He sunk into the cushions of his chair, took a sip of the whiskey, before tearing open the letter.
He already knew what it would say.
Something something Ethan Cameron and Amy Leigh Kendall cordially invite you to their engagement party blah blah blah. He dropped it to the floor.
Inhaling deeply, he felt melancholic and guilty. He should be happy for his best friend. Another step closer to the perfection that was his life.
Were they even still best friends?
Or friends at all?
He had only seen him and Cole a handful of times since graduation.
Almost a year ago now.
As friends in high school and college they all had been inseparable. But now with all of them busy with work and life as an adult, trying to make something of themselves, socializing had fallen by the wayside. Everybody had different schedules, for a while after graduation they had tried hard to meet often, but soon the weekly get-togethers became monthly ones, monthly became whenever. The last ‘whenever’ had been months ago.
College had been the best four years of his life. Money had been tight, he had to have two jobs to make rent and tuition as his parents could barely afford it, but did the best they could. Now he did not have to worry about money, but felt empty and if given the choice, he would trade it all in in a heartbeat.
The last few months of college was when it started to get rough. All six friends aspired to graduate with the best possible marks, so stress levels – and tensions – ran high. Add a tiny apartment to the mix and fights were pre-destined. Kerfuffels about trash duty, dirty plates and whose turn it was to get groceries had become the new norm.
For the guys
But also the girls
But each of those fights had been just thunder clearing the air.
Afterwards all would be well again.
His fights with Esmée though were a whole different animal.
It was always the same reason. Every single time. His mother. She could not leave Ezzy alone. She would just show up unannounced and wreak havoc. Always with the backhanded compliments and downright attacks on Ezzy. It never made sense to him as his mom adored Ethan. Once, after a bad fight, when Ezzy had fled back to her grandparents’ home he had followed her, when she refused to talk to him, her grandma took him aside and he ended up pouring his heart out to her. Katie then told him that his mom probably fell into a trap many overbearing mothers did: she felt Ezzy was a rival, trying to take her son from her. She told him this would happen sooner or later with any girl he’d bring home.
After they all graduated, all of them moved back home while hunting for places with their respective partners.
And that’s where it all went wrong. Ezzy was over at the Gray’s home, in Forrest’s room, just talking, making plans about moving in together whenever they’d finally find a place they could afford. As usual his mother burst into the room and instigated. Like a pitbull she would not let off and Ezzy was not one to take such abuse.
But that time it completely snowballed out of proportion.
Everybody ended up yelling.
Things were said that couldn’t be taken back. Forrest sided with his mother – she was his mother, after all – Ezzy got very angry and told him to choose, his mother or her.
When he didn’t answer, she told him that was an answer.
She broke up with him right on the front porch of his parents’ home.
He said terrible things to her as she was leaving.
But even then, he had known he was to blame.
He knew deep inside he should have stood up for Ezzy.
Even against his own mother.
She was a great mother, maybe a bit overbearing at times, but they always had a great relationship, it was beyond him why she had such a tough time with Esmee. Katie’s words came to mind.
But after that night it just was too late.
Unlike all the other times before when this had happened, and it had happened a lot by then, Ezzy wouldn’t forgive him. She wouldn’t take his calls, nor want to see him to talk.
Not this time.
For weeks he had hoped she would calm down. But not this time.
He tried and tried, to no avail.
He heard from Ethan that she moved out of her parents’ home, into her own place, she switched jobs, but he didn’t say where to and Forrest didn’t dare ask. There was no use dragging his best friend into an uncomfortable situation.
After three months of not even as much as a sign of life from her other than hearing Ethan pussyfoot around anything Ezzy when the other friends were around, he finally admitted to himself that this time she wasn’t coming back. It was really over.
He focused on work, a junior attorney in a large practice downtown San Myshuno, barely even went home.
It paid off.
