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Monster girl slice of life

May0 Nov 21st, 2017 (edited) 1,663 Never
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  1. Chapter 1. Shake, rattle, and Roll.
  2.  
  3. I was attending one of the newly integrated colleges. Not for want of any exploration of diversity but rather a series of government scholarships being offered to human and meta-human alike. Seeing as how my job barely paid bills as it was I didn't have many choices for furthering my education outside of these scholarships. I kept to myself most of the time. Class had more or less wrapped up and my gaunt-faced professor with sunken eye sockets had already outlined what we needed to do to pass the upcoming test. In a dull monotone voice he advised everyone to see him after class if they had questions. It wasn't a hard class if you learned the material but if you didn't pay attention it was easy to get swamped.
  4.  
  5. I was approached by Maddie. She was one of many meta-humans that attended the school. She was a divine specimen of a Naga- a snake body for her lower half and that of a woman above the navel. Her long snake body fit awkwardly between the chairs of the lecture hall and typically she sat at the margins of the hall so as not to disturb other students. Her tail was adorned with a rattle that was decorated with a number of stenciled cartoon characters and girly designs. It was obnoxiously cute. Her clothes were rather plain. She donned a poofy vest, with a phone decorated in a similar fashion to her rattler. Her golden blonde hair was wavy and it matched her snake physique. She slithered her way up to me with an attentive look.  
  6.  
  7. I'd chatted with her before but only as an introduction. I knew her full name as Madeline. She had told me to call her “Missy” for short since she thought her name sounded stuffy. Honestly, I didn't care for either name. The name Missy reminded me of an overrated pop singer. Phonetically I didn't care for it either. To this day I refer to her by the name I like; “Maddie”. She broke into my personal bubble with her own bubbliness. Her hair dangled down and obscured my notes.
  8.  
  9. “Eddy! Are you busy?!”
  10.  
  11. “It's Edward. And yes, can I help you?” She didn't miss a beat with my correction and keep chugging along with her chirpy tone.
  12.  
  13. "Are you ready for the test next Tuesday?"
  14.  
  15. "The test is this Thursday, and I'm not ready yet. I need to study first."
  16.  
  17. "Thursday!? I thought..." Her expression was one of panic and it gave me a chuckle. It looked like someone dumped a bucket of ice water on her head. It was a look of realization of her having gone from being fairly screwed to totally screwed. She adjusted herself and continued in a tone with an added nervousness.
  18.  
  19. "Well, any way you usually get good grades, I was hoping we could study together."
  20.  
  21. I paused. There's not too much 'studying' you can do in math. You just do the math. My mind was very mechanical like that and that's how I approached it.
  22.  
  23. "What you want is a tutor, you know they have tutors available in the math department right? They can probably help you more than I can." I said this to her without meeting her gaze as I worked through some calculations myself.  There wasn't much I could do to help her if she didn't already get the material.
  24.  
  25. She fidgeted nervously “I've used the tutors before but I have trouble following their instructions. You always pass so I figured you might have the secret!”
  26.  
  27. I shrugged “There's no secret I can tell you. You just have to know how to solve the problems when you encounter them and be able to identify what kind of steps to follow so you can solve it. From there on it's as easy following directions. The calculator can do the rest.”
  28.  
  29. A new look of enthusiasm found it's way onto her face. “That makes more sense than anything the tutors told me! If we study together I know I can do better.”
  30.  
  31. I peered at her over my spectacles “Even if I felt confident enough to teach you I don't really have the time to take on a student with my job. In fact, I'm going to work after class lets out.”
  32.  
  33. My scholarship barely covered my amenities. Everything else I subsidized myself. It had been a long time since I had last eaten out. Cheap and easy home-cooked meals had become my mainstay.
  34.  
  35. She rattled her tail and her look morphed to one with a more serious tone “I'll pay you! I really need someone to help me!”
  36.  
  37. She had my attention “Well Maddie, I could certainly use the money but are you sure I'm the best tutor for you? How about that Amanda girl? She gets better grades than me.” I motioned with a Fonzie thumb to an arachnid girl with a scarf she spun of her own silk. I figured metahumans might prefer their own but at the same time, I wasn't terribly sure if spiders and snakes got along.
  38.  
  39. “Eh...I've asked her before. She said I should use the tutors as well. Everyone else I asked pretty much said the same thing. I don't think I'll be able to pass on my own. You're the only one I haven't asked yet.”
  40.  
  41. So I was her last resort? How very disconcerting. Still, I wasn't about to turn down that tutoring money. “Alright, I'll tutor you but I can't guarantee you'll pass even if I do everything right. You have to be able to work the problems yourself.”
  42.  
  43. She nodded “I know about hard work!” She wriggled around happily.
  44.  
  45. “The test is in two days right? Thursday, not Friday?”
  46.  
  47. “Right.” I nodded and adjusted my glasses.
  48.  
  49. “Right! So...when can you tutor me? I was hoping you could do it  tonight but if you have to work...” She trailed off with an expectant look as if to say I should fill in the blanks. I obliged.
  50.  
  51. “I can tutor you tomorrow. I do a lot of my work in the early mornings so I have my nights free to rest and work. It's a bit of an odd schedule I know but it works for me. Will that work for you?"
  52.  
  53. She averted her eyes as if she were looking for an answer “I'll make it work.”
  54.  
  55. “Are you sure, no sense having me tutor you if you can't fit it into your schedule.”
  56.  
  57. “I can do it! I told you I'll make it work!” She was very energetic. Her tail emphasized her seriousness with a rapid rattling.
  58.  
  59. “Alright, I believe you. Is 15 dollars an hour alright? I could really use the money.”
  60.  
  61. She shrugged “If you want. I could have you for dinner as well. I mean-” She realized her wording was off and rephrased it “I'll make you dinner! Er... That is I'll make dinner for you.” She fumbled further before regaining her composure “I'm not a bad cook ya know!”
  62.  
  63. “I get it but I'll take the money. Besides, it sounds like you want to have me for dinner.” My joking tone was lost on her and she rattled her tail with an annoyed look.
  64.  
  65. She nodded “15 dollars an hour then. And I'll bring you some of my home-cooked food. You'll eat your hat after you eat my food.”
  66.  
  67. “You don't have to do that. I can cook for you if you'd like. I'm not a bad cook myself. I'll include that in the 15 dollar fee.” I felt like 15 dollars an hour was a bit much but if she was willing to pay I wasn't going to say no.
  68.  
  69. She crossed her arms with a sneer. “You might be good at math but I'm definitely better at cooking. Count on it!”
  70.  
  71. I threw my hands up in submission not wanting to contest her over this. “Pretty confident. If you insist.  You can bring anything you'd like. I'm not going to turn down free food.”
  72.  
  73. Class let out and I had a few hours to kill before work. I decided to galavant around the campus for a while and take in the sights. It was pretty typical for the most part. The human to meta-human ratio was around 40/60 with the meta-humans holding sway over the majority. The politics were dicier on certain campuses but this one was pretty laid back. There weren't any student groups trying to one-up one another based on the question of meta-human integration in traditionally non-meta-human schools.
  74.  
  75. The main argument is that once the colleges were integrated then the grade schools would follow. I wasn't sure how I'd feel going to class with a meta-human if I were still in high school but it wasn't something I really focused on since I was in college.
  76.  
  77. I didn't really have a major. I just wanted to build up credit hours so I could pursue what I really wanted once I figured out what it is I wanted to do. I had considered joining a club but between classes and work I barely had enough energy to stand upright until one or the other rolled around on the clock.
  78.  
  79. The open-air lobby of the campus had some banners and club stalls set up. I wasn't entirely sure but I think some sort of winter festival was planned so everyone was selling tickets or some kind of merchandise for their specific thing. I sighed since my budget was far too tight for any kind of luxury items. Nevermind the fact most of these stalls had inflated prices to subsidize their club activities and whatnot.  I peeked and poked through them. Nothing really caught my eye.
  80.  
  81. “Looks like you could use a scarf!” I felt a nudge on my shoulder.  I turned around to face the sewing club's booth. I recognized that spider girl Amanda from earlier. She was in the back working with her hands. The girl who got my attention was a plain-faced woman with thick glasses.  She was cute enough but her voice wasn't good for my ears “Ninety percent of our proceeds go to the charity for those recently affected by the flooding down south!”
  82.  
  83. Their cheapest item was a small pair of mittens that went for fifteen dollars. The alleged scarf was thirty dollars. Considering I got most of my clothes second hand from thrift stores I wouldn't be buying anything from them and I didn't have the heart to haggle down the price of charity items. I politely declined the offer.
  84.  
  85. “It's going to get real cold tonight though!~ You don't want to catch a cold and miss your classes do you?”
  86.  
  87. They weren't going to let me get away unless I made a good case “Sorry, but you guys are a little steep for me. Besides, I don't have cash on me and I don't see any card swiper here.” Upon hearing this Amanda skittered up to me and presented her phone with an added attachment for taking debit card payments for just such a request.
  88.  
  89. Damn. Looks like the sewing club wasn't messing around.
  90.  
  91. Amanda spoke very matter of factly “You can swipe it with this.”  She tilted her head to the side and her short hair curled downward and framed her face stopping just above her shoulders. Her hair was peach colored and it was snug beneath her beanie that was adorned with a number of embroideries. She had two additional sets of eyes above where regular ones were and they all seemed to dig at me like she was trying to pick apart my words.   All of her cloths looked to be self-made with personal touches and a unique flavor that fit her spider abdomen and multiple legs.
  92.  
  93. “Yea, but I still can't afford anything. Can you wait until I get paid?”
  94.  
  95. Amanda's quasi-interrogation continued. “We'll be here until the weekend. You'll make sure to come see us before then right?” she pursed her lips.
  96.  
  97. It was easy to see who really made things happen in the sewing club. The spectacled girl had retreated back behind Amanda and listened in on our exchange. I'd bluff my way out for now. They didn't need to know I wouldn't get paid for another week at least.
  98.  
  99. “I'll see you guys again this weekend, sure.” I wore a fake grin hoping the part I left off about only seeing them and not buying anything would buy me a ticket out of this conversation.
  100.  
  101. Amanda worked me up and down with her eyes “If you don't...we will find you.” She pointed at me threateningly. The spectacled girl behind her chirped in as well “You don't want us to hunt you down!”
