The Present (Two years since Aqueela has been gone)
"Hello, Benjy!" The chipper voice echoes into the phone. "Are we still on for tomorrow night? Your father and your sisters are expecting you to actually show up this time!"
"Can you not shout, Ma?!" I respond in exasperation.
"Can you not shout back, Benjy?!" She only shouts louder, in turn.
I sigh, cringing at the nickname. "If I ever go deaf, it's on you."
"Don't give me cheek. Just be there for once." She reprimands, using her sharp tone of voice on me. "And bring that girlfriend you always go on about, the one that apparently always takes you away from attending family events."
"My girlfriend?" I ask, rubbing at my temples in exhaustion.
This woman is giving me a migraine. This is exactly why I moved out at seventeen. Living with four women is emotionally draining. I had to leave.
"Yes," she exclaims in irritation, "the one you always use as an excuse to not visit us," she reminds me.
It's getting difficult keeping track of all the excuses I've used. I love my family but they tend to be overwhelming. My sisters are way too invested in my social life and my parents are always pushing me in my studies.
"Right, right," I yawn, running a hand through my hair, "got it, Ma. Love you. Can I go now? Can I be released from this phone call from hell?"
"Why do you sound so tired?" She muses, being the paranoid, interrogating mother that she is. "Where are you right now, Ben?"
She pauses, suspicious, before taking her chances in asking me the inevitable. "You're not out drinking again, are you?"
"No, Ma," I reassure her, "I'm not. I'm at home studying. Those days are behind me."
"Don't lie to me, Benley. I can practically smell the alcohol through the phone cord!" She raises her voice, playing the motherly card on me in the hopes of sending me on a guilt trip.
"What does that even mean?" I roll my eyes in impatience, expressing my confusion. "I really am at home, Ma."
"Or you're with Bex clubbing?" She states more than questions, sure of her theory.
I flinch at the name. "That was years ago, Mom. You know how I feel about her, it, that thing, whatever-you-want-to-call-her, now. She's a soul-sucking demon-"
"A bloodthirsty witch, yadda yadda ya," my mother cuts me off with a lighthearted laugh. "I've heard all the complaints, my boy, one too many times."
"Do you want to hear more? I've got more," I reply, swallowing a grin as I anticipate her predictable response.
"Okay, Ben, so long as you're not out drinking. Can't chat, see you tomorrow, bye now," she answers all too quickly before hanging up.
Works every time. She's so obvious.
I smirk, turning back to the wild, expectant crowds at hand as I put my phone away. "Let's get this party started again!"
I grin in satisfaction, elated when they all cheer my name in unison. I can't believe I got them to be quiet for so long.
"A girlfriend?" Greg Warner raises an eyebrow at me, an amused smile on his face. "Since when? Every time you come here to the bar, you have a new girl on your arm."
I shrug before carelessly downing another shot. "It's a good life."
"For now," he corrects me. "I used to be a lot like you when I was younger." He narrows his gaze in warning. "Take my advice and slow down or you'll miss it all."
"You're not that much older than me, Greg," I tell him cockily, taking a short break from being DJ as someone else takes over. "Besides, I can handle my alcohol."
"You're twenty-one. I'm twenty-nine. I'd say I have learned a lot more lessons than you have, trust me," he warns, pouring himself a glass of water. "This person you're being right now is not you. You're avoiding something and this," he gestures around, reading me, "is your outlet."
"I don't get how Jay put up with you." I joke.
Greg chuckles, taking no offense. "I think it's the other way 'round. He's as stubborn as sin, more so than you."
"Now that I can believe." I smile wistfully, recalling all the good times. "But what I can't believe is that he's really gone."
"Yeah," Greg nods, agreeing, "I'm already missing his presence around here."
"You think he'll ever come back?" I ask for the sake of conversation.
"I hope so," he eventually replies, taking a sip of his water. "I'd like to see where my prodigy ends up in life."
"You think you can take me under your wing next?" I remark, messing around.
"Nah," Greg laughs it off, his mannerisms similar to that of Jay's, "you're a lost cause. There's no saving you, MacAllister."
"Bummer," I chuckle, feigning disappointment, before getting up from the bar chair. "I think I'll hit the dance floor again. This place is packing."
"Don't come crying to me when you suffer a major hangover tomorrow morning," he says quietly.
