Previously on Neighborhood Tales...
Katie accepted an offer…
"Hi, Justin, it's Katie St Clair. I…Yes, how nice of you to remember! Umm…The reason I called is…Uh…Is your invitation for dinner still available?"
Courtney found herself a housemate…
"I could just move in with you." Duncan said with a grin spread across his face.
Gwen and Trent's relationship got a bit rocky…
"It might be just a coping mechanism for Trent's absence." Bridgette shrugged.
"And the fact that you ruined his sister's wedding." Courtney added nonchalantly.
And Heather struggled to keep a few secrets…
"You didn't tell her, did you?" Justin asked. "Oh, so this is what it's all about! Your sweet and innocent little friend has no idea about us…"
"There is no us!" Heather spat. "It's all buried in the past and it will stay that way!"
Chapter 10-Strangers in the Night
As children, one of the fundamental rules that our mothers teach us is never to talk to strangers. But as we grow older, we realize that we actually need to start talking to a stranger in order to gain a friend. Because we all start out as strangers. Strangers who seek company, understanding, or even affection. A stranger can sometimes be a blessing in disguise. Other times, they might have dark intentions, carefully masked by a benevolent smile. But we can never find out if a stranger will prove to be a friend or foe, unless we allow the stranger to enter our lives…
Katie applied a layer of mascara then stared at her reflection. She crinkled her nose and decided to add another layer. Her hand wasn't as steady as usual thanks to pre-date nerves. She felt so giddy, like a high school girl being invited to prom by the most popular guy.
"Focus, Katie. Don't mess it up, calm down." She told herself while brushing her hair again to get rid of any extra frizz.
Just as she finished putting on her favourite shade of lipstick, the doorbell rang. Katie yelped and unintentionally threw her lipstick, hitting the shower cabin.
"Crap!" She exclaimed, hoping that didn't result in any cracks.
The doorbell rang again, so she ran towards the door, slightly wobbling in her new high heels. She mentally scolded herself for trying so hard to impress on this date. When she reached the front door she stopped, straightened her back, fixed her dress slightly, patted her hair, and took a deep breath. Then she opened the door with a wide smile.
"Hi!" She practically squeaked.
Justin was standing on her porch, showing off his perfect white teeth in a charming smile.
"Hello, beautiful," he greeted.
The compliment was enough to make Katie believe she would melt. She was thankful for buying the lavender strapless dress she had spotted a few weeks earlier during a shopping spree with Heather. Heather guaranteed the dress would suit her perfectly. And judging by Justin's reaction, she had been right.
But she wasn't the only one who had dressed up. Justin was wearing impeccably ironed charcoal suit pants and a white shirt that didn't have a single crease. Katie would have wondered if he ironed all of his clothes himself, but she was too busy staring at him in awe. Casual wear, semi-formal wear, the man could look stunning in any dress code.
She snapped out of her trance once she became aware of the awkward silence. Katie struggled to quickly think of something to say.
"I…uh…I love your tie!"
She immediately regretted her lame line. She was awful at thinking under pressure.
Justin twirled his blue tie between his fingers and chuckled. Katie felt slightly relieved by the gesture.
"Thanks, it was a gift from Rome," he added. "Are you ready to go?"
"Yes!" Katie instantly answered. "I just need to…" She vaguely gestured towards the inside of her house. "Get my purse. Two seconds!"
She rushed towards the living room, and grabbed the silver clutch from her couch, nearly tripping over the coffee table in the process. She then ran back on the porch, attempting to be as graceful as possible. She locked her door, then turned to Justin grinning widely.
"I'm ready!" She declared.
Justin smiled and offered her his arm. Hesitating at first, Katie eventually grabbed it and gave it a light squeeze because of all the excitement. Justin's black car was parked right in front of her house. She was horrible at recognising car brands, but it looked very modern and pricey. Justin held the car door open for her. She nearly swooned.
Before Justin could join her in the car, Katie quickly glanced into the side mirror to check the state of her lipstick.
"I hope you'll like the restaurant." Justin's voice made her jump a bit in her seat. She hadn't even noticed when he got in the driver's seat. "I haven't been in Fairbrook for long, so I don't consider myself an expert regarding the local venues."
"Oh, I'm sure it's perfect! I'm not too pretentious…" She added, slightly blushing.
Her date turned to her and smiled.
"That's always good to know," he replied before starting the engine.
Katie stared at the place in awe. They were standing right outside Luc-Pierre, one of the fanciest restaurants in Fairbrook, and the only one to be internationally renowned among food critics. She had never been there, as the prices were way over her budget. She started panicking. She was always the one suggesting splitting the bill during dates, but even half of a bill from Luc-Pierre meant a disastrous outcome for her finances.