  102.  
  103. “Yea yea, I got you.”  I retreated from the lobby and got ready for work before I was solicited further.
  104.  
  105. ...
  106.  
  107. Hours later I longed for that scarf I'd passed up as it was quite chilly like the sewing club girl had predicted.  Living without a car meant I had to wait at the bus stop with a 40-degree windchill nipping at me and worse when cars zoomed by. I shivered all my way to work and somehow survived the doldrums of call center life only to be accosted by the wind when I waited for the bus again later on my way home. I was completely frozen by the time I got back to my apartment.
  108.  
  109. I longed for more sleep. I had a study session with Maddie tomorrow morning and in the evening another work schedule that would be filled with irate customers yelling at me to turn their cable back on despite them having several months of unpaid bills preventing me from doing so. I prayed for strength. I needed a vacation.
  110.  
  111. The next morning came sooner than I would have liked and I ingested as much caffeine as my kidneys could tolerate to keep me sociable. My roommate Willard wasn't here and he wasn't home last night either which wasn't abnormal. I called him the wildman for a number of reasons. Mostly because he was part wolf and also because he could take twice the amount of booze I could before becoming invalid.  He'd probably been out all night partying.
  112.  
  113. I studied by myself until Maddie arrived. I didn't need to do too much studying but I figured I should put together a lesson plan so Maddie made the most of her time.  This didn't take long and she arrived shortly after I finished.
  114.  
  115. “Hello,  Eddy!” I winced at her nickname for me but she was none the less happy to see me and brought cookies as well. They were certainly better than anything I could make and I savored their doughy goodness.
  116.  
  117. “Do you like them?”
  118.  
  119. I nodded with a mouthful and couldn't help but smile to reflect her expression in my answer.
  120.  
  121. We began studying and by “we” I mean  I meticulously walked her through every problem step by step and how to solve it in explicit detail. I started to get winded at one point and couldn't believe how much talking was required for this whole tutoring thing. Hours passed and ever so slowly we advanced through the curriculum.  
  122.  
  123. Finally, after going over the same problem for the 3rd time I slapped away a pile of scrap paper with incorrect calculations written on them “You're hopeless. Really,  you should probably drop the class for this semester and pick up something for the hours. I think you can still do that.”
  124.  
  125. Maddie got upset. “I'm doing better! I am! I just...I need more practice.” She was completely flustered by her failure “I'm doing what you tell me...”
  126.  
  127. “That's the third time you've bongled that same problem.  It's one of the easier variants you'll encounter. Nevermind the fact you take too long to solve each problem as it is. You know we only get an hour and thirty minutes for the test right? Even if you were getting all the problems right you still wouldn't finish in time at the pace you go.” I broke it down for her further. “If you want to pass you'll have to go for the most easily solvable problems and finish them as quickly as possible. At least then you should have time to check your work for mistakes. That's about the best you can do I think.  Really, it doesn't look good.”
  128.  
  129. We'd already spent all morning going over the kind of problems that would be on the test and I had walked her through them step by step how to identify them accordingly but she just wasn't getting it. She was going to owe me 60 dollars in the next ten minutes but I hardly had the heart to take it from her given her performance. I looked at my watch. This was my day off insofar as I didn't have classes today and only had to work later. There wasn't really a day where I had free time anymore and I felt like the tires were spinning and we weren't getting anywhere. If anything it was just more practice for myself but at this point I need sleep more than studying.
  130.  
  131. I adjusted my glasses “I've already taught you how to identify certain problems and how to tackle them. The only common denominator for failure is yourself. Speaking of denominators, that should a three not a six.” I tapped my finger on her paper showing her the digit in need of replacing. She corrected it with a sullen look on her face
  132.  
  133. “You don't think I can pass?”
  134.  
  135. “Not with your current performance. If you spend the rest of the day practicing and find out where you're messing up you should do marginally better at least. I can't guarantee you'll pass. I'd say you fail with  35% if you manage to tackle the problems you're currently having trouble with. The teacher may give you half credit if you show your work but he doesn't always. Even if you got half credit for every problem that's still only 50%”
  136.  
  137. The door burst open. Fucking Willard.  My wolfman roommate. A lewd loudmouth at that. He paid his rent and didn't stink up the apartment which is about as much anyone can ask for.
  138.  
  139. “Aye Ed man, I thought we agreed?! No booty calls unless you let ya mate know ahead of time!?” He worded this with a half-joking tone and accented the end of his sentence with a lewd mouth gesture.
  140.  
  141. “We're studying Willard. Nothing lewd is going on here” I gave him the devil's glance over my spectacles. He was unfazed.
  142.  
  143. “That's what they call it nowadays eh? Gyohohohoho!” He laughed dramatically for emphasis as if he wanted me to applause his verbal jab. Maddie's face was red and she was attempting to mumble something but she couldn't compete with Willard's bombastic tone.
  144.  
  145. I attempted to derail him “Aren't you supposed to be working now anyway?”
  146.  
  147. Willard picked at his ear “They let me go early. I asked if they'd let me go since business was so slow and they told me to go home. Shooooot. I don't need money that bad anyway. My parents pay for everything. Besides, I have beers that need to be drank and they certainly won't drink themselves~ Gyohohohohoho!”
  148.  
  149. “We're just wrapping up anyway, I've tutored Maddie as best I can. Isn't that right?
  150.  
  151. Before Maddie had a chance to answer Willard interjected “I bet she's wrapping you up. Awwoooooooooooo!”
  152.  
  153. Maddie couldn't take his jabs anymore and slapped at Willard with her tail but he caught it and threw it back at her knocking over some books which caused a cascade of other rubbish onto the floor.
  154.  
  155.  “Willard, shit man, watch it. You're cleaning that up!”
  156.  
  157. “yea yea yea, later man. I clean better when I'm boozed anyway.” He had a beer in each hand and several tucked into his sweater's middle pocket like a kangaroo tap after visiting the fridge.
  158.  
  159. I glared at him “It'll be clean when I get back?”
  160.  
  161. He replied to my question in turn “You're not going to drink with me later?”
  162.  
  163. I answered his question with yet another question “I have work today remember?”
  164.  
  165. He paused and his face went blank. Then his eye lit up “oh yea it's Wednesday right?”
  166.  
  167. “Didn't you know what day it was when you went to work?”
  168.  
  169. “I just go everyday man and if they send me home they send me home. I hate keeping track of time Ed. Just another dish on my plate ya know?”
  170.  
  171. “No, I don't,” I thought to myself trying to make sense of his nonsensical metaphor. “Anyway, Maddie, this is Willard, Willard, this is Maddie.” My introduction was brief. Maddie leered at Willard and Willard returned her look with a wink and smooch gesture courtesy of his lips. He poked his head back through the door before disappearing for good. “I may have a friend over for some 'studying' later if you catch my drift, my man. So watch out Gyohohohoho!”  
  172.  
  173. His laughter echoed through the apartment's halls. Maddie looked thoroughly flustered. I had gotten up and was making my way to bed before plopping down onto it exhausted. I needed to get a little sleep before my next shift. Maddie slithered over to me. Perhaps she was looking for some words of encouragement?
  174.  
  175. I smiled at her “Good luck, Maddie. Sorry about Willard. He can be a bit...off-putting for some. I find him tolerable in small doses.”
  176.  
  177. Maddie grunted “I don't like Willard at all. He's very...ugh...obnoxious.” she rattled her tail with a shiver.
  178.  
  179. I looked at her with a plain face “Yea well he helps me pay the rent so regard him kindly would you? I don't need my friends going at one another.”
  180.  
  181. She leaned over me on the bed. “Eddy, are you feeling okay?”
  182.  
  183. “You know I don't like it when you call me that? My name is Edward. But yea, I'm fine. I just need rest before work. You can let yourself out. Willard won't be back for hours until he's good and sauced. He's probably off drinking with some friends.”
  184.  
  185. “How come he can call you Ed but I can't call you Eddy?” Maddie hissed.
  186.  
  187. I folded my glasses and put them on the nightstand next to the bed. I also glanced at the clock as I tried to formulate my logic.
  188.  
  189. “Because Willard is Willard, and he can get away with it. Phonetically Eddy does nothing for me. If you were to call me Ed it probably wouldn't sound right either. You should stick with Edward.
  190.  
  191. Maddie went quiet for a bit then looked at me longingly “Do you consider me a friend Edward?”
  192.  
  193. I bit my tongue. That's the kind of question that has lots of answers that can hurt the person asking. I hate lying but I didn't want to hurt Maddie's feelings. I smiled at her. “You paid attention to me earlier and really tried to solve those problems while we were studying. You weren't wasting my time. That makes you a good person...er snake person in my book. Most people would give up but you-”
  194.  
  195. She slapped my midsection with her tail “Agh!”
  196.  
  197. She leered at me like when she looked at Willard “I'm asking you if you consider me a friend, not a good study partner! Don't try to talk your way out of an answer!” She crossed her arms and looked me over like she was trying to size me up for a fight. I gave her the same gesture when she challenged my cooking prowess. I stuck my hands up in a sign of submission.
  198.  
  199. “Honestly Maddie, I don't know you well enough to call you a friend but you're very nice and a hard worker so I don't think I'd have trouble calling you a friend once I got to know you more. How's that?” I had a worried smile feeling like I faltered a bit.
  200.  
  201. Her long meaty tail slumped off me and plopped to the floor.  She turned away from me and fiddled with her rattler.  I felt like I had made a misstep. One of those many answers you're not supposed to give to the 'Am I a friend' question. I reached out to her from the bed “Maddie, would you-”
  202.  
  203. She cut me off and started to leave. I'd shifted my weight onto her somewhat by accident and when she went to leave I found myself collapsing onto her from the bed.
  204.  
  205. “Eddy!! What are you-!?” She wriggled and squirmed beneath me and I struggled to put my hands on something that wasn't part of her but she was all coiled up next to my bed.
  206.  
  207. “I'm sorry, I-” I started to chuckle at the situation but she wriggled beneath me and I found myself plush against her coils.
  208.  
  209. The door burst open again. Fucking Willard.
  210.  
  211. “I forgot my...oh damn Ed man! Looks like I interrupted study time again! Gyohohohohoho~”
  212.  
