"Honey, the new neighbors just moved in yesterday, didn't they?"
Her keys fell onto the granite countertop. I heard them clink decisively and slide on the stone a bit. They came to a stop about a foot away from the book I was staring down at. I heard the fridge door open, the swish as my mother poured herself a glass of milk.
"I bought a coffee cake from the store on my way home. I was hoping you could walk it over to them."
And there it is, I thought half-heartedly. For one moment I nursed the idea of telling my mother to go walk the goddamn cake over herself. My heart bubbled over my throat and the words almost spat out of my mouth. But I mastered my emotions, clenching my fists and biting my lip as I kept my eyes firmly on the pages of the book in front of me.
As if reading my mind, I heard my mother say, "I would walk it over myself, but I have a lot of work to do." I didn't have to look up to know she was looking at her watch, and then at her briefcase, and then at the steps leading to her office. Looking anywhere but at me.
Trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice, I replied with a mellow, "Alright mom, whatever you say." Looking up for the first time, I saw that she was regarding me with suspicious eyes. Shocked that she was actually looking at me, I met her gaze head on.
"I want that cake delivered today, Arielle. As soon as possible."
Translation, I thought, You want it delivered now.
I listened as she trudged up the stairs with her black suitcase in hand. She hadn't even taken the scarf out of her neat little bun. The only things she had removed after stepping into the house were her shoes. It was like "home" was just another word for "office." It was like she wore a mask every single moment of the day, a mask that she used to communicate with her colleagues. To her, I was just another coworker, just someone else she had to deal with on a daily basis, just someone else she was the boss of. It was like I could be manipulated just as easily as any of the people she managed at her office.
If my mother could have a mask, I could have one too. My mask covered up any feelings that might be considered weak, and left only the feelings that I knew she would want to see through her own mask. Or maybe there was no mask at all. Maybe the mask was just a metaphor for her true personality. Maybe she really was just a plastic doll with emotions like ice. Who knew, maybe my mother was just some intergalactic ooze put into a human body and given a semblance of consciousness that would hide the fact that she was not, in fact, human at all.
With a tiny, bittersweet smile, I looked away from the stairs my mother had just climbed and focused my attention on the coffee cake on the opposite side of the counter. It was unremarkable, covered with bland gray icing and some cinnamon crumbs. On the side of the plastic cover, though, was a bright orange sticker that screamed its best-value price at me from across the table. Only 6.99! I read. I looked at it for a while before reaching across the table and peeling it off.
My eyes shifted over to the clock. It had only been a minute since my mother left me in the kitchen with my new orders. Deliver the cake. I thought about it for a moment. My eyes glazed over the icing, pausing at the cinnamon crumbs. I could poison it, I thought sarcastically with a little laugh. Then maybe my mother would be blamed for the murders of the new neighbors. Maybe the police would force her to move out, leaving me in peace. Leaving me alone.
I nearly laughed out loud. Looking at the clock again, I saw that three minutes had passed. I figured I had about another fifteen minutes before my mother deigned to come downstairs herself to check whether or not I had delivered the cake. I contemplated waiting at the kitchen counter to see if she would even bother coming down at all, but dismissed the idea at once. Might as well get this over with, I thought with a sigh. Leaving my backpack under the kitchen table, I slowly dragged myself upstairs and into my room.
First impressions are everything. I knew from long experience that keeping a respectable appearance helped me fade into the background better. No distinguishable marks of beauty, no noticeable faults, and bingo! I could bleed into the backdrop with nobody the wiser.
After freshening up a bit, I turned to look in the mirror. I looked dull and apathetic. Slightly disconcerted (maybe this "bleeding into the backdrop" thing is working a little too well, I thought to myself), I mimicked holding the cake in my hands and smiling. "Hi, I'm your neighbor to the right! Welcome to the neighborhood!" I said brightly. Even to me, my smiled appeared more like a grimace. My words sounded like they had been put through a car incinerator and spat out as worthless pieces of the original machine. I quickly let my mouth drop back from the smile into a straight-lipped boredom.