"Oh, my…" Katie whispered, more to herself. "I could never afford to eat here," she added, but then quickly wished she could take that back. "I- I…" She rushed to defend herself. "I didn't mean to complain, or sound like the poorest person in the neighborhood."
Justin wrapped his arm around her shoulders, a gesture which comforted her. She stopped babbling.
"Don't worry, tonight you can afford it. It's on me," he added with a wink.
Katie felt her knees grow weak. He was too good to be true.
"How have I been so lucky to meet you?" She found herself asking.
"Oh, trust me." Justin replied. "I'm the lucky one here…"
Duncan walked on the empty streets, trying not to think too much about Courtney. It was obvious that her sudden cravings of orange juice and butter cookies were just a facade for an uninterrupted late night gossip session with her blonde friend. Betsy? Barbara? Bridget?
It wasn't the fact that he was being used as an errand boy that bothered him, but the fact that she was surely talking about him right as he was making his way to the store. He hated being the subject of gossip. He tried counting to 50 in order to distract himself, a trick a therapist had taught him. When he reached 34, his count was interrupted by a voice piercing the silence of the night.
"Hey, buddy! Got a light?"
Duncan looked around to identify who the voice belonged to.
He looked to his right, then shifted his gaze a bit. On the roof of a house that resembled a mansion more than a suburban home, sat a dark-haired woman twirling a cigarette between her fingers. Duncan squinted a bit to get a better look at her. He would have normally given an appreciative wolf whistle, but decided against it.
"What makes you think I have one, sweetheart?" He smugly asked.
Heather bit her tongue from making a snarky comment. She really needed a way to light her cigarette. And since Alejandro convinced her to quit smoking, she didn't have any lighters lying around the house. She attempted to smile charmingly, tightening the grip on her bottle of whiskey.
"Let's just call it feminine intuition, sweetheart." She replied, trying to mask her annoyance.
Duncan instinctively checked the pocket of his jeans. His favourite lighter was still there. He considered his options. He could either do the bidding of his lawyer/host/friend-with-benefit, or join a lonely attractive woman craving a cigarette on a roof. Duncan didn't need to weigh his options for too long. He walked on Heather's lawn towards her house. She smirked as she saw him take out the lighter from his pocket.
"How do I get up? I'm not exactly Spider-Man, you know." Duncan said.
"There's a ladder underneath the ivy." Heather replied, looking down at him. "I'm sure you're flexible enough to use that to get up."
Duncan cocked an eyebrow. Was she flirting with him? He looked at the ladder. It wasn't a traditional one, just a decorative one that people stuck to the walls of their houses. He smirked and started climbing without much difficulty.
Slightly impressed by his success, Heather shifted a bit, making room for him to sit next to her.
"Wow, you actually made it," she commented.
"Piece of cake," he grinned. "Although I'd be curious to see your strategy for climbing that ladder."
It was an attempt to be suggestive and flirty, but Heather only scoffed. She pointed towards an open window on her right. Duncan realised she only had to carefully slide out the window and onto the roof.
"Of course…" He muttered to himself.
"I have to admit, I was expecting you to fall right off." She winked.
"Do you want the damn lighter or not?" Duncan snapped.
"Eaaasy, tiger!" Heather calmly replied. When his expression seemed to soften, she placed a bottle in his lap. "Don't say I never gave you anything."
Duncan looked at the bottle and unscrewed the cap, sniffing the liquid. Whiskey. Good whiskey.
"Oh, what are you expecting? Roofies?" Heather scoffed. She snatched the bottle back and took a swig. "I have no intention of drugging total strangers tonight, so stop with the paranoia."
Duncan took the bottle back and drank. He enjoyed the taste, especially since he hadn't had straight-up liquor in weeks. Courtney was against it. She even threw away the vodka he was using to make his morning orange juice bearable. The whiskey tasted like heaven on his tongue.
"Thanks," he said. "I really needed that."
"I know what you mean." Heather muttered.
She then basically shoved her unlit cigarette in Duncan's face. He remembered the reason he was on her roof in the first place. He pulled out his lighter and saw how the tiny flame made his companion smile. She inhaled deeply from the lit cigarette and closed her eyes to fully enjoy the sensation.
"This is amazing!" She practically moaned.
