One Year Before Impact Day
Sadie spent the next few days sulking, but I hardly even noticed. I felt happier than I had in months, and I didn’t want to let anyone take that away from me.
Liz and Aidan remained somewhat suspicious of me, but neither of them said anything more. That was enough for me, really. They could wonder about what I was up to all they wanted, it didn’t make a difference to me.
For the most part, they went back to being their normal selves, at least around me. We talked about the usual things, complained about school, joked about each other and generally just tried to enjoy ourselves. It was exactly what I needed.
One Friday after school, we decided to stop by a café that we frequented. We stopped by often enough that the proprietor knew us by name, anyway. She smiled at us as we entered, though it was the most pleasantly sarcastic smile I think I’ve ever seen.
“You three again? Don’t you have anywhere better to be?”
Despite her best efforts to look plain, Wendy was a strikingly beautiful woman. She left her short reddish-orange hair wild, and the glasses she wore were clearly fake, but beneath them, she had the features of a supermodel, not to mention the perfect, lightly-freckled skin.
“Is that any way to speak to your best customers?” I asked her, matching her smirk.
“You think you’re my best customers?”
“We are in here a lot…” Liz said, a little nervously.
“We don’t order a lot, though,” Aidan pointed out.
“That’s an understatement,” Wendy said dryly.
“We’re students,” I told her. “Sue us.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
“We’ll just go and sit down then,” I said cheerfully. “I’ll have the same thing I always do.”
“Me too,” Aidan chimed in.
“I guess I will as well,” Liz added. Wendy’s face twitched.
“You expect me to just remember what you like?” she demanded.
“Yep,” I said, enjoying her faux aggravation. I knew that she didn’t actually mind, because I’d seen how she treated customers she didn’t like.
“Lucky for you I have a good memory, or you’d all be getting water,” she muttered.
“Thank you for being such a good host,” Liz said.
“Just go sit down,” Wendy said, laughing.
The three of us took a seat in an empty booth, Liz and Aidan sitting beside each other, opposite me. The moment they sat down, I could tell that something was up.
“So, Charlie,” Liz began, causing me to cringe. “Aidan said you’ve been sneaking out at night. What’s up with that?”
“Oh he did, did he?” I asked, glaring at him. He shrunk down at my withering gaze.
“I may have let it slip,” he mumbled.
“You know Mark is going to kill you if he finds out,” Liz warned, her tone annoyingly authoritative.
“And is he going to find out?” I asked, continuing to glare at Aidan.
I already knew they weren’t going to say anything, and even if they did, there wasn’t actually much of a danger Mark would do anything about it. He wasn’t exactly the hands-on type.
“Hey, I’m not gonna tell him,” Aidan said, holding his hands up. “But he is a journalist, you know. He’ll probably figure it out sooner or later.”
“Well, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” I said nonchalantly.
Wendy brought a tray of drinks for us, placing them in front of us silently. She really had memorised our orders.
“Why have you been sneaking out, anyway?” Liz asked.
“Is it even safe for you to be out at night? In this city?” Aidan chimed in. I was actually grateful for it, because if I could focus on the issue of safety, I wouldn’t have to talk about why I was out in the first place.
“I’m fine, you big baby,” I told him. “I know how to stay safe.”
“You don’t have a secret boyfriend, do you?” Liz asked, and I nearly choked on my tea. Why would she assume that? Most nights, I was sneaking out to see Rachel, not some boy.
“What? No, why would you even-”
“You turned red!” Aidan exclaimed, just a little too loud. “She was right! Charlie, how could you not tell us about this?”
“He’s not some kind of thug, is he?” Liz asked. “Or an older man?”
How had they latched onto the idea of me having a boyfriend? Why did that seem like the most likely explanation?
“There’s no boyfriend,” I insisted. “Guys, come on. You know me better than that.”
“So what are you doing, then?” Aidan asked.
Suddenly, I wished I hadn’t denied the boyfriend suggestion. It actually would have been a halfway decent cover for what I was actually doing, which they would never approve of.
“If you don’t tell us, we’re just going to keep assuming it’s a guy,” Liz threatened.
“And we’ll know if you’re lying,” Aidan added.
I doubted that, but I couldn’t think of a good enough lie anyway. I opted to go for the safe route, and give them just enough truth to avoid telling them anything important.