I hesitate, weighing the pros and cons out in my head, but end up getting distracted.
"Benley!" One of the blondes I've been hanging around with calls out to me, beckoning me to join her as she moves her hips to the rhythm of the music.
I turn back around to face Greg. "Thanks for the shots but my name has been called. I'm officially being summoned." I tap the bar counter twice before walking away.
"Aqueela would be disappointed in you," he calls after me in the hopes of stopping me.
It doesn't stop me.
The fact of the matter is, I'm disappointed in her too -- something I plan on working through one of these days. Nonetheless, two years have come and gone. I can guess where her current headspace is. She's not coming back.
"Hey," I greet the pretty blonde, having already forgotten her name.
"You good, party animal?" She asks flirtatiously, flipping her long blonde hair over her shoulder, revealing the top of her skintight dress.
I nod, taking the opportunities as they come.
I'll worry about the destructive path I'm headed down another time. Tonight I'm not thinking about my studies, the dinner with my parents, my supposed girlfriend or Greg's warnings on my apparent obsession with partying and alcohol.
Tonight, I de-stress.
"You finally heading out?" I vaguely hear Greg ask me, the light beginning to stream in through the windows.
I nod, focusing on maintaining my balance.
"You look terrible," he says bluntly, noting my silence. "Do you need a ride home or something?"
I shake my head, merely adding to the pounding pain. If I open my mouth and speak I might just throw up everywhere.
He shrugs, letting it go. "Alright then."
There's only one person that he'll go out of his way for and I'm not him.
I weakly push open the doors before stumbling out of the bar, only to be met by the punishing rays of the sun.
"Watch it!" A passing stranger, a businessman, snaps at me when I happen to fall in his path. He shoves me out of his way, clearly off to a meeting of some sort.
Greg was right. I'm regretting my choices. I'm wasting away here. What am I doing with my life? Because right now my studies are taking a backseat.
"Sorry," I mumble in a slur, trying to make it back to my car without collapsing.
I fish out my keys when I reach the car. I get them out of my pocket before fumbling with the carlock, my hands still shaking. Out of it, I give in and simply rest my head atop my car instead.
"If you haven't seen better days then I worry for mankind," an unfamiliar voice says from very close beside me.
I jolt up, turning to see a raven-haired girl staring up at me with concern budding behind her blue eyes.
I groan aloud at being caught looking like this by a beautiful girl.
"Would you believe me if I said that I actually have had better days?" I ask sheepishly.
She takes a second to think about it, her gaze fixated on me before she quickly shakes her head. "No. Probably not."
"Didn't think so."
She instantly smiles, gently tugging the keys from my grasp. "Are you really going to try and drive home in the state you're in?"
When I don't answer immediately, she quirks an eyebrow at me as if to say 'just try me'.
"I'm in a good looking state, and who said that I'm driving home?" I ask her, aware of how attractive she is. Still, I need my sleep. "Don't make assumptions."
"So, where are you driving to then?" She asks, curious. "Maybe I can help you out and drive you there." She offers, a kind spirited smile on her face.
"Sure," I agree, "just give me the directions to your house and we can be on our way."
"Oooh," she laughs -- angelic noise to sober me up, "who's making assumptions now?"
"Hey," I point out the facts, "you're the one who approached me."
"Out of sympathy."
"Still counts in my books," I reply, winking at her.
"Are you seriously trying to pick me up when I'm literally here to pick you up?" She questions, an amused sparkle flickering across her sea blue eyes. "I mean, you're literally supporting yourself against your car. You can't even stand on your own and you think I don't notice."
I let go of the roof to cross my arms over my chest in a futile act to save my pride and dignity. "What's your point?"
I manage to lose my footing with the new action and end up slipping. Fortunately, she's there to catch me, allowing me to lean my weight on her.
"My point being," she emphasizes, helping me upright, "other than you literally just falling for me, you're either going to kill yourself on the road or someone else. I'd hate for it to be either."
"You smell good."
I hear the sound of her melodic laughter again before blacking out.
"Hey, wake up."
I stir when I hear a clicking sound. I open my eyes to find the mystery girl snapping her fingers in my face. It then only registers that I'm in the passenger seat and that she's currently driving my car.
