Ann Marie laid on the bed and browsed Facebook as the warm sonic tones of Maggie singing “All That Jazz” drifted down the hallway. It was a month before the end of summer and most of the pictures on Ann Marie’s newsfeed showed various acquaintances on vacation in sandy places or laying in the sun at the Quentin’s Lake Reservoir, so named for frontiersman Nathaniel Quentin who founded the first trading post in Deercliff in the early 1800s. Ann Marie scrolled through the newsfeed absentmindedly and then rapidly flipped back up to the top of the page to check her notifications. She had posted a picture of her and Big Mac about three miles up Harris Creek Road at one of the many waterfalls that ran alongside the road where they had stopped to drop a fishing line and enjoy a picnic. She saw that only four people had liked the photo and decided to turn off her phone’s screen and to drop it gracelessly onto her chest.
She found herself daydreaming back to that afternoon, being simultaneously warmed by the hot July sun falling onto her neck and cooled by the vapor of the creek that floated up into the air. The creek babbled endlessly, almost too loud, as Big Mac crouched on a flat rock over the water with a tiny portable fishing rod that he carried with him in his truck. His words didn’t penetrate through the dull roar of nature, but he looked back and smiled warmly at her, as she looked on from the picnic blanket. He pulled in his line and then bounced from rock to rock back to her, more or less falling into spot on her right hand side. He smiled up into the treeline for a moment and then turned and gazed into her eyes. She gazed back as he pushed a lock of her brown hair behind her ear and then pulled her into a kiss.
Ann Marie grabbed her phone and turned the screen back on, immediately opening the Facebook app once again. She saw that the photo had garnered one more like and opened her notifications to see who it was. The screen read “Ethan Largo likes your picture.” She nearly scoffed and then dropped the phone to her side and rolled over.
Ethan. She knew that he liked her. He had told Maggie and Maggie had told her without hesitation. What did he expect to happen? It wasn’t as if it wasn’t obvious enough in public. Glancing at her to see if she had found his mediocre joke funny, to see if she betrayed any understanding when he pompously quoted a famous author from the 19th century, to see if she was as caught up in his self-delusion as he was. She could take the fact that he was placing her on a pedestal and harboring affections for some iteration of her that existed only in his mind, but she could not stand to watch his foolish little gestures. It was just embarrassing to her. That part of her just wanted to get away from him. But another part of her wanted to ease his pain a little. To get close to him and show him that there was nothing to be distraught about; that she was just a human being and that there was nothing truly special about her; that he was somebody worth loving if only he would pay more attention to himself and his own self-worth. They had, after all, known each other for many years, and they did share some true mutual affection for one another. She just hated to see him like this. She rolled back over, opened her eyes, and shook her head at nothing in particular, unconsciously deciding to set those feelings aside for the time being.
As she was doing so, she heard the bathroom door open. She could feel Maggie move down the hallway as she tread softly on the hardwood floors, until she walked through the door, throwing it shut behind her.
“My, my, what a refreshing endeavor that was,” said Maggie, smiling, as she dropped her towel dramatically and revealed her naked body for Ann Marie to see. It was all Ann Marie could do to not flinch. She and Maggie had grown up together and had been naked around each other in one form or another countless times, but as time had passed and both of them had developed, it became more and more of an uncomfortable experience for her. These days, it came across as more of a demonstration, a chance for Maggie to show off what she was working with. Ann Marie had not thought of a way that made sense for her to communicate her discomfort to Maggie, so she had just taken to averting her gaze and focusing on something else. This time, however, Ann Marie looked at Maggie, smiled, and said, “I like ‘All That Jazz’, but would you do ‘Mr. Cellophane’ next time?”
Maggie rested her hands on her hips and said, “Ha. I always felt that I could be the star if the theater wanted to put that on at some point. It’s too bad we’re stuck with “The Sound of Music” every year.”
“I’m sure you’d kill it,” said Ann Marie, as she looked down to check her phone again. When Maggie said nothing, Ann Marie looked up at her and saw that Maggie was still standing with her hands on her hips and looking down at Ann Marie with a smile.
“What?” said Ann Marie, and then Maggie did something very strange. She extended her arms and began moving them in a way that made her look as though she was doing an impression of something between a zombie and a conductor.
Ann Marie contorted her face in confusion and said, “Um, what the fuck are you doing?”
Maggie chuckled and said, “I’m pulling your strings.”
Ann Marie watched her for a second and then shook her head and threw a pillow at her, saying, “Put some clothes on, you fucking weirdo!”
Maggie laughed and then turned to her dresser and began rooting around for some clothes. “So how are things with you and Big Mac?” she asked.
Ann Marie paused for a moment, and then said, “They’re fine. I dunno.” When Maggie said nothing in return, Ann Marie continued on: “Sometimes I have doubts. Sometimes I think the whole thing isn’t right for me.”
“Oh? Tell me more.”
