Chapter 19:

Into the Web I


November 17, 2022 AD. Sunview University, California, USA, Earth

Cam was walking home after class on a Thursday when his phone rang. He almost never got calls from anyone who wasn’t a scammer, so for a moment he thought about letting it go to voicemail and never listening to the message.

His ringtone was the opening theme to his favorite D&M podcast. While he likes the song, it was more annoying than he expected playing from a phone speaker on repeat. Giving up, he removed his phone from his pocket.

To his surprise, the call was from Annette. He answered immediately. “Hello?”

“Hey, Cam” Annette’s voice came through, sounding tired. “How are you.”

“I’m fine. Worried for finals. What’s up? It’s unusual for you to call.”

“I know. I just found out that I’m going to visit my Mom this weekend, so I can’t play D&M this weekend.”

“I hoped that we could do one more session. Thanksgiving is coming soon, and then finals after that. Dinah is stressed like you wouldn’t believe...”

“Look behind you.”

Cam had grown used Annette’s conversational quirks, so without questioning he looked behind him. He was only a little startled that Annette was only a few yards behind him. Today she was dressed in a casual denim skirt and t-shirt, and, as always, she liked gorgeous. She chuckled as they both hung up the phone, but it didn’t have her usual sense of enthusiasm. “You walk quietly,” Cam commented as he fell into step beside her.

“It’s a skill you pick up,” she replied. The two strolled in the direction of their shared dorm.

“Why do you have to visit your family this weekend? You can see your mom on Thanksgiving, right?”

“Believe me, this is not my idea. I already told her I can’t come for Thanksgiving because I’ll be studying, so she just picked another day.”

“Ah.” As the two walked on, Cam continued “judging by your tone of voice, you don’t want to visit home?”

“That’s an understatement. My mom and I don’t get along at all.”

“Then why go?”

“She says she wants to check up on me. Says it’s her ‘motherly duties’ or some crap like that.” Now muttering, she said “not like she cares how her lifestyle affects me.”

“So why not turn her down?” Cam pressed.

“She knows the Vice Dean here. When I told her I wasn’t coming, she threatened to get me kicked out.”

“What?! She can’t do that.”

Annette laughed mirthlessly. “Now do you get why I don’t like her?”

“I don’t blame you.” They had reached the dorm elevator. Cam pressed the button to summon the elevator.

The doors opened. Annette walked in first. Cam had never cared much about body language or anything like that, but his time with Annette, especially how she played Appraiser, had taught him a little. Now, as he scanned Annette, he realized something. Annette was vulnerable. Although she tried to hide it, the slump in her shoulders, the way she dragged her feet, and the almost imperceptible wrinkle in her eyes all pointed at her mood. She wholeheartedly did not want to visit her mother.

Annette turned around to look at him. “Are you coming?” she asked.

“Do you want me to go with you?” Cam blurted out.

“...into the elevator?”

“No.” He took a deep breath. “Annette, do you want me to come with you when you visit your mother?” She stared at him. The elevator doors began to close, but Annette blocked them with her foot. “As moral support. Or, to be a friendly face or something. Dinah is studying on her own and Ella has some kind of event, so I’m free, so I thought you might like the company or something,” he babbled on, trying to explain his reasoning. Idiot! he scolded himself. Why in the world would she want you? It’s not like you being there would actually make her happy. She barely tolerates you as it is. “Uh, it was just an idea. Never mind, you don’t have to—”

“Do you mean it?”

Cam was caught off-guard by how relieved she looked. He swallowed. “Yes.”

“Then, yes! As long as I don’t have to face her alone. Oh, but there’s one condition.”

“What is it?” Cam asked, stepping into the elevator and pressing the button for his level. The elevator groaned to life, beginning its very slow journey to the top of the dormitory.

“You have to pretend to be my boyfriend.”

“What?! Why?”

“Because my mom would never believe that I could just be friends with a guy. Also, your reactions are always so cute. This will be funnier.” Her eyes were sparkling with familiar mischief. She looked far happier.

“Yes, you do look better with a smile,” Can said judiciously, relieved to see her happy.

She looked surprised but pleased. “Well! I can see you’ve already begun practicing your compliments like a good boyfriend should.” The elevator finally stopped. The doors opened on Cam’s floor. Annette continued teasingly “are you busy tonight? I could hang at your place. We can practice more boyfriend-girlfriend things.”

“That personality of yours is pretty twisted, isn’t it,” Cam replied.

“Sure is. What do you say?”

“If you don’t mind Jordan, too.”

“Not at all.” The two exited the elevator and entered Cam’s dorm room. Jordan was inside, reading a book. He greeted Cam and Annette. Cam sat down at his desk, while Annette took her usual spot at the small table they used to play D&M.

Cam and Jordan studied, while Annette idly flipped through her phone. Presently, Cam left to use the suite’s bathroom at the end of the floor. On his way back, before he opened the door, Annette’s voice called through “Cam? Be a dear and go get us drinks, ok? I’ll get them next time, promise.”

He sighed. “Fine, just this once. What do you want?”

Annette wanted coke. Jordan asked for a sports drink. Fortunately, the dormitory had a vending machine on the bottom floor. He waited patiently in the glacially slow elevator, got the drinks, and waited impatiently on the ride back. He was muttering to himself “they must have engineered that elevator to move as slowly as possible” when he heard Annette’s voice coming from inside his room. Normally, he would have paid it no mind, but there was something in her tone of voice that made him pause. She sounded like when she had told him about her mother. Assuring himself there was nothing wrong with eavesdropping on your own room, he waited outside the door to listen.