My eyes widen in shock when she accidentally skips a red light. "What the hell is going on?" I ask in a panic, glancing down at the seat belt and then at her in bewilderment.
"Um...I'm driving," she states blandly. "Are you blind?"
"Are you kidnapping me?" I ask, frantic.
"Don't flatter yourself." She rolls her eyes, a grin playing at the corners of her lips. "I'm taking you to Max."
I furrow my eyebrows in confusion. "How do you know who Max is?"
"Oh," she laughs lightly, waving the matter off, "we go way back, Max and I."
"Really?" I question, now interested in hearing the back story. What a small world.
"Yeah, spoke to him for the first time about an hour ago." She holds up my phone to my face. "Duh," she says as if it should have occurred to me that she went through my cell phone contacts after first stealing my phone.
"Give me that!" I snatch it back from her. "Do you even know how to drive?" I ask when she swerves into another lane without using her indicators.
She shrugs. "Sorta."
"Oh my word," I drop my head in my hands, "I'm going to die."
How does she even get by?
"Maybe some music will help with your obvious hangover," she suggests casually as if this kind of thing is the norm for her, as if helping out a drunk stranger happens to her on a daily basis.
I watch her in astonishment when she reaches over and turns up the radio, nodding her head to the beat of the awful song playing.
I cover my ears, the sound sending me into another ear-splitting frenzy. "What crap is this? I'm dying!"
"Uh," she glances over to look at me as if I should know, "only the best band in the whole entire world. How have you not heard of them before?"
I stop to listen to the terrible yet vaguely familiar lyrics. The guy rapping is the worst of the lot.
'Yo, taking up residence in the tree house of my best friend,
O-Dawg and I, the mega-tight end.
They ain't never seen a pro gangster with his posse,
you're my home, doggy.
We be looking so fine,
Jammie has them girls waiting in line.
My girl, FeeBee, a catch,
none to match.
White Boy and B-Dawg wish,
too bad they'll be washing my dish.
Them other suckers be trippin',
yet on royalty we be sippin'.′
I cringe as it dawns on me:
The Dung Beetles.
"I'm literally listening to my enemy singing on the radio about me," I mutter to myself, just loud enough for the girl to hear. "What has become of my life?"
Then, unfortunately, Oog starts the chorus at the top of his high-pitched, annoying voice:
'Oooh Jaqueela, you're breaking my heart, you're shaking Oog's confidence baby!'
I raise my eyebrows after listening for a few more moments. "Of course they'd steal another song's lyrics and miraculously get away with it."
The unnamed girl driving me to who-knows-where frowns as if offended. "It's an original, a true classic. Watch what you say about my favorite band."
I slap my forehead in despair. "Of all the people I could've met, I just had to meet another crazy one."
She reminds me of Aqueela. That shouldn't be a good thing but I somehow can't stop smiling when in her presence. There's just something invigorating about her genuine, jovial aura.
"Who are you?" I eventually ask, my intrigue spiked.
"Just another girl trying to get out of this life alive."
As if that's possible.
I scoff in disbelief. I always attract the stupid ones.
"You know," I pause flatly, "I think you'd get along really well with this girl I once knew."
I sigh in dismay when we pull up to the Bensten's house. Bells, as expected, is there waiting for me. She has her hands on her hips, tapping her foot away in impatience.
I'm going to get another one of her infamous lectures about taking care of myself. She and Greg work together on that one.
"AJ!" Max greets as soon as we step out of the car. He embraces her tightly as if truly close to her. "Nice to see you for the first time since ever!"
She giggles in joy. "Yeah, and you!"
I glance between the two in speculation. "Didn't you just meet over the phone like a couple minutes ago?"
Max nods, a nostalgic expression on his face. "Yeah, good times."
"It feels like forever ago," AJ admits, matching his carefree smile.
I shake my head and glance at Bell for help. "Please tell me that you find this insane too. I can't be the only one."
"Ouch, Bell!" I wince, touching the back of my head where she just hit me. "What was that for?"
I already know.
"Drinking again, Ben?!" She shouts in disapproval. "C'mon! You're better than this!"
"You're worse than my mother," I grumble in pain, refusing to meet her angered gaze. "Speaking of which, I need you to pretend to be my girlfriend tomorrow night."