Soon he won his first big case alongside a seasoned attorney – and felt empty. They won several more big cases, then he started winning on his own. Still, while his two bosses congratulated him, cheered him, promoted him, he felt nothing but emptiness.
If only …
Law came easy to him, his charisma, confidence and big mouth made him rise the ranks in dwindling speed.
Naturally he tried to date again, but the women just bored him. Two dates, three tops, seemed to be his limit till he sent them on their merry ways.
His mother eventually tried to set him up with available daughters of friends, coworkers and neighbors, until about eight weeks ago he had a fight with her, when he told her that she could have had a wonderful daughter-in-law one day, if only she had even tried with Esmée.
His mother got defensive, his father sided with his mother, harsh words were exchanged, and it ended with him being kicked out of their home. That was the last time he had been there.
As his bank account began to grow he moved out of the crappy and tiny apartment downtown San Myshuno and bought a nice penthouse in a brand-new apartment building in the suburbs, but even during the rare occasions of him throwing a party it felt empty.
Looking at the invite in his hand, he wondered if she would be there, then closed his eyes. Of course she would be. This was Ethan. The twins were still close. He knew she wasn’t engaged yet, Ethan would have said something, but it was clear to him that she would have a boyfriend by now. Had to. A beautiful girl like her. And so … special. One-of-a-kind. Her different ways had ruined him for all other women.
How would it feel to see her with someone else?
Did she ever think of him?
Did she miss him, too?
He gazed out the window from the couch, watching the stars in the night sky.
How perfect would it be to enjoy the view with her snuggled up to him?
Esmee stood by the window in her small apartment watching the stars over San Myshuno.
So romantic. At least it could be.
Now it just felt empty.
She didn’t like the city much. She missed the beach, just popping over to her grandparents, her uncle and she missed seeing her parents and Ethan every day.
And she hated that she still missed him.
But he had made his choice.
He could sit on his mommy’s lap for all she cared.
His mother always made her sound like a whore, when the first and only boy she had ever been with was Forrest. Even still, to this day. Which 22 year old was like that? And it certainly didn’t make her a hussy. An idiot, maybe, for thinking he’d pick her over his own mother.
Enough, she told herself. Even now all it did was make her angry.
She hated that he still had that power over her.
Oh, she tried to date again. Boy, had she. Out of spite alone.
She met some really sweet men, too.
Going out was nice, they were nice, but as soon as they started wanting more, something inside of her just shut down. She had even told her mom about this and she told her to give it time.
Evenings in the city were lonely. She was lonely.
Her old friends were so busy.
Working … and looking for places to live. Together. As couples.
Esmée closed her eyes as tears began to burn hot under her eyelids.
Why couldn’t things just have been different?
She remembered back to the happy times. There had been so many. The six of them so tight. Forrest and her inseparable. Gawd, she had been crazy happy then.
Waking up next to him almost every morning. Him the last thing she saw each night before falling asleep. He had a way to hold her that made everything okay. At least for a while.
Man, their relationship had never been easy.
When things were good, it was epic.
When things were bad, it was apocalyptic.
There was no in-between.
The day of the engagement party came. Saturday.
He looked in the mirror again, wondering if he shouldn’t just stay home, when there was a knock on the door.
“Cole? What are you doing here man?”
“Picking you up so you don’t bail. Ethan’s idea.”
Forrest grinned. His best friend knew him well. Still.
“Want a drink?”
“No thanks, but you smell like you got the party started without us. How much did you have?”
“Just a few glasses. To get in the mood.”
“Yeah, right. Well, good thing I am here then. I will be your ride today, Mylord. You ready?”
“Sure. Where’s Lucy?”
“She went over hours ago to help with the set up. I think all the girls did.”
“ALL the girls?”
“Yes, Ezzy is there too.”
“Of course, why wouldn’t she be. She’s his sister!”
In less than 30 minutes they made it over to Brindleton Bay, Cole parked in his parents’ garage across the street.
They could already hear the party, the laughter, music. He missed this.
