Chapter tune: The Pretenders – Back on the chain gang
“Raina! Are you ready yet?” Charlie knocked on her cousin’s door.
“In a minute! Come in, it’s open!”
It was two days after the night the cousins were reunited with the siblings again, and a very eager Allison had already invited them over for a Sunday lunch to catch up.
“In the bedroom!” Raina shouted when she heard her cousin’s footsteps in the living room.
Charlie opened the door and Raina motioned at her to come in. “How do I look?”
“Honey, you look fab.”
“Are you sure? Last night I kept thinking that I barely even talked to Allison and Andrew, and that I was a total mess, and kept wondering what they must have thought about me… I felt so, so embarrassed! I almost couldn’t fall asleep..!”
“Almost being the key word. You fucking love sleeping!” Charlie smirked at her.
“Hey, don’t mess with me. I have to look good today to erase that memory from everyone’s head.”
“Or you want to look good today for that hot piece of ass Andrew has become. I get it girl. Man, did you see him? I would totally try to tap that if he wasn’t such a tightass. So not my type. Plus, I remember you had such an adorable crush on him when we were kids! Always doing him favors and following him around.”
“Hey no, I never had a crush on him! I just wanted to be his friend, even though he… well you remember how he was. It’s just…right after lunch I’m going to meet with Zach! He called me yesterday, said today is his day off. So this is also my first date outfit. We have a date! I’m so excited!”
“Oooh, then why didn’t you say so, girl? You look great. Not too shabby, not too slutty… and very cute. So where are you two going?”
“I have no idea. We’ll meet at the park and decide then.”
Allison’s apartment was located in such close distance from Raina and Charlie’s building, that it was almost worth wondering why the three of them hadn’t met during the time they lived in the city.
And Allison, well… she was so warm, that nobody would ever believe she hadn’t seen her old friends since they all were a bunch of little children.
“Charlie, Raina! Welcome!” she said the minute she answered the door “Raina, you poor thing… are you feeling better today?”
“It’s two days later. Did you really assume she’d still be drunk two days later?” someone’s voice pointed out from the background. It was Andrew.
Truth was, Raina had the exact same thought; but of course she had decided to keep it to herself. She’d never been one to annoy people by blunt statements like this, especially people she very much liked. “I’m better, thank you. It’s so nice to see you again! And I am so sorry for the trouble I put you through the other day.”
“Ah, don’t mention it! At least it gave us the chance to meet again, so I’ll call it fate! Come on in, let me make the introductions.”
Of course, Allison’s brother Andrew barely needed introductions. He was still the confident, quiet person both Charlie and Raina remembered, although he was definitely, definitely not a boy anymore. Raina found herself staring at him for a little longer than she was supposed to, which made her grateful for the soft tug on the arm, gracefully given by her cousin.
Andrew’s raven black hair was unexpectedly longer than what his serious demeanor would have anyone guess, gathered casually at the back of his head, while the warm shade of his light brown eyes was perfectly contrasting the coldness of his gaze. The result was… strangely charming, to say the least.
He was a software developer now, which was not in the least surprising, as he always loved both math and computers; a true son of his father. Not only that, but his apparently exceptional skills had managed to land him a promising job in one of the best and biggest companies in the city.
Then there was Allison’s fiancé Oliver, a doctor doing his residency in Boroughsburg hospital. He looked equally serious, but with a more predictable, less edgy streak than his soon-to-be brother in law. A little shorter than him too, dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, and a brown pair of shoes to match. He looked nice, dependable… and a little boring, Raina thought.
Regardless, he and Allison looked really happy together, and she only hoped that someday she’d have that special someone in her life too. Maybe it will be Zach, she considered hopefully, although the growing number of friendzoning ex-boyfriends didn’t let her get too hopeful just yet.
Next to them was sitting Jessica – or Jess, as she preferred -, Allison’s best friend from high school, and a lawyer in profession. She was strikingly beautiful, polite, well-mannered – albeit a bit haughty, at least at first glance. Between the exceedingly warm Allison and her particularly cold brother, Jess seemed to fit right in the middle.