Duncan carefully analysed her smoking. She had technique, so he assumed that she must have been a smoker at some point in her life, most likely in her teens. And as she sat there with her eyes closed, he took the opportunity to properly appreciate her looks. She was wearing a crimson kimono-style nightgown that emphasized her slim figure. Her dark hair hung loosely over her shoulders, and her parted lips seemed a sinful invitation. She was very attractive. So he attempted to push things a bit forward.
"So, what's a pretty girl like you doing all alone on a roof in the middle of the night?" He asked.
Heather rolled her eyes at the lame pick-up line, but despite that, she didn't ignore the question.
"I was craving a cigarette. My husband made me promise I would quit, so I threw away my entire stash in front of him. But I always kept this little thing right here in case times were ever rough." She said, fiddling with the cigarette.
Duncan's smirk disappeared as soon as she mentioned the fact that she was married. That minor detail definitely messed up his chances with her. But he didn't want to return to Courtney's house either.
"Rough times now?" He asked.
Heather nodded and took another swig from the whiskey bottle. All the fancy cocktails she ordered while going out with her friends might have been a socially acceptable way of getting tipsy in the middle of the day, but they never compared to the sensation of downing straight-up liquor.
"Rough times always." She said, managing a smile. She passed him the bottle, and watched him drink. "So how about you, tiger? Are you Courtney's new special friend?"
Duncan nearly chocked on whiskey. Did word about their relationship really travel that fast?
"How did you…?"
"I saw you come out of her house. I have quite a lovely view of the neighborhood from here." She smirked. "She didn't tell me anything, if that's what you're worried about. We're not exactly the best of friends. We tolerate each other, we talk often, but you won't catch me braiding her hair any time soon." She shrugged.
"You women are experts when it comes to weird fake friendships." Duncan muttered. "Why so damn complicated? You either like somebody, or you don't, there's no in-between. That's the way things should be."
Heather scoffed, stretching her long legs on the roof. Duncan didn't even pretend to look away when the nightgown lifted slightly, revealing a few more inches of bare skin. She took one last puff from the cigarette, then stubbed it on the roof.
"You don't know a thing about women, do you?" She asked. "Every single day is like going out on a battlefield. But instead of having proper enemies, you have friends. The kind of friends which you would happily run over with your car when nobody's watching, but instead you make small talk with them while gardening."
"Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, eh?" Duncan asked.
"Something like that." Heather answered. "Our greatest pride is making our neighbors jealous. Why do you think we dress up nicely and put on make up even before going to pluck out weeds from the garden? For you men?" She laughed. "You're so easily impressed that it doesn't take more than a dash of lipstick and a bit of skin to start the salivation reflex. We go the extra mile to make sure that all our rivals snap their gardening tools in half when they see us come out of the house looking impeccable. The neighborhood is a battlefield, sweetheart, and only the most skilled warriors earn daily victories."
Duncan listened to her speech without trying to interrupt her. His past experiences had taught him how to read people, so his first impressions were usually right. The woman seemed cunning and ruthless. Something in the back of Duncan's mind was advising him to run away because she was probably dangerous, but he didn't feel like leaving too soon. He was somehow drawn to her. He didn't think too much of it, especially since it could have easily been the effect of alcohol.
"Cheers to you being badass." He said, raising the bottle. "I like that in a chick," he added with a wink.
Heather groaned, but took the bottle to take a sip in her honor. The guy was a punk, she realised it as soon as she saw him, but he was good company. She hadn't been drinking so informally since she was in her 20s and in-between photoshoots. Heather enjoyed the freedom. It was refreshing.
"The name's Duncan, by the way," he said, extending his hand.
Heather cocked her eyebrow. He didn't seem the type of person to expect a formal handshake. Nevertheless, she shook it and replied: "Heather."
"Should I tell you that's a pretty name?" Duncan asked.
"Don't even bother." Heather laughed. "Or is that another entry on your endless list of lousy pick-up lines?"
"Lousy-schmousy, but they seem to work every time."
Heather rolled her eyes, but this time the gesture was a bit more playful. She was definitely getting tipsy. Her alcohol tolerance had weakened over the years.
"Well, not with me. So don't even try." She took another swig from the bottle. "Oh, and also…" She stuck her hand in his face, almost smacking him over the nose. "I'm married."
Duncan slowly pushed her hand away.
"Yeah, I figured. That's quite the rock you've got there. Loaded hubbie?"
"That's none of your business." She tried to appear offended, but didn't bother going through with the act. "But yes. And before you dare to accuse me of being a gold-digger, I'll let you know that money wasn't the reason I married him."