I looked at the digital clock in my room. Its bright red digits flashed me a warning: fifteen minutes had passed since my mother disappeared upstairs. My stalling time completely spent, I squared my shoulders and donned my jacket, grabbing the cake as if it were garbage and slamming the door shut as I walked outside.
It was another dismal day. The skies were a sheer opaque mass of grayness. I couldn't distinguish between one cloud and the next; it was more like a giant mass of collected condensation had gathered with the single purpose of obliterating the sun's light and warmth. The whole world seemed dull and boring and gray. As I looked at the houses across the street, I couldn't help but think of how empty they felt.
What a horrible first impression for the new neighbors on their first full day here, I thought with a smirk. Maybe they would be repelled by the horrible weather (I ignored the fact that the weather was usually really warm and sunny) and decide that they didn't belong here. Maybe they would leave, saving my mother the trouble of actually having to pretend to socialize with them. Not that she would socialize with them at all. She would just send me over as a sign of goodwill, a for-the-moment kind of promise that she would come to see them… eventually.
I sudden chill swept over me. My feet hesitated, and I tripped over a small rut in the ground. Steadying the cake in my hand, I disregarded the stumble as a result of nerves and the breezy weather.
Then I heard the footsteps.
Suddenly fearful, I snapped my head around to see who was behind me. There was only one person I was really scared of in this neighborhood. He was the one person who I would have given anything to see gone forever, wiped straight off this block altogether. My worst suspicions were confirmed when I saw the sauntering figure behind me flash me a lascivious smile when my eyes met his.
Tony had never been one to take walks, not alone at least. My heart skipped a beat, and I came to a stop, forgetting my purpose and the cake in my hands. My nerves were on an edge, small electrical charges zipping around my body as if racing along my bloodstream. I could see that my breath was coming out much faster than before, and I fought to control it before Tony noticed. The last thing I wanted him to see was how much he affected me by his mere presence.
Then again, maybe that was exactly what I wanted him to see.
"Hey, sweetheart," he said with a grin. I didn't say anything, just stared at him with a bored expression. "What are you doing out here all alone?"
My hands shifted slightly, and he looked down with a surprise at the cake in my hands.
"What've you got there?" he asked, eyebrows raised. "It's for me, huh? Trying to make amends? I knew you could never resist me for long," he added with a hint of sarcasm and teasing, hands reaching out to take the box from me. I felt something like fear unfurl in my body, and instinctively, I clutched the cake box closer to my chest.
"It's not for you," I replied as coolly as possible. I felt a little quaver in my voice and hoped he hadn't noticed.
"Aw, don't be like that, honey. You know I came out here just to see you," he said to me with a smile.
And just like that, my heart skipped another beat, and I lost control of my breath. It came out in a little whoosh, sending a cloud of condensation into the air. Funny, I hadn't realized it was that cold. I wished Tony wasn't as perceptive as he was, but luck wasn't in my favor. He noticed my discomfort, the way my breath was coming out much faster than before, the flickering in my eyes as they sought to look anywhere but at him. A slow and excruciatingly beautiful smirk lit up his features. My eyes were inexorably drawn to his face like a magnet.
He held out his hand as though inviting me to take it. Had he done the same thing a year or so ago (and he had, several times), I would have filled his hand with my own without a second thought and let him lead me wherever he wished to go. It took all the willpower I could muster to keep my hand at my side, and I still couldn't help but curl up my fingers into a fist as I remembered his inviting eyes and warm touch…
I did not want to be made a fool out of. I could see my pain twisted into laughter in Tony's eyes, and I knew I ought to feel angry and vengeful. But, no matter how hard I tried, the only emotion I could feel was an unending, bottomless pain like a chasm in my stomach.
"So, want to come over to my place tonight?" he asked with a sneer.
Disgust wormed its way into my turmoil of emotions. "Go to hell," I mustered weakly, and turned to walk away.
