Logan’s fidgeting leg was making the uneven table he had happened to pick to sit at wobble. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for Logan to try to distract himself by figuring out which leg of the table was uneven.
(It took him far too long to realize that it was the chair that was uneven rather than the table.)
Logan took a deep breath, checked his watch to be sure Glenn still had a few minutes to arrive, and tried to look composed, certain that Glenn wouldn’t want to meet someone shaking with nerves. Logan did his best to relax, did his best to ignore the voice in his head that sounded too damn much like his mother’s to sit up straight, keep his eyes open, don’t yawn when the interviewer is talking—
(The advice was what he needed, but the voice was not.)
The door to the Starbucks creaked open, loud and protesting as it moved too fast on its hinges. Logan glanced up and spotted a young woman, most likely a few years older than him, marching into the place. He wouldn’t have given her a second glance except that the bright red t-shirt clinging to her curves demanded to be noticed, but he supposes that was a good thing, for it took him another moment to realize that she was wearing a gray baseball hat with the Batman logo emblazoned on the front.
Logan’s brows furrowed, even as the young woman paused in the middle of the Starbucks – completely heedless of the few stares she was getting from employers and other customers alike – to look around, clearly trying to spot someone. She paused as turned his way, and Logan found himself staring into a pair of dark brown eyes.
She cracked a grin. “You expected a guy.”
“Uh…” Logan cleared his throat and remembered to stand up when he was greeting someone. “I did, actually. I apologize for making an assumption.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Glenn waved off his apology. “You can imagine how often I get that. Pretty sure most of my high school teachers all thought I was joking around when they called my name on the attendance sheet and a short girl raised her hand instead of a guy. My parents’ reasoning is that they apparently saw a Glenn Close movie the night before they found out Mom was pregnant with me.
“Now that you know some random facts about my backstory,” she said, “I’m going to get a drink and I’ll join you at your table here so we can chat a little more about you. Be right back!”
She gave him a smile over her shoulder as she joined the line of customers and Logan shakily took his seat again. He was smiling too, but his nerves were shot and the espresso shot in his Frappuccino probably wasn’t helping.
(He had gotten back to his motel room late last night due to a customer knocking one of his trays of food to the ground. Thank goodness the laundromat by the motel was open 24-hours.)
“Alrightie.” A tall caramel, by the smell of it, Frappuccino plopped down on the table across from his seat, and Logan stood up before Glenn could sit down.
“Despite your cracks about me being formal,” Logan said, his smile easily growing as he stretched his hand out for a shake, “I would like to introduce myself. I’m Logan Fields.”
“Glenn Connors.” Her handshake was firm, unwavering, and Logan wasn’t sure if she was trying to test his strength or not yet. Once the pair sat down and Glenn took a long sip of her Frappuccino, she asked without preamble, “So, what about the room’s description caught your eye?”
“How it was written, really,” Logan answered honestly. “It sounded like I was talking to a person – talking to you, I presume – and it clearly laid out the rules for the rent, the other bills, what was allowed in the place, a bit of background of the landlord… And you mentioned pets. I like pets, but was never allowed one growing up.”
She grinned and shoved some of her loose black hair back under her Batman hat. Whipping out her phone, she showed off her lock screen that had a couple of dachshunds sitting pretty on a leather sofa. Pointing to the silver dappled one, she said, “That’s Peppermint, but we mostly call her Pepper, and the chocolate-brown one is Mocha. They’re sisters from the same litter, we got ’em a couple of winters ago, so naturally we named them after our favorite hot Starbucks drink.”
“Peppermint Mocha.” Logan chuckled. “They’re adorable. They’d be cool with a new person in the house?”
“Considering they weren’t too thrilled with our last roommate,” Glenn said, taking her phone back and swiping at the screen a couple of times, “I think they’d be fine. They can be little yappers, as most small dogs are, but they’ll warm up to you eventually.”
Logan smiled, pleased to hear the positive annotation that it could be him moving into the third room of Glenn’s apartment.
“Here’s Snickers.” The new picture was of a brown maine coon-like cat staring out a window.
“Named after your favorite candy, I’m guessing?” Logan asked.
Glenn shared his smirk. “My sister’s, actually. She’s the one who picked out Snickers at the shelter and ended up picking the name that would stick. I wanted to call him Churro because we had just gotten back from a trip to Disneyworld and those things are absolutely delicious. By the way, my sister is our other roommate, in case that wasn’t mentioned. Her name is Meredith, nicknamed Merry, after a Lord of the Rings character. She’s a couple of years younger than you, by the looks of it, and just finishing up her junior year of high school. How old are you, anyway?”
“Eighteen,” he said. “Just graduated high school.”
One eyebrow rose slowly. “Already trying to get out of your house, huh? Is it that bad?”
(Considering he had been out of it for a couple of weeks already, yes.)
“I just felt the need to get on with my life,” he settled for saying. Keeping an easy smile on his face, he added, “There wasn’t much left for me back there.”
Glenn hummed, a neutral reply, but her dark eyes stared at him as if they were going to strip his soul away. He’s seen that calculating look on plenty of people before. Madison, when she had been getting a scoop for the school newspaper. Carter and Aidan, when April Fool’s Day came around. Seamus, when he was figuring out a particular science equation. His mother, when she was crushing another independent store beneath her stilettos.
(Granted, no one else’s calculating look was as terrifying as his mother’s. Most people’s calculating looks still held a shred of humanity in them.)
“Did you graduate from the local high school?” Glenn asked. “Belleview High?”
“No,” Logan said. “It was Havana High, just a couple of cities over.”
“A couple of cities my ass,” Glenn said. “That’s almost seven hours away from here. Please don’t tell me you came all the way here just for an interview for a room?”
“No, I’m working and living here,” Logan said.
“Havana High’s graduation wasn’t even two weeks ago.”
“Right,” Logan said, nodding and doing his best not to fidget under Glenn’s gaze. “I’ve been out here for about that long.”
Glenn’s brows furrowed and she proceeded to take a long sip from her drink as she tried to figure out Logan’s timeline of his life.
“Where are you living right now?” Her question was almost gentle.
Logan hesitated, wondering if dashing out of his hometown so soon after graduating was a point against him getting this room, but Glenn may be persuaded by pity to give the place to him if she didn’t like the sound of the motel he was staying at. She was an older sister who apparently cared enough about her younger sister to live together even though said sister was obviously young enough to still be with their parents. The sympathy card may work against her.
