As expected, she didn't get a call. A week into her senior year, and Mercedes was beginning to fall into her old habits. She found herself gossiping about frivolous matters at lunch, taking on extra schoolwork as a favor to her peers, and resolving to hanging out in her bedroom on the weekends. On the first two nights of school, she'd lingered next to the phone all afternoon, hoping that it would give a shrill ring, and she could let her mother know not to worry about it, because she had picked it up. After the second night, Mercedes swallowed her hope and returned to studying and reading to fill the void. It was idealistic, she knew, assuming that a boy would be the reason her life finally changed, she couldn't give him that much leverage. She could change for herself. She could start playing an instrument, start going running, start a new club at school, the list went on, but she knew she wouldn't actually make any real changes. The easiest option was to be rescued, and despite her reluctance to portrayed as a damsel in distress, it would be nice to be treated like a princess for once. Nonetheless, her savior wouldn't be Sebastian Smythe, that she knew. At most, he was a catalyst. At least, a mistake.
Sitting in the back row of her chemistry class, Mercedes used a pair of clamps to transfer a test tube of dish detergent to a basin of lemon juice, a lesson in acids and bases. Watching on as her partner took the reigns, she overheard a conversation from the girls in front of them. Nothing at McKinley stayed a secret for long, and though the girls gossip sounded trivial at the beginning, at the drop of a name Mercedes ears perked and she leaned in to hear the rest of the story.
Apparently, emphasis on apparently, (because there was no telling how many people the story had traveled through by the time it'd got to first period chemistry) Hunter Clarington had thrown a massive party that weekend, and everyone who was anyone had gone. Obviously, Sebastian, Hunter's cousin, had been there with plenty of girls, drugs, and alcohol. Hunter's house was completely trashed in a matter of hours, and after a time, the party had taken to the outside. By the end of the night, Sebastian was on the roof, a bottle of vodka in one hand, screaming about being a god. He'd jumped off the roof into the pool, and the bottle had bounced off the water and hit him in the face. Completely wasted, he'd emerged from the water, laughing and soaked in blood. Someone, not fully aware that there were lines of cocaine on a nearby pool table among other illegal misgivings, called an ambulance to help Sebastian, who was then coming down from his high and screaming profusely. The police, firefighters, and ambulance had shown up to the party, and after taking a quick look at everything that was happening, made a move to shut down the entire gathering, confiscate the narcotics, and, very possibly, make arrests. What shocked Mercedes, and what was the humor of the entire situation, as wild parties weren't uncommon, was that a bleeding and hallucinating Sebastian had managed to talk the police chief into going back to the station and forgetting everything he'd seen. Everyone wanted to believe it was because Sebastian was such a good and charismatic speaker, but the Smythes were recognizable. The infrastructure reported to them, and if they were unhappy, Lima, Ohio was unhappy. The police and firefighters left, the party raged on, Sebastian received a few bandages, and after awakening the next morning, hung-over and in a pool of blood, went to the hospital to discover he had a broken nose. A great weekend, surely.
Mercedes listened intently until her partner nudged her on the shoulder, encouraging her to write down the test results to turn in at the end of the class. She did as she was asked, removing the idea of a high, bloody, and bruised Sebastian from her mind. She would have taken the story as a joke or possibly an exaggeration, had she not seen him in the hallway after third period. She almost never saw him at school, and he definitely never saw her, though it was possibly because Mercedes was an expert at not being seen. However, she'd found herself staring at him removing his backpack from his locker, a darkness looming over his right eye. When he turned in her direction, she immediately realized that the story, though partially an exaggeration perhaps, had not been completely false. The bridge of his nose was covered in a white bandage that splayed out onto his cheeks, secured with minute tape. The areas of his nose that were unable to be covered suffered severe bruising, the area between his brows a dark red and the end of his nose turning into a shade of purple. His eye, much like his nose, had turned a dark shade of purple, the outside corner blackening, with shades of blue around the lid. All together, it looked painful, and with the bandage removed, he more than likely could have doubled as a lean street fighter. Walking with his backup on one shoulder, he shoved his hands in his pockets and made his way to class. Mercedes, unaware that she was staring, too engrossed with his injuries, failed to advert her attention when he finally made eye contact with her.