I was right in front of the old Malones' house when Tony grabbed my shoulder. I spun around, as startled by the touch as I was by the harshness of the action. Holding the cake out like a protective shield in front of me, I caved in my shoulders and gave him a guarded look. "What?" I asked, my voice quavering slightly.
He looked at me for a second. His eyes were folded into mischievous, cruel slits that glittered to see me in pain.
We stood there for a minute, silent and appraising. Fighting between the urge to throw the cake in his face and my need to run into his arms, I stood stock still, waiting for Tony to reveal the real reason he had followed me down the street.
Finally, breaking the silence, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a slip of some small paper. "This is for you," he said quietly. I looked into his eyes. They were laughing again. His mouth was curved into a smirk. I felt a great sense of foreboding as I took the paper and unfolded it to reveal what was inside.
It was a picture. In fact, it was the last picture we had taken together before… well, before we had split. It was the two of us in a picture booth. I was sitting in Tony's lap, laughing and carefree and filled with all the happiness in the world. Tony sat, like he always did, with a small, satisfied smile on his face. It was easy to see in the picture what I had been oblivious to for the entire year we had been together; he didn't love me. He had never even liked me, except for what I could offer him in terms of social status and physical benefits. Still, in that booth with him, I laughed like the happiest idiot in the world, too drawn in on myself and my own happiness to see the truth dancing in full glory right in front of my eyes.
I didn't realize that I was crying until the first tear hit the corner of my mouth and I tasted the salty bite. Angry and afraid that Tony would see (although I was sure he already had), I wiped the tear away and stuffed the photo haphazardly into my pocket. When I finally looked back at him, I saw his grin and nearly choked.
"For your collection," he said. "I had no real use for it, it was just lying there collecting dust. Thought I would… return the favor, if you know what I mean. I'm sure you'll find it amusing."
My heart stopped. I watched with detached horror as my knees bucked and I fell hard onto the cement, cake still in my hands, eyes wide with disgust and hurt and fear. From a great distance, I heard him laugh. Looking up slowly with tear-filled eyes, I saw Tony's face. With another, final smirk, he turned around and walked away. And then he was gone.
The photo stuck out slightly from my pocket, but I didn't bother pushing it back in. I could hear and feel my heart thumping an unsteady rhythm in my chest. My face felt hot and feverish, and my mind was racing with ideas and memories and half-formed thoughts. Realizing that I was still kneeling on the ground, I got up slowly and turned mechanically towards the old Malone place.
What am I doing here again? I thought to myself, the cogs in my brain trying sluggishly to reboot.Cake. There's a cake in your hands. You're delivering it to…
Oh, yeah. Delivering the cake. To the new neighbors.
Yes. Now move.
Very slowly, my feet began moving towards the house next door. I didn't think about where I was going. I couldn't think. I didn't think that the whole escapade with Tony had happened right outside the neighbor's house, and that everything that had happened would have been audible and visible through any opening in the house. I didn't even think about where I was going until I saw the painted green door in front of me, and my hand reaching out to ring the bell.
I woke up suddenly as the green door sprung open. My hazy mind came to life for a few brief seconds to reveal a boy who looked not much older than me. My mind dredged up the memory of the family moving in: a mother, a father, and two children, a boy and a girl. This had to be the boy. That was as far as my mental processing went. After remembering my agenda with the cake, my brain returned to autopilot and I let a listless look rest on my face. I knew I was being pathetic, and I knew that I should not have let Tony have such a drastic effect on my emotions. But I couldn't help myself.
I had been standing on the doorstep for a few seconds before I realized the boy had not said a word. Ignoring the awkward silence, I began speaking.
"Hi, my name is Ari Sanders, and I'd like you to welcome you to the neighborhood on behalf of me and my mother. We're your neighbors to the left." I indicated my house with a jerk of my head in some vague direction. "My mom asked me to give you this cake as a present. She apologizes for not being able to make it herself, but she promises to drop by later. We hope you've had a smooth move, and we know you'll enjoy it here. The cake is really good, just keep it refrigerated if you don't plan on –"
I stopped suddenly as I realized the boy hadn't moved or made any indication that he heard anything I had said. I looked at his face for the first time, the haze in my mind lifting again for a few seconds and affording me a clearer understanding of the situation. The boy hadn't said anything because he had been too busy staring at…
I blushed and stepped forward to shove the cake into his hands. He looked startled at the sudden disturbance, and surprised when he looked up and saw my face.