They walked in, he saw people and balloons and cake and – her. There she was. Even more gorgeous than he remembered her.
“Dude, come on, let’s say hi and congratulate them. They’re over here.”
Yeah, but SHE is over there … he thought, but still went along.
Ethan and Amy were beaming.
He hugged them endured their complaints of him being so illusive, thanked him for coming and made small talk.
Eventually he had made his rounds, then needed quiet and air, so he went outside into the yard. Closing his eyes, he imagined this wasn’t Ethan and Amy’s engagement party, but one of the birthday parties that had been thrown here through the years, for a moment he was back in high school. No – college! When she was his. All of them home from college, at one of those parties. The twins’ parents and aunt had cooked insane amounts of great food, they all played in the pool, KC would break out his guitar and sing. What would he give to go back there.
“You again…” he heard a voice he would recognize out of a million girls. That phrase had grown into a sort of standing joke between them over the years.
“Hey.” he said.
“Don’t get up. Mind if I join ya?” she said as she climbed onto the bench next to him, smiling faintly.
“Of course not. You look great, Ez.”
“Thanks, so do you, Mr. Big Shot attorney.”
“I don’t know about that …”
“Takes you back, this, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does.”
“How have you been?”
“Busy. With work.”
“Yeah, same. Have you seen Ethan and Amy’s house – what used to be dad’s shop?”
“No, Cole picked me up, afraid I’d bail, we came in the other way.”
“You should go see it. Home’s almost done. Ethan designed it himself with uncle Josh, mom and grandpa helping, per Amy’s wish list. A total family effort.”
“Wanna go now? I guess I am not used to the Cameron noise level anymore. My head is spinning.”
They walked over and looked at the house. A home. Right next to the schools and the in-laws, perfect for kids. No question, that would be next, probably right after the wedding. His best friend was turning into a family man.
He looked at the high school building behind them. Looked exactly like he remembered it. He saw himself there with Ezzy and Ethan, friends for life. Or so they thought.
“You look like you are far away. I am sorry, I didn’t even ask if you came with someone. We can go get her…”
“No, I came alone. Well, with Cole…”
“Wanna go back?”
“No, I need some …. quiet.”
“Want me to take you home?”
“Oh no, I …. ummm …. I mean, actually if you don’t mind … I don’t want to be a burden …”
“Don’t be silly. I need to get back home to my apartment anyway. Have a report due first thing Monday and hate waiting till the last minute. Days are getting shorter again, almost fall, soon it will be dark and I hate driving so far in the dark.” she told him.
They went to say their goodbyes, and Forrest kicked himself for almost passing up his chance for more time with her. Alone. He’d give anything if at least they could be friends again. She seemed civil enough. There was a gleam of hope.
She was surprised and ended up teasing him when she found out that he lived in Forgotten Hollow, but when she pulled into the street leading up to the upscale apartment complex, she whistled through her teeth.
“Wow, this is nice! Last time I was here it was just slab.”
“You were here before?”
“The cemetery is right here. I have family resting there. And this complex is an EC Architects project. I think uncle Josh worked on that. But I haven’t seen it finished yet.”
“Wanna come up? I’ll show you around. The view is amazing…”
“I … umm … oh, what the hell, why not? I am curious. I am thinking I made a mistake going with business. I should have studied architecture…. I love this kind of stuff.”
They made small talk on the elevator ride up, but when Forrest unlocked the door Ezzy was excited like a school child.
“WOW! OMG! WOW!”
He smiled when she seemed impressed by his apartment.
“You were right, the view is stunning! And a penthouse, no less! I am jealous. My teeny tiny apartment is terrible compared to this. And I was soooo proud of it.”
“I am sure it is great. Wine?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t. I have to drive, remember.”
“Just one glass. For old times’ sake…”
“OK, fine.” She looked around and found some award for extraordinary achievements.
“Yeah, my boss thought Forrest was too … campy… for an attorney. So I go by my middle name now. Nicholas. Or Nick.”