Then again she played the part of a tough interrogator, the kind that made the conversation sound amicable but was really filing away every word, every tone, every new shift of body language away in whatever file was her mind to gleam over later for clues and truths and lies.
Logan couldn’t start off a living arrangement lying to his roommates, though. He couldn’t even consider trying to create some little story of him living with a nearby cousin or a coworker from the restaurant.
“I’m at the Red Hawk motel at the edge of town,” he said. “I booked my room there about two weeks before graduation. I’m a waiter at Chefron’s.”
Glenn pursed her lips and Logan wondered how affective playing the sympathy card would be. He could be manipulative and persuasive when he wanted it to be.
(It was something that he had learned from his mother. For the most part, he hated it, but every once in a while he could justify it when something harmless worked out in his favor.)
(He pointedly ignored when that just made him feel worse.)
Tag Archives: YA
An older couple entered the lobby. I sat back in my seat from behind the counter, watching them walk forward with the kind of “We’re too old to give a shit about anything” air. A teenage boy shuffled in behind them, making no effort to hide his awe of the facility. His wandering gaze eventually spotted me and he beamed. One side of my lips quirked in response before my eyes returned to my book. Firm footsteps reached my ears and I glanced back up to see Dr. Levi catch up to the couple with an outstretched hand.
“Hello,” Dr. Levi said, and introduced himself. “This must be young Edward. How are you today, young man?”
“Fine.” Edward’s tone was light, confident, but curt. His hands were stuffed in his pockets and his torso was angled back toward the exit.
“Good to hear.” The doctor smiled at the teenager before returning his attention to the older couple. “Thank you for coming here today. I’m sure you’re curious as to why we are interested in your grandson.”
“You said it had to do with his music,” the grandfather said. “Is it all the rock and rap crap that he listens to nowadays? See, Edith, I told you that stuff would rot his brain.”
“It’s a freedom of expression, Hank,” the grandma retorted. Her raspy voice cracked when she had tried to speak louder. “As long as he’s not smoking, drinking, or going out and selling his body–”
“Nana!” Edward, with his face burning, reached over and settled a hand on his grandmother’s shoulder. To me, it looked as if he wanted to reach further and cover up her mouth.
Dr. Levi cleared his throat. “Well, that’s not exactly why we contacted you… Have you folks ever heard of mutants?”
“What, is that a new drug?” Hank asked.
“No, not at all,” the doctor said. “See, when a species evolves–”
“Evolution is blasphemy,” Edith interrupted, her lips pursing, and I thought she would spit on Dr. Levi’s shoes for even uttering the word. Edward’s head dropped into his hands as she ranted. “If you were a God-fearing Christian, you would know that. When was the last time you stepped foot in a church?”
Dr. Levi took a step back and realized that the other doctors had disappeared, none willing to help him with the crotchety old couple.
“Last Sunday,” I said. Hank jumped at the sound of my voice and I waved when he looked my way. I continued on. “God created us, yes, but he had to give us the ability to adapt to this growing world, right? I mean, He promised He wouldn’t destroy this world again, so we need some help to keep up with the changes.”
“Girlie, you’re saying that evolution is an act of God?” Edith asked.
I shrugged. “It must be,” I said. “I’m proof of that. And so is your grandson.”
Tradeline was sneaking up on him. Josh had forgotten how quickly the months could go by when preparing for a convention, and he didn’t even have a panel to worry about this year. Yet, this time he had a couple of guests that he wanted to bring along. Rebecca was hoping that she’d be able to join as well amid the wedding events for her friend, and Josh was preparing as if she were a definite yes. Not to mention how his friends from the west coast were going to be flying out and staying with him…
“This guest room seemed so much bigger when I first moved in,” Josh muttered as he stood in the threshold.
A twin bed – currently occupied by Peanut – was perpendicular to the left wall. Nestled between it and the two windows on the far wall was a small desk that Josh couldn’t remember ever using. It was more decorative than functional, and Josh rattled around the drawers to see if he had ever used the space for anything. Other than a few forgotten office supplies, the desk was empty.
A closet took up half of the right wall, one that Josh had used for extra storage, while the other half of the wall had his old entertainment center. Considering he had used it in an apartment, it was more tall and skinny, having only had the room for a television and space to store a few video game consoles below it.
“Maybe Linda and Grace can share this room,” Josh said, using his arms to measure out whether the bed would fit flush against the wall to give more room for an air mattress. “Unless Linda shares with Ethan…”
He was rather proud of himself that his stomach merely tripped rather than tumbled at the idea of those two sleeping together. Apparently time really was helping his crush disappear. He just hoped it wouldn’t come back in full force upon seeing Ethan in his house.
“Then where would Grace go? Doubt she’d wanna bunk with Calvin and Chris in the living room.” He looked at Peanut as if she would have an answer. She meowed at him when they locked gazes, but it wasn’t very helpful.
Still, Josh continued to talk to her. “It’d make sense for the girls to have the room, if the guys decided to be gentleman, but I have no idea how far along Linda and Ethan are together… I mean, they could suck it up if they weren’t together for a few nights, I’m sure. Maybe I’ll just throw a couple of air mattresses around the house and let them sleep where they want. I bet you a new catnip toy that Calvin will ask if he can move his air mattress to the bathtub.”
“Alright, well, assuming that an air mattress will go in here…” Josh braced himself and pulled the small desk out of its corner. He grimaced at the sound of it scrapping against the floor, but at least the old legs didn’t leave any marks. Peanut ran as soon as he started moving furniture, which was a blessing in disguise, for as soon as the desk was hauled into the hallway and out of the way, Josh began to shove the bed flush up against the windowed wall. It just barely fit without touching the edge of the entertainment center.
He sneezed and realized that he probably should dust the guest room more often. Glaring at the dust bunnies that had populated under the bed when he wasn’t looking, Josh trudged back downstairs to get some cleaning supplies.
His phone buzzed in his pocket as he rummaged in the closet. Deciding it was much more important to answer a call than to clean his guest room that wouldn’t be used for another month or so, Josh dumped the cleaning supplies on the counter and picked up.
“What’s up, Bec?”
“Sarah wants to try this new frozen yogurt place in the town’s center,” Rebecca said. “Wanna come?”
Josh glanced at the broom set up against the counter and said, “I’m in. What time?”
“In a few minutes?”
“Perfect. I’ll walk down to your house.”
After ensuring that the cleaning supplies were put enough away and shutting the door to the guest room so Peanut wouldn’t get into anything – for he really didn’t want to come home, see his cat covered in dust bunnies, and attempt to give her a bath – Josh jogged his way down the street and met with the girls just as they were coming out of the house.