"Um, I hope you like it here, and, um, yea. Bye," I muttered, crossing my arms over my chest and turning to escape his unyielding stare.
I had barely made it off the porch when I felt a hand lightly touch my shoulder. "Wait," the boy said. I spun on my heels, my mouth set in a grim line. The boy was lounging against the doorframe, one hand holding the coffee cake and the other hand in his pocket. He looked annoyingly comfortable staring at me in my very apparent discomfort. "Just a few things," he said, staring me down in his peculiar way. "About this cake," he added without even looking down at it. "Why is there a hole in the middle?"
I stared at him.
"Really, did you eat it out on your way here?"
I didn't respond, being more than a little confused. Was he being serious? "Um, it's coffee cake. Coffee cakes have holes in the middle."
"Hm," he responded. He continued to stare at me.
I didn't bother saying goodbye that time. I just turned and began to leave. Before I could step off the first step, however, I felt his hand on my shoulder again. I spun back around just in time to see the boy staring at my chest again. A seed of anger began festering in my stomach. How could he dare, like it didn't even matter? Face red with embarrassment and rage, I seethed, "You really shouldn't stare, you know."
The boy seemed to ignore my words. I frowned. Just as I was about to say something again, he spoke. "You're a player?" he asked, looking back up at my face.
"Wha– what?" I asked, shocked. Had he just asked me if I was a player? I quickly regained my composition and looked at him in indignation. "No, I am not a player! Where the hell did you get an idea like that?"
He pointed to my chest, unconcerned by my emotional display. "What do you play?" he asked. I looked down at my shirt. It read "TEAM PLAYER!" in brightly colored fabric paint.
Face bright red with embarrassment again, I said, "Oh, well, um, I used to play hockey."
"Used to?" he asked, eyebrows raised. "Why don't you play anymore?"
My mind briefly returned to that moment a year ago, when I had quit the team because I was simply too busy with Tony in my life. "Because I didn't want to play anymore," I said coldly, the red on my face no longer from acute embarrassment. "Are you done questioning me now? Because I'd really like to get home." I gave him a dark look (or what I hoped was a dark look).
The boy stared at me for a second. "Shayne," he said, sticking out his hand from underneath the cake. When I stared at him blankly, he repeated himself. "I'm Shayne O'Connor. Pleased to meet your acquaintance?" He turned the last phrase into a question, daring me to respond.
I stared at him some more for a moment, wondering whether or not I would acquiesce. "Ari," I said shortly after some time, and then turned to go. Before I could even turn all the way around, though, I felt that cool hand on my shoulder again. "What do you want?" I snapped, whirling around to face Shayne again.
He looked at me innocently. "Nothing," he said.
I let out a sigh of exasperation and turned around to walk back down his driveway. I could hear him yelling something at me, but didn't bother turning around since I could hear him clearly anyway.
Rolling my eyes, I turned into my own drive and walked into the house, slamming the door behind me. Climbing the stairs, I sank into my bed and opened my diary to pen a few words before starting on my work. Looking at the mostly blank pages, my mind whirled past the brief encounter with the neighbor to my heart wrenching run in with Tony.
My eyes widened in disbelief as I realized that in those fifteen minutes with Shayne, for the first time in months, I had not thought a single thought about Tony. It was something new, not thinking about him for once. Maybe I'm finally getting over it, I thought hopefully, ignoring my breakdown from before.Or maybe you just found someone more interesting, my mind suggested, throwing a mental image of Shayne into my eyes.
As I scrutinized his face from memory, I realized something I had not noticed before… there was something very familiar about his smirk…
I had seen Shayne O'Connor somewhere before. But where?