“...I’m so glad we met, Jordan,” Annette’s voice passed through the thin door. “In a way, you saved me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jordan said, his voice muffled.

“That’s all right. As long as I can be here with you.” At that point, Cam burst through the door. He saw Annette sitting very close to Jordan. Her eyes were closed and her hand rested very close to his. When Cam opened the door, she casually stood up. Before he could say anything, she said “thanks, my lovely ‘boyfriend.’” She smiled at Cam. As she took the can, her hand barely brushed his. “You’re getting good at this.”

Cam had not expected that, of all things, as Annette’s response to him walking in on her flirting with Jordan. The only thing he could think to say was “sure.” As he sat back down with his drink he once more glanced at Annette. She was again browsing her phone like nothing had happened. He couldn’t read her expression at all. He decided to go back to studying.

After a little while, an alarm buzzed on Annette’s phone. “I should get going,” she said. “I’m going to grab dinner at the cafeteria. Either of you guys want to come?”

Jordan said “I’ve got stuff here.” Cam agreed with him. It wasn’t even a lie.

Anette looked surprised. “Oh, ok. I’ll see you guys later, then. Cam, I’ll pick you up tomorrow evening.”

“Right, yes, the thing. Sounds good. See you then.”

“Bye!” She left.

As soon as she left, Jordan heaved a sigh. “I’m glad my girlfriend didn’t see that.”

Friday came. Cam packed enough clothes for three days. He also brought some books and study materials as well as his laptop. Around 6 o’clock Annette appeared at his door. “Shall we?” she said.

Annette’s car was a very expensive van. As she pulled out of the school’s parking lot, she asked if Cam had eaten dinner. He hadn’t. “Me neither. I thought we could grab something at Half-Plate Burgers.”

“Sounds good.”

The burger place was, predictably, packed at this time. As the two of them ordered, the gangly guy with glasses who was hunched over to operate the cash register said their food would probably take at least 40 minutes. “A really big order came in just ahead of you guys,” he explained, rapidly tapping the electronic cash register, wincing slightly every time his fingers touched the screen.

Cam said to Annette “c’mon, let’s forget it. We can eat somewhere else.”

“Don’t worry, I got this,” she whispered back. She turned back to the cashier with a smile. “Are you sure there’s nothing you can do?” she purred. She casually placed her hand on the countertop so it was close to touching the cashier’s. At the same time, she leaned forward, giving him an eyeful of the top of her chest. “I would really appreciate it. You go to Sunview, right? Computer science major?” The cashier said that he was. “I love computers. Maybe we could get together sometime to talk?”

“Um, sure, yeah. That might be fun,” the computer science cashier said with a stupid grin on his face.

“But we’re really in a rush today,” she said significantly.

“I guess I can try to hurry your burgers.”

“Yay! You’re the best, Quentin!”

Annette and Cam paid for their food. Quentin the burger cashier grabbed a pair of hamburgers straight from the counter, much to the displeasure of the person who was about to collect them. He handed the food to Cam and Annette. She thanked him before taking the food back to the car.

They ate and drove in silence for a little while. As soon as they were finished, Cam asked “I have to ask. Do you not feel uncomfortable, acting like that?”

“Acting like what?”

“Like how you got that burger guy to give you food faster.”

“Eh, he said the one before us was a big order. They were going to take a long time anyway.”

“That’s not what I meant. I meant how, you know, you did the thing with him.”

She laughed. “Cam, if we are pretending to be a couple, you’ll have to communicate better than that. If you don’t, I might have to pretend break up with you. That would make us both very pretend sad. What are you really trying to say?”

“How, well, you, you know,” he hesitated. It was embarrassing to try to say it out loud. He decided to change the subject. “Ok, so off topic, but I’ll be your detective’s assistant again. How did you know he was a computer science major at our school?”

“I’m so glad you asked, my dear Watson,” she said in her fake British accent. “The Sunview part is easy. He’s our age, i.e., in college. Sunview is the only college anywhere near here.”

“Ok, that makes sense. But computer science?”

She spoke rapidly. “The way he moved his fingers showed they were sore, probably from overuse. He also was hunched over in a way that only people who sit in front of a computer all day do. Also, those glasses are the kind that reduce eye strain when working in front of screens for a long time. So he probably does something sitting down in front of a computer a lot.

Next, notice how quickly and intuitively he used the cash register computer. He hasn’t been working there long; he wasn’t wearing his uniform right and it took him a minute to remember where to get the bags. So he isn’t fast on the register from experience. That told me he was really used to computers. Put it all together with the fact Sunview has a big computer course and you get computer science major. Just a guess, but an educated one.”

“And his name? Did you deduce that from how many hairs were uncombed or something?”

She laughed. “Don’t be silly. The register displays the user’s name. I saw it when I leaned over to show him my tits.”

That last sentence made Cam blush, although since he was looking out the window he hoped Annette didn’t notice.

Annette was in high spirits for much of the hour-long car ride, although as she pulled off the freeway, she became less talkative. It was only a short distance to a slightly run-down suburban neighborhood. Annette parked the car in front of a yard with dead grass. She wordless got out of the car. Taking that as a signal, Cam hurried after her. Annette had a long stride, however. Before he could catch up, she had already slammed open the door. “I’m home,” she growled.