Paula was unusually withdrawn as we got into the car and started making our way to the freeway, but as we waited at a stoplight just before escaping the Samner suburbs she shot an apologetic look my way.
"Sorry about that, Xavier. I'd been hoping things would be a bit more tolerable with you there, but—well. I appreciate you sticking it out to the end, at least."
"Paula, I don't know how to break this to you, but some of your cousins are complete assholes."
That startled a laugh out of her. "I can't really argue with that. I really like the Mathers, but most of them didn't make it this year. It was nice to see Rita, at least, even if she kind of set me up for failure. At least she doesn't mean any harm."
"If you're going to get hassled that much, why go at all?"
"Mm," she hummed and was quiet for a bit. I was taking breath to tell her it wasn't really any of my business when she finally spoke up again. "You know, I've always really loved Halloween. Other kids were always hyper-focused on the whole free candy thing, but for me the appeal has always been the costumes."
"Yeah, I wouldn't have guessed that at all," I drily remarked, and was rewarded with another laugh.
"I know, right? Especially with how I just threw these old things together."
"But couldn't you have, I dunno, just gone to a party with other seniors or something?"
"Well," said Paula. "I've been going to the cousin's party for years, and they're family even if some of them suck." She shot a sideway glance at me. She looked almost nervous. "Plus, um. I'm not all that popular."
"Yeah, okay, that just makes no sense." This had been bugging me for weeks now. "You're attractive and flirty and funny and super put-together. Why on earth are you hanging around with a bunch of sophomores and a tsundere?" Wait, I said the bit about Samantha out loud, didn't I?
"Soon de what now?" said Paula, but evidently dismissed my slip of the tongue. "So I'm attractive and flirty and funny, am I?" She gave me her patented coy look, and man was I ever glad she was driving and couldn't follow that up with any of her normal physical attacks.
"Damn it, you know what I mean!"
Paula just laughed. "Now, now, don't get your feathers all ruffled. I know I'm not the person you have your eye on, and honestly that's part of why I'm hanging out with you four."
"Huh?" Now that one was admittedly a curve ball. Paula was hanging out with me because I wasn't interested in her? What sort of harem heroine was she, anyway?
"You want to know one of the reasons I like dressing up on Halloween so much? Because you get to become someone or something completely different. Guys aren't only paying attention to you because they're hoping to get lucky. Girls aren't ostracizing you out of jealousy. If people are wary of you, it's because you're a monster, not because you're you."
She was gripping the steering wheel hard enough her fingers were white. "It's incredibly liberating." With a sigh, she let go of the wheel briefly and patted it in a brief staccato almost-rhythm. "You know, it's pretty amusing you think I'm flirty because I don't act like that around anyone other than you."
I scoffed out loud a little. Ah, classic. The tried-and-true, "I only show this side of myself to you" gambit, although I didn't think Paula was actually trying to get me to notice her romantically right at the moment. She seemed more like she just wanted to get this stuff off her chest.
"You know I only have eyes for you, Xavier," Paula teased me, voice throaty.
"Yeah, yeah." I waved that one away. "I have to warn you, though, that I bite."
She shot me a look of complete surprise that was far more gratifying than I'd expected, and then burst out laughing.
"Thanks, Xavier," she said, as her laughter wound down. "I'll keep that in mind. Now, if you don't mind my asking, why did you agree to go to this party with me in the first place? I was pretty surprised when you didn't blow me off at your birthday."
Ah. Apparently it was my turn to sit in the hot seat. Wonderful. Well, maybe brutal honesty would help me out. "I have no idea what you're thinking, and was hoping to figure out why you're hanging out with me and the—girls." Jeez, that was close. Something about talking to Paula constantly threw me off enough that things I didn't want to say kept trying to slip out.
"Is that right?" said Paula. "And how's that working out for you?"
"Oh, just wonderfully." Actually, now that I thought about it, that was actually true. From what she'd said, it sounded like Paula was persona non grata with her peers. Maybe that was why she got along with Samantha so well; both of them were looking for friends.
Shit, manga logic was starting to invade my normal thought process, wasn't it? Since when did I consider a pair of people who are constantly fighting to be emotionally close?
To my surprise, Paula didn't shoot back with any teasing or other repartee. "And what are you planning to do now that you know?"
"I don't know, Paula." I sighed about a year's worth of sighs. "You tell me."
"I think you should just be yourself, Xavier," said Paula. "Honestly, I don't need anything from you beyond that."
That deserved a skeptical stare if anything did, so I obliged.
"Now what was it you claimed originally was the reason you were going to humor me by attending this party?" Paula ruminated. "Something about how you were completely clueless about everything?"
"Excuse me?!" I didn't remember our conversation at my birthday party going quite like that…
"Oh, well, too late now; we're here!" Paula pulled into my driveway, killed the engine, and turned an expectant look on me.
I stared at her. She stared back. Oookay, well then. I unbuckled and climbed out of the car before it got awkward. It had been a seriously rough day, but I was pretty sure I'd gotten what I needed from Paula, even if I wasn't having much luck figuring out what I was going to do about her right at this second. "Do you want to come in real quick, or should I return the costume to you Monday?"
"Monday's fine," she said and sat back in her seat. "Say hello to Rachel for me, will you?"
"Thanks again, Xavier; see you!" And with a merry wave and a wink, Paula drove off.
Scratch my last thought. I had no idea what was going on with that girl at all.