“Oh. Well, I am still boring old Esmée or Ezzy. If they don’t like it, they can go sit on it!”
That was her. The way he knew her. What he missed. Among many other things about her.
Two bottles later, both were giggling, reminiscing, talking like the old friends they were, when the conversation turned from light to … complex.
“Your parents must be so proud of you. Surprised your mom hasn’d put up decorations yet. This place is pretty bare.”
“She has never been here. I haven’t seen them in months. Or spoken to them.”
“Oh, I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to stir anything ….”
“You didn’t. It had been brewing for a long time.”
She got up to look around some more, he followed, so happy to have her near and the alcohol made him brave. Something overcame him and he folded his arms around her from behind before his brain caught up with this action.
“Ez, I was wrong. So very wrong. Forgive me, please. I love you still, like on the first day, maybe even more. Give me another chance, please! Ez, let me prove myself to you. Just one chance.”
“Forrest – uhm – Nicholas .. I …” she wiggled away, or tried to, but he held on to her again. He just could not help it.
“You can call me Forrest. I like how you say it …”
“Stop! I am not ready for this. I just can’t do this again. I am sorry if me coming here gave you the wrong impression. I didn’t mean to lead you on. I think I should go now…”
“Ezzy please. Please stay. Just tonight. You’ve had too much to drink, and so did I. Stay or I will call you a cab. Please.”
“You don’t have a guestroom, do you?”
“I’d take the couch.”
“Look … I ….”
“Ez, I am sorry if I came on too strong. I had to say these words to you, for months. But I couldn’t. Now you are here and it just … came out. The damn wine. I am sorry. I can behave. I swear. Just please, please don’t leave me.”
“Ok. Ok, I’ll stay.” something in his eyes made her stay. Despite of his transgression.
Ezzy took a shower, it felt strange. As if in a very familiar stranger’s home.
“Ez?” he knocked on the door.
“Yes?” hoping he wouldn’t mistake that for an invitation. She was tipsy. VERY tipsy.
“I still have that shirt you used to like to sleep in. Do you want it?”
“Oh, right … yes, please.” she had not even thought that far yet.
“I’ll get it and hang it on the door handle.”
Ezzy had to smile. So considerate. He was so rough around the edges but with a heart of gold. Just like her dad. Yes, she definitely needed him in her life, to fill that Forrest-shaped hole their break-up had left. but only s friends. No way was she ever going to go on that roller coaster trying to compete with his hateful hag of a mother. She felt sorry for the falling out they had, but no doubt in her mind they would make up, and if she gave in, she’d be on that awful ride again. No.
She came out of the bathroom, and that look he gave her told her everything. He was still hoping. Was it wrong to be here, fueling his hopes?
They sat down on the couch together, watched TV, and when Ezzy could barely keep her eyes open any longer, she turned in. Like a gentleman he walked her the few steps to the bedroom door but didn’t follow. She exhaled once the door shut. Was it even possible to be friends with your ex? Especially if he still obviously had feelings for you?
She looked around the room and her heart stopped, then beat a million beats a minute when she saw that picture of her in a frame by his bed. Why?
She was nothing special, and he was some hotshot up-and-coming lawyer now. The way he looked, he could have girlfriendS, plural.
She laid down in bed, felt dizzy from all the alcohol, the room was spinning. She was woozy, yet incredibly clear at the same time. After laying there thinking in circles for a while she got back up. Opening the bedroom door just enough to peek through she saw his outline, just a dark shadow sitting by the big window. At first she assumed he had passed out, but he moved now.
She closed her eyes.
“Oh, fuck it all!” she said to herself, opened the door, walked over to him, even in the dark she saw him looking up at her.
“Can you just come with me and just hold me … please?”
He got up and followed her. Neither of them spoke. There was nothing to be said.
Nestled in his embrace in his bed she drifted off to sleep. As did he. The best sleep either of them had in many months.
Just friends …