Josh swung open the door that Saturday morning to find Sarah shoving a Starbucks frappachino into his hands before barreling into his house.
“Um, good morning,” Josh said mildly, closing the door and sipping from the surprise frappuccino. “Mmm… strawberry?”
“Strawberries and crème,” Sarah said, flopping onto his couch and slurping from her own Frappuccino, no doubt her usual mocha flavor. Peanut hopped up next to her, allowing the young woman to pet her while the feline tried to bat at the straw.
“Thank you.” Josh was keenly aware that he was still in his pajamas while Sarah seemed awake and alert enough as if she had run a marathon, wrote a novel, and detailed her car before going for a Starbucks break already that morning. “What’s up?”
She shrugged. “Nothing much. Rebecca had gotten called into work, guess the other dog trainer got sick, so she’s going to do the class that’s starting, like, now, while the manager of the place calls everyone else to cancel the rest of the day’s classes. Usually we’re writing in notebooks at the local Starbucks on Saturdays, but she got the call just as we got there, so we grabbed drinks and just left. I figured if you’re not busy, then maybe we can hang out. Or you can kick me out, that’s cool too.”
“You came with an offering,” Josh said, raising his Frappuccino in a salute. “I wouldn’t dream of kicking you out. Just, uh, let me take a quick shower and get changed and stuff.”
Sarah giggled. “Aw, but you look cute in your superhero pajamas—”
He ran up the stairs before he could hear any other teasing comments from her. Once he had gotten washed up and looked fairly presentable, he went back downstairs to find Sarah cuddling with Peanut on the sofa. The way Peanut turned to glare at Josh made him wonder if his cat didn’t want him intruding or was cursing him for leaving her alone with a clingy human.
“So,” Josh said, “any ideas on what you want to do?”
Sarah released Peanut – whom immediately dashed over to the bay window to escape – and sat up with a shrug. “Not too sure. It’s a really nice day out if you wanted to take a walk? We can go around the pond, although I’m sure it’ll be crowded…”
She trailed off and Josh asked, “So, did you just kill the idea of a walk around the pond because of the crowd, or…?”
“Well, no, we can still go,” she said. “I was just throwing that out there.”
“Might as well,” Josh said, moving to the closet to grab his sneakers. “We should walk off these frappuccinos. Am I driving or you?”
“You can drive,” Sarah said. “I hate parking over there. Oh, but can we take Moose? He’ll probably hate the people but will love the walk.”
Josh grinned up at her from lacing his sneakers. “Sure, why not—”
“Be right back!” Sarah was out the front door before Josh could blink and he paused, wondering if she was going to walk Moose down to his house or if he should meet her halfway in his car. During the time that it took him to be sure Peanut was fed and had a full water bowl, Sarah returned, being sure to keep Moose on his leash as she stepped into the porch. She even had a little backpack as if they were going to go hiking.
“What’s in there?” Josh asked. He bent down to let Moose come and sniff him, and he smiled when he earned a tail wag and a lick on his hands from the dog. Moose was obviously more used to him by now, but Josh still understood that the Chihuahua could easily be startled.
“Besides my wallet and keys, I got a water bottle and a little collapsible bowl for Moose,” she said. “It’s a warm day and he’s little, so wanted to make sure he got some water in whenever we decide to take a break.”
“Makes sense.” Josh grabbed his keys, led Sarah to his car, and revved it up. Moose seemed ecstatic to be riding in the car and he tried to bounce between Sarah’s and Josh’s laps before Sarah held him still enough in her own seat.
The walking path around the pond was a touch crowded, and Moose’s ears were constantly flattening whenever a stranger came too close. For the most part, the Chihuahua’s ears were perked as he took in the scenery while they walked and Josh was thankful that he seemed to grow more comfortable as they got further in the walk.
“How’s everything going with work for you?” Josh asked.
