gummy was on his palm. It shook. I looked at his fingers. Long, sensitive, ghostly. Odd for an athlete, I thought. And the vulnerable flicker in his eyes.
Handsome, confident Chip. Everything I wanted to be but wasn't.
"Call it," he said.
My protector. My hero. Standing before me with a naked heart and the black eye I gave him.
My own heart was smashing my ribs.
I stretched out my throbbing hand--
"Whoosh!" Nicolette said. "That made me dizzy. Who wants to go again?"
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 8th, 2021
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