Heather made that statement with such certainty that Duncan didn't say anything. He only gave a small nod of acknowledgement. But did Heather believe herself? She was sure that love was present in her relationship with Alejandro, but the rapport between love and money was always a complicated factor in their lives. She tried to stop her brain from going into an in-depth analysis of her marriage while she was sharing a bottle of liquor with a stranger on her roof.
"So how did you and Courtney meet?" She asked, taking another sip of whiskey.
"Destiny." Duncan dramatically replied, extending his hand to grab the bottle.
Heather passed him the whiskey, and gave him a weird look. "Destiny?! Oh, please, you don't believe what you're saying, so how do you expect me to buy it?"
"I take it you generally don't believe in destiny?"
"You mean believe in a force that supposedly influences how my life turns out? Definitely not!" She firmly added. "I am the only one in charge of my life. Only I can decide what happens in my future, nobody and nothing else has a say in it."
Duncan smiled to himself. He really liked her. Sure, he was known for being quickly attracted to various women he met, but few of them managed to gain his respect as quickly as Heather did.
"I really wish I could get to know you better." He said, as the alcohol was slowly removing his social filter.
"If I had a penny for every time I heard that…"
But she was leaning in closer, giggly from all the whiskey. He could smell it on her breath. It made her even more attractive. So he took his chance and leaned for a kiss. But as soon as he pressed his lips against hers, Heather's eyes fluttered open and she pushed him away. Luckily for Duncan, he didn't lose his balance, otherwise he would have left her house with a few broken bones.
"Woah, easy!" He exclaimed. "Are you trying to knock me off the roof already?"
Heather didn't reply. She had acted purely on instinct. Duncan's gesture was a reprise of how Justin had kissed her a few weeks earlier, only this time she reacted quicker.
"I'm married." She whispered. But it was more of a personal reminder than a comment aimed at Duncan.
She finally turned towards him, her expression difficult to read. She felt like everything was hazy, but at the same time she felt sick.
"I think we've both had enough." She said on an even tone. "Good night."
And without another word, she pushed the bottle into Duncan's arms, then stepped back into the house through the window. Duncan merely stared at her, failing to understand what was going on. Still, he understood that she called it a night. He tugged the bottle of whiskey into the waistband of his jeans and went back down the decorative ladder.
A younger Duncan would have probably argued, insisted, or even gotten angry after being pushed away. But he wasn't a teenager anymore. He had lost his excuse for being an ignorant jerk.
Once he landed safely on the lawn, he looked up at Heather's window. The lights were on, and the curtains were slowly moving because of the wind. But there was no shadow behind them. Heather was gone.
"Good night." Duncan said, facing the window.
After that, he made his way back to Courtney's house.
"You did it in every room of the house?!" Bridgette nearly shouted.
Courtney shushed her, waving her glass of wine in front of her face. She couldn't tell whether her crimson cheeks were due to the alcohol or the embarrassment.
The two women were sitting on the living room sofa, drinking wine and gossiping about Duncan, who seemed to truly fascinate Bridgette.
"So your client has been your new hot lover for days and you haven't told me yet?! Courtney, how could you?!"
But Bridgette's intended anger had been tamed by the wine, resulting in a simple cascade of complaints.
"I always tell you when there's something new in my personal life!" Bridgette added.
"I know, Bridge, I know. But I wanted to keep everything secret, because it's so unprofessional of me! And to be honest, I didn't even know what this would lead to." Courtney admitted as she looked down into her glass.
"It would lead to you finally getting some action." Bridgette muttered into her glass.
"Hey!" Courtney snapped.
Bridgette chuckled and Courtney couldn't resist smiling as well. Her life definitely changed since accepting Duncan into her home. She poured herself another glass of wine, then raised the bottle in Bridgette's direction. She shook her head and covered her glass.
"I think I've had way too much tonight." Bridgette said.
"Oh, come on, it's girls' night! We haven't had time to properly talk in ages." Courtney pouted. "Work has been a nightmare, and you've been doing all that community work in the past few weeks."
Bridgette nervously sipped her wine, trying to avoid the topic. Courtney had invited her over a couple of times but it always clashed with her appointments with Izzy. But instead of admitting that she was seeing a marriage counsellor, Bridgette made up a story about volunteering at a local school to give back to the community.
"Have you thought about becoming a full-time teacher at that school? You said you missed teaching." Courtney added. "Maybe now that you're involved with the school they'll consider you."
"I do miss teaching, but taking a break from it has been one of the best things I've ever done for myself. It got a bit overwhelming."
"I think that's a general characteristic of work. It gets overwhelming. But I admire you for being able to put your personal life first." Courtney admitted.