“Oh, it’s fine,” Sarah said with a shrug. “The kids aren’t bad, but sometimes the teachers are full of drama. It’s ridiculous considering we’re a preschool. What about you? How’s your writing and streaming?”
“It’s all going pretty well,” Josh said. “Thanks again for the donation on my stream the other night. Definitely took me a minute to recognize your username, haha!”
“Yeah, your face as recognition dawned on it was great,” Sarah said with a laugh. “But that was a fun stream, even though you really suck at racing games.”
“I always have,” Josh said, finishing up his Frappuccino and chucking it into the next trash can they passed. “How’s Rebecca doing, even though she got called into work today?”
“She may actually be heading home by now,” Sarah said, checking her phone. “She’s doing fine. Guess there’s a new guy working at the pet store, though. She told me how he’s a goof and sounds pretty good looking.”
“For her or for you?” Josh grinned as Sarah elbowed him.
“I was thinking for her,” Sarah said, “but I doubt she’ll do anything about it. She’d prefer to keep her work and personal lives separate, you know?”
“Makes sense,” Josh said. “Wouldn’t want anything to get messy. Have you two, uh, heard from Arnold lately…?”
Sarah shook her head. “No, not that I know of. It’s actually kind of nice, which probably sounds mean, but Rebecca doesn’t seem to be any worse for wear. That may not mean anything, since she can be good at hiding any negative emotions, but it’s probably a breath of fresh air for her. Shame that it happened, he really wasn’t a bad guy in high school.”
“He probably isn’t now,” Josh ventured to say, “not that I really know him, but it wasn’t fair of him at all to try to push Rebecca that way.”
“It wasn’t.” Sarah’s tone turned hard enough for even Moose to glance back at them instead of glaring at the ducks swimming on the pond. “He should have taken no as an answer and left it at that. You know, I hear guys complain about being in the friend-zone, but girls get stuck in the relationship-zone all the time. People should just be friends and then if, mutually, they decide to move to the next level together, that’s fine.”
“Makes sense to me,” Josh said, “but I can understand how much it sucks liking someone in a romantic sense and knowing it’s not going to come to fruition.”
“Fruition, huh?” Sarah echoed. “Fancy word. It does suck, but unless both parties are invested and communicating in the relationship, it’s not going to go anywhere. Arnold should have invested in time in other hobbies or meeting other people when he found out that Rebecca didn’t want to be anything other than friends.”
“What if he never got over his crush?” Josh asked.
Sarah shook her head. “Time would have helped. If he never got over it, then it would be obsession rather than love, and that’s not healthy for anyone. Love can be magical like how all the songs and romance stories describe it, but magic won’t keep people together. It’s actually work. People need to work to stay in relationships, they need to be a team. If only one half of the team is working on the relationship, then it’s not a relationship at all, but dependence.”
Josh nearly walked into a tree. “That’s… all really smart advice. Where did you hear all that?”
She paused and gave him a crooked smile. “It’s kind of a combination of Rebecca’s and my failed relationships. Like, my last boyfriend and I grew apart, especially once I realized we have different levels of ambition. We still care about each other, but we’ve let each other go once we realized that the kind of work we would have needed to stay in our relationship wouldn’t be worth it in the long run. Like, it wouldn’t be compatible with what we wanted in life.
“Rebecca…” Sarah thought for a moment, taking the time to lead Moose and Josh off of the path toward a bench and get some water for the dog. “Well, you’ve seen firsthand how her relationship with Arnold was. They weren’t together because Rebecca was being honest with him, but there have been guys like Arnold that she’s been with who think that a relationship is give and take. They thought that giving Rebecca stuff, compliments, gifts out of the blue, those kind of things, entitled them to take from Rebecca whenever they wanted, like she owed them. That’s not a relationship at all. Relationships are mutual work, understanding, and communication, not a riddled list of imaginary debts to one another.