“Well, most of the time it’s fun when we’re together, but sometimes I just want to go and do my own thing; spend the evening alone and do some painting or something. Honestly, sometimes I think about what it might be like with other people. He’s sweet and all, but I get afraid that I’m selling myself short.”
Maggie nodded as she pulled on some stockings and then walked over and sat down next to Ann Marie on the bed. “Of course, these are all natural feelings, you know?”
Ann Marie nodded and said, “Sure, I just don’t know what to make of all of it.”
“Have you ever thought about trying someone else on for size?”
Ann Marie’s eyes widened and she said, “No, no way. I would never do that to Jimmy. I mean, if it was over, it’d be over and I’d move on to someone else, but never while we were together.”
Maggie smiled and said, “Of course.” Then she stood up and began searching for more clothes. “But don’t you want to find out what else is out there? Jimmy would never have to know. Or he could find out. Who cares?”
“Who cares? I mean, I care! He would definitely care if he knew!”
“What difference does it make? At the end of the day, Annie, all you have is yourself. You’re not responsible for anyone else’s thoughts or feelings. Only your own. It’s up to you to decide what you do with that information. But you should definitely take to heart the fact that you have to do what’s right for yourself in the moment. You can’t think about what’s going to be right for everyone else down the road. You have to think for the you that’s living in the here and the now, and no one else.”
Ann Marie shook her head adamantly and said, “How can you think that? Don’t you worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow? Who knows what will happen tomorrow? Who knows what will happen next week? This could all very well be gone then and it will all be because of something that we had no control over whatsoever.”
Ann Marie smoked a Swisher Sweet as she sat in her car outside of Ethan’s house. She was supposed to meet Todd in an hour, but she wanted to stop by Ethan’s place to give him the update about what they had found out at Ms. Halverson’s house that day. The window was cracked and she could hear frogs croaking rhythmically in the distance. She found that if you focused on them for long enough, it almost began to sound like words. The very thought creeped her out, so she focused on the song “Kinky Love” by Nancy Sinatra that played over her car stereo. She had texted Ethan about ten minutes before to let him know that she was sitting outside but she had received no reply. When the song ended, she put out her cigarillo, locked her car and made for the ladder in Ethan’s window.
She saw that the curtains were drawn as soon as she stepped off of the sidewalk and onto the grass, but she could also see light shining around the edges. She felt the overwhelming sense that she needed to speak to Ethan so she strode on, undeterred. When she reached the top of the ladder, she tapped on the window softly with her fingernail, hoping to make as little sound as possible. “Ethan!” she whispered, hoping doubtfully to permeate the pane with a shrill pitch.
She tapped a little bit more, and then saw Ethan pulling the curtains and opening the window. “Come on,” he said, but he avoided her gaze.
She climbed in, trying to look deft in her dismount, but she stumbled a little and Ethan reached out to try and steady her. She chuckled and said, “Thanks. I always hated climbing that thing. Always felt like I was gonna fall, especially when it gets icy. But why didn’t you text me back? I waited, but…What the fuck happened to you?”
He had turned towards her and the slight black eye that he was sporting came fully into the light. She grabbed him by the shoulder with one hand and moved her other hand to softly touch the flesh underneath his eye. “Ethan, it looks like somebody hit you!”
Ethan shook his head and then turned away from her and looked at the ground.
“Out with it. What happened?”
He murmured something at a very low pitch that did not come out well, and she had to say, “What?”
This time he turned back around and spoke more loudly: “I said, ‘Somebody did hit me’.”
“Well, who did it?”
He closed his eyes, exhaled, and then said, “Your boyfriend.”
“What? Jimmy? He did? Why? Ethan, tell me what the fuck happened!”
Ethan buried his face in his hands and began sobbing, and said, “I don’t know!”
Ann Marie put her arms around him and led him to his bed to sit him down. He continued to alternate between full-blown sobbing and gentle sniffling until he eventually calmed down enough that he was merely shuddering underneath her arms.
“I’m sorry, Ethan, but I need to know what happened.”
Ethan took a deep breath and then said, “He grabbed me. Last night, after you left. He hit me and then pinned me on the ground and told me to stay away from you. He told me that he’d kill me if I came anywhere near you!” Then his face contorted again, and he buried his eyes in his hands once again and laid back on the bed. In between sobs, he said, “I never wanted any of this! I never wanted it to turn out this way. I just wanted to let go of what I was feeling and go back to the way we were, when we were all just friends! I’m so sorry, Annie! I’m so sorry.”
Ann Marie’s heart broke for Ethan in that moment and she finally knew what she had been feeling for him all along. Before she knew it, she was saying, “No, Ethan, it’s okay, it’s me who’s sorry! I never wanted this for you!” and she was embracing him, kissing the tears that were falling from his eyes. And then she was crying too, and saying, “I’m sorry, Ethan. I’m so sorry. It’s my fault, all my fault!” She continued to kiss his salt-stained cheeks as they both cried and before long he was kissing her on the lips. They kept kissing, sometimes passionately, sometimes barely touching, before eventually they were both emotionally and physically exhausted and they simply held each other.