And finally, there was Patrick, Andrew’s best friend since college. Those two were the living proof that sometimes opposites do attract. Even though Andrew had always been difficult to let people in, Patrick did not give a damn about it. He’d approached him during a dorm party, half drunk, demanding he’d join him in a beer pong game. Unexpectedly enough, Andrew did join him without much fuss; and it took one round, followed by one heated debate – tabs versus spaces in coding – for them to become thick as thieves. Patrick had also majored as a software developer like Andrew, although instead of working at a big company in a well paying position like his friend was, he’d chosen to put all of his energy into an indie game-developing company. Not in the least surprising, since he apparently was obsessed with gaming.
As soon as the two girls set foot in the living room, where everyone was seated, Patrick’s eyes opened widely. Followed by his mouth. “Holy smokes. I know I need to press ‘X’ to pick one of you up, but do I go left or do I go right? My auto-aim is broken, people! RECALIBRATE. RECALIBRATE.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Charlie asked.
“He’s just saying that he finds you both very attractive.” Andrew replied. After all these years of friendship, he had learned Patrick’s preferred way of communicating with a new crowd by heart.
“Oh.” Raina’s head tipped back slightly in surprise by the less than subtle comment, but only Andrew seemed to notice it.
“Why the surprise? Don’t tell me you have no idea how good looking you are.” he added calmly.
Of course, Charlie didn’t let this opportunity to mess with him for a bit go away. “Why Andrew, you bad boy, are you hitting on my cousin the minute she walks through the door?”
But he looked completely unfazed by the comment, as well as the inappropriately seductive tone in her voice. “Uh, no. I was just stating a very obvious fact; there’s a difference.”
“I could hit on you if you wanted.” Patrick said.
“Thanks, but I’m not interested. Raina?”
Patrick, quite theatrically, grabbed his chest with his two hands. “Oh, that was a big hit to my poor heart! Two rejections at once? My hardware is ruined! I’m going to the kitchen. MUST. REPLENISH. LOST. HITPOINTS.”
“What a fucking lunatic…” Charlie muttered under her breath, quietly enough that only Raina could hear her.
Allison turned towards Patrick, her big eyes giving him a warning, which was clearly not the first one. “Don’t eat all the mini quiches like last time Patrick, okay? Thank you!”
Dinner was served shortly after. Instead of the usual pizza or chinese food the girls ordered whenever they had company at home, Allison had prepared a very large, decadent, and seriously grown-up meal.
And… it felt nice. After the initial catch-up small talk, Raina felt like she knew everyone for years. They were nice people. She secretly wished that these gatherings would occur often, with her and Charlie invited. Or, maybe next time she could invite them over. Of course, she could never cook as deliciously as Allison, but she could try.
When everyone was done eating, Allison served them her famous – as Oliver called it – triple chocolate cake, proudly informing the two cousins that she caught the baking virus since childhood, when she watched their grandmother Rose bake all those amazing desserts.
Patrick caught Charlie staring at his arms and flexed them both, one by one. “Like what you see?”
“Not really. I’m just watching your tattoos… dude, is that a smiley?”
“Is everything in your life so random?”
“No need to answer, I can do that for him: yes.” Oliver said playfully.
“Well, I was just about to say that tattoos are excellent conversation starters, but you fine lady, you already proved my point.”
“I completely agree.” Andrew chimed in. “That’s why, among other reasons, I don’t have one.”
“That’s… a bit much, don’t you think?” Charlie replied “I mean, it’s one thing to not like them, but not having one so that people won’t talk to you?”
He shrugged and Charlie, as if she expected that exact kind of reply, continued. “Well, I have a couple. Excellent conversation starters by the way, you’re right my nerd friend. Actually, me and Raina have one at the same spot. Got them together.”
“Yes… those are kind of hidden though.” Raina said, and for a moment she thought she saw Andrew shooting her a sizzling look, but it was so short-lived that she couldn’t be sure if it was her imagination or not.