  213. I felt sharp nails dig into my shoulders before Maddie flung me off her. Willard howled and slammed the door. Maddie was already slithering away by now.
  214.  
  215. “I'M LEAVING!”
  216.  
  217. She certainly did leave. She left so quickly she didn't bother to take her book bag with her.  
  218.  
  219. End of chapter 1~
  220.  
  221.  
  222.  
  223. Chapter 2- Pass and Fail
  224.  
  225. I was sore from Maddie's toss. I crawled back into bed and passed out for a while. Work was uneventful.  That is typically the case for a call center. People angry at problems you can't fix will yell at you while you watch hours of your life slowly get converted into disposable income. This is the grind of adulthood. As I was being berated for explaining to an elderly woman why her services were disconnected due to her lack of paying  her bill I received a tap on the shoulder
  226.  
  227. “Team meeting after this call Ed” My supervisor, a griffin woman which I mistook as a harpy for my lack of meta-human categorization knowledge the first time we met. She was quick to correct me. She wore some business casual attire and her wings were adorned with dyed feathers, a common practice for Avain folk in the city. She had slim spectacles but the prescription seemed to blow up her eyes bigger than they actually were. She kept her hair tied back while at work into a bun. Her hair was dark and feathery and it fluttered despite her attempts to keep it tied down. She had a tail like a lion with a tuft of fur at the end.
  228.  
  229.  After transferring the irate woman to a department that would be equally incapable of solving her problem I made my way to the team meeting. I joined her and the others in the designated meeting spot which was little more than a glorified closet with a table in it just big enough to make the room feel extra cramped. I was late but there was no getting around long calls like the one I got.
  230.  
  231. “...and that's why we need to show a higher level of quality with every one of our calls. We get a multitude of good surveys every day but it only takes one bad survey to sink the team. Ah, Ed, I was hoping you'd join us at some point.” I nodded at Miss Hitchens as she continued her spiel about team rankings and our place in the company. She highlighted various other topics with flamboyant hand gestures to keep people focused. Somehow I avoided passing out thanks to her bubbly tone and showy performance.
  232. She concluded the meeting with by clapping her hands which helped to snap some people out of the stupor of mechanical nodding they had found themselves doing. "Alright, now let's get some good surveys, everyone!"
  233.  
  234. I waited for everyone to file out before getting up myself. Miss Hitchens was right behind me. "Edward, don't forget to visit me after you're done. I need to ask you something."
  235.  
  236. She almost assuredly wanted me to work some additional hours. I figured I could hopefully sneak by her and just say I forgot after the fact. She was pretty forgiving towards me as long as I didn't give her too much of a reason to be pissed.
  237.  
  238. I finished up my shift and clocked out trying to avoid eye contact with anyone that would request more hours form me. I made my way out of the call center and the cold night air immediately cut into me. Cold weather be damned, I was just pleased to be free of work when I felt a familiar rapping on my shoulder. Miss Hitchens pulled me into an embrace. Before I could respond to her she cawed.
  239.  
  240. “Ed! My star agent! You know you're about the only half decent employee under my command. Everyone else is such a screwup. Except for Nate perhaps. I suppose Dennis isn't terrible either...” Her plumed clutch could be construed as sexual harassment but I would be lying if it wasn't warming me up in the cold of the night.
  241.  
  242. I didn't have the time or energy to entertain her sweet nothings so I slipped from her grasp and made my way to the bus stop. She landed in front of me after flying a short distance and flapping to a stop, cutting me off. Her tail swung around as she turned to face me.
  243.  
  244. “Miss Hitchens, I really-” I began...
  245.  
  246. “Ed sweety, are you really going to wait at this bus stop and freeze until the bus comes? Surely you're not wanting to go home just yet. I need to buy you a few drinks. My treat for you not being a screw-up!”
  247.  
  248. “Well, I have a test tomorrow and I really need to get some sleep so I'll have to pass Miss Hit-”
  249.  
  250. “Call me Star sweety.”
  251.  
  252. “Like the burning gas giants?”
  253.  
  254. “It's my shorthand for Stacy you smartass~!” she grabbed me wriggled me around, shaking me back and forth in a teasing manner. It was hard for me not to sense her affection beneath the gesture as she kept holding me close after the fact.
  255.  
  256. I wanted to ask her how she got 'Star' out of 'Stacy' but my mind was too tired for curiosity of that caliber. I detached her from myself and took a seat on the bus bench. She joined me and draped her legs over my lap. It was hard to escape Star. She was a master manipulator and she wouldn't be pursuing me unless she wanted something in return.
  257.  
  258. “Miss 'Star', I appreciate your praise but if you're wanting to make a point can you just get to it before the bus comes?” I give her a look that lets her know I know the game she's playing. She shrugs and smiles.
  259.  
  260. “I guess you wouldn't be my best if were a dullard hmm? Sweety...” She paused for a moment and pulled me close into a feathery embrace. It was warm and welcoming. I felt like I was melting in her arms. “Donald called out today...and he won't be here for tomorrow either. I need you to cover for him. Something about 'I broke my leg'. I'd like to see his supposed leg. I'll break it for him...” She had an angry look on her face as if she could see the peon Donald right now.
  261.  
  262. I pried myself from her embrace. “I'm tuckered as it is. I need some time where I'm not stressed out and with my test tomorrow I -”
  263.  
  264. Miss Hitchens grabbed me for yet another embrace and squeezed me close “Ed~ sweetie~ darling~ don't play coy with me. You know you enjoy being in my nest!” (she referred to our team as “the nest”). I gave her a disdainful reply that amounted to “No way Jose” but my reply was lost and muffled into her bosom.  She smiled and chirped.
  265.  
  266. “I'm so glad you agreed. It makes my job a lot easier when I have someone to fill in for call outs.” I broke free of her once more but before I could give a proper rebuttal she gripped my hands in her talons, digging her claws into my knuckles and causing me to wince.
  267.  
  268. “Don't worry sweetie. I'll put you down for time and a half. Lord knows you need it with that roach motel you live in~.” I wanted to protest but the fact was I really needed that money and I couldn't turn down time and a half. If I did try to weasel my way out of it she would surely peck at me for something sooner or later. That's just how she operates. She shifted my orientation in the bench to face the bus that just arrived. “There's your ride Ed sweetie~.” She smiled knowing she had me right where she wanted me. I started to get up when I still felt her clawed talon digging into my hand
  269.  
  270. “You know, you're always welcome to have some overtime at my place...I promise I won't work you too hard~” I started to blush but before I could give a proper response I felt her even bigger talon'd foot kick me in the butt, shuttling me towards the bus.
  271.  
  272. “Get out of here before I do something I regret~." She chirped with a smile and flew a short distance to the parking lot before getting into a nice looking sedan. I made my way onto the bus and nearly passed out on the way back to my apartment.  
  273.  
  274. Willard was already passed out. He reeked of booze. Typical. The earlier mess he made had been tidied up. “Thanks, Willard.” I thought sarcastically. There was a note on top of the debris pile of his 'clean up' job.
  275.  
  276. “Hey, I cleaned up that mess. Except for this note. I guess you can throw it away after reading it. That rattler chick left her book bag so I brought it back to her. I tried to get her number but she called me a “lout”. What the fuck is a lout? Whatever, I took her number off her phone so I'll try calling her sometime. There's some leftover Chinese in the fridge. I ate all the good parts as usual. When you're done with the snake girl try and send her my way. This dry spell is starting to wear on me. I'm beginning to think it's me and not them. I mean do I drink too much? Probably. Tell me when I wake up. I'm probably too drunk to be trusted with a pen right now so anything I say can and will be used against me so please don't okay?”
  277.  
  278. There were food stains and a good degree of crinkling on the note. Willard is such a mess. I would yell at him but I was too tired to raise my voice and even if I wasn't he'd be too drunk to get any use out of my chastising.  I collapsed into bed and considered calling out of work tomorrow. Miss Hitchens would hate me but it would be funny to hear her squawk at me angrily as I give her some bullshit excuse for why I can't come in.  Thoughts of regret and sadness swirled around in my mind from accepting that overtime. I was afraid they'd give me a nightmare but I only ended up having a dream about disgruntled old ladies yelling at me to fix their cable connection. Overall not the worst night's sleep one could ask for.
  279.  
  280. I was shaken awake by Willard.
  281.  
  282. “Hey man, you got class today right?”
  283.  
  284. I moaned a reply of noncompliance. Something which I'm sure meant “Not for another few hours you idiot”
  285.  
  286. “Oh yea, your work called. They were making sure you knew you had a shift today. I forget the time they said you had to work but...I don't think it's soon. It's like later. Not like way later but pretty later."
  287.  
  288. I groaned at his disruption of my precious sleep time.
  289.  
  290. "You should probably call them back or something dude."
  291.  
  292. I moaned another reply once again. It was something explicit.
  293.  
  294. Willard patted me on the back “Get some rest dude, I'll be in and out all day but I'll try to be quiet for ya okay” I let out another noncommittal moan in response.
  295.  
  296. “Oh, forgot, I finished what was left of the Chinese since you didn't. Want me to get you some lunch, my dude?”
  297.  
  298. I sat up completely irate at this point “WILLARD! PLEASE!”
  299.  
  300. “Okay okay,~ jeez. You act like someone that barely got any sleep or something Gyohohohoho” He slipped out and locked the door behind him. I slumped back down into bed passed out again.
  301.  
  302. This time I had another dream. It was about Miss. Hitchens. She was flying with me tight in her arms. We were high above the world. She dropped me and I seemed to fall forever until I landed in her nest. A bunch of angry voices cried out at me. They cried to me to fix their problems and I felt overwhelmed. Miss Hitchens loomed over me and in a whispered tone said to me “Don't forget your customer surveys...Our metrics don't look good this month” I panicked as the voices seemed to get louder and louder.
  303.  
  304. I awoke to Willard shaking me. “Ed man, dude, you got class in like...” he paused looked over his shoulder at the clock and then back at me. “Dude, when is your class again?”. I was absolutely dazed and confused in my half dream state.
  305.  
  306. I managed a “W-...who in...what happened?”
  307.  
  308. “Class dude class, when do you have it? “
  309.  
  310. “I have it at 10:30...”
  311.  