“I’m just visiting a friend,” I told them.
“At night?” Liz asked, concerned.
“Wait, guy or girl?” Aidan added, and I wanted to punch him.
“Does it matter?” I asked, annoyed.
“It’s a girl,” I said. “I met her through my jujitsu classes. I visit her at night because her mum is… well, she’s kind of abusive, and if she sees me, things get nasty.” I kind of wish that was a lie.
“That’s horrible!” Aidan said. “Why wouldn’t you tell us about that?”
“I dunno,” I just…”
What? Why haven’t I told them about Rachel? There wasn’t anything odd about having another friend, was there?
“Just what?” Liz demanded.
“Well, if she doesn’t want to tell us, she doesn’t have to,” Aidan said, diplomatically. It felt like he was playing good cop to Liz’s bad cop.
“Yes, but if she’s going to worry us by sneaking off in the middle of the night, it would be nice to at least know why,” Liz said, a little petulantly.
“I know,” I said, trying to sound more apologetic than I felt. “I didn’t really think about it that much. I was really only thinking about her.” That part was also true.
“What’s her name? Can we do anything for her?” Aidan asked, always wanting to be able to help. Also always wanting to know everything.
“Her name is Rachel, and no. You’d only make things worse,” I said. I didn’t actually want to give them her name, but I couldn’t think of a good way to avoid answering without sounding suspicious.
“Well, can we do anything to help you?” Lis asked.
“You could trust me,” I said, a little hurt.
“Charlie, we do trust you,” Aidan said. “We’re just worried.”
“What are you, my parents?”
“Friends are allowed to be worried too,” Aidan said.
“Besides, you and Aidan are practically siblings,” Liz pointed out. “That gives him family worrying rights.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Aidan protested, to my surprise. He was even turning a little red.
“What, you don’t think of Charlie as a sister?” Liz asked, sounding a little accusatory.
“Let’s just not talk about this, okay?” Aidan pleaded.
“I agree. In fact, let’s just drop the whole subject,” I added.
“Alright, alright,” Liz conceded. “We just don’t want you to go missing one night.”
I rolled my eyes. Time to turn this around. I was tired of being interrogated.
“Have you noticed how the two of you talk like a unit?” I asked.
“Huh? We do?” Liz asked, confused.
“Like that. You both say ‘we’ a lot.”
“Well, we both feel the same way about this, so…” Aidan said, trailing off and clearly very embarrassed.
“I think it’s weirder to notice it than it is to do it,” Liz said, equally defensive.
“Whatever you say, guys,” I said. At least I’d taken their attention off of me for a little bit.
I glanced over at Wendy, who was serving another customer. She caught me looking, and smiled wearily at me. I was about to smile back when I noticed a crack beside her, which should have been impossible, because she was in the middle of the room. It looked as though the air itself was cracked. Nobody else seemed to notice it.
Recognising my concern, Wendy wandered over. She rested a hand on my shoulder, staring into my eyes through her messy fringe.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” she said. “Everything okay?”
“Probably,” I replied, wondering what in the world was wrong with me. The crack was gone, but the feeling it had given me remained.
“You two taking care of Charlie?” Wendy asked. Liz and Aidan swapped surprised expressions.
“I can’t imagine anyone less needing to be taken care of than Charlie,” Liz said, but she looked at me with a warm, nurturing smile.
Wendy just smiled, filling up my glass of water from her jug. She squeezed my shoulder with surprising strength, and left us alone.
“I didn’t realise you were that close with her, Charlie,” Aidan mused.
“Neither did I,” I confessed. “I like that she’s looking out for me, though. She seems like she’d be good at that.”
“She certainly stares at you a lot,” Liz said. “She tries to hide it, too. Which means it’s not just a coincidence.”
And why would you notice something like that, Liz?
“Alright, don’t make it weird, guys,” I said, feeling embarrassed.
“Just be careful,” Aidan said. “Something about her seems…”
“Off?” Liz offered.
“That’ll do,” he said.
“You guys do realise she gives us a discount, right?” I asked, slightly annoyed.
“Caution retracted,” Aidan said. “She’s good people.”
The three of us laughed, but I couldn’t help looking out of the corner of my eye, trying to catch Wendy looking at me.
Next Week: Can I Ask You Something Weird?