Sarah was all but bouncing in the front seat of the car. “This frozen yogurt place better be good, I mean, they got rid of that other shop a couple of years ago, so it’s about damn time they put in another frozen yogurt shop…”
“I thought you were more of an ice cream person,” Josh teased, poking the back of the younger sister’s head.
She swatted at his hand, missing completely. “Oh, ice cream is amazing,” she said, “but frozen yogurt tastes better at this time of the year.”
“Oh, okay,” Josh said, his nod serious, but his smile trying to hide his laughter. “It’s a seasonal thing.”
“That’s right.” Sarah gave a decisive nod. “Remember that for next time. There’ll be a quiz.”
“You two are ridiculous,” Rebecca said, her eyes on the road as she tried to find a parking spot in the lot that she had turned into.
“But you love us,” Josh said.
“For some strange reason, yes,” Rebecca said. Her tone was resigned, but she had a gleam in her eyes when she glanced at Josh through the rearview mirror. He merely grinned.
The frozen yogurt shop – Sprinkles on Top, it was called – was a nestled little spot on the corner of a shopping plaza in the middle of town. Rebecca parked in what Sarah affectionately called “No Man’s Land,” an area in the far section of the parking lot without too many other cars around. Josh didn’t mind the walk with his friends, taking the extra time to continue to tease them and discuss frozen yogurt flavors and toppings.
“You’re both wrong,” Rebecca was saying as the three reached the shop. “Chocolate is always the best flavor.”
“Chocolate is fine once in a while,” Josh said, “but a nice fruity flavor really cleans the palate, like strawberry.”
“You’re both crazy,” Sarah said, bouncing ahead of them. “You can’t do anything without a little coffee in your system!”
“You have too much coffee in your system,” Rebecca remarked, giving the amused employee behind the counter a nod for a greeting. “I think you should just get a small cup of basic vanilla.”
Sarah turned back to her sister, her nose scrunched and her tongue sticking out. “No way, that’s probably one of the most boring flavors.”
“I resent that.”
Josh glanced behind him at a smiling black young man lounging at one of the tables by the windows. His hazel eyes were darting around at all three of them, lingering the longest on Josh, as he pulled his dreadlocks into a small ponytail.
Sarah backtracked to stand next to Josh and, with her hands on her hips like Wonder Woman, stared at the guy and asked, “You dare to challenge me?”
“Oh, I dare.” A chuckle accompanied the reply and the guy stood up from his seat – all six and a half feet of him, Josh was sure – to give Sarah a little bow. “Vanilla, while basic, is the best flavor as a base for your frozen yogurt treat. Everything goes with vanilla. The gummy worms, chocolate chips, raspberries, pistachio nuts—”
“Pistachios?” Rebecca echoed incredulously from just behind Josh.
The guy either didn’t hear or didn’t mind the interruption and continued talking. “Vanilla is the perfect canvas in which to paint your frozen yogurt masterpiece.”
“Ah, but coffee, or anything with an actual flavor,” Sarah countered, “can create a more in-depth picture, one with more meaning and taste. There’s an art to crafting the perfect blend of harmonious flavors to set your test buds into a delighted frenzy—”
“Alright, what’s with the art metaphors?” Rebecca asked, cutting Sarah off.
“I was interested in them, actually,” Josh said.
“And I’m interested in meeting the friend of my friends,” the guy said smoothly. “Bec, Sarah, either of you going to introduce us?”
“David, this is Joshua Kent,” Rebecca said. “Josh, meet David Fletcher. He was in the graduating high school class in between Sarah and me. He was on the yearbook team with me during my senior year, and Sarah joined the yearbook team during his senior year.”
“Nice to finally meet you,” David said, extending his hand to Josh. “I’ve heard about you from the girls. Shame we haven’t met up until now.”
“Likewise.” Josh hoped that his palms weren’t sweaty with nerves as he looked up at David. Josh himself was taller than the girls, with Sarah barely reaching his shoulder blades. To see them standing next to David was rather comical. “So, uh, what do you do–?”
“We’ll socialize in a few minutes,” Sarah said, running by the rest of them. “But first, frozen yogurt!”
David chuckled and made room at the table he had claimed, shoving a shoulder bag under his chair and tossing out his trash, as the other three went to get their cups of frozen yogurt. Josh opted for a simple strawberry frozen yogurt with M&Ms and chocolate sauce, while Sarah went crazy with coffee frozen yogurt, peanut butter cups, crumbled bits of s’mores, and pieces of cookie dough. Rebecca was a bit in between the pair, with her chocolate frozen yogurt, brownie bites, chocolate chips, and a little caramel drizzle.
“What brings you here, David?” Rebecca asked as they all joined David at his table.
“Just relaxing after work, really,” David said with a half-shrug. “The office was a little crazy today, what with bills being due and all this week, so figured I deserved a treat.”
Rebecca paused. “Did I pay the tax bill?”
“You did,” David assured her, another chuckle escaping him. Josh enjoyed how often he seemed to laugh and smile. Turning to Josh, David added, “I work right in City Hall in the building department. Help out with the contracts and building permits and things like that. Contractors can’t get building permits if the owners still owe taxes, so many of them were trying to come in and pay. I should just post a sign on the door with the directions to the collectors department.”
With David’s physique, Josh would have guessed that David was a contractor himself rather than someone sitting at a desk all day.
“What about you?” David asked, keeping his focus on Josh. “The girls mentioned that you write?”
“Yeah.” Josh nodded, probably a bit too quickly. “I write for a few gaming websites, mostly on a site called Boss Mode.”
“‘Fraid I only know that site because of the girls,” David said, gesturing to Rebecca and Sarah. “I usually get my gaming news from the magazine and site Warriors and Mages. It caters to sci-fi and fantasy outside of gaming too.”
“That’s one of my favorite sites,” Josh said, glad that there was something he had in common with David.
“Really?” David angled his body more toward Josh. “Have you ever read the articles on tabletop gaming? Like Dungeons and Dragons and shit?”
“Uh, a few,” Josh said, making a mental note to do so later that night. “Do you play D&D?”
“I used to play it a lot more in high school.” David turned and gave Rebecca a grin. “Even got her into it during her final year there. Sarah played a little, too, when I was a senior, but I ended up getting too busy with college prep and stuff to keep up with it. I’d love to get back into it, but not too many people I know around here would be willing to play again.”