"It's not something that should be admired." Bridgette scoffed. "It's something that should naturally happen. You need to make time for yourself and practice self-care."
Courtney scoffed and drank more of her wine. She couldn't remember a time when she had put her needs above the firm's. In a way, work was what defined her. And it scared her to even think what she would become without it.
"But I'm happy to see you're finally investing some time in the relationship department!" Bridgette chirped, causing Courtney to choke on her wine.
"Oh no, are you okay?"
Courtney waved her hand dismissively.
"Wow, wow, Bridgette, nobody said anything about a relationship!"
"Oh!" Bridgette exclaimed, looking very confused. "I just assumed that…I mean I hate generalizing but-"
Bridgette stopped mid-sentence when she heard the front door being slammed. Courtney put down her wine glass and craned her neck to see Duncan walk in with a large grocery bag in his arms.
"Sorry for the noise, didn't have any free hands left to close the door nicely." He said, and regret was obviously not on his current emotional spectrum.
Courtney sensed that, and exchanged a glance with Bridgette. She instantly got the message, and grabbed her bag.
"Well, I'd better go. Geoff is probably worried. Thanks for inviting me over, Court!" She said, giving Courtney a quick hug.
Bridgette then walked towards the door, stopping in front of Duncan, who was still holding the groceries.
"Umm, it was nice meeting you, Duncan!"
"Feeling's mutual, blondie. Have a good night." He replied dryly.
Courtney rolled her eyes, then opened the door for her friend.
"I'll call you tomorrow."
"Good luck with…whatever's happening." Bridgette whispered.
Courtney closed the door, then took a deep breath. She still felt slightly tipsy from the wine, but she made an effort to appear in control. She felt a confrontation was imminent, but she was determined to win any possible argument. So she walked into the kitchen to find Duncan drinking orange juice from a new carton.
"What was that all about?" She asked, trying to keep calm.
"What was what?"
"You came back and made a scene!"
Duncan put down the orange juice, then calmly wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"That wasn't a scene," he replied. "You don't know me well enough to know when I'm making scenes."
Courtney scoffed, and folded her arms. Duncan turned away from her and put the orange juice in the fridge. He then closed his eyes and briefly massaged the back of this neck.
"I'm going to shower," he muttered, then walked past Courtney without making eye contact.
That was when Courtney caught a whiff of whiskey from his breath.
"You've been drinking!" she exclaimed, feeling anger building up.
Duncan was walking up the stairs towards the bathroom when he called out a firm "So have you!" which was enough to shut Courtney up.
When dessert arrived, Katie was feeling bubblier than usual thanks to the three glasses of wine Justin had offered her. She slipped a giggle when thanking the waiter for her strawberry cheesecake, then realized her mistake and looked at Justin apologetically. He just waved his hand as if to say it was nothing, and took another sip of his wine.
"Thank you so much for tonight, I'm having a great time!" Katie said, before taking a first bite of her dessert.
"The pleasure's all mine," Justin said, smiling widely. "From what you've told me about your job I think you really needed an enjoyable break from it all."
With her mouth full, Katie nodded solemnly. Justin poured her another glass of wine.
"Not to mention that tragedy that took place in your neighborhood recently…" he continued, discretely observing his date's reaction.
Katie froze with her fork mid-air. She pursed her lips and put down the fork with a piece of cheesecake on it. She then cleared her throat, looking down at her plate.
"Yeah, that was…a horrible moment," she added, feeling tears sting the corner of her eyes.
She was expecting to feel less emotional about it, but Sadie's suicide was still a painful topic to discuss. People had stopped bringing it up out of consideration for her, but Justin was apparently curious about it. She felt that avoiding the subject would have been rude to him, so she tried her best to remain calm when talking about it.
"Sadie was my best friend," she said, finally gathering the strength to look him in the eye. "And nobody saw it coming. Not even me…I-I still blame myself for it. I feel that I should have sensed that something was wrong. Maybe if I had said something, this wouldn't have happened!"
Justin took her hand in his.
"You can't blame yourself for her actions," he told her. "You couldn't have known."
She smiled faintly, then lowered her gaze, feeling slightly embarrassed by the whole situation.
"I'm sorry, I'm such a buzz-kill," she apologized.
Justin squeezed her hand, convincing her to look up. His expression was calm and understanding, so she couldn't help but smile. It was great to have somebody listen to her without being judgmental.
"Thank you so much for listening, it means a lot," she added, trying to hold back tears.