“Rebecca tried to work on the relationships,” Sarah continued, “to keep them together, to try to be the right giver when her boyfriends wanted to take. Eventually she realized that her boyfriends and she were on different work shifts, if you will, when it came to the relationship. But that’s not how a relationship is supposed to work. You can’t work a shift and expect your co-worker to just come in and pick up where you left off without proper communication. You need to work the shift together to always know what’s going on and how well things are working out between each other.”
She suddenly laughed. “That a good metaphor for you?”
“It’s a perfect one, actually,” Josh said thoughtfully, his gaze watching Moose start to splash in the bowl. Sarah took that as a cue to take it away, apparently figuring that the dog had successfully quenched his thirst. She tossed the leftover water into the grass before collapsing the bowl and packing it up again.
“How’s Ethan?” Sarah suddenly asked, and Josh raised an eyebrow.
“Rebecca told you,” he said.
“Rebecca and I tell each other everything,” Sarah said. “Nothing leaves the two of us, though.”
“Figured,” Josh said, knowing that he trusted both sisters anyway. “Ethan’s doing great, as is his girlfriend.”
“Do you like his girlfriend?” Sarah asked as the group got back to their walk.
“I do,” Josh said. “I mean, Linda’s a good friend too. It just kind of sucks seeing the two of them together.”
“They weren’t the entire reason you moved out here, right?” Sarah asked. “I mean, no offense, but that’d be pretty extreme.”
“Nah.” Josh shook his head. “The thought was there, of course, and seemed like a bonus to move out here. But it is cheaper here and I did feel the need to have my own space. My friends are awesome and I love them, but it was also to try to find my own identity, you know? Online, I’m always grouped with them, which isn’t bad, but I still want to be seen for myself, and… I don’t know if I’m making sense.”
“I think you are,” Sarah said. “It sounds like your quarter-life crisis.”
“Quarter-life crisis,” Sarah casually repeated. “It’s like a mid-life crisis, but instead of being in your fifties and getting questionable tattoos and investing in motorcycles, you’re in your late twenties or so and do some heavy thinking on your existence and place in the world.”
“Quarter-life…?” Josh shook his head. “Where on earth did you hear that phrase?”
“Rebecca, actually,” Sarah said. “She went through it, then my old boyfriend went through it, I’m kind of going through it right now… It’s totally a thing.”
“I’m not arguing against it,” Josh said, thinking on the meaning that Sarah had provided. “It doesn’t sounds real. I’ve just never heard of it.”
“Well, why would you?” Sarah tugged Moose away from the water’s edge where a duck was swimming a little too close and staring the Chihuahua down. “Back in high school, we all were told around the time of college applications that we needed to figure out what to do for the rest of our lives despite the fact that we still had to raise our hands for permission to use the bathroom. We were supposed to be prepared for everything, to have our lives in order by the time we graduated from college.”
“One of my old dorm mates is still taking random classes online,” Josh said. “Well, he was the last time I spoke to him, which was probably about six months ago in all honesty. He had no idea what he wanted to do after college so he kept going back.”
Both of Sarah’s eyebrows raised when she glanced at him. “Dude, how much money does that guy have?”
“He’s the only grandchild to his paternal grandparents.”
“Ah. Well, good for him, and good for his grandparents to help him like that. But that’s what I mean,” Sarah said. “Like, Rebecca has this theory about the differences between our generation and the older one, how they all settled and were focused on making enough money to survive. Our generation, the ones who first coined the phrase quarter-life crisis, are the ones who don’t just want to work to make money to survive. We don’t want to just survive, we want to live, and it’s why you see so many of our generation doing stuff that have to do with the arts, like drawing, writing, gaming and streaming… Then there’s the IT half of our generation, who work hard on creating new, digital ways to do stuff and, while the older generation calls us lazy, to us it’s another way to be sure that we have time to live rather than just survive.”
“You two have thought a lot about all this, haven’t you?” Josh asked, unsure if he had successfully kept all the amusement out of his tone. “It all sounds really plausible. The majority of my friends all have creative pursuits, and we’ve all been lucky enough to be fairly successful at them.”