“Ever been to Tradeline, David?” Rebecca asked. With a nod in Josh’s direction, she added, “Josh is hosting a few of his friends from the west coast and they’re planning on going. Sarah’s going to tag along, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to as well after Wendy’s wedding. Tradeline’s only a day after it.”
“I haven’t been to Tradeline in years,” David said with a deep sigh. Biting his lip, he paused in thought a moment before saying, “Maybe I’ll go again this year, assuming I can still get a ticket.”
“I have a couple of extras,” Josh said. “I bought about a dozen because I wasn’t sure how many of my friends were flying out here, plus the girls, and… Yeah, you want one?”
“Shit, really man?” David laughed. “Yeah, why not? Bec, what time is the wedding? It’s right in the next city over, right?”
“It’s in the afternoon,” Rebecca said, “around three if I remember correctly. Think the reception starts at five-thirty, so I have no idea what time I’ll get home. I know Josh, Sarah, and company are heading to their hotel for Tradeline that night, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to meet them the next morning.”
“I’ll drive,” David said. “I’ll pick you up bright and early the day of the convention and you can sleep in the car. We’ll meet up with Sarah, Josh, and Josh’s other peeps at the hotel before Tradeline officially opens.”
“That sounds great!” Sarah said. “That way I won’t have to worry about Rebecca falling asleep at the wheel.”
“Way to be optimistic,” Rebecca said dryly. To David, though, she nodded. “That does sound like a great plan. I’ll help pay for gas for the trip.”
“Oh, please.” David scoffed. “It’s not that far and how many times in high school did you haul my ass around to meet up with everyone when I didn’t have my driver’s license yet? Considering this payback. Speaking of payback, though…” He glanced over at Josh and added, “What do I owe you for the ticket?”
Josh briefly wondered if it would be weird for Josh to say that the ticket was his treat since David seemed like such a nice guy, one who was obviously good friends with the girls, and one who had a fantastic smile, but figured since the pair just met, Josh would be honest. “It was seventy-five dollars. No rush, of course.”
“And the hotel room? Is there room for me to bunk with anyone?” David asked.
Josh tried to figure out how they had split up the rooms. “Think we booked three… You’ll be the ninth person… I’m sure we’ll find room for you somewhere.”
“You can just bunk on the floor of our room,” Sarah said. Turning to Josh, she asked, “Unless our room is going to be all the gals? Linda and Grace won’t mind, right?”
“I’m really not sure yet,” Josh said.
“We’ll figure it out,” Rebecca said. “Besides, David and I won’t even be there for the first night.”
“Yeah, if anything, Bec and I will bunk together on someone’s balcony.” He nudged Rebecca’s arm with his elbow, chuckling.
“Sure,” she agreed. “Only if you’re willing to snuggle.”
“But of course. I’ll snuggle with anyone!”
Josh chuckled and Sarah from across the table smirked at him. Josh glanced down at his half-melted bowl of frozen yogurt and occupied himself with taking another bite.
“That was really good,” Rebecca said, indicating her empty frozen-yogurt cup.
“So was mine.” Sarah stuck her tongue out at David before adding, “So much better than boring vanilla!”
“You’d change your mind if you would try it,” he said, giving her a crooked grin.
“Nope.” Sarah shook her head and gathered up her empty cup and Rebecca’s to toss into the nearest trash can.
Rebecca stood up as well and said, “I’m going to go wash my hands. Got a bit of caramel sauce on them, I think. You coming, Sarah?”
“Yep!” Sarah led the way over to the restrooms, Rebecca murmuring that they’d be right back.
As soon as the girls disappeared, David sighed. A light smile was on his face and he was shaking his head in what Josh could only guess was fond exasperation. Suddenly, David asked him, “So, you interested in guys?”
Josh nearly choked on an M&M.
David laughed. “Shit, sorry, man. You okay? Didn’t mean to shock you like that. It’s just that the girls up and leaving me with a new person usually indicates that they think I should try to make a move. They’ve been doing that since I came out as bi.”
“O-oh.” Josh coughed and caught his breath, hoping his face wasn’t too red. “I didn’t realize that they would be that interested in setting you up with someone.”
“I don’t really know if they are, to be honest,” David said with another chuckle. “I think it started as a semi-joke once when I was moping about breaking up with someone back in high school.”
Josh paused before asking, “Sorry if this is too personal, but have you ever gone out with Rebecca? You two seem to get along well.”
“Bec’s like the older sister I never had,” David said, “and Sarah a younger one. I’ll admit, I had the hots for Bec when I first met her, but we were also friends with a guy named Arnold who I know really liked her, so—Man, what’s that face for? You know Arnold?”
“Ah, yeah.” Josh wasn’t sure what kind of face he had made, but thinking about Arnold wasn’t something that Josh wanted to do. After the fiasco at the movies months ago, the guy had made repeated attempts at calling Rebecca again for the next couple of weeks. They eventually fizzled out, but Rebecca said they hadn’t started slowing down until the night that Arnold had shown up at the girls’ house uninvited and, since he was there, Josh had answered the door.
Arnold had turned crimson, sputtered out a few angry curses, and marched back down the driveway. He had hit the back of his Jeep on the girls’ fence before tearing off down the road. Josh hadn’t said a word and merely watched from the front door as Arnold stomped away. Rebecca had apologized for Josh getting involved, but he had assured her it wasn’t any trouble for him. He had volunteered to answer the door, to face Arnold – it had been one of the best ways he could think of to help protect and stand up for the girls.
“You’re the new boyfriend.” David caught Josh’s attention again as the black man snapped as if he had just solved a particularly perplexing puzzle.
“What?” Josh’s brows furrowed. “No, no, I’m not anyone’s boyfriend.”
David waved Josh’s words off. “Nah, I know, but that’s all Arnold kept telling me.”
“Oh.” Josh frowned slightly. “You still talk to Arnold regularly?”
David shook his head. “Not really. I’m kind of taking a couple of steps back from him because all I’ve been hearing about lately is him badmouthing Bec, which I cannot stand, and her so-called new boyfriend. Arnold’s not a terrible guy, really, he just ended up crushing hard on someone who didn’t feel the same way. He was like that back in high school, too, just not as, uh… extreme.”
“Badmouthing Rebecca?” Josh glanced over in the direction to the restrooms, half-wondering what was taking the girls so long while also finding it completely bizarre that anyone would have anything bad to say about the sisters.
David grunted as he leaned back in his seat. “Yeah, it’s just a bunch of shit. S’why I’m starting to back off from our friendship too. Feel a bit bad about it, since I don’t think the guy really connected with anyone else after high school, like at college or his job, ya know?”