“…Only a select few get to see them.” Charlie grinned.
“Well… I wouldn’t say that” Raina waved her hand dismissively “it would also be everyone at the beach, if we want to be completely honest.”
“Holy fuck. Remind me to ask you about those tattoos later” Patrick said. “So yeah.” he turned to Andrew. “How about a hidden one?”
Andrew shrugged again. “That defeats the initially stated purpose of having it though, doesn’t it?”
“How about for the art? For the heck of it? Or, you know, as a means to express yourself?”
“Oh yeah, like you did it to express yourself! Try a couple of drunken nights in Sunlit Tides, and you have the explanation for most of these.” Jess pointed at Patrick’s tattoos smirking, while he punched her shoulder playfully in reply.
“Here’s how I see it” Andrew continued. “If I want to express myself, I’ll create something myself. It’s a better alternative than having to rely on the abilities of a quite possibly sub par tattoo artist struggling to scar my body for life.”
Everyone at the table stared at him, not quite sure what to reply.
He just smirked, as if he was simply expecting that exact kind of reaction. “You know I’m right.”
After a while, everyone was sitting in the living room, their faces full with the kind of satisfaction that comes with a full stomach after lunch, coffee and dessert. Allison was doing some of the dishes, and Andrew had just helped his sister by taking some more near the sink. Raina decided that she should be a good guest too, so she grabbed as many glasses as she could and made her way towards the kitchen. But the intense conversation that was coming from inside the room, made her pause for a while; and while she tried to decide whether to interrupt it by entering or not, she unintentionally listened.
“Mom called. She asked about you.” Allison’s voice was soft, as if she didn’t want anyone outside the room to hear.
“Aren’t you going to answer me?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were asking me a question… oh wait, you weren’t.”
“Don’t be sarcastic. You know what I meant.”
“Well. If your attempts to communicate with your five year olds at the kindergarten station every day are anything like this, I have to say I already feel sorry for them.”
“Andrew… don’t evade the subject, please. She’s changed lately, really. Said she missed you.”
“Do you even know how long it’s been since we last talked? Let me answer that: more than a year. And you really think that the reason for asking about me now is that she’s changed? How about she just wants to meet me only to find out about our father’s new wife – whom I recently met? How about she can’t stand the fact that there are circumstances and events she’s not able to control anymore? And which she would ruin in a heartbeat if she ever got the chance? How do these sound as valid reasons?”
“You’re being too cruel…”
“Am I? Because last time I checked, you seemed to share my opinion.”
“Yes you are… I know that she wasn’t the world’s most supporting mother, especially that last time you talked. But ever since that whole Ingrid mess, you’ve become… rigid. I know it was an awful situation, but…”
“Oh, don’t do that Allison. Other than it being the last thing I’ll ever want to talk about, it is also irrelevant. And did you even listen to me when I said I never want to hear that name again?”
“You’re right… I’m sorry, I… I’m just worried about you is all.”
At that moment, one of the glasses slipped off of Raina’s hand, causing a loud noise as it crashed on the floor. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry! I was on my way to bring those in here and… I don’t know what happened! Crap… I’m really sorry!”
Allison promptly ran by her side and started collecting the pieces of broken glass. “Oh, it’s okay! Don’t worry about it, really..! Are you hurt? Here, let me sweep the small pieces really quickly, but try not to step on any of it!”
Andrew shot Raina his signature icy glare, making her wonder whether he somehow knew she’d been eavesdropping for as long as she had. “I’m going outside for a bit” he declared.
Raina knew it wasn’t right to follow him. He didn’t invite her. They didn’t even know each other that well. And she knew that when someone said they wanted to be alone, they usually meant it – especially people like him and her; introverts, loners. That much she knew. But she found herself exiting the building and walking towards his direction anyway.
He noticed her presence, but didn’t speak or move. They just stood side by side for a while.
“I don’t suppose you have any spare cigarettes lying around… I could use one right now.” he eventually muttered.
