November 19, 2022 AD. Webber Household, California, USA, Earth
As Cam hurried to follow Annette into her house, carrying his backpack with a change of clothes, he ran face-first into a person. “Sorry Ann—” he began, but as he looked up, he realized the woman before him was not Annette. This woman looked very similar to the girl Cam knew, with the same eyes and hair, although she was much older. Clearly, this was Annette’s mother. Her age did nothing to diminish the beauty she shared with her daughter, however. If anything, it refined it, adding a maturity that suited her to perfection. Cam couldn’t help staring as he said “I’m sorry Mrs. Webber!” Webber was Annette’s last name.
“Please, call me Valentine. ‘Mrs. Webber’ is for men I don’t like,” she purred in a tone that also greatly reminded him of Annette.
“Ah...” he said, vaguely. What was she wearing? Although it looked normal at first, on closer inspection it revealed far more than normal clothes should in all sorts of interesting places...
Valentine chuckled. “I can see you’re uncomfortable. Maybe we can do something to ease that?” She moved closer to Cam.
Someone tugged on Cam’s shoulder, pulling him back. Annette. She said to Valentine “Come on, Mom. Back off.”
“Hello, daughter,” she said, turning to Annette. “So who is this fine young man?”
“This is Cam. My boyfriend.”
“He’s your latest, then? Lowering your standards, I see.” Now Valentine was acting like Cam wasn’t there.
“‘Standards?’ Coming from you? Now that’s rich. I would appreciate it if you stayed out of my business, thanks. I’ll hang out with whatever guy I like.”
Cam could practically feel the air crackling with tension as the mother and daughter stared at each other. He was on the verge of retreating back to the car when a loud man’s voice echoed through the house. “V! What the hell’s taking so long!” it said.
Valentine called out “yes dear, I’m coming.” She said to Annette “we’ll talk later” and turned to leave. As she walked through a door on the right, she looked back and gave one long look at Cam. She seemed to examine every part of him, like she could read his mind and was disgusted with what she saw. The glance only lasted a moment before she closed the door.
Annette heaved a sigh of relief. “Yep, that’s my mom. Yes, she’s always like that.”
“Was that guy your father?” Cam asked.
“God no. That’s Gabe, my mom’s latest boyfriend. He’s the 216th one since I started keeping count.” Cam wondered if she was joking. Annette grabbed his bag which he had set down. “Come on, let’s get to the room.” With her usual teasing grin on her face, she walked down the hall to the left. Despite her looking normal, Cam noticed there was a certain heaviness to her walk. He didn’t think he was good at reading people, but he got the impression that she was forcing herself to act normal.
She led him into a small, sparsely decorated bedroom. There was a bed, a dresser, a bare desk with a simple chair, and very little else. Everything was well kept and clean, but the room felt dead, like a display room that had no real inhabitant. Annette waited for him to enter, set down Cam’s bag, shut the door, and spread her arms. “My crib.”
“Cool. Is there a guest room I can sleep in or something?”
“Nope.” Annette wore her usual mischievous expression. However, there seemed to be something more serious about it.
“Oh. Then the couch?”
“Another nope, unless you want to sleep on Gabe’s beer puddle.” Clearly noticing Cam’s confusion, her grin grew wider. “You can sleep in my room. Unless that’s a problem?”
“No, I guess not…”
“Great! So now the only question is who gets the bed?”
“I wouldn’t want to do that to you, I can sleep on the floor—”
It was like she hadn’t even heard him. “I know! Let’s play rock-paper-scissors. Winner gets the comfy bed, loser sleeps on the floor. Ready?”
“Annette, I don’t—”
“Rock, paper, scissors, shoot!” Flustered, Cam threw rock. Annette had also thrown rock. “A tie. Looks like we’ll have to share the bed, right?” she said. Despite himself, Cam’s face turned red. Annette continued “I’m only teasing. For now.” The ‘for now’ echoed in his mind, leaving open a whole host of possibilities that Cam had to fight to ignore. She sat back, digging her laptop out of her bag. “It’s still pretty early. Want to watch a movie before bed?”