  312. Willard stopped once more, looked at the clock, back at me, then back to the clock, then back at me, then back at the clock, then at the floor, then back at me.
  313.  
  314. “I think your class started 30 minutes ago dude.” I pushed Willard aside to make sure he hadn't made a mistake. Sure enough, it was fucking 11:00.
  315.  
  316. “SHIT!”
  317.  
  318. I stumbled out of bed and grabbed my things in a hurry. “Good luck Ed man!” Willard howled behind me. I was funky and disheveled. I probably looked and smelled worse than Willard does on a bad day. I entered the lecture hall and all the eyes were on me. The professor slowly angled his head to lock his gaze with mine. “You're late Burkhart.” His voice was comically monotone in the nature of some cheesy 80's movie cliché.  Air continued to escape his lungs after he finished talking. It sounded like he was growling at me but he probably didn't notice the noise he himself was making.
  319.  
  320. “I'm sorry Professor Bright.” I wheezed, nearly out of breath from running to his class.
  321.  
  322. He let out a slow groan and seemed to ponder something. “If it was anyone else...Anyone else...I'd tell you to... BEAT IT!” Everyone in the classroom jumped when he shouted. He liked to scare us like that. He leaned towards me and gestured for me to meet him in close proximity.
  323.  
  324. “But I heard you helped someone out in here. In fact, they came to me yesterday and said you were probably gonna be the reason they would pass their test today... because you helped them.”  He leaned back and inhaled deeply before leaning back in for another tight-knit chat.
  325.  
  326. “Ya know, I don't care if they pass or fail. You're all just a bunch of boxes I have to check off for reasons of tenure.” He looked away for a moment like he was trying to find the right words. He shook his head and got to the point. “Don't be late again...GOT IT!”  Everyone in the lecture hall jumped again. I could hear sniggering from various onlookers getting a kick out of the show.
  327.  
  328. He handed me a test and looked at me more serious than before “You have an hour...and 30 minutes, no more extensions... got it?”
  329.  
  330. I smiled and nodded “Thank you very much, professor!” I was so eager to sit down and take the test. That's when I noticed I forgot my calculator. The one thing I couldn't pass the test without. The lynchpin of my problem-solving success. I turned back nervously and walked to him and figured it was all or nothing.
  331.  
  332. “Um...professor, I forgot my calculator...could I...Could I retrieve it from my-”
  333.  
  334. He cut me off “No.” He covered his face with his hand. He was thoroughly disappointed with me.
  335.  
  336. That was it then. Fate had decided to roll me snake eyes.  And here I thought I might have a chance. Perhaps a reschedule? “C-can I retake it?”
  337.  
  338. The professor repeated his earlier verdict. “No extensions.” He crossed his arms and looked properly angry as well. Then a change of heart. He smiled. It wasn't a good smile though. It was the kind of smile you might see from the devil himself after having made a bargain for a man's soul.
  339.  
  340. He got to his feet slowly. His posture was that of a cog in a much larger machine that had been beaten down in a system he had long since stopped caring for. He addressed the class in his speaking voice. “Mr. Burkhart...In his enthusiasm to appear before us this morning...has taken it upon himself to humbly submit a request before you all...” Everyone in the lecture hall gave the professor their ear. People were giggling and chiding me. I knew it.  I'd die of embarrassment before I had a chance to fail the test.
  341.  
  342. He continued, placing his hands on his desk for support “He is in dire need of a calculator...If there's anyone here who has finished with the test and is feeling charitable...” he paused, taking a moment to give the entire lecture hall a look which inferred he didn't wish to finish his sentence. He continued in a defeated tone “He would be most appreciative...”
  343.  
  344. There was a silence save for some muffled laughter and sideways glances. This is not how I wanted to start my day. I wasn't wearing my glasses and many of the faces past the first row were a blur for me. I truly felt alone in this instant. Judged by the masses. They get to see my spectacular failure on full display. I looked back to the professor. He shrugged and sighed “You're no longer at my mercy, but the mercy of your peers. Good luck Mr. Burkhart...” He looked at his watch. “You have an hour and 28 minutes left. I suggest you do what you can.” He crossed his arms once more and seemed to sink into his chair having done all he was willing to do.
  345.  
  346. I made my way to an available spot and sat down. Some of the questions were multiple choice. I started to see if I could squeeze by if I somehow managed to guess them all correctly. At best I'd manage 20% if I had the devil's luck. After going over the test  I realized It was worthless. I could try to figure some of the easy problems in my head but without my calculator my solving time would be more than doubled. I was bad at figuring numbers. My strength came from the method to solve problems, not the actual calculations themselves. I started to shake in anger. I had the answers with me I just needed a calculator to solve the number parts. I was probably one of the few people in here with enough brains to know how properly fucked I was and appreciate the beauty of my own disaster. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. And yet I was also so angry with myself I didn't know what to do.
  347.  
  348. I was trembling now. I wanted to blame everyone. I was angry at Maddie for cutting into my sleep time. Angry at my supervisor for weighing me down with more stress than I needed. Angry at Willard for...for being Willard.  Most of all I was angry with myself. I could have avoided all these problems. I wanted to blame everyone but I was smart enough to know I arrived in this place through my own fault.
  349.  
  350. A voice rang out from my left. It was the one spider girl. Amanda.
  351.  
  352. “Edward can use mine. I've been done for a while. If he still wants it anyway...” Her tone was aloof. If she had been finished for a while why didn't she speak up sooner? Did she just want to watch me squirm?! After she spoke up another familiar voice called out from the edge of the lecture hall. “I-I just finished! Eddy can use mine too!” Maddie waved her calculator as if she were trying to get my attention.
  353.  
  354. The professor interjected since everyone had started whispering and giggling to one another in a tone he thought was a little too loud for a test-taking environment. ”SHUT IT!” It became dead silent.  
  355.  
  356. “Mr. Burkhart only needs one calculator...Allow him to pick his poison.” I couldn't see his face without my glasses from where I was sitting but I knew the professor was getting a kick out of all of this.  
  357.  
  358. Maddie's calculator was bare bones. It could do the graphing and handle the integers as well as mine could...but Amanda uses a higher end model. I've seen it. In the right hands, that thing practically takes the test for you. At least if you're smart enough to use it.  I bit my pencil and deliberated the choice.
  359.  
  360. Amanda spoke up “If you don't want mine it looks like  Madeline will be happy to volunteer hers...” She sounded as aloof as she did earlier.
  361.  
  362. Maddie spoke up as well as if she were being challenged “I'm already finished...and I checked my work too! so don't worry about borrowing mine!”
  363.  
  364. Damnit! This day just keeps getting crazier and crazier! I'd certainly be better off with Amanda's device but Maddie would definitely feel slighted if I chose Amanda's instead of hers.  If I went with Maddie I could certainly pass the test but my own tired mind might betray me.
  365.  
  366. The professor barked at me “Well, Mr.Burkhart?”
  367.  
  368. And then like magic, a calculator appeared before me. A deus ex machina if there ever was one. A classmate sitting next to me, a messy-haired guy not unlike myself. He was kind of a quiet fellow but he seemed well put together. “I'll want it back after class of course.”
  369.  
  370. I nodded and thanked him. It was nicer than Maddie's and thanks to his proximity to myself I wouldn't have to make some long drawn out dramatic walk from the center of the lecture hall to either side of the hall where one of the girl's vying for my attention waited.  I was more than halfway done before most of the other students started to file out after they finished. Maddie and Amanda stayed until the end. As did my compatriot whose name I'll never remember because I never bothered to ask. He took back his calculator took his leave.
  371.  
  372. I managed to finish with a solid 85% to 90% based on my own calculations. I had enough time to check my work and I felt pleased.
  373.  
  374. I turned the test in on the professor's desk. He looked it over and nodded “Mmmm don't know if you passed but I like what I see...You did a whole lot of something.” He paused and then stared me down “No more of this garbage in the future okay? It's not good for my health.” He sunk into his chair and breathed slowly.
  375.  
  376.  Maddie had a worried look on her face. “You passed didn't you?!”
  377.  
  378. Amanda had gathered enough from my interaction with the professor and skittered off to the exit giggling to herself
  379.  
  380. “Well, I'm pretty sure I didn't fail at least.” I shrugged and Maddie looked pleased. I continued “How do you think you did Maddie?”
  381.  
  382. “Well, I think I failed...but I don't know. I think I passed, maybe. I think.” She looked as uncertain as she sounded.  Her rattler shook slowly giving a hint of her worry. I was happy to hear what little confidence my tutoring gave her.
  383.  
  384. The lecture hall doors burst open and it was none other than Willard “HEY ED MAN! You left your computator in your room! You need this for your...” The almost empty lecture hall advised even his simple mind to what had most likely happened. “Shoot Ed...did you already fail?” Maddie glared at him and her nervous rattle became a more aggressive one.
  385.  
  386. The professor was none too pleased with the intrusion and simply pointed to the door with a menacing glare.  Willard got the message and slinked back out of the room. The professor was scary like that.
  387.  
  388. With Amanda's earlier exit having been interrupted by Willard she gained a renewed interest in me and skittered back towards Maddie and myself with an inquisitive look on her face. “Edward...are all of your friends wierdos or what?”
  389.  
  390. “Eh sometimes it feels that way.” I chuckled at my own comment but Maddie crossed her arms and her rattler went off. She was ready to go in for the kill. Who she wanted to kill I didn't know.
  391.  
  392. Amanda became more amused than she already was “You're a pretty wild guy”...She hesitated for a moment and cocked her head to the side “Ed? Or do you prefer Eddy?” Maddie got between us with her rattler still setting  the tense tone “You can call him Edward, I call him Eddy!”
  393.  
  394. “Eh ladies...” I attempted to break them apart but Amanda put her hands on my shoulders, They seemed to dig into me and adhere to my clothing “Is he your boyfriend or something? He's kind of a screw-up.”
  395.  
  396. Maddie grabbed me back away from her and hissed “ He's a very kind and caring person, but someone like you wouldn't even know that!”
  397.  
  398. “Uh hey, wait a second. Can we slow this down a bit?” I attempted to mediate them again.
  399.  