"You're a wonderful woman, Katie St Clair," Justin said as he gazed into her eyes. "And I'm sure you were a brilliant friend to Sadie. So don't ever consider yourself responsible for what happened to her. Let the past go, and heal."
Katie wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, carefully trying not to smudge her mascara, and nodded.
"You're right. I shouldn't let this consume me," she said, smiling weakly. "Even though I still want to find out who drove her to suicide."
Katie reached out for her wine glass, looking away from Justin for a brief moment. She missed the moment his smile faltered, and he turned stone-faced. He let go of his date's hand and downed the rest of his wine.
Katie was oblivious to the sequence of actions, as she was trying to catch her reflection in the wine glass to analyze the state of her makeup. When she finally looked up, Justin was smiling at her. She smiled back.
"More wine?" Justin asked, lifting the bottle.
"Oh, thank you, but I think I've had-"
"Nonsense, the night is still young," Justin interjected as he topped up her glass. "And as for all your upsetting thoughts about your friend's suicide, I say put them aside for a bit. You shouldn't let the happy moments of your life slip away because you're too busy solving mysteries."
Katie's brow furrowed.
"And why would you even believe that somebody caused her to do what she did? Usually the underlying causes are more complex than that."
"How do you know that?" she asked, reaching for her glass.
"I took a Psychology course while in college," Justin replied proudly. "And I know that what you are experiencing now is a stage of grief, and that it's best to distract yourself with more pleasant things."
To punctuate his last sentence, he took Katie's hand in his. She looked up at him with slight confusion. The wine was making her thought process hazy, so she didn't really know how to interpret things. But Justin's smile was so beautiful, and it felt so good to have somebody hold her hand, so she stopped overanalyzing things and enjoyed the moment instead.
"Well this is pleasant," she giggled. "Could you tell me more about yourself? I feel like I don't know you well enough yet."
"I can do that," Justin replied with a grin.
"Hey, this is Trent. I'm slightly held up at the moment, which is why I can't pick up. Sorry about that. But please leave a message and I'll get back to you as soon as possible. Thanks!"
Before she heard the beep, Gwen took a deep breath. Afterwards, she struggled to keep her tone even. She couldn't afford a breakdown while leaving her message.
"Trent, it's me. Again. Just in case you haven't received my other messages, I'm so, so sorry about what happened at the wedding. Please come home, I really miss you. Please."
Gwen didn't know what else to add, so she just ended the call. Then she threw her phone on the sofa and dived face-first into the pillows. There, she yelled so the sound would get muffled by the pillows and wouldn't scare her neighbors.
She didn't know what else to do. The radio silence from Trent was driving her insane. It had never happened before and she didn't know how to cope with it.
"What am I doing wrong?" she asked the empty living room.
But the question came out sounding weird, so she raised her head and adjusted her head on the pillows. Then she stared at the ceiling for a while. She only heard a clock ticking. Apart from that there was silence. She couldn't bear it.
She rose from the couch and wiped her face with her sleeve. Then she grabbed the car keys from the bowl Katie had crafted for her. The plan was simple: she would go to a drive-through and get some junk food to make herself feel better.
As she turned off the lights in her house and quickly locked her door, Gwen kept thinking about the Trent situation. She felt it was so unfair towards her that she was being punished with silence because of an accident. And the silence had been prolonged so much it became ridiculous.
She got into her car and struggled to put the key in. She was doing things mechanically, her brain busy analyzing why the hell her boyfriend considered her the villain.
"Stupid Trent, with his stupid voicemail," she muttered as she finally started the car. "As if I can control my gag reflex so well that I intentionally throw up on his sister."
She backed the car in her driveway, continuing her angry monologue.
"This is so unfair! What a piece of-"
She couldn't finish her sentence because she was thrown chest-first into the steering wheel. What followed was a wail and somebody angrily swearing. Her eyes widened as realization struck. She had hit somebody with her car. She quickly stepped out of the car and ran around it.
"Oh my God, I am so sorry! I didn't mean for this to happen! Are you okay?!" Gwen asked, hyperventilating from the shock and worry.
Behind her car, sitting on the pavement and clutching his knee was a brown-haired guy, slightly younger than Gwen. He was wearing running shorts and an old red college sweatshirt, and had a red headband on his forehead. He seemed pained, but struggled to smile after seeing Gwen's concern.
"Ah, don't worry, it's just a scratch," he tried to wave if off.
"Are you kidding? She almost killed you with her car!" A woman shouted angrily.
Gwen turned towards her. The woman was also wearing running gear, and her dark hair was held in a tight ponytail. She had deep frown lines on her forehead, right above a unibrow. Although she was slightly shorter than Gwen, she looked very intimidating.
