We hit three more stores before Megan decided we needed to head back to her place and dress for the evening. The second was another clothing boutique – but this time I managed to get away with just a couple of skirts and a pair of low heels.
The third shop was a kind of ritzy jewelry store. I was horrified by the idea that Megan was going to go overboard here, too, and insisted I pay. She ignored me, and I ended up with some wrist bangles and a butterfly necklace.
I did manage to pick out and purchase two items on my own. One was a pair of crescent moon earrings that I couldn’t resist getting to tease Hans with – assuming his interest wasn’t a ruse and he didn’t just drop me tomorrow. The other was a silver cross. It was fairly plain and hung on a simple chain – but it was real silver and probably the most I’ve ever spent on jewelry. Which isn’t really saying much, but… I was going to give it to Megan.
Megan had stopped going to church sometime in college. I had never really gone. Dad told stories sometimes about when he’d almost been suckered into joining a cult and they’d soured me on organized religion. Paranoia and the possibility of secret cultish agendas just don’t mix well. I guess I’m agnostic. I like to think that there’s a driving force to the universe and that it’s benevolent – but I don’t think about it too much for fear that it’s actually Cuthulu and if I accidentally invoke him he’ll appear and drag me – kicking and screaming – into a tentacular hentai nightmare.
I don’t know where Megan stands with her faith. We haven’t talked about religion in a long time; not since that first year of college when we were still becoming friends. But a cross is part of the goth motif, so I was confident she would wear it. Maybe it would help keep Mr. Salvatore at bay.
The last shop, to my mortification, was a lingerie store. Ostensibly – according to Megan – we were there to find stockings that would work with my new shoes. But somehow I ended up with a lot of other lacy garments… okay, not ‘somehow.’ I grabbed them. Maybe Hans would ditch me and maybe he wouldn’t – but if he didn’t I wanted to have something a little more fancy on the next time I found myself panicking about what he’d find if he tore open my blouse.
I refused to let Megan join me in the changing room at that one. I was even too embarrassed to let her see what I’d picked out when I was done – so I managed to get away with paying my whole bill, on my own, there.
It may have been more than the jewelry had been.
We grabbed drive through on the way to Megan’s.
I finished mine in the car so I’d have fewer bags to carry up.
Megan lives in… I guess it’s a duplex? She has the outside staircase to the second story of an old house owned by an equally old lady. Mrs. Butterson is the kind of crinkly old woman who is either a sweet ol’ gramma or a wicked witch, depending on your relation to her.
Since I am not related to her, I subscribe to the theory that she is terrifying. That said, I approve of Mrs. Butterson. Since Megan lives under her roof, Megan gets the sweet ol’ gramma routine – but she also lives under Mrs. Butterson’s rules, which are pretty aggressively ‘for your own protection’ and included things like: no strangers. No boys. No late night parties. Honestly, most of the things that freak me out are on Mrs. Butterson’s banned list.
The old lady was sitting on her porch with her nephew, Zane, when we pulled up. I’ve only met Zane a couple of times, but he seemed to be the only relation who spent a lot of time around Mrs. Butterson. I wasn’t sure if that was because he was conscientious, or if he was the only relative local, or if he was just enamoured with Megan – but I didn’t trust him. Zane was tall, thin, and not really athletic. He looked like he’d gotten gangly in puberty and then stayed that way. He had sandy red hair, an overabundance of freckles, and ears that stuck out like radio telescopes. He was also squinty-eyed in a way that reminded me of a weasel. And not the cute fluffy kind. No, he was the mafia movie henchman sort.
Megan waved to them as she got out of the car and Zane waved back. I was very careful not to glare at him for fear of attracting his aunt’s evil eye upon myself.
Aw, hell. Witches were real now, weren’t they?
I unloaded the car and hoped I wasn’t breaking into a sweat. I bet witches could see fear, like it was an aura or something. Despite Megan’s earlier teasing she helped me with the bags. I think we got them up the stairs to her suite without getting cursed.
Once we were in her living room, Megan dropped her purse and food off at the coffee table and the shopping bags on her couch. I locked the door and then dropped my bags next to hers. Then I rummaged through them to pull out my outfit for the night.