Raina looked at him with surprise. “No… you smoke?”
“Not really… just occasionally. When circumstances call for it.”
“Is now one of them?”
Silence again. After a while, he finally talked. “Read any good books lately? I remember you had quite the collection back then, considering your age.”
“Well, I get to review a lot, so about one third of them are bad and about half of them aren’t even my style. But I do have some pretty good ones to lend you if you’d like.”
“That would be nice, thanks. How about anything you wrote?”
She instantly felt her cheeks turn pink. How did he even know that a full time career as an author was what she was ultimately after? Or that she was filling her computer with new novel ideas and drafts every week, only to dispose of them whenever she read them for the second time? Was she so obvious? “Um… no. I’m afraid I haven’t written anything remotely worth publishing.”
He raised an eyebrow and studied her face for a while. “Is that your opinion or someone else’s?”
Raina blushed again, her whole face burning. That was such an uncomfortable topic for her, and yet he somehow recognized that deep down she needed to finally discuss it with someone. How did he do that? “It’s… mostly mine… Well, mine. But I know it. They’re not good, at least not yet.”
“I’m sure a second opinion wouldn’t be so bad.”
“It would, if it was actually a bad one.”
He smiled – or better, his lips twitched slightly upwards, as if to tell her “can’t argue with that”.
She found herself smiling back. “I had a really nice time today. Allison’s cooking is something else. I still can’t believe I’ve met you two after all these years! We should do this again soon. But… now I have to go inside to say goodbye…”
“Yes, I… I have a date. With that guy I was the other night.”
“Ah, yes. Your boyfriend?”
“No… it’s… it’s actually our first date today.”
“I see. Well… good luck. Is that what one’s supposed to say?”
“No idea. But thank you. I hope… well, I hope that everything works out for you too.”
The relaxed, almost pleasant vibe he had going on during the last ten minutes almost instantly faded away. “Meaning?”
Raina knew that she was making a terrible mistake bringing that issue up but, despite her shyness, she was always the type to give comfort whenever she sensed a need for it. “That girl you were talking about was obviously not worth the trouble. I’m sure there’s something a lot better on the way.”
He didn’t reply. But for a brief moment his body stiffened, his face winced, his eyes darkened. And she just… panicked. “I’m really sorry, I wasn’t eavesdropping, I just happened to hear that part of your conversation on my way to the kitchen. I didn’t mean to, I swear! But for what it’s worth, I hope – I’m sure – you’ll get over her soon.”
Apparently what she said wasn’t worth shit, because his glare was so deadly it nearly made her squirm. “You know, I appreciate the gesture, I do. But honestly, I don’t need your advice or your wishes. Just because we’re friendly, doesn’t exactly mean we’re friends.”
“But w-we could… I’d like us to be.”
“Doubtful. Have a nice afternoon, Raina.”
As he made his way back inside, Raina stood there, unsure what to do next. She knew she should be two things: embarrassed and maybe a bit angry. He didn’t have to be so rude, she meant well after all. And to be honest, he had pried a little too. But no, she just felt somewhat depressed. Not the serious kind; more like those late, after lunch hours on a Sunday when she was a kid, when it meant that weekend was almost over and school was about to start again.
She belatedly realized that she should be one more thing: excited for her upcoming date with Zach. But gosh, for a moment there she’d almost forgotten about it.
A/N: Hey guys! I wanted to post this since last week, but I had the flu and couldn’t even look at my pc, let alone open the game..! Sorry for disappearing for those few days too! Buuut I’m all better now and this is finally posted, yay!! 😀 You might have noticed that this chapter has long compared to the previous ones – almost 3.200 words! For my standards this is huge, lol! -, but I had no idea where to cut it so I just went with it 😉 Also, I know the last scene pictures are appalling, with that deco building in the background, but when I noticed how ugly that was, well… it was too late! I won’t repeat the same mistake again though, promise! 😉 Well, I guess that’s all I wanted to say 🙂 Thank you so much for reading! ❤