“I know what you mean,” Josh said, “but Arnold needs to grow up.”
“Bluntly spoken,” David said, “and true. Just hope the guy realizes that before it’s too late.”
Josh merely hummed in agreement, pausing to mull on their conversation. After a few long minutes, he said quietly, “I am interested, actually…”
“Hm?” David turned back to him from looking out the window. “Interested in what, man?”
Josh coughed. “Men. Guys. I’m interested in guys, like you asked.”
A slow smile curled on David’s lips. “Good to know. Ah, there you two are! What happened, did you fall in the toilet?”
“Very funny,” Rebecca said, glaring at her phone. “Sorry, I stayed in that hallway to take a call, that’s all. Sarah was amusing herself with the automated hand dryer.”
“Is there one in the guys’ bathroom?” Sarah asked. “We’re able to turn ours in any direction we want, and I accidentally sent a pile of extra paper towels flying across the room. Took a few minutes to clean up.”
“You guys ready to go?” Rebecca asked, her gaze darting back and forth between the two men.
David chuckled at the girls’ explanation as to what took them so long. “All set. It’s fine you took your time. Josh and I had a great talk.”
David turned his grin to Josh. Josh’s stomach flipped, and he knew he was in trouble.
Sarah claiming to be awesome at racing games was a severe understatement. When Josh had finally been able to convince Rebecca and Sarah to join him in a live stream – rather, when he had finally been able to convince Rebecca, for Sarah had been raring to go as soon as he had voiced the idea – it was to play one of the more popular racing games that were on the latest consoles, Burning Rubber.
Sarah had left Rebecca and Josh, and the other computer-controlled characters, in the dust right after the first lap, leaving Rebecca and Josh to duke it out to see who would cross the finish line first. Josh had a better handle on the controls, but Rebecca was trickier, able to use the course’s obstacles to her advantage much better than Josh was able to. She had even launched herself off of a ramp with the help of a speed boost, a ramp that Josh had never even noticed before despite how many times he had played the game.
Even though he came in fourth at the last second, with Rebecca zooming by his character for a third place, Josh couldn’t help but grin. If he had lost like that to Ethan and Calvin, he would have pretending to be angry, complete with pouting and name-calling. With the girls, he just felt like laughing.
Sarah had done a little dance when she came in first, much to the amusement and entertainment of those watching the live stream. She seemed delighted at the compliments and even answered a few questions to those who had directed them at her. Rebecca shared some tips of her own, even if she was a bit more soft-spoken to the camera despite her smiling. Josh planned on teasing Rebecca, normally so confident, for how shy she seemed in front of the webcam.
Then some asshole mentioned how the girls should take off their tops and other such insults, but before Josh could ban the user, one of his chat’s moderators did it for him. While the rest of the well-meaning chat tittered and scolded the asshole, Josh smiled and merely said, “Thanks, Ethan, for responding to that so quickly.”
“Oh, Ethan’s here? Hi Ethan! Responding to what?” Sarah asked, apparently having missed the asshole, but as her gaze skimmed through the chat’s comments, comprehension dawned on her face. “Ohhh… Dude, why would you want us to do that when there’s perfectly good porn all over the Internet?”
Josh spit out his drink at her casual question. Rebecca laughed and reached over to the wad of napkins they still had on the table from their pizza dinner, handing them over to Josh.
“Thank you, Ethan,” Rebecca said as well.
“Of course, ladies,” Ethan had typed in the chat. “That kind of disrespect should not be condoned by anyone.”
“It shouldn’t,” Josh agreed, pleased that the majority of the chat had been respectful to the girls so far. In fact, most of them seemed downright angry at the moment, especially some of his viewers that he knew to be female, and he feared that it would become a sticky topic in his chat if he didn’t divert their attention somehow.
“Thanks for your support,” Rebecca said, reading the chat as well. “Although, right now, I think Josh and I could use some support on how to get revenge on that computer character that beat us both in that last race. Should we bulk up with the missile or speed boost power-ups?”
“I like the idea of the speed boosts, keep him way behind,” Josh said, glad that the chat directed its focus on debating which power-ups were better thanks to Rebecca changing the subject.
Rebecca gave him a wicked grin. “I prefer the missiles, especially the firework-like ones.”
He raised an eyebrow at her, the corner of his lips twitching. “Should I be frightened?”
“Only if you get ahead of me in the next race.”
Choruses of “Ohhhh!”s and emotes ranging from laughing and devil horns spammed the chatbox.
“Speaking of the next race,” Sarah said, “are you losers ready to race again?”
“I’m leaving you behind with all those speed boosts too,” Josh said, picking up his controller and going through the options to set up the next race.
The girls beat him in that race, too.
“You have no mercy,” Josh said, whipping around to Rebecca.
She only shrugged. “I warned you.”
Someone in the chat was spamming, “SAVAGE,” and a few had posted applause emotes, Ethan included.
“I need to meet you two ladies in person,” Ethan typed out. “I’m going to challenge Sarah in a racing game and Rebecca in whatever game she feels she’s good at. As long as it’s not platforming.”
Sarah laughed. “I’d love you if you can kick her ass in a fighting game. Like, Mega Punch.”
“Dunno about that,” Ethan said, “but I’d love to try!”
“You guys are coming out here in a couple of months, right?” Rebecca asked, much to the delight of the chat.
“For Tradeline, yeah,” Ethan typed. “Josh, you’re taking the girls, right?”
“Of course I am,” Josh said, “if they’d like to.”
“Sounds like fun!” Sarah piped up. “It’s at the end of the summer, right?”
Rebecca paused. “It depends for me,” she said. “I’d love to go, but I have a wedding—No, no, I’m not getting married!” The chat went crazy with the question, asking if they could see the ring, who the guy was, and – much to his embarrassment – asking if the groom was Josh. “It’s one of my best friend’s wedding, I’m one of the bridesmaids. That’s all. Well, I shouldn’t say, that’s all, considering how much lighter my wallet is going to be after it’s all over…”
“You’ll probably be exhausted,” Josh said lightly. “The option will stay open, of course, if you find yourself wanting to join us at Tradeline after the wedding.”
“Thank you,” Rebecca said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to go with you guys.”
“Josh, I’ll be clinging to you the whole time, just so ya know,” Sarah warned.
Josh chuckled. “That’s fine. After seeing your sister use those missile power-ups so effectively, I don’t want to imagine what she’d do to me if I accidentally lost you at a convention.”
“Neither would I.” Sarah’s agreement was devoid of any mirth, and Josh choose not to comment on it.
