here,” Lester announced unnecessarily. “Now what’s this about?”
I waved him into Tank’s entry way, like I had a million times in my own apartment before running away, and relocked the door behind him. He took a few steps away from me to stand in the hall halfway between the doors to the living room and kitchen. When he turned to face me, the question of where to go was obvious in his body language, so I preceded him into the kitchen.
“I made cookies this morning,” I offered, transferring the plate I’d painstakingly laid the gooey chocolate delights out on from the counter to the small table. “Would you like some coffee? Soda? Water?”
“You made these?” Lester asked dubiously, eyeing the cookies with suspicion. I couldn’t blame him, given how dismal my cooking attempts had been before Mexico. I was lucky to be alive surviving on nothing but peanut butter, olives, white bread, fast food and the occasional home cooked meal from my mother. Slowly and deliberately, he picked one up and brought it to his face, giving it a cautious sniff before nibbling the tiniest bit off and moving it around in his mouth thoughtfully. In the next instant, his eyes widened with surprise, pinning me where I stood on the opposite side of the table. “It’s good!” he exclaimed, taking a more manly bite and chewing slowly. “You didn’t make these,” he accused around his full mouth.
The smile that had been tugging the corners of my lips up vanished at his firm statement. “Believe it or not, I have actually picked up a few new skills in the last six years.” I told him, crossing my arms over my chest self consciously.
“Like the Spanish language,” he nodded, sitting down and grabbing another cookie.
“And baking,” I added pointedly, picking up my own cookie and shoving half of it in my mouth at once. I needed to not get worked up or we’d never be able to smooth out all the wrinkles in our friendship. “Would you like something to drink?” I asked again.
“I’d like some milk to go with these amazing cookies,” Lester mentioned. “But Tank only drinks soy crap.”
“Mmm,” I murmured, screwing up my nose at the very thought of soy milk. “But you’re in luck. It just so happens that his current house guest despises soy also, and so, the fridge contains full cream cow’s milk!” I announced, pulling the carton from the door with a flourish. I set it on the table and pulled two glasses out of the cupboard before taking a seat.
“God bless Tank’s house guest,” Lester mumbled after his first sip of cool white liquid.
“Amen,” I agreed, even as I wondered over yet another shift in his attitude toward me. He kept giving me firm signals that things are completely lost between us and then in the next second he’s showing me glimpses of how we used to be. The teasing, the joviality. Is it any wonder I’m so confused?
Dipping the other half of my cookie into my own glass of milk, I told him, “I owe you an explanation.”
Lester simply nodded, so I took that to mean he approved of my statement and was awaiting said explanations.
I sighed, running a hand through my hair, a fairly new habit in the scheme of things. It wasn’t until I’d cut my hair short that I’d begun delving my fingers through it. There was just something about feeling the strands slip through my fingers as my nails grazed over my scalp that was much more soothing when you weren’t battling masses of knots that came with longer hair. The action tended to make my curls stand up every which way, though, so I tried to refrain while at work or in more formal settings – no one likes looking at a mop head.
“I’m not sure where to start,” I confessed, staring at my glass with the sole purpose of avoiding Lester’s judging gaze. I’d asked him here to explain why I left and that I’d never meant to hurt him so much, but now that I was faced with the task head on, I was at a loss for words. “I’ve only taked about the whole thing twice before,” I explained. “Once while completely distraught, the other while fairly drunk. Those situations tent to take over the brain and loosen the tongue.
“Take your time,” Lester said calmly, grabbing a third cookie from the plate. “We’ve got all afternoon.” After a short pause he asked, “Are these cookies drugged?”
I allowed a small chuckle to escape my throat at that, knowing he was only asking because he couldn’t seem to resist them. “I may have learned this recipe from a lovely Mexican woman two years ago, but that doesn’t mean the secret ingredient is an elicit substance,” I said, sucking drops of milk off my cookie.
“Sorry,” he mentioned, a small smile curving his lips. “They’re really good.”
I nodded, taking a deep breath while maintaining eye contact with my moo juice. No use getting too excited over a compliment when we still had the main part of the conversation to go. “I guess I should start at the very beginning.”
“That’s a very good place to start.”
Blinking in mild confusion, I raised my gaze to Lester’s, unsure if I’d imagined his joke or not. “You did not just reference sound of music,” I accused, hiding my surprise and hope behind a mask of horror that he would even have seen the musical.
“I did,” he countered, matter-of-factly. “And I could sing the title song, but I thought you’d prefer I didn’t. I’m trying to make you feel a little better.”
“It’s a really popular musical,” Lester shrugged, clearly still joking. I raised my eyebrows at him, and his eyes twinkled endearingly, reminding me why I’d enjoyed spending time with him all those many years ago. “Because you’re tense and nervous,” he said honestly, taking the hint that I had not been referring to his viewing habits. It still wasn’t answering the question I had in mind, though.
I shook my head. “No, I meant... why are you acting so nice now when you’ve been perfectly horrible to me all week... for three weeks, actually.”
Lester shrugged his broad shoulders again, laying his hands flat on the table. Whereas I had struggled to keep eye contact, he was staring straight into my baby blues, as if daring me to look away. It’s a lot to process,” Lester informed me. “I just discover you’re alive and well and pretending to be someone else for the purposes of God-only-knows-what, and suddenly you’re telling me the reason you left is because you had a miscarriage? But I can’t talk about that revelation with anyone – not even you – because for all the growing up you claim to have done down in Mexico, you’re permanent residence is still listed as Denial Land. I can keep secrets from the guys. Fine. God knows I’ve done it before. But I need to talk about this. And I think you do too. I need to understand how something so devastating made you run from everyone who loves you.”