“Yes,” he said, relieved for the distraction. She set up her laptop on the desk so that the screen was facing the bed. She pulled up The Fellowship of the Ring and patted the spot on the bed next to her, inviting Cam to join her. Still flustered, he sat on the bed, leaving a three-foot gap between the two of them. As the movie began, Annette scooched closer to him. He scooched away. This process repeated multiple times until Cam was hanging off the edge of the bed with Annette right beside him. Her proximity made his heart race. I can smell her, he realized. Is that weird? It’s weird.
They sat in this state of limbo for the first 30 minutes of the movie before Annette reached over to pause the movie and stood up. Cam was glad for the reprieve, but the relief quickly disappeared when Annette began casually pulling off her shirt. With a noise like a squished mouse Cam quickly covered his eyes with his hands, ignoring the urge to peek through his fingers. “What are you doing?” he squeaked.
“Just getting ready for bed.” He could hear her moving about and opening the dresser.
“Don’t take off your clothes” he squeaked again.
“How else am I supposed to change? Don’t be bashful. This is my room.”
“That’s why I’m bashful! What if I hadn’t closed my eyes?”
“What if you hadn’t indeed.” He felt her sit down on the bed. “You can open your eyes again.”
Cam did so. He was greeted by the sight of Annette sitting next to him in black lacy underwear. Technically, it covered everything important. He yelped and looked away again, although a strong part of him would have preferred to keep looking.
Annette said “You need to get over this shyness. We’re sharing a bed tonight, remember? Rock-paper-scissors?” She didn’t sound like her normal joking, teasing self. There was something deeper and more serious about her tone that faintly reminded him of something, although he was far too distracted by her to pay attention to it. “Cam. Look at me.” She put one hand on his thigh and used the other to turn his head gently but firmly toward her. “I wouldn’t mind,” she said softly as she looked into his eyes. “Being with you tonight.”
A million things ran through Cam’s mind. Ever since he had first met her, Cam had been struck by her beauty. He had denied it to Ella and Dinah previously, but in truth, he did have a small crush on her. He had always known she was far out of his league in every way imaginable, So an opportunity like this had a part of him screaming yes yes yes! inside of him.
But undercutting that was a current of feeling something off about the whole situation. As he and Annette continued to lock eyes, and as he struggled to keep his eyes from wandering downward, images ran through his mind. Annette casually flirting with Jordan when Cam was away but smoothly switching back to Cam the moment he walked in the door. Annette using her appearance to hurry their food earlier, and when questioned, barely seeming to notice that she had done anything unusual. It’s not that I’m special, he realized. That’s just how she always acts.
In this flash of insight, he made his decision. I don’t want this. Not like this, not if I don’t understand why. In a flash, he bolted up. Annette looked more shocked than he had ever seen her. He rushed across the room, slamming the door behind him. He sat down with his back against the door, breathing heavily as he tried to calm himself.
He didn’t know how long he sat there, staring at the white plaster across the hallway. After some time, Annette on the inside tried to open the door, but since it opened outwards, he blocked it by sitting in its path. He then heard the sound of a body on the other side of the door sitting down. From the sound of it, Annette had mimicked his posture on the other side: sitting with her back to the door. They sat there in silence together for several more minutes before Cam finally spoke. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“K,” came the voice through the door muffled. After another stretch of silence, Annette said “I should apologize too.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I was so sure you were attracted to me. I guess I’m sorry for assuming that.”
“You aren’t wrong. I was attracted to you.” After a pause, he said “still am.” He was glad for the door preventing her from seeing his burning face.
“Really. Then was my read on you that wrong? I was sure you’d prefer a pushier girl who would make the first move.”
His breath caught. That wasn’t just something you just said out loud, but now that she had do so that explicitly… “Yeah, I guess I do,” he admitted. In any other circumstance, he wouldn’t dream of being this forthright, but this moment demanded total honesty. “How did you know that?” he asked, trying to distract himself as much as anything.
“You know I’m really, really good at reading a situation or a person from little clues. Especially so if it’s a guy. I get it from my mother. That meant that from the moment we first met, I could tell. Your clothes, your posture, how you looked at me and the others—they were all clues. When I put them together, they all say you are the kind of guy that needs some teasing to pull you in, followed by a push to get over the finish line.”