  400. Amanda looked a bit burned by that last comment. “Someone like me?” she hesitated for a moment and chose her next words carefully “You know who plays with rattles? Infants.” Maddie's rattling stopped and the same silence that was so awkward for me before returned now. It was a more sinister silence. Maddie was ready to pounce.  The professor broke the silence with a cough “If you ladies wanna kill each other do it out in the hallway...I have another class in here in about 20 minutes and I don't need a mess.”
  401.  
  402. He pointed to the door and we all obliged his request. Somehow the interjection seemed to defuse the situation.
  403.  
  404. Amanda slipped a piece of paper into my pants pocket and gave me the universal sign for “call me” sight unseen from the gaze of Maddie. Maddie pulled me close to her and chastised me “Be careful around that Amanda girl. I don't think she means well. I mean, you're not a screw-up. A pervert maybe but that's only because you hang around that Willard guy. You should probably get better friends and your behavior will improve think...”
  405.  
  406. “I'm not a pervert. Trust me.” I  attempted to reassure her.
  407.  
  408. “I guess a little indiscretion here and there isn't terrible but” she stopped herself  as if an internal conflict had just been resolved
  409. “Listen! Don't give hussies a reason to pursue you! They can smell the goodness on you and they want it. You can't let them have it. They'll use you up and spit you out! You're too pure for this world!”
  410.  
  411. “Too pure?” I questioned.
  412.  
  413. She nodded "Be careful around loose women like her okay!"
  414.  
  415. I had work later and I didn't need to get dragged into a morality debate with Maddie. I don't know how "loose" Amanda might have been but somehow I felt Maddie was exaggerating the threat.
  416.  
  417. End of chapter 2
  418.  
  419.  
  420.  Chapter 3- Birds of a feather
  421. I was dead at work. I decided not to call out. One, because I pretty much never call out and two, I didn't want to miss any part of my time and half. Miss Hitchens didn't waste an opportunity to peck at me. While on break she solicited me to work extra hours which I declined multiple times. She offered me a gift card to a restaurant but I remained stern. Eating out would be nice but my body was at the breaking point. I needed a good day of not doing anything and the more hours of sleep I could get the better off I would be.
  422.  
  423. Miss Hitchens pouted “Call volume is extra high tonight. I really need you on the phone.~” She peered at me over her glasses trying to win me with her tragic eyes.
  424.  
  425. “And I really need to be off the phone. Honestly, I probably shouldn't be working tonight. I'm probably making some mistakes.”
  426.  
  427. Her tone changed on a dime “Don't you flake out on me now! We were behind yesterday but our numbers are moving up. At the rate we're going we'll be the top-ranked team~!” She was obsessed with getting 'top rank'. I'm not sure what all it entailed but I think it was a hefty bonus for her. She'd buy everyone treats when we achieved top rank so I can only assume it's some kind of monetary incentive.
  428.  
  429. I gave her a noncommittal shrug. “I need a week of paid vacation but I know you can't give me that.”
  430.  
  431. She smiled and pruned some errant plumes from her shoulder. “Right, I don't think I could do that unless I had someone as capable as you to take your place. Are you sure you won't reconsider some extra hours tonight Ed? It's a 25 dollar gift card. That's dinner for two~.”
  432.  
  433.  She prodded me with a recently plucked plume of hers before fanning herself  “You could take me out to dinner, ” She smiled at me prodded with her plume once more.
  434.  
  435. “I'd rather just use it all on myself.” I snatched her plume and snapped it in half before tossing it in the garbage.
  436.  
  437. “Hey!” her mood soured at my answer and her expression tightened when she realized she hadn't got me under her wing. She looked at her watch and with a shift in tone to all business she said to me coldly “Your break is over. Back on the phone.”  I was already headed in that direction.
  438.  
  439. Calls were back to back and at one point I started toying with a customer because they were being short with me. I was technically doing things by the book but I knew what I really needed to do to resolve their issue faster but instead chose to give them the runaround. They were using all manner of expletives and I had no patience for their nonsense at my current energy level. This laxidasical feeling reflected in my tone with them. I started to have fun with the call since it was eating up so much of my shift. My fun ended with a poke from a familiar plume.
  440.  
  441. Hitchens loomed over me. “What's taking so long with this call?” She sounded both anxious and slightly angry with me. She knew I was faster than this so bullshitting my way through would be tricky but doable. Hitchens was good at twisting my arm but I was good at fooling her bird brain. I muted my phone and explained to her calmly with the kind of confidence that would be criminal if I were in court. “Making sure I get a good survey. You know how I'm serious about my quality.”
  442.  
  443. She chewed on her plume's pointy end and analyzed me carefully “If that's the case I'll listen in then, your calls are always pleasing to monitor~” She smirked before returning to her desk.
  444.  
  445. She wasn't going to make this simple but I could still worm my way out of trouble. There was no way in hell this guy would give me any kind of favorable survey but if I could change my tone for the duration of the call  I could pull the wool over Miss Hitchen's eyes. I heard a little pop over my headphones when she sat down at her desk- a sure sign she was listening in. Where before I was dancing around the issues for the customer and letting them know I didn't really care I shifted my expressions to give a stronger feeling of condolence for their problem. Somehow I managed to back him off the deep end and he ended up thanking me for everything despite my earlier indifference.  
  446.  
  447. I wrapped up the call “Make sure to tell us what you think of your call today in the survey!”. Truly I am a master of the customer service realm. The once irate customer was now thanking me over and over and saying he was going to give me the best score on the survey. I'm not sure how I managed to do that but Miss Hitchens was beaming. She clapped for me with her plume between her fingertips. I gave her a Fonzie gesture with a shit eating grin on my face. Immediately another call came in after that one had concluded and the song and dance began anew.
  448.  
  449. The marathon of calls had ended. I made it through the night. Hitchens logged me out of my phone from her desk. I still had 15 minutes left on my shift which was a bit odd. Usually, she'd keep on the phones until the bitter end in the hopes I might unintentionally work longer by a call coming in during the home stretch as it were.
  450.  
  451. “Letting me go early? Or is the part where you shower with praise until I'm sick to my stomach?”
  452.  
  453. Her tone was not as jovial as mine and with a half smile, she said “Perhaps I will be letting you go...Please take a seat next to me sweetie.” She patted a chair beside her with a look in her eyes that conveyed disdain for me. I plopped down into the mechanical chair and it squeaked under my weight. “That was quite the call you had earlier”.
  454.  
  455. I adjusted my glasses “He gave me a good survey right?”
  456.  
  457. “He did.” she nodded.
  458.  
  459. “Nice.”
  460.  
  461. “Yes, it was very impressive. Especially considering how you treated him at the start of the call.” She said this so openly and without hesitation that I had a deer in the headlights moment of not being sure how to respond. My mind was tired and the first thing that came to my mind rolled out my mouth.
  462.  
  463. “You listened to that long call after I finished?” I was trying to make sense of how she had time to go back and listen to it. It takes some time and effort to pull a call for a review in the middle of a busy night...unless.
  464.  
  465. She shook her head “I was listening to you since you came back from break. When you told me you'd probably be making mistakes that's a red flag to me. As your supervisor, it would have been a poor exercise in judgment if I didn't keep an eye on you.” She wasn't giving me the warm bubbly persona she usually showers me with to lower my guard. That was for earlier. She had had me trapped.
  466.  
  467. “I can tolerate a lot of things but being lied to isn't one of them. I feel very betrayed Edward.  You're one of the few agents here I trust to always come through for me. To make every call perfect but now...” She trailed off and chewed on her plume with a look that was expecting me to say something. I wanted to defend myself but there was no way for me to do so. This wasn't getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar. This was getting caught red-handed with your pants on fire in broad daylight. I offered a shrug and said “Sorry”.
  468.  
  469. I sulked. She had played me like a damned fiddle. I didn't have the energy to give her a proper apology. Even if I did being confronted with my own lie to my face was disarming. Hitchens could read as much through my expression and posture before sighing. “This is grounds for termination of course. If you were anyone else on the team I certainly wouldn't hesitate.”  I had a twinge of deja vu from earlier in the day during the test at this moment. The whole 'no good deed goes unpunished' kinda deal. She continued “I can't ignore something like this. Not so much your performance on the call but you lying to me like you did. I'm trying to move up here and I need someone I can count on to rule the roost while I'm gone. How am I going to explain to my superiors my choice of successor with this kind of nonsense on your record? If you were dim-witted that would be one thing. A corrective action could solve such an issue but how do I solve this?  How do you expect me to trust you with my team if I can't trust you to be honest with me?”
  470.  
  471. The obvious unfiltered answer rolled off my tongue. I'm sure it would do untold damage to our professional relationship but it was the truth.  “I never wanted to be a supervisor here. I just need a paycheck.”
  472.  
  473. She looked away from me like she wanted to find the proper reply. She turned back to me “Evidently...” she shook her head and sighed in disbelief, her voice breaking slightly “Your shift is over. You can go home.” She turned to face her monitor and resumed her work.
  474.  
  475. She was done with me.
  476.  
  477. I waited at the bus stop, as usual. It was getting to be winter now and my coat did little to preserve my warmth. The thought of a feathery hug from Miss Hitchens was a pleasant memory but one that also repulsed me. Had I been dishonest with her before? I never told her I didn't want to be a supervisor. I never said I did either. It was her mistake to assume my intentions but I never stopped her from coming to that conclusion.
  478.  
  479.  She was pretty touchy-feely for a boss but I never spurned her. I never said 'no'.  Part of me liked the attention and she could tell well enough that I did without me saying a word. We had our unspoken exchange, a game of wits and flirtation. I played the part of the unwilling recipient and she got to shower me with affection and feel like she won me over so I'd perform for her. Neither of us would admit to this but that wouldn't stop us from playing the game.
  480.  
  481. The illusion was shattered when my real feelings were revealed. I don't care about this job enough to fully dedicate myself and I don't care about her enough to not lie to her face to further my own agenda regardless of her feelings. I saw her as a distraction. Another face in the background noise that is life. My rationalization is that it was only a job and it didn't really matter but truthfully she cared for me a lot. She trusted me and I betrayed her.
  482.  
  483. Apparently, I was a little too deep in my own thoughts. The bus pulled up or rather pulled away without me noticing. I chased it for a brief moment before realizing the futility of this action and I returned to the bus stop. My body ached for sleep. I felt more hours had been stolen from me by the lead-footed bus driver.