For a long moment, I let silence stretch between us, allowing myself time for his words to sink in. He hadn’t actually answered my question. I told him so.
“You want to know the reason for my mood swings?” he clarified, but continued speaking before I could respond. “I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I’m so glad to have you back where you belong. Where I can keep an eye on you and make sure no one hurts you just like old times. I want to sing from the rooftops I’m so happy.” He flashed a brief grin, letting me know that the second singing reference in the course of the same conversation was not by accident. “But on the other, it hurt when you left, and when I realised you were back and flying under the radar. I let that hurt reign down upon this woman I work with who has a ridiculous made up name. And although some recent revelations have changed my attitude toward her a bit, I can’t just stop hating on her at the office, or my colleagues will be suspicious.”
“Sorry,” I said, breaking eye contact to stare at his hands again. “I know this must be hard for you.”
“Hard for me?” he asked incredulously. “What about you?”
Frowning, I slowly lifted my eyes. “What about me?”
He gave me a look that was prompting me to make some kind of realisation that was quite out of reach at the moment. “Come on, Steph,” he said, sounding exasperated. “I know you just as well as you do. You can’t possibly tell me that this farce was your idea and expect me to believe you. Kit Danger has Tank and his sister written all over it. And being back here after all these years, when the last time you were amongst us you were secretly mourning the loss of a child? My emotions may be all over the place at the moment, but it’s nothing compared to how you must feel.”
“It’s my own fault,” I sighed, shaking my head. “I should have refused the moment Tank suggested it.”
Lester stared at me a moment, an odd expression on his face that I soon realised was him trying to work out what I meant when he asked, “By ‘it’ do you mean, coming home? Pretending to be someone you’re not? Or something else?”
“All of the above, I guess,” I said, spreading my hands wide to show that I was at a loss pinpointing exactly what part of Tank’s plan I should have refused and at what point. “But he only suggested the false identity to convince me that if I did come back I would get the job by my qualifications alone. He assured me that if I applied and was interviewed under a false name by men who didn’t know me I would know that I was worthy of the position.”
“Because you didn’t want us to just accept you back without question?” Lester suggested.
I nodded, but said nothing, sliding a cookie off the plate and fiddling with it absently between my fingers.
“So if the intention was just get the job by,” he paused, a slight smile gracing his lips and I knew he was about to tease me. “I was going to say ‘by honest means’ but posing as someone you’re not isn’t exactly honest, is it?” he asked
“No it’s not,” I admitted, a wave of guilt washing over me as part of my cookie crumbled to the table top.
“Anyway, what I’m asking is; what changed?”
“My interviewer,” I said, crumbling more cookie. “Ranger is hardly a stranger, after all.”
Realisation dawned on his face, halting his hand in the action of reaching for a cookie for himself. “You’re right,” he agreed. “So Ranger knows and put you up to seeing how long it would take the rest of us to recognise you?” he asked, amazement washing away the realisation of a moment before. “I should have known he was behind all this! He’s probably been laughing his guts up over this, hasn’t he?”
Shaking my head slowly and deliberately, as my eyes widened to what must have been dinner plate size, I watched the excitement on his face as he rambled. “Ranger doesn’t know,” I said softly when he paused, awaiting my reply.
“How?” he demanded, his disbelief clear as he leaned over the table toward me. The intensity of his eyes burned into me and I could almost imagine that he was about to start tearing into me again. It was the same intensity that had been radiating off him during each one of our gym sessions. I found myself unconsciously scooting back in my chair.
“I don’t know,” I told him honestly. “I expected him to call my bluff every time I blinked, moved, made even the slightest noise, let alone spoke. How could a man who was always telling me that I needed to be more aware of my surroundings not recognise his old girlfriend when she’s sitting five feet away?”
“Actually, the distance between Ranger’s chair and the nearest guest chair is six and a half feet,” Lester corrected, but I had a feeling it was a knee jerk reaction, because he was staring the cookie plate, not appearing to be seeing them at all. “Are you sure he doesn’t know?”
“He hasn’t said anything,” I said, at a loss. “Surely he would have if he knew, right?”
“So rather than Kit Danger being a temporary tool to get the job by your skills and qualifications instead of your connections, this has turned into a game to see how long it will take Ranger to figure it out?” Lester asked, finally snatching another chocolate biscuit from the plate and biting into it to punctuate his question. “Fascinating.” He sat back in his chair, his trademark grin bursting into view once more. “I can’t wait to rub this in his face,” he said gleefully,
I let him revel in the knowledge that he’d figured something out before his cousin for a change, sweeping up the cookie crumbs before me and pouring them into my mouth. When he finally returned his attention outward once more, I found the courage to ask, “Are we okay now? I really don’t like not being able to talk and laugh with you.”
“We’re okay,” Lester replied confidently. “I still have mixed feelings, but I’m working through them steadily. The news that I’m finally a step ahead is helping. But I’d still like to know about six years ago and how a miscarriage led to you running away without a trace.”
“It actually starts before the miscarriage,” I mentioned, pulling my feet up to sit cross legged on the kitchen chair and tucking my arms in close to create a kind of protective barrier between me and, well, I don’t know what, but it certainly helped in keeping me calm as I embarked on the story that lead to the night I left Trenton.