A Perfect Ten

Page 172

Oren was awake and sitting up in bed. Half his face was still bandaged, but he looked so much better, alert and conscious with color in his face.

His gaze darted warily over everyone as we filed into his room. “Whoa,” he finally murmured, as if overcome. “There’s a lot of you.”

At his side, his mother took his hand. “These are your closest friends,” she said. “They’ve been here every day, worried about you.”

Once again, Oren looked sick with dread. He didn’t recognize any of us. But he swept out a hand with a big, encompassing wave and gave a shaky, “Hey.”

None of us answered. I think we were in shock that he was treating us like complete strangers.

“We’ll let you talk to your friends, then.” Brenda sent him a bolstering smile as she stood. “If you need anything, we’ll be right outside.”

He gave a jerky, nervous nod and followed her from the room with his gaze as if he didn’t want her to leave him alone in here with us. Then he blew out a breath and glanced at us again.

“Okay, this is strange,” Pick spoke up. “Ten’s usually the one to crack a dirty joke whenever we need some comic relief.”

While everyone else let out a quiet laugh, Oren shook his head, confused. “Who’s Ten?”

Silence answered him, which only made him shift on his bed, looking even more uncomfortable. Finally, my brother said, “You are, buddy. That’s what we call you?”

I hovered against Noel’s side, clinging to his arm because I so badly wanted to go to Oren and just hug him and soothe his unease. He looked so alone in that bed. Alone and lost.

“You do?” Oren murmured, sounding confused. He shook his head. “Why do you...oh. Because of the Tenning part. Got it.” Glancing around at us again, and not even pausing at me—which stung every time his gaze flittered over me—he added, “Am I not still friends with any of my high school classmates?”

“I’ve never met any of them,” Noel answered. “And I’ve probably known you the longest out of everyone here. You and I met freshman year of college. We were dormitory roommates for a semester. Then we got an apartment together until about a year ago.”

Oren nodded. “So none of you ever knew Zoey either, then?”

The name caused us to freeze. By now, everyone knew who his sister was and that she’d died, but since we had a Zoey in our group as well, it was strange to hear him say the name.

Noel finally shook his head. “Uh, no. No, sorry, we never got to meet your sister.”

“Oh.” Deflated by that, Oren glanced down at his hands.

“So...” Noel went on, determined to clear the uncomfortable tension from the air. “You’ve probably known Hamilton here the second longest, for about two years when he joined the football team with us.”

“Football?” Oren glanced up, surprised. “I played football? In college?” He shook his head. “I...I wasn’t planning on going out for ball in college.”

Noel grinned. “No, but I talked you into it. We kicked ass together, too. Won the national championships this year. You were the best wide receiver on the team.”

“Really?” An awed surprise flooded Oren’s voice as his lips curved into a smile. “That’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah,” Noel murmured. “And after I got married, you moved in with Hamilton here and his girlfriend—”

“Blondie,” Zoey blurted before Noel could say her name. “You call me Blondie.” Tears glistened in her eyes as she smiled. “And you like to coax me into cooking you a meal or doing your laundry as often as possible.”

I wanted to cry all over again because Zoey and Oren had been so close. It had to hurt her, too, to know he’d forgotten the sibling-like tie they’d formed.

“O...kay,” he said slowly, glancing suspiciously between Quinn and Zoey. “So, I live with both of you? Strange.”

Guilt crept into Zwinn’s expression as they glanced my way. But it was best not to mention I now lived with them, too.

Noel stroked my arm to soothe me; his Spidey sense must’ve kicked in, knowing my tear ducts were aching to start opening the floodgates.

“And Pick is probably the next you met. He works at—actually, he now owns—the bar where we all work.”

Oren glanced away from Pick to frown at Noel. “Bar? I work in a bar?”

“The Forbidden Nightclub,” Pick answered. “All of us guys here are bartenders there.”

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