  484.  
  485. I curled up on the bench and shivered away trying to rest as best I could and shield myself against the wind cutting through my clothing. A familiar poke to my head interrupted my self-contained ball of self-loathing.
  486.  
  487. Hitchens was looking down at me with a dour expression “You look pretty pathetic on this bench. How about dinner?”
  488.  
  489. ...
  490.  
  491. Her posture inside her vehicle was awkward with her wings folded back to allow her to drive. I couldn't turn down dinner any more than I could turn down some shelter from the windy night.
  492.  
  493. “Thanks, Miss Hitchens. You don't have to take me out to eat though.”
  494.  
  495. “Actually I do have to take you out to dinner.” she buckled her seatbelt and took her glasses off.
  496.  
  497. “What?!”
  498.  
  499. She waved the gift card in front of me she'd tried to bait me with earlier “This thing expires in 2 days so I have to hurry up and redeem it before then. I'm not going to eat 25 dollars worth of food by myself.”
  500.  
  501. “You were going to give me an expired gift card!?”
  502.  
  503. “I would have gotten you a new one if you had agreed to work the extra hours...” She looked annoyed at my observation as if she expected me to connect the dots better. “I was going to give this one to Donald. Turns out he wasn't joking about that broken leg. His mouth still works fine. He could have come to work.” She looked utterly annoyed at the peons she had to manage.
  504.  
  505. I was quiet and shivering but the car's heater gradually warmed my body and my spirits. Even with the renewed warmth, the same unease that pervaded our earlier interaction hung in the air and I didn't feel like anything I could say would redeem myself.  I was not for want of trying though.
  506.  
  507. “I'm sorry Miss Hitchens. I shouldn't have betrayed your trust the way I did. I know you count on me and you didn't deserve to have me lie to you like that.”
  508.  
  509. She mumbled something in reply but I didn't catch it
  510.  
  511. “eh?”
  512.  
  513. “I said you can call me..” She trailed off “forget it.”
  514.  
  515. I remembered her earlier request “Star, what restaurant are we going to again?”
  516.  
  517. “You'll see when we get there” Her tone was a little warmer than before. I didn't think I could get on her good side but I could certainly get off her bad side. She pulled a pin out of her hair bun and her head seemed to fluff outward like it was follicle grenade.  She flicked the hairpin into the back seat.
  518.  
  519. She reached over and touched my hand “How do you think I look?”
  520.  
  521. A loaded question if there ever was one. I'd play it safe with this one. “You look great.”
  522.  
  523. At a stop light, she stared me down. “You're not just saying that...like earlier?”
  524.  
  525. “Of course not. You always look pretty”
  526.  
  527. She smiled “Of course I do.~”
  528.  
  529. We arrived at the restaurant. It was your corporate staple establishment of the minimart design. Since they're not sponsoring this story we'll just go with the more generic if less realistic moniker “Grill and Wok”. We're greeted by a wide-eyed and grinning receptionist at the door who directs us to an open table. He was a dog fellow had a long tail that poked out of his trousers and a number of badges and pins that clung to his uniform.
  530.  
  531. Our Server was a somewhat less enthusiastic- a catgirl with too many facial piercings to count with metal studs and facial piercings of all sorts. Her demeanor was one of an employee just looking for a reason to walk out. Her uniform had a number of pins as well but they didn't seem to be hung with the same care as the receptionist. After we made our selections the Star whispered across to me “You think she's a metalhead?”
  532.  
  533. We both laughed. Star knew me too well and how to make me smile. The food was rich and buttery. It was absolute garbage and it tasted delicious. It was the kind of food you ate when you were actively trying to contract diabetes. Star had ordered a comically large margarita that sat in more of a bowl than a glass and solicited me to share it with her but I declined. She shrugged and finished it off herself. We chatted back and forth about work and my friends at school. We laughed at the poor customer I had fun with. Afterwards, she told me to never do anything like that ever again.
  534.  
  535. “Thanks again for taking me out Star. I haven't been out to eat in a long time.”
  536.  
  537. “It's alright. I've owed you a treat for a while.” she played with a food before continuing “I push you hard ya know, but, I don't often consider the kind of stress you're under outside work. With your schooling I mean. I guess I blame myself somewhat for your performance. It's no excuse for what you did today of course but...I understand how you'd be as tired as you are.”
  538.  
  539. We finished our food and I felt bloated. We both looked like we could slip into a food coma.
  540.  
  541. “I guess we should get going home soon.”  I adjusted my glasses.
  542.  
  543. “I guess so, yea” Star took out her gift card to pay when I got a call on my cell phone.
  544.  
  545. It was Willard. I picked up ”What is it, wild man.”
  546.  
  547. “Ed man! I got bad news for you!”
  548.  
  549. “What kind of bad news?”  Star's attention was snatched for a moment  “Bad news?”  
  550.  
  551. “Yea Ed, really bad news!”
  552.  
  553. “Did you break the microwave again? I told about putting metal in there.”
  554.  
  555. “No man, not the micro. I got a booty call over!”
  556.  
  557. “How is that bad news?”
  558.  
  559. “Well, I guess it's not bad news for me. This chick plays kama sutra bingo and I think she's looking to beat me. That's good news for me but...I don't think you wanna come over tonight. Just stay at some other place Ed man. You always smell like different girls are hanging off you, just go to one of their houses! That snake chick seems pretty in to you.”
  560.  
  561. “Her name is Madeline and I can't just go to her house!”
  562.  
  563. “You hop on er' but can't even crash at er' house on a rainy day?  You're pretty degenerate my dude.”
  564.  
  565. “You're the one playing kama sutra bingo!” I say this a little too loud and a number of nearby tables give us sideways looks.
  566.  
  567. Star tugged on my sleeve “Is everything okay Edward?”
  568.  
  569. I wrap the call with Willard and apologize to Star for the outburst.
  570.  
  571. “I gotta find someplace to stay for the night. My roommate is...” I search for the right word but Star fills in the blank for me.
  572.  
  573. “He's busy. Well, that's no problem. If you need a place to stay for the night you're welcome to stay in my nest.”
  574.  
  575. “I can't impose on you like that Star, not after everything you've done for me tonight.” I shake my head.
  576.  
  577. “It's not imposing if I'm the one offering. Unless you'd like sleep in the street.” She smirked.
  578.  
  579. “Well, I guess as long as it's just for tonight...”
  580.  
  581. We didn't tip the server since their service wasn't the best. On the way back to Star's place she broached another subject that caught me by surprise.
  582.  
  583. “What would you think if I picked you up for work and drove you home after?”
  584.  
  585. “What?! I mean, well I wouldn't want to burn up your gas.”
  586.  
  587. “Nonsense, with you I can take the HOV lane and your apartment isn't far out of the way. Better yet our schedules sink up" She had an evil look on her face "Thanks to some influence on my part." I joined her in her Sedan and buckled up.
  588.  
  589. "Think it over and let me know what you want to do okay?” She turned on her radio and it was synced up to play music from her phone. After that, she traced her talon'd finger up an down my arm as she drove and squeezed my hand.  A trancy dance mix of synthwave music reverberated through the car and I felt myself wanting to drift away to sleep where I sat.  After shutting my eyes I begin to better understand the implication of her advances these past months that we worked together. For me perhaps our exchanges were a game. For her, she was genuinely starting to fall for me. What scared me was I didn't think I felt the same way. I knew I did care for her but I didn't know how I could confess my feelings to her whatever those feelings might be.
  590.  
  591. The world outside stopped moving and we had arrived. Her house was a mansion compared to my apartment. Never had I had a better understanding of our income disparity until now.
  592.  
  593. “Welcome to Casa De Stacy~” She stretched out her taloned arm and her wing behind it.
  594.  
  595. “Very nice house”
  596.  
  597. “Yea, beware the shitstain inside though.”
  598.  
  599. “Shitstain?”
  600.  
  601. Star was already making her way up to her door.  She opened the door and I hurried inside to escape the cold night air.
  602.  
  603. “Don't freeze to death sweetie~” Star chuckled.
  604.  
  605. “Well some of us don't have built-in feather coat...” I rebutted.
  606.  
  607. She pulled a plume from her shoulder and teased me with it “Here's one to get you started.”
  608.  
  609. “No thanks.” I declined.  She rolled her eyes and tucked it away in her pocket.
  610.  
  611. In her living room, there was a shaggy-headed teen with wings not unlike Star's sprawled on a couch absorbed in his phone.
  612.  
  613. “Kevin, you have school tomorrow, what are you still doing up!? Get to bed!”
  614.  
  615. Kevin shook his head to clear his hair from his eyes and gave a one-word reply “No”.
  616.  
  617. “You little shitstain, get to bed now or I'll drag you up there myself!”
  618.  
  619. Kevin fixed his gaze on me before standing up “Don't forget to use a rubber. She gets around.”  He then started to make his way upstairs.
  620.  
  621. Star chucked a tissue box at him but missed and knocked a painting off the wall. The teen stopped and commented “Real mature mom. That'll definitely keep him from thinking you're crazy.” he continued up the stairs out of sight.
  622.  
  623. “Where's Mr. Hitchens?”
  624.  
  625. She didn't seem keen to fill me in and simply stated: “There isn't one.”
  626.  
  627. Her feathers were still ruffled from the interaction with her son.
  628. Before I could get in another word she opened up a cabinet filled with various colored bottles with every label of liquor and wine you could imagine.  Glasses lined the inside of the door. She turned to me and smiled “Would you like something to drink?”
  629.  
  630. “I don't drink too often but I'll have something light if you've got it.”
  631.  
  632. Star nodded and picked out multiple bottles before choosing a few to set on her counter. She poured me a clear colored vodka and despite my request for something light, it burned all the way down.  I coughed as I felt the fumes come back up and out through my nose.
  633.  
  634. “goodness...” I gasped. My reaction spawned a laugh from Star and she poured her drink from a square shaped bottle with a barely translucent dark brown liquid and drank it down in mere seconds.
  635.  
  636. “Wow! what proof is that?”
  637.  