"I'm so sorry!" Gwen exclaimed. "Please, let me call you an ambulance, or at least drive you to the hospital!"
"No! No way in hell are we getting near your car ever again, you frigid bitch!" The woman basically growled. Gwen was worried she would end up being hit by her. "You're lucky I haven't smashed your windows by now, because that's what you deserve for-"
"Eva, please!" The injured man firmly said, raising his hand. "I'm okay, I don't think it's more than a bruise. A bag of ice should fix it."
"I have ice in my freezer, I can bring it!" Gwen said, trying her best to be helpful.
Her pulse was still racing, and she was afraid the woman- Eva, would punch her in the face. And she felt so guilty for hitting the runner.
"I should have paid attention," she said, more to herself than for the two.
"Okay, ice would be good, please," the guy replied, smiling sincerely at her.
Eva sneered, but didn't object any further. Gwen ran back into the house, straight into the kitchen. She scrambled in the freezer for some ice, but realized there were only skull-shaped ice cubes available. They had been a funny gift from Bridgette, but didn't seem too suitable in this situation. So Gwen settled for using a bag of frozen peas as an improvised ice pack.
When she returned to the driveway, she saw the runner standing up, but his knee was still flexed at an odd angle. Eva hadn't left his side. She had even offered her shoulder as support.
"Here it is!" Gwen said, offering him the bag of peas.
"Thanks! My name's Tyler, we didn't get to properly meet," he said while placing the bag on his knee. "And this is my friend Eva."
"This isn't a camp activity, Tyler, she almost ran you over," Eva replied, hatred clear in her words. "Don't expect a handshake from me, bitch."
Gwen tried to smile, but she only managed to grimace.
"That's very reasonable. I'm Gwen, and once again I am so, so sorry for what happened tonight! I insist on taking you to the hospital to have your knee checked, please!"
Eva glared at her.
"What part of we're not getting in a car with you is too difficult for you to understand?"
Tyler gently squeezed her shoulder, attempting to calm her down.
"Eva, it's okay," he muttered. "If it makes you feel any better, I guess we can go check. After all, we do have a marathon I want to be in top shape for."
Gwen let out a sigh of relief. She finally felt that she could do something right for Tyler. So she smiled to both of them and cocked a thumb at her car.
"Great, we can take my car. And I swear I'll be super careful when driving!"
Eva frowned and prepared to object, but Tyler was already limping to the car.
"I call shotgun!" he exclaimed, leaving Eva to mutter something to herself.
Eva got onto the backseat and tightened her seatbelt. Gwen admired her loyalty to her friend. She slid behind the wheel, extra careful to put on her seatbelt this time, and was glad to see Tyler mirroring her action.
"Okay, off we go!" Gwen said, trying to keep the atmosphere friendly, but realizing that she sounded like a mother attempting to be cool in front of her kid's friends. "Does anybody want the radio on or…?"
"Just drive," came Eva's dry response from the back.
Gwen snapped her mouth shut, worried her try-too-hard attitude would give her a reason to visit the ER as well. Luckily for her, Tyler seemed much more comfortable with small talk.
"So your house looks pretty cool," he began. "How many people do you live with?"
"Oh, just with my boyfriend," Gwen replied, ignoring the knot she felt in her stomach when talking about Trent. "We wanted to give the quiet suburban lifestyle a chance."
"Aww man, that's great!" Tyler exclaimed, seeming genuinely delighted by the idea. "See, this is the kind of life I want for me and my girl, Lindsay. I love her so much, and I want us to get married and have our own nice little home. But we need to put some money aside first."
Gwen couldn't help but smile widely upon hearing Tyler's dream. His plan was among the sweetest things she had heard lately.
"Well I'm sure you'll manage," Gwen confidently replied. "Lindsay's a very luck girl to have such a caring boyfriend like you."
"Aw, you're too kind!" Tyler chuckled.
Gwen noticed Eva rolling her eyes in the rear-view mirror. She wondered if there was a secret love triangle going on, but immediately dismissed the thought. It was none of her business.
"Eva and I are actually training for a very important marathon," Tyler added. "The cash prizes are huge, so I'm definitely aiming for gold!"
"You're lucky I'm not actually taking part in the marathon, otherwise you'd have to settle for silver," Eva commented from the back seat.
Gwen noticed the small smile tugging at the corner of Eva's smile. So the athlete did have a soft side after all.
"Thanks, Eva!" Tyler chuckled.
"Okay, here we are," Gwen said as they approached Fairbrook Hospital. "Hopefully they'll get your knee checked as soon as possible. And I insist on paying for it."
