"Okay boys, I have to talk business with Josh." And with that, Crystal turns on her heels and walks away quickly, deliberately.
I'm exchanging information with Praveen when I notice that Andriy is standing in the opposite corner of the room, looking a bit apprehensive and nervous.
Chris and Praveen notice as well. Andriy seems to mutter some words under his breath and walks toward us.
"Is he?" Chris asks.
"Yes," Praveen responds.
The hulk is about halfway across the room now and I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't just a little intimidated.
"Oh no, no, no," Chris says. "I'm going to die a virgin. No, no, no."
"Oh relax, Chris." Praveen waves his hand and smiles at Andriy.
He walks up to us, pauses for a moment, and begins. "You are fundraiser committee, yes?"
Fundraiser comes across as two distinct words. Fund. Raiser. Then I get it. As terrifying as he looks, he has insecurities of his own.
From intimidating nearly everyone who sees him based on his appearance alone. From learning English as a second or maybe even third language.
From having grown up in an entirely different culture and being forced to relocate as a teenager. It must be tough.
Chris still smiles nervously, and says, "We are. I don't know if we've been formally introduced. I'm Chris Hollings." He reaches out to shake Andriy's hand.
"Andriy Moskalenko," he shakes each our hands in turn.
"Well, Andriy, we're going to meet at Chris's house on Friday night to talk about things. Order some pizza and maybe watch a bad movie. Care to join us?" Praveen asks.
"Yes, I would like to come," Andriy begins. "You are going to watch bad movie?"
There's a curious expression on his face. Like he doesn't get it. I can't say that I blame him.
The idea of intentionally watching a terrible movie must be one of those things that's just lost in translation.
"You'll just have to trust us on this one, Andriy," Chris says, and dons to pat him on the shoulder. Andriy looks at Chris's hand and then at Chris. Chris quickly removes it.
By now, people are starting to file out of the room. Val and Andrew have left, and Crystal and Josh are still talking.
"So, guys, see you Friday, right?" I say.
We fist bump, and I make the walk again through that long, dreary hallway. I wish that Outsiders would hold their meetings at a more... lively place. I guess maybe that's the point though.
To have these meetings in the most nondescript location possible.
"You're late for dinner," Mom says when I get home.
Good thing I got distracted from snatching one of those sandwiches, I guess. Over dinner, my parents and my little sister, Lyla, ask me where I've been. I hate to lie to them.
I hate to lie in general and I'm just not very good at it. But given my parents' opinions on my opinion about my future, now isn't the time for candor.
"Drama club," I blurt out. See, I told you I was a bad liar. They know that I'm the very last person to ever volunteer to be in a play. "You know, I'm working the behind the scenes stuff. Stage design, sound, that kind of thing."
"You," Lyla says, pointing her knife at me and squinting her eyes, "have joined the drama club?" She raises an eyebrow and gives me that look. All siblings share an unspoken language.
This meant, "You're full of it and I don't know what you're up to but I won't say anything to Mom and Dad for now."
"Yeah. Guys, c'mon, what's so hard to believe about this? I just want to try something new."
"Whatever, freak," Lyla says, and turns her attention back to her phone.
"Well, honey, I think that it's good you're trying something new and getting out there." Mom pats me on the shoulder.
Dad nods in agreement, having just tried to chew a way-too big slice of lasagna.
Goddamn it. This is one of the reasons I hate lying. Mom and Dad obviously think that it's is a good thing that I'm doing the thing that I'm lying about.
And now they'll be disappointed if they learn the truth. Who am I kidding? When they learn the truth. Lyla, the little human lie detector, knows already.
After dinner, I head back to my room. I finish up some homework and read a Stephen King novel for a bit, and pretty soon, my eyelids begin to feel heavy.
I turn out the lights and crawl into bed. Remember how I said that I've been having nightmares lately? I have another tonight.
The first dream was a month ago, and I wrote it off to just being an especially vivid nightmare.
I've had those in the past, especially as a child, but the memories of them never seemed to last for very long. Then it happened again. And again, and again.