  638. She eyed up the bottle and shrugged “I'm not sure but I think it doubles as gasoline though~”. She giggled at her own comment and she downed another glass, then another and another in what felt like rapid succession to me. Then again the vodka may have been altering my perception of time somewhat. She began to give me accounts of what she really felt about her job and her hopes and dreams. Her voice's pitch was unsteady and she started to get that drunkard's lisp that Willard tended to get when he had too many. Much of what she said was unintelligible and I wasn't terribly certain how accurate her account of any the events she was telling me actually was.
  639.  
  640. “nnn..dash why we godda use da older phones. Dey manishmin just pinshes pendies becuz...
  641.  
  642.  She went to pour herself another glass but was spilling it all over the counter. I offered to help her pour but she wiggled her index finger indignantly at me “Ho-ho....Hol on...wash dis”.
  643.  
  644. She moved the glass aside and started to drink straight from the bottle.  It was already half gone when she started and I watched in disbelief as she continued to chug it down. I reached out to take the bottle away as she was starting to scare me but gravity got the better of her first and she tumbled backward off her stool onto the floor.
  645.  
  646. “Aagggh! Why joo puss me!?” I rushed around the counter to help her up but half of her body seemed to be dead weight and the other half was flailing around. It was like wrestling with a headless chicken.
  647.  
  648. “Are you okay?!”
  649.  
  650. “I wuz undil you push me. Suz a bad boi...Yous ffffffired!” Her alcoholic breath smacked me in the face as I tried my best to get a hold of her but it was rough going. Kevin approached from the side seemingly out of nowhere with a look of contempt on his face. He shook his head before passing off some instructions to me.
  651.  
  652. “Her room is at the end of the hallway on your left. Make sure to lay her on her stomach in case she vomits. She may do that on the way to her bed though so watch out for that. Also, she definitely can't consent right now in case you're getting any ideas. I'd tell you not to fuck her brains out but it looks like she's already done that for you.”
  653.  
  654. I looked wearily over to Kevin “You say that like this isn't your first time dealing with her like this...” Star interjected, “Deal me in!”
  655.  
  656. Kevin shrugged “It isn't.”
  657.  
  658. “I just need to stay the night, I'm not after your mom, I promise.”
  659.  
  660. Kevin shrugged again as if it wasn't obvious enough he was trying to win a nihilism award. “I don't care. She's more likely to hurt you than herself. That's what she always does to people trying to help her.” He shook his head before continuing. “Isn't that right mom?”
  661.  
  662. “shtay ou' o the liquor cabindent!” She replied waving her taloned finger around before covering her face with her hand and giggling. Who she was talking to I wasn't sure.
  663.  
  664. Kevin looked back at me “Thanks for putting her away. Seriously though, the less involved you are with my mom the better. She's a real mess when she gets like this.”
  665.  
  666. “That's a hell of a thing to say about your mom...”
  667.  
  668. “Yea, well you don't live with her.” Kevin groaned.
  669.  
  670. We made it to her bedroom and helped her onto the covers. Her top was damp all over and it smelled like that drink she had earlier. It must have spilled on her when she toppled off the stool. As I went to help her out of it she buried her face in my neck. She was breathing heavily letting out intermittent moans. She might have been trying to communicate to me but her speech was slurred to the point that I didn't want to attempt to decipher anymore. Being a griffin her wings limited her clothing options so it took me a moment to undo her shirt from behind since I wasn't quite sure how it worked.
  671.  
  672. “Gadda buy me dinnah firsh” she insisted drunkenly as she groped me like she did when she was sober, now with added pressure from her talons that seemed to sink into me.
  673.  
  674. “Ow, careful with those!” I pulled her hands away and got her to lay down. She smiled at me “joo wunna take jer top off nuw?” her face was a flush.
  675.  
  676. “Not tonight Star, it's time for bed.” I ran my fingers through her hair and felt the border of her hairline meet her featherline at her back. She nuzzled my arm in response and cooed.
  677.  
  678. I couldn't help but catch a glance at her chest but I did my best to avert my gaze and I tossed her top into the corner of the room. She had frilly bra that barely contained her bosom and it was certainly alluring if nothing else but I wasn't about to take advantage of her in the state she was in. I shifted her legs around so I could get the covers up over her. During this process, she leaned over the corner of the bed of her own accord and vomited into a bin next to her nightstand before groaning and returning to her pillow.
  679.  
  680.  “Christ Star, there goes dinner.” I leaned over her and wiped her mouth with the cuff of my shirt. I then shifted her over onto her stomach. She'd already vomited once so I figured I didn't need to take any chances.
  681.  
  682. This certainly wasn't the most flattering portrait of Star I'd seen before. She always seemed in control of things and confident at work. Now she just looked helpless. Kevin's words rang in my head and the gravity of the situation hit me properly.  She puts on a nice show at the office but she had more problems than I wanted to know about at home. I wasn't sure if I should respect her sobriety at work or condemn her behavior outside of it.  
  683.  
  684. She was breathing slow deep breaths still and I sat with her for a while stroking her head.
  685.  
  686.  “You gonna be okay?” No reply.
  687.  
  688. I was now more tired than ever and I decided I'd crash on that couch I saw Kevin sitting on earlier. Speaking of Kevin he met me in the hall.
  689.  
  690. “I put some blankets on the couch. Don't try to steal anything. We have security camera's all over.” He looked annoyed by all the work his mother had inadvertently given him. He was in the middle of cleaning up the mess she'd left by the counter and was putting drinks back into their rightful place in the cabinet.  
  691.  
  692. “Thanks.” I sighed.
  693.  
  694. He started sweeping up some broken glass that was once a fine liquor bottle into a dustpan. The painting that was knocked down earlier was back where it was supposed to be and tissue box was sitting where it was before Star threw it.
  695.  
  696. “You work fast huh?”
  697.  
  698. Kevin was dumping the remains of the bottle in the garbage before washing his hands. “Yea. Gotta take care of mom or she'll let this place go to hell. I'd apologize for her but I've done that too many times for too many different people.” He extended his hand. I shook it and we exchanged names.
  699.  
  700. “Thanks for helping me take care of mom, Ed.”
  701.  
  702. “Night Kevin.”
  703.  
  704. Goodnight indeed.
  705.  
  706. End of chapter 3.
  707.  
  708. Chapter 4- Dollars to donuts
  709.  
  710. The couch was comfy enough to sleep on. I didn't drink enough for a hangover but the vodka had left me with some dry mouth. I made my way to Star's kitchen and lapped up some water from the faucet like a cat. I didn't drink it so much as wet my mouth with it.
  711.  
  712. "You're a real animal, Ed." I hear Star as she emerged from the hallway to her room.
  713.  
  714. I poked my head up from the faucet. My chin is still dripping and I get a look at Star. She has a cup of coffee in hand and is dressed in a robe and PJs. Her hair is done up in a towel so I can assume she's recently gotten done in the shower.
  715.  
  716. "You're more of an animal than me."
  717.  
  718. She smiles at my comment but I can tell I've slighted her somewhat. "I'll assume you're talking about my physique." She closed the distance and ruffled my hair before sniffing my head. "You want to clean up?"
  719.  
  720. "I probably need to get going. Yesterday was supposed to be my day off after class but you had me under your wing."  I tugged her wing in jest. It was soft to the touch but had a firm musculature.
  721.  
  722. Star pursed her lips and let out a soft growl that might have been confused for a purr.  "You don't have class today, do you? I thought you just had work."
  723.  
  724. I shrugged. "I'd usually be chilling out at my place with my flatmate" Star looked even more agitated and questioned me "You have the day off and you don't want to spend it with me?"  She extended her wings as if to intimidate me but I heard a pop and her face contorted in a brief spasm of agony. I returned her look with a wince of my own and her wings immediately retracted into their folded position. "Uhnnn. I think I slept on them wrong or something." She groaned as she bent over the counter slowly extended them. Her wings popped and cracked as she groaned while stretching them.
  725.  
  726. "Are you alright?" I got behind her and rubbed her shoulders feeling sorry for her.  She gave me the side of her face. "I didn't give you permission to touch me that way." I pull back feeling I went too far having misread the situation. "I thought-"
  727.  
  728. She turned more to face me with a smirk and a wink "I didn't say to stop~. Go freshen up, I'll make you some breakfast Ed." I shake my head feeling like I've been spoiled since last night "Star, you don't have to make me breakfast."  
  729.  
  730. She smushed her talon'd finger to my mouth to silence me "Ed, Sweetie, if a woman offers to make you breakfast you say 'yes', got it?" I simply nodded in response and felt a smack on my butt. "Good! Now go freshen up!"
  731.  
  732. She pointed me to her bathroom and I proceeded to clean myself up. I was hardly filthy but wasn't fresh for sure. I had time to reflect on the previous night as I tried to pick out a body wash that wasn't catered specifically for someone with wings. I eyed my options: Feather Plus, Perfect Plumes, Angel Wing body wash, and a myriad of other Avian specific products.
  733.  
  734. I settled on a humble bar of soap and picked a random feather themed body wash for my hair figuring that feathers and hair aren't terribly dissimilar anyway. I finished my shower and toweled myself down. I took a seat on the toilet as a few remaining droplets rolled off me. I checked my phone since I'd seen it poking out of my pants pocket on the floor.  Multiple text messages from Willard.  A few texts from a number I don't know.  I glance around the bathroom as I wait for the messages to load up. There are all kinds of pink girl themed decorations hanging around the bathroom.  This is definitely a single mother household.
  735.  
  736. The first message from the unknown number loads up "Hey its Madeline. Willard said you never made it back last night. Are you okay?"  I had talked to her before but I didn't remember giving her my number. I figured I'd find out later how she got it and continued through the messages. Another from Maddie "Call/text me, I never thanked you properly for the tutoring." I skimmed through Willard's messages. The difference in grammar set them apart immediately "ed man u kno dat snek gurl? she cum by and ask 4 ur digits. I told her no but she said give them neway." he continued "she scare me. Sorry. Gave her ur digits. gud luk bro."
  737.  
  738. Fucking Willard.
  739.  
  740. I heard a knock on the door "You okay in there Edward? Breakfast is ready." I told her I'd be right out and joined her at the counter we sat at last night. She was still in her PJs but her hair was free and fluffy.  My plate was loaded with scrambled eggs and bacon- a breakfast staple. There was one question I had to ask though since the reply was guaranteed to be worth it "Did you oviposit these this morning?" I gestured to plate with a grin.
  741.  