“I hope both of you will be able to come,” Ethan typed. “We need a group meet-up!”
“Ethan, aren’t you guys staying at my place?” Josh asked, ignoring the small flip his stomach did at the though. “You’ll meet them, don’t worry.”
The chat began to speak about sleepover games, and Sarah joined right in. Ethan continued to type out comments about Tradeline to Josh and Rebecca, and Burning Rubber was soon forgotten. Eventually, Rebecca glanced at the time and mentioned that they should go back home.
“It was nice talking with you all,” she said to the chat, and the chat chorused back a series of goodbyes, well-wishes, and hopes to see the girls on Josh’s streams again.
“I would love to stream with these two again,” Josh said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to do it soon!”
“Yeah, this was great.” Sarah waved to the webcam.
“You walking them home?” Ethan typed out.
“Of course,” Josh said, and the rest of the chat praised him for being a gentleman. He rolled his eyes in good humor and added, “Not that the girls need protection. You saw how fast Sarah was and how savage Rebecca was in a video game, didn’t you?” He said one final goodbye before shutting everything down.
“You don’t have to walk us back,” Rebecca said, gathering her coat and their share of the leftover pizza.
“I want to,” Josh said simply, tying up his shoes despite Peanut trying to eat his laces.
Sarah picked up Peanut to give her a goodbye hug, much to the cat’s chagrin. “If you’re sure,” the younger sister said, placing the cat down on the sofa.
It was a short walk, one that Josh spent the entire time trying to schedule the next stream that the girls would do with him. “I’m thinking maybe we should play Mega Punch?”
Rebecca chuckled, but Sarah said, “Yes! Rebecca will kick both of our asses, but it’s also an online game, right? Think Ethan can be player four?”
Josh paused for a moment, having forgotten that aspect of the game, and nodded. With a crooked smile, he said, “Sure, I’ll ask him. The time zone difference may be a little weird, but we might be able to figure it out.”
“Yes!” Sarah pumped her fist in the air. “And we can do teams for some of the fights, like girls versus guys, or old people versus younger people, who’s older, anyway? You or Ethan?”
Josh raised an eyebrow. “Uh, Ethan.”
“Great, Ethan and Rebecca versus you and me! We’ll totally lose, but it’ll be fun.” With that declaration, Sarah hugged Josh goodnight and skipped into the house.
“Thanks for tonight,” Rebecca said, smiling up at Josh. “You alright?”
“Huh? Yeah, of course I’m alright,” Josh said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
She gave him a half shrug. “Just wasn’t sure how you were doing with your crush, that’s all. You don’t turn red as much anymore when Ethan is brought up.”
“Oh.” Josh scratched the back of his head. “Well, he’s my friend first and foremost, as is Linda. I’m fine.”
Rebecca hummed and gave him her own hug. “Good night, then. We’ll probably talk to you tomorrow, if not sooner.”
“Good night, Bec.” Josh watched as she went into the house, chuckling to himself as he heard Moose’s excited yips at the girls finally being home, before turning around to walk back up the street by himself.
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.
(A very happy Mother’s day to all out there!)
“Grace really misses you,” Ethan said.
“I would hope so,” Josh teased. “I hope all of you guys still miss me. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all, you know?”
“Dude, I can’t miss you any more than I already do,” was Ethan’s response, his chuckle coming out a little cackling through the phone. Josh smiled tightly, taking a deep breath through the nose to calm himself. Every time Josh thought his stupid crush on his best friend was waning, Ethan went and said or did something that made the crush ram back into his heart.
“No, but man, I mean Grace really misses you,” Ethan continued. “Like, pretty sure she’s kicking herself over not confessing her love for you before you thought to up and move.”
Josh nearly tripped over Peanut. “Confess? What?”
“She must have fallen hard for you at some point,” Ethan said. “She’s fine, but every time your name comes up, she gets mopey. How does she sound when you talk to her?”
“Pretty normal, I guess,” Josh said, shrugging to himself as he plopped down on the ground. Tossing one of Peanut’s toys for the cat to chase, he added, “She’s not sighing wistfully into the phone or anything, and our text conversations don’t have a million heart emotes or anything. Grace has always sounded cheerful.”
“Linda’s trying to talk to her into saying something to you,” Ethan said. “I’m probably not even supposed to be telling you this, but I figured we’re somewhat adults—”
“Just somewhat?” Josh asked, amused.
“Yeah, just somewhat,” Ethan said firmly. “We’re still figuring stuff out, like not to put aluminum in the microwave—”
“My God Ethan—”
“I didn’t do it!” Ethan protested. “Calvin did.”
“Of course,” Josh drawled. “Why the hell would he do that?”
“Wanted to see what would happen,” Ethan said, and Josh could picture his friend shrugging. “Anyway, I figured that you should be prepared for Grace telling you or Linda saying something.”
“Thanks for the warning, I guess,” Josh said, not entirely sure what to do with the information. “She could just miss me as a friend, you know. She always wore her heart on her sleeve.”
“That’s true,” Ethan agreed. “If Grace does suddenly confess, though, any idea what you’d say?”
“Why?” Josh asked, nearly hitting a vase that his mother had given him before the move with Peanut’s mouse toy. The cat wasn’t deterred at all from the toy smacking the wall and landing next to the vase on the end table. She wiggled in anticipation to jump up on the table, but Josh scooped her up and moved her away. There was no doubt that Peanut would knock over the vase in her quest to get the toy.
“Hey, if the feeling was at least a little mutual,” Ethan said, “that would be a perfect excuse for you to move back out here.”
Josh sighed and tossed the mouse toy a safe distance away from anything breakable. “Ethan, I’ve been out here for almost a year,” he said. “I have no plans to go back there anytime soon, if at all, alright?”
Ethan grew quiet on the other end, and Josh had a sudden fear that the pair were disconnected. Eventually, though, Ethan murmured, “I’m still not used to it. It’s still too weird to not have you here with us, playing games with us, ragging on my art while I complain about your writing, working together… It still sucks.”
“Seriously, Josh,” Ethan said. “What exactly made you move so far away? Did we do something? Did I do something? I just… I still can’t figure it out.”
“No, Ethan.” Josh leaned against the wall, opting to pet Peanut instead of throwing her toy again. Peanut didn’t seem to mind too much, if her purring was a good indicator, but she did bat the toy at Josh’s foot. “It definitely wasn’t your fault.”
It was mine.