“Do you think we have time for me to do a quick washer/dryer cycle?” I asked.
Megan plopped down in her armchair and picked up her salad from the coffee table. “Just those?” She asked. “Sure. It’s New Year’s Eve, anyway. However late we show up, the party will still be going.”
I smiled weakly. That was good, because the later we showed up, the less time I’d have to struggle to be having too much fun to leave. I went to start the laundry.
Unlike my place, Megan’s suite had multiple rooms. There was the living room, with kitchenette and dining space attached. Then there was a little hallway with three rooms on it: the utilities room – which had Megan’s washer and drier – the bathroom, and Megan’s bedroom. The hallway also had a door that opened onto some stairs leading into Mrs. Butterson’s domain. And then there was a little room off of the bedroom that I think might have been a nursery or study once. Megan used it for an extra closet.
I loaded the washer and started it running on light load. I usually do my laundry at Megan’s and it reminded me that I’d wanted to bring over the clothes that had touched my bathroom floor this morning. It would’ve been nice if we could have stopped at home so I could have showered, too. Trying on clothes that might have been tried on by someone else first always gave me an acute case of squick.
I did my best not to think about it too much. There wasn’t time to do anything about it anyway. I went back to the living room to rejoin Megan.
Before I got back to Megan there was a knock at the front door. I peeked around the hallway corner to watch her answer it. If it was Mr. Salvatore, I needed to be ready to leap into action. If it wasn’t… well, why needlessly risk catching the Evil Eye?
It was Zane. He stood awkwardly in the doorway when Megan opened it. “Um, hi,” he said, waving a heavily bandaged hand in a clumsy greeting.
“Hello, Zane,” Megan said from the door. “Can I help you?”
“Oh!” He said as though remembering why he was there. “Uh… Well, when I saw you were home so late I thought maybe you didn’t have plans for New Year’s. And then I thought, well, maybe you and your friend might like to join auntie and me. We’re having banana splits at midnight.”
I assumed Megan smiled, because that’s the sort of person she is. “I’m sorry,” she said. “We were actually just stopping in for a bit – we have an office party we have to go to.”
“Oh,” said Zane. He seemed to crumple a bit. I sniffed. I could have told him not to get his hopes up. Megan was out of his league and I was scared of his aunt.
“But thank you for the invitation!” Megan said cheerfully. “It was very considerate. Oh! What happened to your hand?”
Zane looked down at it bashfully. “My aunt asked me to get something off of the oven,” he said. “She forgot to mention that it had just been in the oven.”
From the way Megan’s shoulders hunched I guessed she winced in sympathy. “Oh, you poor dear,” she said.
Zane laughed weakly and scrubbed a hand through his hair in embarrassment. Unfortunately, it was the bandaged hand and a few strands got stuck. He tugged his hand free and hid it behind his back. “It’s my own fault,” he said. “I should’ve realized. Sometimes she just forgets little details like that.”
“Well, I think it’s very admirable how you take care of Mrs. Butterson,” Megan said. “In fact… here, you can save this for midnight,” she said. Then she rose up on tiptoe and planted a kiss lightly on his cheek.
Zane blushed to the tips of his enormous ears. “I-uh… Um…”
“Goodnight, Zane,” Megan said. She waggled her fingers at him in a coy goodbye and closed the door while he was still stammering a reply.
Zane and Megan? No…. this was just Megan being nice and flirty. She was way out of Zane’s league. But then again, when push came to shove I’d never really thought any of her boyfriends – or casual partners – had been good enough for her. So maybe the whole league thing didn’t matter. Still, if there’d been anything there I was sure she would’ve told me about it.
Megan turned around and smiled at me. I tried to smile back, but couldn’t quite manage to. Megan didn’t notice though because she turned back toward her seat. I swallowed and sat down again, too.
Megan gave me another smile as I sat down on the end of the couch that wasn’t covered in shopping bags. This time I smiled back. As nerve wracked as I’d been all day, it was still impossible not to see Megan happy and smile. I shuffled a little anxiously when she went back to her salad. Megan was an amazing friend, but I had no idea what being my friend did for her. I relied on her for all kinds of things – what did she get back from me?