“So for Jordan on that day…”
“Oh, you heard that? Yeah, Jordan’s a nice guy. He wants to feel like he’s helped a girl out. Obviously, I didn’t have as much time with him as I did with you, so I had to move too fast.”
The conversation lapsed into silence again. Presently, Cam asked “then why try to…try to seduce me tonight? Do you,” he licked his lips, “actually like me?”
She laughed a little bit. “What does that matter?”
“It matters a lot.”
“Do I have to answer that?”
“Fine. Then to answer your question, no. I have never ‘liked’ someone like that. Happy?”
She sounded almost angry as she answered. “Sleep with every guy who wants to and make every guy want to. That’s how a girl like me has to make her way in the world. That’s the only way I could have survived at my high school. It wasn’t a great place, but at least it taught me how to deal with boys.”
“Is that what you really want?”
“Doesn’t matter. Turns out, once you get the reputation as the school slut, there’s no going back. All the girls hated me for stealing their boyfriends, and you can guess the only thing the guys liked me for. So I kept at it.” After a pause, she added “you would have been my 42nd.”
“But you don’t have to act like that anymore if you don’t want to,” Cam said earnestly.
“What else can I do? You saw what my mom’s like; it’s in my blood. Like I said, you can’t go back.” She laughed bitterly again. “Guess I blew my shot with you. You probably hate me now, huh? That’s ok. I’ll still sleep with you if you want. Wouldn’t be the first time I was with someone who doesn’t like me.”
Cam closed his eyes. This was too much to process. What could he do for her? Cam had no answers; he was hopeless with deep stuff like this. What about…what about Cyton? How would Cyton go about solving a difficult challenge?
Not very well. On his own, he wasn’t much good at anything. But of course, Cyton would never have to be alone. He was always with the rest of the group. Of course, Cam realized. The answer was there all along. Trite, almost cliched, that it was in the thing that had brought them together in the first place. “You already are different from back then,” he said. “That is, when you’re around your friends.”
“Didn’t you listen? The way I am, I don’t have friends.”
“What about D&M? What about Bekah, and Dinah, and Ella? What would you call them?”
“But I—in high school—”
“Nobody cares about that now!” Cam said, now nearly shouting. “They like the funny, sassy, cute, sarcastic, and stylish Annette, ok? They. Are. Your. Friends. So don’t give me this crap about being some kind of tragic heroine who nobody likes. That’s demonstrably wrong. Got it?”
“And what about you?”
“I—” Why was it so hard to say? He felt something catch in his throat, in that if he said the words, he’d be shutting himself off from something possible in the future. He stuffed away that impulse. “Obviously, I’m your friend too.” It was true. That’s all they were.
The following silence lasted a long, long time. Cam was certain that he had ruined any possibility of fixing their relationship. He was about to start apologizing when on the other side of the door, Annette chuckled. “The power of friendship, huh? Could this get any more cliched?” She sounded like her usual self again.
Cam breathed a sigh of relief at the improvement. “I guess not. It’s still my first time.” After a little while longer, he said “I’m coming in now.” He opened the door to behold Annette standing just in front of the doorway, still in her black lacy underwear. “Please put some clothes on,” he said.
She laughed, striking a pose. “Aw, come on. Friends can still give each other fanservice once and while, right?” Her voice had the same teasing edge that it usually carried. Cam had never been so happy to hear it. She stuck out her right hand. After a moment of puzzlement, Cam returned the handshake. “Just friends,” she said. “Maybe something more sometime in the future, but for now—friends.”
As Cam grasped her hand, he noted how smooth and cool the skin felt in his. The hand was thin and nicely shaped, connected to a lithe arm, connected to a perfectly shaped chest…
She caught him looking and laughed. “Hey, so if you’re going to hold yourself back from me for the sake of our friendship, does that mean I can say or do whatever I want to you tonight?”
“I didn’t say that! And please, hurry up and put some clothes on!”
Annette’s full laugh sounded truly happy. It sent a pleasant warm sensation rolling through Cam as he joined in.