Authors: Layla Hagen
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Coming of Age, #Romance, #Contemporary, #New Adult & College
"Are you doing anything tomorrow?" he asks.
A burning sensation starts forming in my chest and I don't know if it's panic or excitement, but I try to play cool, the way Jess always said I should.
"Of course, it’s Saturday."
"Can you get out of it?"
I sound braver than I feel when I answer, "Depends on what you have in mind."
"Where do you live?" he muses.
Normally, a stranger asking for my address would not elicit any reaction from me except running in the opposite direction, while seriously considering calling the police. On second thought, I might add a punch for good measure before bolting. Yet as I stand here before him, watching his eyes trace the contour of my lips, all I can think is that I'm sorry I haven't had one more tequila because then I might have enough courage to give him a kiss. As it is, I'll have to be content with giving him my address. I become conscious that I'm biting my lower lip and stop immediately. I lean over the bar and grab a napkin, then rummage in the tiny bag Jess lent me for a pen. I write my address on the napkin.
He glances at it once, picks it up and tucks it in the pocket of his jeans. "I know where that is. I'll have someone pick you up tomorrow at three."
"What fun would that be if I told you?" he teases.
"You want me to get in a car with a stranger and trust him to take me to some place I don't know?"
He narrows his eyes. "Not very adventurous, are you?"
I would dismiss this as a poor attempt to provoke me, if Jess wouldn't tell me the same thing at least twice a day. Someone else used to tell me that as well. I never thought he really meant it until he announced that not only was he leaving me for the Aussie blonde but that he’d quit his job and was going backpacking with her through Europe and living life one day at a time.
I put on what I hope is a very pro-adventure smile. "How am I supposed to know how to dress if I don't know where I'm going?"
He bites his lip and leans in whispering, "I'll give you a hint. It's not a job interview."
"You don't even know me."
"I'd love to get to know you," he says in a raspy, seductive voice that sends delicious tingles all over my body.
For a wonderful, wonderful second, in which his blue eyes—a few shades darker than when I first noticed them—bore into mine, I think he might close the distance and kiss me.
But then he straightens up and frowns at something behind me. "I think your friend needs help."
I whirl around in a heartbeat, and find Jess leaning on a tall, blond guy, her arms tight around his neck, something that usually makes guys pretty happy. Not this one. He's using both arms in his attempt to shake her off.
"See you tomorrow, Serena," James whispers in my ear, making the hair at the nape of my neck stand up. I don't need to turn to know he's gone. I remain on my seat for a few more seconds, breathing in the last lingering wisps of his scent, then shove the glasses to the bartender, smiling apologetically, and head straight toward Jess.
"I'll take this from here."
"Thank God," the guy says, his voice flooded with relief as I unhitch Jess's arms from his neck. He vanishes the second I free him.
"That went well," Jess giggles in my ear. And apparently she absolutely has to hang from someone's neck tonight, because she heaves her arms around mine so forcefully I'm positive I'll have giant bruises on both sides of my neck tomorrow.
"What are you talking about?" I say, trying hard to steer us both toward the door.
"You and hot guy. You really should work on your expression, though."
"What about my expression?"
She laughs. "You looked like you were ready to jump in bed with him."
"That's not true," I say indignantly, stopping mid-stride.
"Oh trust me, it is. And by the way, he's staring at us right now so keep moving if you don't want him to see me throwing up on you."
top making so much noise," Jess complains, pulling the sheet over her head.
"It's not my fault you couldn't make it to your room last night," I say, continuing to search for something suitable to wear.
my fault. When we arrived from the club last night I decided I couldn't possibly carry her all the way to her room, so I put her to bed in my room instead. I slept in her bed, something I regret more with each second. Her bedroom is the only place in our apartment where I couldn't ban smoking, and now it smells worse than a sports bar. I poured half a bottle of shampoo in my hair this morning, but I swear I can still smell smoke under the peach and melon fragrance.
"What do you think?" I ask, holding out a white strapless dress.
A deep snore is my only answer. I sigh and slip into the dress. It'll do. I'm not changing yet again. I step in front of the mirror, and as I swirl, I can't help questioning my sanity. Now that the last effects of the tequila have vanished, I am more and more convinced that I imagined the entire conversation last night. Not convinced enough though, or I wouldn't have spent the past two hours trying on almost every single dress I own. I decide it's time to walk away from my closet as the urge to try another one kicks in. I turn my attention to the wall opposite my bed instead and smile. Like Jess's room, mine too is a testament to the vices of its owner.
Chocolate, books, and DVDs.
An entire wall of them.
There are five shelves on the wall, the top three occupied with books and DVDs and the remaining two with chocolate boxes. Fancy wooden or metal boxes, or just regular plastic ones—I don't discriminate. Most boxes and cartons are empty, but I keep them because they make a nice decoration.
For the first day since the break-up, my stomach isn't twisted in a painful knot, and I don't feel the overwhelming need to pick a DVD and one of the remaining untouched chocolate boxes, then hide under my covers. I could argue it's because Jess is in my bed, and I wouldn't return in hers for anything in the world, but I know that would be a lie.
There is another reason for my sudden optimism and the absence of the knot.
It's a silly reason.
An almost absurd reason.
One that makes my heart beat quicker and my face turn hot every time I think about it.
About him. About his eyes and the power his touch had on me.