I mean, sure: there was chocolate for her in my purse, if she needed it. But she didn’t know about that. And I was trying to look out for her with the whole Mr. Salvatore situation – but she didn’t really know the extent of that, either. As far as she could possibly be aware I was just a needy, selfish, crap friend – and as far as I was concerned, the fact that she was my best friend anyway just served to highlight what an amazing person she was.
She was settling for me the same way she’d settled for her boyfriends. She should have a better best friend. She deserved a better best friend.
“I… um. I got you something,” I finally said when Megan was done eating.
She looked at me in surprise and blinked. I started looking through the bags for her necklace before she could reply. When I found it I held it out toward her, feeling a mix of anxiety and embarrassment.
Megan put down her empty salad tray and accepted the box from me. “Oh, sweetie,” she said, “You didn’t have to.”
“I know,” I said while she opened the box and looked. “I wanted to. Um… I know you don’t go to church or anything anymore, but I thought… It’s gothy and stuff.” I fidgeted when she didn’t reply. “And it’ll keep vampires away. Maybe.”
That made Megan laugh. “Thank you,” she said, and took the necklace out of the box. She put it on and beamed at me. I felt really stupid and ducked my head, blushing. Vampires. Seriously? I almost couldn’t believe it myself.
“The truth is,” I managed to say, “I didn’t resolve to try new things next year.” I swallowed, but forced the rest out. “I want to be a better friend. I… I realize I’m all antisocial and neurotic and you’re always helping me deal with it or get over it and stuff. And that’s been really obvious lately, even to me. I mean: I don’t take advantage of your money, but I do take advantage of you. And that’s pretty crappy of me. So… And….”
My confession ground to a halt. I bit the corner of my lip. I wanted to say more; to make sure Megan understood – but I couldn’t make myself. I don’t think Megan would have listened, either.
Megan swept out of her chair and onto the couch beside me. She wrapped her arms around me in a fierce hug. “Sweetie… Abby,” she said, “You aren’t taking advantage. I choose to spend my time with you, and if you happen to need to be doing something else when I’m choosing to be with you – well, then it’s my choice to do that with you. It’s not taking advantage to accept something that’s freely given. Or, am I taking advantage of you whenever I’m delighted by one of your stories, or enjoy one of the manga you recommend, or share your company when I’m feeling lonely?”
I stared at my hands – clenched in my lap – and didn’t respond. I was trying really hard not to sniffle. I’d told Megan what a horrible person I am, and nothing scares me more than people figuring that out. But she didn’t believe me, and that, on top of the werewolves and vampires and goblins and parties and god knows what else, that almost had me in tears.
Megan buried her face in my hair. For a moment, she just held me like that. Then she straightened a little. Enough to say: “I love you Abby, you know that, right?” She sniffled and hugged me tighter. “You’re my friend, and I want you to be happy, and I see how hard you try – and I see you panic, and…. I just want to see you happy. It’s not taking advantage when a friend tries to help you be happy.”
It was the sniffle that undid me. I was making Megan sad. I was the lowest, rottenest, worst sort of person – and she loved me as her friend. I started crying. Sobbing. Bawling.
The tears didn’t last long. I’ve spent too much of my life refusing to cry for that. But Megan cradled my face against her shoulder and I sobbed until I was empty of the rest of it. Of the fear and anxiety and self-loathing. Everything.
She rocked gently with me and stroked my hair until I sniffled and pulled away. She let me.
Megan got a tissue from the box on the coffee table and offered it to me. I took it and dabbed at my eyes; blew my nose. My face felt sore.
“You know,” Megan said, “We don’t have to go out tonight. We can stay here; watch a movie. Hang out together. Just us.” Maybe it was just in contrast with my depression – or maybe it was that she’d carried me through it – but she looked radiant.
I shook my head. “No.” I’d promised to go out with her, and she liked going to the club. And there was no way – after all of that – that I was going to let her sacrifice something she wanted for my sake. Not if I could help it.
We wouldn’t go to the office party. I would take her up on her offer to stay in if she suggested we go there. But we were going to Club Luminescence. And I was not going to ruin it.
Not if I could help it.