“Whose was it?” Ethan asked. “Did someone say something to you? Was it Chris, the new guy who helps the girls edit their music—”
“No, no, no,” Josh said, hoping that Ethan wouldn’t go on a rampage against any person that had found their way into their little ragtag group. Shy Chris certainly hadn’t done anything. “No, seriously, it’s just me. I needed to move to figure out stuff about myself.”
“You couldn’t have done that around us?” Ethan asked. “I mean… I get it if you wanted to take a vacation from us, we all can be bat-shit crazy sometimes, but there wasn’t any hope of us helping?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Josh said. “I just really needed this move. I’m sorry that it took me away from all of you, really. No one is sorrier than I am about that…”
Ethan sighed into the phone. “Don’t apologize. I mean, if you know what you need, more power to you. Just wish it didn’t take you so far away, that’s all. On the bright side, since I really don’t want to end this conversation on a melancholy note, you met the Miller sisters! How are the cuties doing? That Arnold bastard still being a pain?”
“Don’t let Linda hear you say that,” Josh teased. Ethan scoffed and Josh answered his question. “Rebecca and Sarah are doing well, thanks. I honestly haven’t heard about Arnold in a bit, so I guess everything’s okay on that front? The sisters ask about you guys all the time too. Can’t wait for you all to meet.”
“We’re looking forward to it too,” Ethan said. “Just a couple of months until Tradeline! Don’t think we’re getting a panel, but it’ll be a nice excuse to just travel over there, you know?”
“Advertise to your stream followers that you’re going,” Josh said. “Some may be able to make it out here, too. I got a few of my regulars planning on coming to say hi, and Naomi has it advertised on the Boss Mode website for even more interest. Maybe if we get enough people appearing just to see us, the organizers behind Tradeline will be willing to give us a panel next year.”
“That’d be great,” Ethan said. “You got my room all ready for me?”
“It’s still there, last I checked,” Josh replied cheekily. He finally got up from the ground and, with Peanut trying to wind her way around his legs, went into the kitchen to get her supper ready. Josh paused a minute and, while trying to sound casual, asked, “Is Linda coming here too?”
“Well, not sure,” Ethan said. “Do you have room for all of us to crash at your house? We definitely want to see you as much as possible, but we also realized it was kind of shitty of us to assume that we could get free room and board over there. It’s completely up to you who you want there, myself included. Say the word and we’ll book a hotel.”
“No, I want you guys here,” Josh said, glancing around his house and trying to imagine where five of his friends would go. If anything, he could get an air mattress or two while someone took the living room couch, maybe. “Just, uh… bring sleeping bags just in case.”
Ethan laughed. “A sleeping bag? Dude, I haven’t had one of those since middle school, I think. I’ll try to find one, haha!”
Josh chuckled as well, putting Peanut’s food down for her. With a bright meow, she dug in and Josh leaned against the kitchen counter, just enjoying the connection he had with Ethan even though neither were saying a word at the moment. Silences with Ethan had always been comfortable, and Josh hoped that they always would be.
Eventually, however, Ethan said gently, “Hey, I’m going to go now, alright? I’m not sure what time it is over there because I suck at time zones, but I have to start prepping for dinner. I’ll talk to you soon, man.”
“Alright, Ethan,” Josh said, looking at his own clock. “Take care.”
“You too, Josh!” The line disconnected and Josh took a deep breath. He smiled down at Peanut as she cleaned her bowl before figuring he should surprise his followers with an impromptu video game stream.
Maybe this had all been a mistake. What had Logan been thinking when he had decided on getting a ticket on the first train out of his city to a town he knew almost nothing about except that he was sure he would be able to get a place with a reasonable enough rent that he could pay with the first job he had landed.
(It wasn’t anything remarkable, but the hiring manager had said nothing about recognizing Logan’s last name, so he took it. He had only that one round-way ticket for the weekend out of his city, and it had been the fourth interview he had been on in between the banking meetings that he had been sitting in on for his mother. Besides, he was sure he’d be able to earn decent tips as a waiter. At the very least, he was hoping to make back what he would pay in motel fees before finding a more permanent place to stay.)
Logan leaned back in his train seat, trying desperately not to miss his friends too much. He needed to focus on what he was going for, on what he was after, on getting a roof over his head before he could start even thinking about sending out texts and calls, wondering what they were up to, if they missed him just as much as he missed them.
(A glance at his watch revealed that the graduation celebration wasn’t even scheduled to be over for another two hours, most of them probably didn’t even know he had already disappeared, what the hell was wrong with him for being so sentimental already.)
(In hindsight, if he wasn’t so damn sentimental, he probably would still be in his mother’s house–)
Logan shook his head, as if the physical act would rattle in thoughts into some sense of order, and dug around in his carry-on bag for his tablet. He scrolled up and down countless pages of apartments, condos, and rooms available for rent in his new town, and he spent the next three hours of the train ride comparing rent prices and his new job’s hourly wages. His car was being shipped along with the train, so he wouldn’t have to worry about public transportation and bus schedules when it came to his job’s shifts, but he did have to think about if he would have his own parking spot at whatever place he could afford to rent.
He saved a few potential places until he started going cross-eyed from staring at screens with pictures that looked like the same damn empty room with the one window and one lamp swinging from the ceiling and too many dollar signs and obscene prices for one bedroom (honestly, he would barely be able to fit a bed in some of the rooms, why would he pay monthly for sleeping in a closet?). With a deep breath, he began to weed out some of the saved ones, looking for whichever places seemed to hold the most promise.
There was a particular place that was reasonably priced and actually had a few decent pictures of the room for rent from different angles. What really caught his eye was the image where there was one with a small black splotch at the corner of the ceiling and wall. The caption accompanying it read, “Sorry for the remnants of squashed spider guts by the ceiling, we’ve tried everything to get it off, but the soul of the spider will probably forever haunt this room. Hope you don’t mind a spider ghost sleeping with you.”
(Well, Logan figured living with a spider wasn’t any different from living with a bitch, so he may as well take the chance.)
Logan scanned the rest of the ad, finding the description of the place rather amusing: “Two people looking for a third roommate after we finally kicked a psychopath out of our lives (don’t worry, the room was thoroughly cleaned and fumigated). Six hundred bucks a month, which includes water and heat, but not the electric bill — that’s divided up each month. We don’t have a landline, so it’s mainly the Internet and television, and you’re on your own for your cell phone bill. The room up for grabs is 9×9, comfortable for a single bed and just enough room if you decide to haul a double mattress in there. Everyone shares the kitchen and the bathroom, so clean up after yourself, but you do have your own shelf in the fridge and bathroom closet. There’s also a third spot in the driveway (no garage, sorry) for your car, motorcycle, bike, scooter, whatever, if you want to use it.
