So, February’s challenge happened, and since it’s just about the end of the month, time for the result post. My entry is longer than the previous, and definitely went somewhere unexpected. I started with two friends that I was fairly certain were about to get freaky, and it just went somewhere else entirely. Is it still about love, or romance?
I think so, though no smut. I honestly expected smut, meaning I’ll be free to include smut in a future challenge entry. If you’re also joining in, post a link to your blog with your completed challenge, or paste it in the comments below!
The knock stirred Valerie, an intrusion into the nap that had replaced a half-vacant viewing of infomercials and a terrible C-grade horror. She stretched her legs out, and rose from the couch, letting the doona she’d dragged in from the bedroom fall onto the carpet. A glance a the flashing digits on the VCR gave 11:23, which meant the actual time was somewhere between two and three in the morning.
There was another knock at the door; slow,and restrained, the type that didn’t want to be answered or heard. She wanted to oblige it in that. An over-sized woolen jumper and the previous night’s gym pants were not her preferred attire for house calls. She brushed her fingers against the door, wishing she’d had a peephole, window or security door.
“Hello?” she asked.
She knew the voice was Simon’s, but different. Worried. She’d known him over a decade, since they were both sixteen. She reached her fingers up into her hair, and pulled the strands back behind her ears, as presentable as she could manage without a mirror. Valerie unfastened the deadbolt and opened the door.
Simon stood in the porch, just a step past the awning. There was rain that Valerie hadn’t heard until she opened the door, but there it was, with him standing in the heaviest of it.
“Simon? What are you doing here?”
“Carmen…” he said vaguely, but his torn expression gave a clearer answer.
“She’s okay. I think, at least, but…”
Valerie winced, but couldn’t tell his meaning She reached a hand out toward him, and pulled at his wet jacket, inviting him inside.
“What happened?” she asked.
Simon stood still in the foyer, his head dipped down, and lips drawn thin.
“Hey…” said Valerie, lifting a finger to lift his chin up. “Tell me.”
“I don’t know where she is, but there’s someone else.”
Valerie’s smile evaporated, leaving only her gaze.
“She told you?”
“I found something. I wasn’t looking, but I was sorting laundry, and there was a note. You know how difficult everything’s been with us, ever since her mother died. The distance, I thought it was all grieving. I said it to you.”
“To myself, as well.”
Valerie nodded back at Simon, and drew her breath in, but closer her mouth again.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing.” She replied, shaking her head dismissively. “A stupid question.”
“Are you okay?”
Simon rolled his shoulders back, and then up. He knew he felt cold, as much from the rain as the note. His skin had felt numb from the moment he’d found it, and didn’t know if he even wanted to feel any different.
“Ask me something else.”
Valerie didn’t know what else there was. She nodded slowly, and brushed her hands over his arms.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I can’t stand the thought of being there, waiting for her to come home. Thinking about her being with another. I can’t do it, Val.”
“Hey, it’s alright. I know.”
She pulled him close, squeezing her arms around his body. The pressure of her against him kneaded the knots from his shin, and gave him back a breath he didn’t know had gone away. Valerie heard his breathing change, then felt the warm exhalation through the gaps in the jumper’s stitching. It made her smile in spite of his pain, but she squeezed it out through a squeeze of his arms. He breathed out again, and slowly pulled back from her – the link holding her arms around him unfastening.
“I’m sorry to drag you into it, V.”
“It’s okay, Simon.”
She shushed him, and he stopped. The moment lingered like cigarette smoke, moving from the familiar to uncomfortable. There was no breeder of anxiety like a road unexplored. They broke away from each other, and Valerie averted her eyes. She held still, holding her breath in longer than ordinary, to keep it from spilling out words.
“Could I have a drink?” asked Simon, who then added “Please”, as though it had been there all along.
Valerie nodded, and moved to the kitchen, taking her potential words with her.
Simon found his way to the lounge room, where the latest scientifically offensive monster telemovie played in the background. A would-be porn star in a white lab-coat rattled of a bunch of nonsense about dissonance vectors and quantum genetics.
Valerie produced a glass of water, and nodded toward the television. “You can change it, if you want. I wasn’t really watching it.”
Any other night, and he might have. “I don’t mind.”
“They’re a guilty pleasure, but this one’s especially bad.”
He sipped at the water, easing the lump wadded into his throat. It felt cold as it trickled over lips, and tasted sweet. A few drops traced down from the corner of his mouth, and down to his chin. Simon knew the comment he’d usually make, but a tired joke about a drinking problem felt pointless. All of the jokes did.
“Sit,” said Valerie.
The cream leather of the couch was warmer than Simon had thought it to be, and he’d delved into the minutiae of its make and texture before sitting. It was all distraction. Even her.
Valerie lifted the doona up from the ground, tossing one end of it toward Simon. He let it fall against him, without making any effort to catch it.
“That’s fine, you don’t need to help at all.”
“Sorry?” he asked absently, looked around and added, “Sorry.”
“It’s actually fine, Sime. I didn’t want you to be dealing with a cold, too.”
She scooped up the doona, and dropped it so it covered him more wholly. Any chance of it slipping away ended when she sauntered onto the couch beside him, leaving it as another barrier between them. Simon closed his eyes for a moment, only seconds, but he could feel it there- a difference.
“You’re thinking about it again,” said Valerie.
“This is it, though. She’s not going to change how she feels; she can’t even stand me sometimes.”
“It will work out.”
“What if nothing changes? It could just continue on getting worse.”
Valerie sighed. “Stop thinking like that, Simon.”
She reached her arm over to him, and squeezed on his hand. He wanted to say more, but another squeeze made him wait. “There’s no way forward if you keep thinking like that. It will work out, you just need to be patient.”
“I don’t see how it can. Is she going to magically want me again? I’d be fooling myself if I think that.”
“You’re stupid. There should be any question of her loving you.”
The words made his face flush red, taunting him with hindsight; they were questions that shouldn’t have been. He could imagine Carmen’s words, too, the last thing she’d said to him that had meant anything, and here it was now.
“We can’t be it anymore.”
“Friends,” he said. “Us.”
Valerie kept as still as stone, though felt exhaustingly aware of her proximity to Simon. She had her hand draped over the doona, which left it putting pressure against him.
“Somehow I thought this day was no longer coming,” she said.
The rhyme of a pie-man was always too easy for Valerie, which was why she’d never touched it. “You can’t have a friend that isn’t her. Not one like me.”
He exhaled what felt like smoke, or the thick steam of a winter broth. It was hard for him to believe that it came down to this, and only this; as if the word only could ever apply to it. There it was, too, pushing at the back of his eyes and scrunching up his nose. He couldn’t even manage a smile.
“I have to leave, don’t I?” he asked.
“Say goodbye, Simon. Not see you later.”
She stirred away, lifting her hand up first, and then leaning away from him.
“I’m not ready,” he said.
Valerie nodded, though her eyes flitted to the side, away from his face. “You think that makes a difference, Simon?”
“I don’t want to go.”
“Then you need to give up Carmen.”
He shook his head, and moved the doona off him. “Why does she get to choose?”
Valerie turned her body away, and shook her head. Her hands bunched up into fists, with tightened white knuckles, and her shoulders lifting.
“Because I can’t just be friends with you.”
He wanted to comfort her. He could feel the itch in his fingers, and that drop in his chest that should have been empathy, but he knew it wasn’t. It was acknowledgement.
“Valerie… I’m sorry.”
The words made him want to put his head through a window, or worse- he felt horrible but nothing could change that. Her or Carmen, there was no choice painless.
Valerie heard the steps, the door, and then the silence.