I wonder if I should make Jess her beloved (and utterly ineffective) banana and kiwi hangover cure and leave it on the bedside table, but it's likely to go bad by the time she wakes up, and leaving it in the fridge will ensure she won't drink it. No, I'm sure she'll be asleep until I'm back. A rustling noise comes from the direction of the bed. As Jess resurfaces from under the sheets, a painful knot forms in my throat.
It's when she's asleep that she reminds me most of Kate. Their full lips and golden, silky locks are almost identical. I absolutely adored her, my older sister. She was four years older than me. She brimmed with life, every waking moment. She was all I ever wanted to be.
Beautiful. Radiant. Perfect.
She adored me, too. She'd spend hours taking care of me, teaching me how to comb my hair so it would shine like hers (not that it ever did) or painting my nails in intricate motifs.
Then she'd disappear for days. With her friends. Boyfriend. Whomever. Her only yardstick for choosing them seemed to be the number of times they'd visited a police station. I could find her easily in the beginning, but later on, it sometimes took me an entire week to discover her whereabouts.
When I took her home, I'd be the one taking care of her. I'd wipe away her mascara, put tea bags on the dark circles under her eyes, and lay packs of ice on the pierced veins of her arms. They were so messed up toward the end they didn't regain their normal condition no matter how much ice and ointment Mum and I put on them.
I take a deep breath and shake my head. Jess is not like Kate. Jess is what Kate might have been if she wasn't… Kate. But I never could shake off the feeling that some of the reasons Jess's parents so willingly took me in was because they thought I'd be a good influence on their daughter. I'm not quite sure how much I succeeded, since Jess is still as much of a party girl as she was when I first met her eight years ago.
After Kate passed away, Mum and Dad did something I will be eternally grateful for. They sent me away from London, our hometown. Even though it broke their heart, they did it. They sent me to live with Jess’s family in San Francisco. My mum and Jess's mum had been best friends since kindergarten, and remained close even after Jess's mum moved across the ocean, to San Francisco, while mum remained in their native London. Starting fresh, far away from the city that held so many memories and so much guilt, was the best thing that could have happened to me. I stayed with Jess and her family throughout high school. I haven’t returned to London at all. My parents fly here once a year to visit me.
I take one last look at Jess and smile before leaving the room.
I check my phone while drinking my third cup of coffee today, seated in my second favorite place in our apartment after my bed—the couch. One message from Mum:
Dad and I are planting Langloisia today. Talk to you in the evening.
I can’t stop a chuckle. The idea of my parents gardening is something I still cannot get used to. Or rather, the idea of my dad gardening. Mum has always been in love with flowers. But she never had time for gardening, or anything else after her long hours at the design studio where she had worked as a seamstress ever since she graduated from high school.
My dad worked equally long hours on an assembly line. Three years ago he lost all ability to move his legs in a freak factory accident, and the firm offered him a nice settlement if he didn't take them to court. Mum decided to work from home on her own afterward so she could take care of him. Between her sewing and the settlement, they manage to scrape by. I plan to change that to a decent living as soon as I get a job. But the new arrangement has a positive side to it: they started having a lot of time to spend with each other. Somehow Mum convinced Dad they should dedicate most of that time to gardening.
Mum and Dad met in high school and started dating in their junior year. They married after graduation and have lived happily together ever since. Even during those horrible years with Kate, when life was hell for all four of us, their love never faltered.
Michael and I started dating in our junior year and I assumed happily ever after was a given for us. Guess not.
Somehow this thought doesn't seem as painful anymore.
I glance at the clock. Still half an hour left. I toy with the idea of sending a few more job applications before I leave—an endeavor that has taken up countless nights and weekends lately. I decide against it. This is not the time to sink into the usual negativity about my future that inevitably follows the emailing of every batch of applications.
At five to three I'm in the parking lot in front of our building, next to Jess's fourth-hand (though she claims it's second-hand) Prius, carrying a brown cotton blazer on my left arm and fiddling with the strap of my bag, trying to arrange it somehow so it won't cut into my shoulder anymore. There is no sign of anyone in the lot. As the minutes tick by, the irrational fear that last night was nothing but a wishful dream starts creeping back into my mind.
The fear dissipates at three o'clock sharp and nervous jitters replace it, as a white Range Rover makes its way through the lot, standing out in the sea of Priuses and Fords like a whale among baby dolphins.
It stops a few feet away from me.
A tall, slightly older man wearing a black suit steps out of the car. I'm surprised by the wave of disappointment that suddenly overwhelms me. Though James said he would send someone to pick me up, I realize that I still hoped he'd show up, wearing that conceited smile of his.
"Ms. McLewis?" the man asks in an official tone.
I take a step forward. "You can call me Serena."
For some reason I didn't expect James Cohen, the founder of several high-tech and Internet ventures, the epitome of all things modern, to be employing a driver. One that wears a uniform at that.
"Peter Sullivan, at your service. I was sent by Mr. Cohen to pick you up." He opens the back door and gestures to me to get inside.
I nod and hop inside the car.
When Peter takes his place in the driver's seat I ask as casually as possible, "How long will the trip take?"
He starts the engine and drives onto the main street, and though I can only see his eyes in the mirror when he answers, I'm pretty sure he's trying very hard to stifle a laugh. "I was instructed not to give you any information that might disclose our destination."
I lean back, recognizing defeat. What is James playing at? What difference does it make whether I find out now or in half an hour?
But I don't find out in half an hour. Or in one hour. Three hours pass before we finally get off the highway. By that time I’ve bitten all my nails, and the thought of calling the police to notify them of my own kidnapping has passed through my mind at least half a dozen times.