“It’d be cool if you shared any allergies that you may have ahead of time. Unfortunately there’s no more room for pets in the place – we already have two dogs (dachshunds) and a long-haired cat. You can also probably count the quartet of crows that tend to gather around the living room window near sunset every few days since we started leaving a little bit of old bread out there this past winter. Be nice to them since they tend to bring back shiny trinkets for us as payment. We don’t ask where the trinkets come from and, if they happen to bring back a quarter or two, we put it in a jar towards getting them a bag of their favorite bird seed.
“We honestly don’t care where you are on the gender or sexuality spectrums, all we care about is if you’re comfortable so be sure to let us know if there’s certain pronouns you prefer or if something may trigger you somehow or whatever else you deem as important. There’s no smoking, no illegal drugs, and no underage drinking in the place. The fastest way to get your lease ripped up if down the line you’re trying to figure out how to get out of here is to bring home a bag of cocaine or get too drunk too often. The landlord is a good friend of our uncle (hence why he’s trusting us enough to pick out a third roommate, or he just doesn’t want to deal with interviews himself), so if you end up being like our previous psychotic roommate, be warned in advance that if we have trouble kicking you out, we have two guys who have worked in the same construction company for years together to kick your ass.
“If you made it all the way down here of this long-winded description, congrats, you passed the first test (or second if you already looked at the room pictures and didn’t freak out over the squashed spider guts). If you’re still interested in the place, email Glenn and we’ll set up an in-person interview at a public coffee place and we’ll go from there.”
The email was listed neatly at the bottom of the page and Logan opened up a new email to send a polite inquiry about the place. He figured meeting up with Glenn wouldn’t be a bad thing, and he’d rather get a feel of people in person instead of a simple call over the phone.
(He had tried that the weekend before, sneaking phone calls to potential landlords and roommates. The first question one had asked was about how cool Logan would have been with the landlord’s girlfriend coming over there all the time. Logan questioned about why the girlfriend herself didn’t just move in, and that opened a floodgate of ranting against the previous roommate and how he hadn’t appreciated anything that the landlord had done for him, and Logan tried to get a word in for about fifteen minutes before just hanging up.)
There were a couple of other email inquiries Logan sent out as well, but his mind kept drifting back to the room that may have the spirit of a spider haunting it, figuring that it had sounded the best out of the other ads he had seen. The description of the room and the general rules of the place sounded fairly normal, even with the few quirks about the place, and whoever wrote up the ad didn’t sound like a stiff. Logan hoped that he would at least hear back about the place.
It was during the fourth hour of the train ride that Logan noticed a new email in his inbox, and he got tentatively hopeful when he saw that it was a reply from Glenn. The first line of the reply was, “Damn, your email sounds so formal. Here’s hoping you won’t get scared off by us when we meet.”
Logan’s lips twitched upwards in a smile as the email continued with a friendly, casual tone that described a couple of meeting times and places in the next week that Glenn was available for if Logan was. Logan compared them all with his week’s schedule at the restaurant and settled on the first date, eager that he would be able to make it during the first time slot. The sooner he met Glenn, the sooner Logan had the chance of not sleeping in a dim motel room.
Glenn replied almost right away when Logan had sent back confirmation that he could make the first time meeting. “Sounds great then,” Glenn’s email read. “There’s a Starbucks at the corner of Main and Kingston Street with a little sandwich board outside that usually has some sort of coffee pun and cartoon drawing on it to get people to go in. You’ll know me by my gray baseball cap with the Batman logo on the front.”
Logan chuckled at that and tried to think if he had any easily-recognizable clothes or accessories packed away. Nothing sprung to mind except for a friendship bracelet that Aidan had made partly as a joke for their group of friends.
(“Logan, yours is in blue because it’s your favorite color,” Aidan had said as he gleefully yanked Logan’s wrist close enough to tie the woven bracelet around it.
“Aw, I thought you were going to say how it matches my eyes,” Logan teased.
“That too,” Aidan had agreed easily, the tip of his tongue poking out of his mouth as he fastened the bracelets. His own was woven with threads of greens, the ends of them dangling down from his skinny wrist and tickling Logan’s arm as Aidan worked.
“What made you make us friendship bracelets?” Carter asked with a chuckle, even as he admired his own woven creation. Reds and oranges, like a fiery sunrise.
“He couldn’t have done them just because he loves us?” Seamus asked before Aidan could respond to Carter. Seamus was smiling softly at the deep purples and one thread of bright yellow that Aidan had used to make his. “Thanks, man. I’m going to always wear this.”
Seamus did, even throughout graduation.
Aidan had looked up from Logan’s wrist to give Seamus a grin before answering Carter. “Was babysitting my little cousins, you know, the twins. Callie and Hailey, and apparently their entire class, are all into this friendship bracelet making stuff. It’s all they wanted to do, so I figured I’d join in. You should have seen how awful the first few bracelets I made were, ha! But I think I got the hang of it—There ya go, Logan.” Aidan patted Logan’s wrist where the bracelet was tied with a crooked bow.
Logan gave his hand an experimental shake to be sure it wasn’t loose enough to fall off, not wanting to risk accidentally losing it. His smile is genuine as he says, “Thanks, Aidan. I’ll always treasure your hard work.”)
Logan glanced at his wallet next to him on the train ride, a piece of navy blue thread poking out of one of the inside pockets. Logan would have worn it as often as Seamus and Carter had, had his mother not spotted it after school that evening. She had rolled her eyes and slid a pair of scissors across the counter at him with a sharp, “Cut it off.”
He took the scissors and went to his room, carefully untying the knot and placing the bracelet snug in between a couple of pictures in his wallet. He used the scissors to snip off a couple of loose threads from his blanket and a pair of jeans to make a show of tossing them out in the wastebasket when he returned the scissors to her.
(He still remembered the brief flicker of a frown that had crossed Aidan’s face the next day when his friend had seen Logan’s bare wrist. It still hurt.)
Logan settled on telling Glenn that he would be wearing a beige shirt and dark-washed jeans with a venti vanilla Frappuccino in his hands. If he could help it, he’d find a couple of seats for the pair of them by a window. Glenn had sent back one last email saying that it would be great to meet Logan and to not be late.
Logan spent the last half hour of the train ride meticulously trying to tie the friendship bracelet back around his wrist.
(It was impossible to do so with one hand.)