I flinch beforehand, expecting another hit or punch to the face. Thankfully, she's just sending me her usual warped glare of fury.
"Oooh me! Me! Pick me! Pick me!" AJ suddenly says upon eavesdropping on my conversation. "Me! Me!" She insists, waving her hands back and forth in front of my face, wanting my full attention.
"You want to be my girlfriend?" I ask her just as Bell asks the same thing.
AJ nods absentmindedly at us.
Bell scrunches up her face in repulse. "But...why?"
It's my turn to glare at her. What is that supposed to imply?
"'Cause we're dating now," AJ answers Bell, catching me off guard with her bizarre explanation.
"Congratz, I knew you two lovebirds would get together," Max replies, not seeing the crazy in any of this. He's become so accustomed to it all. He's immune.
Bella looks to me for an explanation. All I can do is shrug, just as lost as her.
"I honestly don't know what the hell is happening right now," I confess truthfully to Bell before glancing back at AJ, "but sure, yeah whatever, you can be her," I easily agree, in desperate need of someone to fool my family.
"Trust me, AJ, relationships suck," Bell tells her before glaring at Max for the third time since we've arrived.
I guess they're still having problems then...
"You suck," Max responds jokingly, not taking her seriously, hence 90% of their issues.
"But Ben and I just click, you know?" AJ tells them, running her fingers through her long, dark hair. "We're going to be together for a long time. I know it."
I roll my eyes and shake my head at Bells when she looks to me for answers -- I wish I had them myself!
A day later
"For the hundredth time, AJ," I repeat, pinching the bridge of my nose in frustration as I wait on her, "the dress doesn't make you look too skinny."
If anything, the dress looks perfect on her. She could wear a paper bag and she'd still look gorgeous.
"I feel like you're lying to me, Ben," she says, twirling around for the seventh time just because she finds it entertaining. "You know how I feel about liars."
"Not really," I reply, "seeing as I don't know you," I remind her, "like at all."
How did I manage to get myself in this position? I remember asking myself the very same question three years ago when Aqueela forced me into helping kidnap her best friend after only a day of knowing me.
Jay, my boy, I get you now. I understand your suffering now. Respect.
"Alrighty!" AJ claps her hands in enthusiasm. "Let's go before you change your mind!"
"Yeah," I admit, showing her the tiny space between my thumb and index finger, "I'm this close."
I have no idea why I haven't yet.
She ignores me and takes me by the hand, pulling me after her. "Okay, so... am I driving your car or are you driving my car?"
"Oh," I chortle in dismay, "my parents are just gonna love you."
"Stop glowering, Benjy," my mother snaps quietly at me upon spotting the glare I'm directing toward my sisters.
I ignore her.
"Ben!" She whispers and nudges me, failing to be discreet. "Don't embarrass me in front of your girlfriend."
"It's their fault!" I whisper-shout back, pointing to my three younger sisters who are busy insulting me and interrogating AJ all at the same time. "This isn't appropriate conversation for the table."
"Now that's how babies are made, any more questions?" AJ asks, glancing around at them with expectation, holding her own well, prepared to tackle anything that may come her way.
My pesky sisters don't hesitate to fire more shots at her:
"How long have you known Benley?"
"What do you see in him?"
"Are you going to get married?"
I shake my head in irritation.
"Dad," I turn to face him, "this is not on. You said you'd tell them to behave this time."
The amount of girls they've chased away...
"Here's a question for you, Son," he starts, "why do you care so much? Why do you care about her first impression on us anyway? I know she's your girlfriend and all, but you never once cared what Bex thought about us."
I fall silent under his unwavering stare, simply because I don't actually have a valid answer.
"It feels like I've known him all my life. I see everything in him. Yes, we probably are going to get married," I hear AJ answer all three questions in one breath, certain and confident of herself.
I end up choking on my food at hearing the last one.
This woman is absolutely out of her mind.
"When are you going to pop the question already, Benjy?" My mother asks loudly, capturing the attention of everyone at the table before whispering softly to me. "I like her."
"Excuse me," I stand up from the table abruptly and motion for AJ to follow. "I just need to speak with my girl for a sec'," I say, practically dragging AJ off of the chair after me while my sisters continue to gossip about me like I'm not in earshot.
"Oooh, does that mean you're popping the question now?!" Sash calls after us, not lifting her eyes from my phone as she continues to scroll through all of my personal messages.