With a brief smirk, Sebastian said, "Hey, Mercedes,' as he walked past the girl, not stopping or waiting for a response. She turned quickly to respond, but as always, he'd disappeared into the crowd without a trace. Her heart skipped a beat, and though she had warned herself not to think too much if at all about him, she couldn't ignore the fact that he'd spoken to her in the hallway. She'd personally watch a girl be ignored by him previously while walking to class, but he'd made a motion to greet her first. It was a stretch, and though she felt pathetic, a smile spread on her lips. Unknowingly, an inclination to take care of his injury arose in her rather than to frown upon his indecency; he looked in bad shape. She wondered if anyone had bothered to ask him how he was feeling or if all questions his way had been about the party. It wasn't her place to be his caregiver, but she wondered if he was lonely, if he could use a friend. Not that she thought she'd be a good candidate, nor did she understand why she was concerned with his interpersonal relationships. He hadn't even bothered to call her. A very subtle attraction for him had always lingered, but she was unsure if she was reading too much into their brief encounter in hopes that it was the change she'd promised herself. It was unrealistic; he'd call her cute, but then again, who hadn't he called cute? What made her any different then any other at William McKinley High School? Surely not a note from the second grade.
After school, Mercedes walked home rather than take the bus. The bus, ultimately was hot and distasteful, an environment she'd nicknamed as the 'haven of sin'. She walked home a few times a week, if it wasn't too cold or too hot, raining or snowing. The weather was brisk, a bit windy, but overall satisfying. Instead of going home immediately, she usually stopped by a record store or the library to spend a few hours. Down the street from the library was an old consignment shop that she'd gone into a few times as a child, but hadn't frequented much lately. It looked tattered from the outside, but the inside had a home-like feel, one that brought a sense of nostalgia to Mercedes. Unlike most days, she walked past the record store and past the library, instead trickling into the thrift store. A bell rang above the door, but no one came to see who'd walked in. Taking a few steps around, Mercedes eyes locked on a few guitars hanging on the back wall, her feet guiding her to the display before she could tell them to move. Looking over the electric, then acoustic sets, she glimpsed a large, wooden piano in the corner of the store. It was trimmed in bronze with a wooden bench stacked with two purple pillows. Her hands gripping around the straps of her backpack, Mercedes stepped closer to the piano, wearily opening it to take a peak at the keys. Just as soon, the owner of the shop, a middle-aged woman with glasses hanging around her neck stepped out of an office with her arms crossed. Looking over Mercedes first, she pulled the glasses up to her eyes and stepped forward to the piano.
"No one's ever looked at her,' she admitted. "I guess they weren't the right fit. Do you play?"
Sighing, Mercedes shook her head. "No. I'd like to learn,' she revealed, tracing her fingers over the keys again. Singing and dancing exhilarated her, but there was nothing like the way the hairs on her arms stood when she heard someone play the saxophone or strum the guitar. Her feet and entire body begged to get out of its seat and move when she heard someone play just the right tune, she lived for it. Mercedes always imagined she'd like to be one of the people who encouraged that type of fervor out of people. She saw the piano as just as powerful yet more regal. The perfect medium for her.
The woman nodded her head and took her glasses back off. "I'll sell it to you for $400."
Mercedes bit her cheek, rubbed her arm, and stepped away. "I just don't have that much now, I'm sorry."
"I see,' the store owner trailed. She rubbed the back of her neck and took a few glances at the piano. A stain on one of the bench's pillows, a lose leg, scratches on the keys, indentions in the wood. Clearing her throat, she reasoned, "I don't get much business, I don't think it'd hurt if you came in and practiced sometimes. You can play as often as you want, and once you've got $300 saved, you can have her."
Smiling, Mercedes nodded. "Okay! That sounds great, thank you. I hope it's still here when I come back,' she said as she began to walk away, knowing her mother would be concerned if she wasn't home when she got off work. The consignment shop was a much further walk, and Mercedes knew she had a reluctance for pulling away from conversations.
"Oh, she will be,' the owner laughed, walking back into her office as she heard the bell toll again.
Mercedes felt light-hearted, smiling at the concept of a piano that was practically hers. It was, indeed, a nice concept, but after a few minutes of walking, the air didn't smell as sweet. For as often as she earned money, it felt as though funds had gotten tight around the house, and her mother needed to borrow some cash. She always promised to give it back, but Mercedes knew she'd never see it again. She wasn't resentful, but she knew how things were. Money was used for things that were a necessity, and unless the piano was putting food on the table, clothes on her back, or gas in the car, it was a luxury. She couldn't afford to get a job, not with college applications, school work, clubs, and choir practice. Though Mercedes felt like she was constantly at home at her leisure, her schedule was usually filled with tedious tasks and then empty timeslots that, for most teenagers, would have been filled with hanging out with friends, but since she didn't have a car and didn't live in the same neighborhood with the people she hung out with at school, she was often forced into staring at her four walls.
The piano was a nice dream, a wish, and working to have it could be a way to occupy her time, but she knew, in the end, it would be another source of disappointment. Mercedes conjectured that she wouldn't return to the consignment shop as she'd feel too guilty for making the shopkeeper think she had a customer and too morose for her inability to have something she wanted so close yet so far. There was no point in learning, she figured.