"Oh, no, there's no need!" Tyler objected. "You've already taken me to the hospital."
"No, it's my fault so I assume full responsibility for the costs," Gwen added as she parked. "Besides, you need to save up all the money for you and Lindsay."
Tyler unbuckled his seatbelt and reached out to Gwen to hug her. Gwen leaned in, slowly patting him on the back. The hug didn't last enough to become awkward as Tyler shifted back into his seat.
"You're a really nice person, and your boyfriend is lucky to have you," he said.
"I wish that were true," she murmured, smiling bitterly.
"Hey," Tyler said softly, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Relationships might be bumpy, there might be fights, but at the end of the day everything sorts itself out. All it takes is two people alone in a room, free to talk it out."
Gwen felt tears stinging her eyes.
"And if they don't want to talk?" she asked.
"They will. Eventually," Tyler affirmed. "Even if it seems like it's the end, it never is. It's just a bump in the road. And bumps are always left behind us."
Gwen smiled weakly. Tyler eventually took his hand off her shoulder. Eva was silently witnessing the conversation, her expression unreadable.
"Thanks, Tyler. I…uh- I needed that," she said. "Why don't you guys go in and I'll catch up?"
Tyler simply nodded.
"Come on, Eva!" he said, as he opened the car door.
Eva followed, making brief eye contact with Gwen in the rear-view mirror. Neither said anything. Gwen watched Tyler limp towards the hospital entrance, his arm draped over Eva's shoulders. She sighed heavily.
And in the stillness of the night, alone in her car, Gwen silently sobbed. And for her, it felt like the most liberating thing in the world.
As children we're taught by our parents to never talk to strangers. But as we grow up, we realize it's necessary to break that rule.
Because strangers might offer us comforting advice…
Gwen eventually found the waiting room where Eva and Tyler were sat. He smiled warmly at her, ignoring her red puffy eyes. Gwen smiled back.
They might become unexpected friends…
In the middle of the night, Heather opened her front door, not surprised to see Duncan standing on her porch with a pack of cigarettes in his hand. His guilty stare prevented her from making snappy comments.
"What do you want?" she asked tiredly.
"I'm sorry for being an ass," Duncan began. "I shouldn't have kissed you. I mean, you're super hot and I lack self-control, but that's not an excuse for me being a jerk."
"Oh wow, you're capable of apologizing. I'm impressed," Heather commented, crossing her arms and leaning against the doorframe.
"Look, I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to make things right. Honestly, this night has been the best I've had in months. Don't laugh, I know this sounds like a chick flick line and I hate myself for it," he said, fiddling with the pack, "but I like talking to you."
Heather cocked an eyebrow. The whole speech seemed out of place coming from a guy like Duncan, but for some reason she couldn't doubt his sincerity. He took her silence as a sign to carry on.
"Yeah, I like talking to you, and I'd like to do it again. But I can't do that if you hate me. So…" he paused to hand her the cigarettes. "It's a peace offering."
"You're offering me lung cancer," Heather added, but accepted the gift. "Thanks."
She stared down at the pack silently, debating her next move. Duncan didn't say anything, instead waiting for her to speak.
"If you ever kiss me again, you'll end up with a broken limb," Heather finally said calmly.
"Deal," Duncan replied, then he extended his hand. "Friends?"
Heather scoffed. "What are we? Middle school kids?"
Nevertheless, she shook his hand.
"Friends." Heather affirmed.
Or even something more…
Katie paused from kissing Justin to fumble in her purse for her keys.
"You're so beautiful!" Justin whispered as he moved to kiss her neck.
With shaky hands and even shakier breaths, Katie opened her front door, then pulled Justin inside by his tie.
But sometimes the strangers we casually meet can have unexpected links to other parts of our lives, and have unexpected consequences on our future…
Trent leaned back on the sofa, listening to the steady beat of the background music in the strip club. A girl approached him holding a tray of shot glasses and wearing her best alluring smile, but Trent politely shook his head. It was only when one of dancers turned to him that his interest sparked. She was tall, blonde, and slim, and the short pink dress she was wearing left little to imagination. She swirled around the pole, then winked at Trent who raised his glass to her.
A few minutes later she was on Trent's lap, asking him what he wanted to do that night.
"Well first of all, I'd like to know your name," he replied, tucking a strand of her golden hair behind her ear. She giggled at the gesture.
"It's Lindsay," she replied. "But people here call me Baby Blue."
"It's nice to meet you, Lindsay. Can I buy you a drink?"