"Probably!" AJ answers her all too happily, my sisters squealing in delight in turn.
AJ's really raising the bar here. I have always kept it low so that I don't have to meet the expectations of my family, especially my parents. She's ruining everything.
"Stop it, AJ!" I raise my voice, yanking her around the corner so that we can speak in private. "What are you doing? Since when are we getting married? I barely know you. I don't know you!"
"Jeez, relax," she soothes, undoing my loose grip on her, "I didn't say that our inevitable marriage will be anytime soon."
"You don't actually believe that, do you?" I question, now unsure. She's literally crazy.
"Well," she drawls out slowly, "we'll see."
"I'm going to be single for the rest of my life, AJ. I've accepted it. I'm swearing off all relationships. My last one didn't go down well. We parted on very bad terms," I explain, hoping to knock some sense into her.
"I knew you had a past the minute I saw you," she says, her blue eyes brightening in acknowledgment. "I was going to walk past you, you know, but at the last second, I decided to stop. I call it fate."
"Why?" I ask hesitantly, only now seeing the serious side to her. At least she can be sane at times, when it counts the most in any case. "Why stop?"
"I felt drawn to you," she confesses, breaking eye contact as if shy all of a sudden. "Admit it, Benjy, we have a connection."
"Whatever this is," I gesture between us, "I'm pretty sure it's completely one-sided."
I've never experienced so many random occurrences in my entire life. Okay, that might be a lie considering the life I tend to lead.
"Fine," she accepts my opinion on the matter without protest. "After this dinner, we can go our separate ways. I have to go back to New York in any case."
"New York?" I find myself asking on impulse.
"I live there," she clarifies. "I'm only in Minnesota for the next few days. My work requires a lot of travel."
I process her words, my mood deflating instantaneously.
"I just wanted to stay around long enough to see your apparent 'better days'," she smiles up at me in warmth. "I guess those 'better days' don't exist after all."
I don't say anything.
Her expression drops. "Why are you looking at me like that? Why the frown in place? Shouldn't you be happy that I'm leaving your life?"
"I don't know," I tell her, finally being honest with myself. Truth be told, I didn't even know that I was frowning.
"Face it, Benley," she laughs in good nature, my pulse racing at the riveting sound, "you sorta like me, don't ya?"
I narrow my eyes at her in warning. I don't want to be put through this again.
"You're just in denial." She grins knowingly, wagging her eyebrows at me teasingly.
I lick my lips and shrug. "You're right. I haven't seen my 'better days' for a while now, but having met you, just yesterday, I'm starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel."
"Is this part where you tell me that I am your better days?" She asks, biting her bottom lip before sending me a flirtatious wink, merely messing with me.
A smile tugs at my lips as I take a step forward and wrap an arm around her waist, taking my chances in tugging her toward me.
"How about you let me take you out on a real date, AJ?" I demand softly not exactly sure of what I'm doing. It just feels right.
Before she can answer, I hear Lea shout out to me from the living room, not allowing me a moment's peace:
"Ben, in this 2013 picture you're still so thin. It's unbelievable! You were so shredded! Now you're so fat! What happened?"
"The iceberg happened and the Titanic sank in junk food." Laura mocks. "Our bro needs to hit the gym again or he's gonna end up having a beer belly like last year."
"Don't get me started on the 2014 pics," Sash adds input, making my humiliation a billion times worse.
I feel the heat rise to my cheeks as I duck my head from AJ, embarrassed.
Family relations are the relationships that really suck.
I feel her soft hands on my face before I feel her lips on mine for a brief second. She pulls away with a happy-go-lucky smile as if she didn't just do that.
I stare down at her in confusion, puzzled.
"You lose that extra weight and we can talk more about that date." She jokes, patting me on the stomach before reaching up to peck my cheek.
There's no saving face now.
"Don't get influenced by them," I advise.
"Too late," she taunts, "I already love all of them."
I chuckle in realization. "You'll fit in nicely with my friends."
She's only met Max and Bell. If she's taking me on, then she has no idea what's all installed for her.
"You have friends?" She teases, playful and upbeat as she approaches me daringly for a second time.
I whistle and shake my head. "Don't even get me started."
"Woman, you have not the faintest clue."