“Lucky and hard-working, I’m sure,” Sarah said. “Rebecca and I have done well, too, and it’s let us buy our parents’ house when they had decided to downsize, so we were lucky on that end. Most of our friends are either just getting into the housing market, need to rent, or still live at home, which isn’t a bad thing considering we kind of grew up in a lousy economy. Rebecca, though, left a really nice office job to go into dog training, because she prefers animals to complaining people, but she’s gone back to dabbling in drawing like she used to do so long ago.”
“Rebecca draws?” Josh echoed.
“A bit,” Sarah said. “She did it a lot more when she was younger, then school hit, and everyone was like, ‘But what are you going to do for money?’ so she put it on hold for a few years. Think she regrets it, but she’s trying to catch up.”
“And you?” Josh asked. “You mentioned earlier that you two usually go to Starbucks on mornings like this to write in notebooks.”
“I really like to write,” Sarah said. “I wish I gushed more about it to you when we first met, but I didn’t want to seem like I was just buttering you up for writing advice or purely networking purposes, you know? That, and it was a little intimidating knowing that my new neighbor was one of my favorite article writers on Boss Mode.”
Josh grinned. “Awww…!”
She smirked. “Shush, you. But, yeah, I have a few first drafts of novels done and I’m working on editing them. Rebecca writes a bit too, but she mainly does short stories or small one-shot things instead of being able to focus on a whole novel. It’s something else that we do together.”
“What kinds of things do you write about?” Josh asked. “I’ve never written a novel before, so that’s amazing that you have a few of them!”
A hint of pink dusted the young woman’s cheeks and she smiled, pleased at the compliment. “I really like mysteries,” she said. “I have posters and sticky notes and charts all over my room filled with notes and timelines for my stories. It’s sometimes overwhelming, honestly, and Rebecca teases me for it. She’s the opposite when it comes to writing, just kind of hitting the notebook or keyboard and just going. No outlines for her.”
“I’m a bit in the middle,” Josh admitted. “My outline is more of a bullet list of the main topics I want to hit on in an article, then I just kind of write around them. Have you looked into any magazines or online sites that you’d want to write for? Get your foot in the door and all that?”
“I have,” Sarah said. “Boss Mode was actually one of them, heh. I’ve been looking more into parenting or educational sites and magazines since that’s what I know. Rebecca’s glanced more at video games and animal-orientated places for her own writing, as another income if she ever got around to doing something like that.”
“You know, if you two are that into gaming,” Josh said slowly, “maybe you two could join one of my streams sometime. I think it’d be fun!”
Her eyes widened and the pink on her cheeks darkened into a red flush. “Really? That’d be awesome! It would be totally fun, if your regular subscribers and everyone wouldn’t mind.”
“Who cares if they do or not?” Josh said. “They’d either be polite to you or they can leave the stream, by force if necessary.”
“Aren’t some still a little sore that you don’t do much with your other friends, though?”
Josh glanced down at his feet as they walked, realizing that the pair were getting closer to this car after looping around the pond. He vaguely heard Moose start to pant after every few steps but, when he looked at the dog, still saw the Chihuahua’s tail wagging.
“A bit, I guess,” Josh admitted when it became apparent that Sarah was waiting for a response from him. “I’m disappointed in that too, but…”
“But you wanted your own identity,” Sarah finished. “You’re still figuring things out and if inviting new friends to your stream is part of it…”
“Then that’s my decision,” Josh said, taking his turn on completing Sarah’s sentence as he pulled his car keys out of his pocket. “Seriously, though, we’ll have to plan that some night. What kind of games do you and Rebecca like to play?”
“I usually watch her, in all honesty,” Sarah admitted. She took a moment to give Moose one last drink from his bowl before packing everything up and opening the passenger door. Giving Josh a wicked smirk, she said, “For multiplayer games, though… I’m awesome at racing games!”
Josh groaned through his smile.