Walking up her driveway, Mercedes noticed that her mother had not yet arrived. The sun was beginning to set, and the walk home had taken longer than she expected. Usually by that time, her mother was already home and in the kitchen preparing dinner for the two. Climbing up her porch's stairs, she heard the phone in the process of ringing and picked it up before it got a chance to give the caller an opportunity to leave a message.
"Let me guess,' she began indolently. "You have to work late, and you want me to start dinner."
"You want to role-play already? Should I come over and say 'Honey, I'm home'?"
Eyes widening, Mercedes almost dropped the phone as she shut the door behind her and slid out of her backpack. Sebastian's voice had returned in a cool tone, much to her surprise. "Give me a second,' she said, placing the phone beside the machine quickly and running to pick her phone up in her room. Running back to the kitchen's phone, she placed it back on the hook and returned in her room, out of breath. "Sorry,' Mercedes began. "I thought you were my mom."
"Never been mistaken for a mom before,' Sebastian chuckled. "What were you doing?"
"I just got home,' Mercedes admitted, sitting on her bed and pulling the phone cord to follow her.
"It took you that long to walk home?' he asked curiously.
"Yeah, well, I stopped somewhere. It usually wouldn't have taken me this long.' Mercedes answered, pausing after a second. "How'd you know I walked?"
There was a silence for a time, Sebastian eventually saying, "I saw you while I was in the parking lot, no big deal. Not that many people walk home, it's hard not be noticed."
"Hmm, okay,' Mercedes responded, a slight giggle rising in her chest. She thought of what to say, doing her best not to allow moments of silence to pass over the phone call, which would almost guarantee him never calling her back. "How'd you break your nose by the way? Or bruise it or whatever?"
"Oh,' Sebastian gave a heavy sigh, Mercedes could hear rustling in the back of the call. "I'm sure you've heard."
"I wasn't sure if what I heard was true or not. I wanted to hear it from the horse's mouth."
"It probably was true, and even if it wasn't, I assure you, it can't be worse than what actually happened. Just a really bad night followed by a worse morning. I don't really want to talk about it though."
"I understand,' Mercedes said softly. She imagined that he probably had to repeat the story over ten times that day, and she wouldn't make him do it an eleventh. Anyone asking about his eye was probably fishing for a story about a fight or about a wild night rather than out of genuine concern for his health. "Just make sure you're taking care of your bandages."
"Thanks,' he responded sincerely, an expression of warmth at Mercedes's compassion. "I'm not completely sure about what I'm doing, but I've got an idea. I mean, it doesn't look as bad as it did yesterday. God knows no one around here is trying to help me. My dad saw my nose and never asked me about it."
"That's terrible,' Mercedes lamented, unsure if the last part was honest or a joke. She'd heard his dad was a hard-ass, but ignoring your son's bruised face seemed heartless. Assuming that he didn't care to indulge any more information on that subject either, Mercedes digressed. "If you ever need any help, just let me know. My mom's a nurse, so she taught me a little bit. I could probably help you bandage it and what types of products to use on your face. Don't want to ruin your money-maker."
"Yeah,' Sebastian laughed lightly. "That's what I was most upset about, I really liked my nose. I'm going to be pissed if it heals crooked. Maybe we can hang-out tomorrow or something, and you can teach me everything you know. If you want."
Mercedes remained silent for a second, the assumption returning that Sebastian may have only been interested in her for the potential of sex. She did jump to conclusions, that she could admit, but never without making educated guesses. Her presumption wasn't far off, but Sebastian had remained, primarily, friendly. Frowning, she asked, "Hang-out where?"
"I'm not sure, maybe I can give you a ride home, so you don't have to walk. We can do something else, if you have time. You can tell me if you don't want to, I won't be upset."
Mercedes considered the proposition for a second, she wanted to confirm. She couldn't help but to let her mind roam onto all the bad that could happen, but Sebastian, even when he wasn't trying to be, was irresistible. Another thing she wanted to loathe about him. "No, it's not that. It's just- you don't mind, like, being seen with me?"
Sebastian laughed, "We're friends, Mercedes. I'm just giving you a ride home, why would I be embarrassed to be seen with you?- Look,' he began before she had the opportunity to respond. "I have to go to tennis practice, but I'll see you tomorrow, okay? Just go to the student parking lot, I'll be there."
"Alright,' Mercedes replied, giving a farewell on the phone before hanging up. Her heart fluttered as she placed her head back on the wall and smiled deeply. The phone gave another shrill ring, Mercedes picking it up again, this time letting the caller speak first.
"Hey, baby. I'm going to be coming home late tonight-'