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Ruthless Creatures
Author: J.T. Geissinger

 


1

 

 

Nat

 

 

“I’m sorry. I just can’t do this anymore. It’s obvious I’m the only one trying.”

The voice on the other end of the line is somber. I know Chris is telling me the truth. He really is sorry it isn’t working out between us. But it’s not a surprise. I knew this was coming. If only I could work up enough energy to care.

If that were the case, however, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

“Okay. I get it. I guess I’ll see you around, then.”

In the short pause that follows, he goes from sorry to annoyed. “That’s it? That’s all you’re gonna say? We’ve been dating for two months and all I get is ‘see you around?’”

He wants me to be upset, but I’m actually relieved. Though of course I can’t say that out loud.

Standing at my kitchen sink, I look out the open window to the small, fenced yard beyond. Outside, it’s bright and sunny with a crisp sniff of fall in the air, a typical September day in Lake Tahoe.

Perfect time of year to get married.

I shove that unwelcome thought aside and refocus on the conversation. “I don’t know what else you want me to say. You’re the one who’s breaking up with me, remember?”

“Yeah, and I would’ve thought you’d have more of a reaction than that.” His tone turns dry. “Guess I should’ve known better.”

Chris isn’t a bad guy. He’s not short-tempered like the last guy I tried dating, or a weepy clinger like the one before. He’s actually pretty great.

I think I’ll try to set him up with my girlfriend, Marybeth. They’d make a cute couple.

“I just have a lot going on with work, that’s all. I don’t really have time to invest in a relationship. I know you understand.”

There’s another pause, this one longer. “You teach fingerpainting to sixth graders.”

I bristle at his tone. “I teach art.”

“Yeah. To a bunch of twelve-year-olds. I’m not trying to be insulting, but your job isn’t exactly high stress.”

I don’t have it in me to argue with him, so I stay silent. He takes it as a cue to continue the frontal assault.

“My friends warned me about you, you know. They said I shouldn’t date someone with your history.”

My “history.” That’s a nice way of putting it.

As the girl with the missing fiancé who vanished the day before their big church wedding five years ago, I don’t have baggage so much as cargo. It takes a certain kind of self-confidence to take me on.

“I hope we can stay friends, Chris. I know I’m not perfect, but—”

“You need to move on with your life, Nat. I’m sorry, but it has to be said. You’re living in the past. Everyone knows it.”

I know they do. I see the looks.

King’s Beach—a funky little beach town on the north shore of the lake—has a population of about four thousand people. Even after all these years, sometimes it feels as if every one of them is still saying a prayer for me at night.

When I don’t respond, Chris exhales. “That came out wrong. I didn’t mean—”

“Yes, you did. It’s fine. Listen, if it’s all right with you, let’s just say goodbye now. I meant it when I said I’d like to stay friends. You’re a good guy. No hard feelings, okay?”

After a moment, he says flatly, “Sure. No hard feelings. No feelings either way, I know that’s your specialty. You take care, Nat.” He disconnects, leaving me listening to dead air.

I sigh, closing my eyes.

He’s wrong about me not having feelings. I have all kinds of feelings. Anxiety. Fatigue. Low-level depression. An unshakeable melancholy paired with gentle despair.

See? I’m not the emotional iceberg I get accused of being.

I hang the receiver back onto the cradle on the wall. It instantly rings again.

I hesitate, unsure if I want to answer or start binge drinking like I do every year on this day at this time, but decide I’ve got another ten minutes or so to kill before I start the annual ritual.

“Hello?”

“Did you know that cases of schizophrenia rose sharply around the turn of the twentieth century, when domestic cat ownership became common?”

It’s my best friend, Sloane. She has no interest in starting a conversation in a normal way, which is one of the many reasons I love her.

“What’s your beef with cats, anyway? It’s pathological.”

“They’re furry little serial killers who can give you brain-eating amoebas from their poo, but that’s not my point.”

“What’s your point?”

“I’m thinking of getting a dog.”

Trying to picture fiercely independent Sloane with a dog, I glance over at Mojo, snoozing in a slice of sunlight on the floor in the living room. He’s a black-and-tan Shepherd mix, a hundred pounds of love in a shaggy coat, with a tail like a plume that’s constantly wagging.

David and I rescued him when he was only a few months old. He’s seven now, but acts like he’s seventy. I’ve never seen a dog sleep so much. I think he’s part sloth.

“You know you have to pick up their poop every day, right? And walk them? And give them baths? It’s like having a child.”

“Exactly. It’ll be good practice for when I have kids.”

“Since when are you thinking of having kids? You can’t even keep a plant alive.”

“Since I saw this burning hunk of man at Sprouts this morning. My biological clock started gonging like Big Ben. Tall, dark, handsome…and you know how I’m a sucker for scruff.” She sighs. “His was epic.”

I smile at the mental image of her ogling a guy at the grocery store. That situation is usually the other way around. The yoga classes she teaches are always filled with hopeful single men.

“Epic scruff. I’d like to see that.”

“It’s like five-o’-clock shadow on steroids. He had this kind of piratey air. Is that a word? Anyway, he had that dangerous outlaw vibe going on. Total hottie. Rawr.”

“Hottie, huh? Doesn’t sound like anyone local. Must be a tourist.”

Sloane groans. “I should’ve asked him if he needed someone to show him the sights!”

I laugh. “The sights? Is that what you’re calling your boobs now?”

“Don’t hate. There’s a reason they’re called assets. The girls have gotten me plenty of free drinks, you know.” She pauses for a moment. “Speaking of which, let’s go to Downrigger’s tonight.”

“Can’t, sorry. I have plans.”

“Tch. I know what your plans are. It’s time to change things up. Make a new tradition.”

“Go out to get drunk instead of staying in?”

“Exactly.”

“I’ll pass. Puking in public isn’t a good look for me.”

She scoffs. “I know for a fact you’ve never puked in your life. You have zero gag reflex.”

“That’s a very strange thing to know about me.”

“There are no secrets here, babe. We’ve been best friends since before we had pubes.”

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