There is bright fire, heat, and screaming. Burnt and mangled bodies are twisted into unimaginable and terrible configurations. A woman with a half-melted face is trapped under something... a tree? A piece of lumber? She grasps at my ankles and looks up at me with pleading eyes. "Help me, help me."
Before I can do anything I'm shoved along by a crowd into what seems to be a giant gate of fire. Then the crowd turns and runs the other direction.
When I turn around to try to get a bearing of the woman, she's still reaching out to me, the flames now lapping up her arms and her head fully ablaze.
That's where the first dream ends. Now there is a new dream.
There is no light, only profound darkness. That by itself would have been terrifying, and becomes more so when I realize that I can't move.
This isn't the same as the sleep paralysis that I've occasionally experienced. Here I'm physically constrained. Soon I realize I'm underground.
The pain seems too real to have any place in a dream. Jagged rocks pierce my legs and abdomen, and any attempt to move only makes it worse.
I hear the muffled screams and cries of some unseen others and I can't decide whether that should make me feel better or if it only makes the terror all the more worse.
"Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven..." a barely audible voice frantically repeats the Lord's Prayer over and over.
From above, there's the sound of crunching of rocks and more screams.
Was I put here by some monster only to be devoured later?
I think that death by suffocation or dehydration would be truly horrific but for now I would take either in favor of meeting my end in the jaws of that beast.
Then I awake. I get out of bed, walk to the bathroom, and splash cold water on my face.
"God Miles, shut up!" Lyla, shouts dramatically from her bedroom. Little sisters, right?
"You shut up!" I shout back in my best big brother voice.
We antagonize each other, the way adolescent siblings do. Then Lyla walks out of her bedroom to perhaps continue doing just that when her sleepy eyes become confused, then concerned.
She points at me. "Jesus Miles, what happened?"
"What? Nothing," I say, now confused at my sister's concern. Like most siblings, we know when it's time to escalate the ribbing, and when it's time to dial it back.
"Oh, it was just a dream," I answer, surmising that I must have screamed during the nightmare and woken her up.
"No, your side." She points at me. "There's blood."
I look down, then at Lyla, then back down again. I look at the mirror as if that will produce a verdict different from our two sets of eyes. There it is, a bloody streak about eight inches long.
It's thin and shallow, the blood already clotted over and dry, but how did this happen? Could I have scratched myself that hard even if I wanted to?
"Oh, just had a bad dream and scratched myself, I guess," I say, mustering all the glib I can manage. "No big deal."
Lyla just stares, the concern on her face much greater and more mature than her fourteen years.
This uncanny look from my little sister with who likes to flick my ears from the backseat, who cried at a Taylor Swift concert, and with incongruent BTS and Billie Eilish posters plastered all over her wall, scares me more than th gash on my side.
I consider asking her not to say anything to Mom and Dad, but conclude that will only drive home the potential seriousness of what just happened.
"It's okay. Go back to bed, Lyla."
She looks at me for a few moments more.
"Miles..." she begins. "You know that you can..." She looks as if she's going to continue, then stops. She gives me one more look, shrugs and closes her bedroom door.
I examine my side again. It's not a wound. It will heal soon enough.
I crawl back into bed. It's 3:13 a.m. so I should be able to get a few more hours of good sleep. I think about the reasons that I could be having these dreams.
Why they're occurring and what they might mean, if anything. My first instinct is that they're nonsense in the way that nearly all dreams are. Or maybe they're abstract mind plays of anxiety.
My anxieties over moving away from home in the fall.
Of what my future may hold--will I have to work with the military or with law enforcement or at some government black site? What will come out of my participation in the Outsiders?
The more I think about it though, the more I consider that those possibilities are scapegoats.
I'm considering those things because what I really think is at the root of it all is much, much more terrifying and overwhelming.
But the only way to know if my worst suspicions are true is, to, quite simply, wait and see what happens. One thing's for sure is that I won't figure it out tonight.
So I replay the events of tonight over and over in my head. Thinking about what went wrong, what went right. Even looking forward to the pizza and movie night at Chris's house.
I don't expect sleep to find me again tonight, but much to my surprise, I'm out within minutes.
And when I wake up, the memories of last night's dreams have been relegated to a backroom of my mind. For now, anyway.