  742. She didn't seem to find my joke funny.  She strode to me with an apron adorned with the words "I'm eggcellent" and leaned in close. "If you're not careful I'll lay an egg on your head~" She smacked me with a hand towel before returning to the sink to clean some dishes.  Breakfast was delicious in the only way it can be from a mother who's been cooking for a long time.
  743.  
  744. It was Friday. No classes today but I would have work later.  Usually, I'd sleep all day or take care of chores around the apartment but I felt a little out of my element at Star's place. She broke me out of my post-breakfast daze "So, are we going to carpool from now on or do you prefer the company you have on the bus?"
  745.  
  746.  I finished drinking some orange juice and cleared my throat before replying. I felt properly healthy with this breakfast and quipped "Well, your car definitely beats the bus, can you make me lunch as well?" I was joking but she paused and had a thoughtful look on her face as if it was a genuine request. I corrected her.
  747.  
  748. "I'm joking, joking! This breakfast is good though." Star shook her head and her hair fluttered around provocatively.  "Well..." she strode over to me and draped her arms around my shoulders. Her hands were still wet from handling dishes. "...If I could get some recompense- some more of that massaging for instance. I'm sure we could work something out.~" She squeezed my biceps and nuzzled my cheek "Of course you still owe me for today." She snatched my now empty plate from in front of me and laid it gently into the sink.
  749.  
  750. She stretched her wings out, generating a few pops and cracks once again "I'm afraid I can't really service myself if you catch my drift."
  751.  
  752. "Well, eh, I'm sure I can..." I was unsure of myself. I'd never really chased after Star so much as been a willing recipient of her affections. Sensing my hesitation she took control of the conversation "I'll show you where it hurts, come Ed." She began to make her way to her room. She had spoken to me like a dog but I would be lying if I wasn't eager to please her. That familiar feeling of working extra hours hit me. She was manipulating me as always. I didn't fight it. I followed her to her room.
  753.  
  754. She was sprawled out on her bed, resting on her stomach with her wings fully extended. "Get my shoulders like you were earlier but be careful near my wing joints, they're quite tender." I sat to her left and put my weight on her shoulders. Her back was feathery with supple skin beneath the surface. She ordered me further "You need to put more pressure into it. Just sit on me, that'll work better."  I awkwardly shimmied my way onto her back and she cawed at me "Not there! You're smooshing me! Scoot further back!" She pushed at my stomach with her talon'd hand and I obliged, sliding over her plump bottom to rest on her thighs.
  755.  
  756. "That's better, now put your back into it." She pointed at her shoulders. As I leaned over her I noticed her shirt was undone at the top to allow her wings more flexibility. It was a somewhat plain garment. It was a work-related piece with text on the front and the back that read "Star's Stars- The best nest around!". She was wearing the same PJs she had on earlier so there wasn't much left to the imagination in our shared proximity.  I worked her shoulders for a while and noticed she was molting as my fingers dug into her. Old feathers were gathering under her armpits.
  757.  
  758. "Star, you're losing some feathers back here, is that normal?" I shook my hand and a few smaller feathers floated off it. She gave me an answer in a defeated tone "With griffins, their partner generally helps in the grooming process. It's hard to manage it yourself.  Honestly, at my age, I'm surprised they still come in as thick as they do..." I continued to dig into her shoulders and her feather coat gradually thinned out exposing more skin on her shoulders and upper back. She cooed and nuzzled her pillow with a smile.
  759.  
  760. "That's enough there sweetie. Now do my wings"
  761.  
  762. "I thought you said they were tender?"
  763.  
  764. "They are, so be gentle!"
  765.  
  766. I worked on where they were connected to her back and Star let out groans and grunts as I rubbed. It sounded like I was hurting her but she didn't tell me to stop. I could hear various pops and cracks as I gradually worked my way up from the stems of her wings to their more pronounced musculature. As I leaned forward to get her outstretched wing I felt myself press up against her butt.  She could certainly tell I was aroused. I figured I'd try to distract her from such thoughts if they were coming to her "So, I've seen you fly before, how far can you go on these things?"
  767.  
  768. In the tone that was just as sullen as her molting explanation, she sadly explained "I don't get to exercise them like I'd like. Between my sedentary work life and driving everywhere I basically never use my wings. I sometimes worry they're going to atrophy." I squeezed her wing and she winced "Why don't you go flying today?"
  769.  
  770. She groaned "It's not that simple Edward. There's airspace legislation to contend with as well as anti-terror laws. I basically can't get higher than a few meters off the ground without being charged as a felon in most places.  I can go exercise in specially designated zones but that's time and money I don't have. I also have Kevin to take care of and...it's just too much of a bother." A genuinely sad look grew on her face as I continued to massage her wings. Her wings shed feathers like her back did. Feathers drifted downward and settled on her bed. These were not the massive plumes she poked me with but rather smaller ancillary feathers.
  771.  
  772. Her wings folded back abruptly and she clapped her hands "Okay that's enough for today." I dismounted her and batted small feathers off my shirt and pants. The first question to pop into my mind "Do you feel better?"
  773.  
  774. Star nodded "I feel much better!" She gave me a hug and caged me in with her wings obscuring the ambient light from us. In a softer tone, she whispered "Thanks, Edward" I felt a peck on my lips and I blushed. Star pulled her wings back to their folded position behind her. I wanted to ask her for a ride home but since we were going to work later I didn't feel like making her drive to my place and then drive back to hers. It'd be almost 40 minutes back and forth so I chilled out until it was time for work.
  775.  
  776. Star was happy enough to have me over and seemed more bubbly than usual. She was busy cleaning things and picking up around the house. Occasionally she'd stop at her liquor cabinet for a shot before continuing about her work. I asked her if she needed help whenever she was busy and she always declined and continued with her chores. I sat idly on her couch and watched TV for a while.
  777.  
  778. I took this time to text Maddie to let her know I was okay. I sent a similar text to Willard and told him not to give my number out to strange women. I stopped with that one though and didn't send it because a thought occurred to me. Did I consider Maddie strange? She was definitely a bit odd but I knew her well enough. I had never thought to give her my number but I wouldn't mind her having it. Star already had my number. She would always text me asking for me to work overtime and take other people's shifts with kissy faced emoticons.
  779.  
  780. I felt a familiar bosom press up against my neck. "Starved for attention already? Did you need to review my texts for the contact high?" I could smell alcohol on her breath in such a close proximity.  I queried "Are you sure you should be drinking so much before work?"
  781.  
  782. Star went quiet and ran one her talon'd fingers through my hair "Ed...I know I can be wild after work.  Sometimes I get carried away and I make a fool of myself. But..." I felt her talons dig into my jaw and neck "I don't need you or anyone else telling me how much I should drink. That's none of your business. Understand?" Every syllable carried that fragrance of drunkenness I remembered from last night. I nodded. She replied "Good." I felt my neck being pulled to meet her gaze and she gave me a kiss. Not a schoolyard peck like she had given before but a proper saliva filled exchange. I wasn't expecting it and the intensity got my heart racing.
  783.  
  784. I crumpled on the couch and Star followed, kicking her leg over the back cushions and straddling me to continue the kiss. It was an angry kissing. Our tongues were fighting for a supremacy of intimacy. Both of us in our own way kissed and grabbed each other but Star had the advantage as she straddled me. I felt like she was trying to punctuate our earlier conversation by forcing her liquored taste into my mouth. I pushed her back to catch my breath. I rubbed her chest and fondled her breasts. Her reckless abandon was contagious and I felt like she had charmed me into consent.  "Star..." I was breathing heavy
  785.  
  786. "We have work soon. I need to get ready. We can do the more fun stuff after work." She was smiling down at me like she'd won some prize. She'd finally got me to reciprocate the way she wanted.
  787.  
  788. I brought my hands down from her chest and stroked her hips "I guess so. Sorry for grabbing at you but I couldn't help myself."
  789.  
  790. "Don't apologize so much, it makes you sound like a pussy." She leaned in for another quick kiss that turned into a longer one. I was no longer playing the role of the innocent underling. I was a complicit partner in this lurid exchange. I hadn't been with a woman in a long time and Star seemed to know every button of mine to push to get me to comply. I ran my hands up her shirt and fondled her breasts again. She didn't fight my advances.  I felt her feathery ribs and tender tummy.  Her wings extended and I heard little cracks and pops as she groaned and bit my ear.
  791.  
  792. I lifted her shirt exposing her tits. She wasn't wearing a bra and they seemed to flop out of her shirt in an unceremonious and anticlimactic fashion. I kissed them and nuzzled my face into her chest.
  793.  
  794. "Ed..." Star was panting now.  Her voice is clearly in a state of arousal. "I didn't give you permission to..." I nawed at her tits and licked them.  My carnal desires made manifest and my healthy libido grew from a small tender to a roaring flame with Star's provocation. I was ready to violate her in the worst ways.
  795.  
  796. The front door opened. It was Kevin. He saw us on the couch and shot us both a look of contempt followed by a one-word commentary "Typical." Star pulled her shirt back down.
  797.  
  798. Star turned to face him "Kevin, what you doing home from school so early!"
  799.  
  800. Kevin was short with her, covering his face to protect his eyes from his mother's lewd display "Check your watch, Mom."
  801.  
  802. Star reached for her watch on the adjacent coffee table and was aghast. She turned to face me as she awkwardly dismounted, almost tripping over the table in front of the couch "We gotta go, sweetie. No time to stop for lunch but we won't be late if we get going now." Kevin was already making his way past us to his room and Star cawed at him "Don't stay up late again!"
  803.  
  804.  Another one word reply from Kevin. "Whatever."  
  805.  
  806. Star had gotten ready surprisingly fast. Her hair was pulled back into a bun, her sloppy wrinkled T-shirt had been replaced with a tasteful blouse and her PJs were replaced with a modest floral print skirt that stopped just above her knees. I was less impressive sporting my same casual look of jeans and polo shirt. These were the same clothes I had worn yesterday and the same ones I had been fooling around with Star in. They were the absolute minimum I could appear at work in and get away with it.
  807.  
  808. Star led the way out of the door. I followed her to the car and we sped off after getting buckled in. She kept a brisk pace through downtown traffic and I saw her occasionally take a sip from a tiny liquor bottle that was stored in her armrest. I kept my commentary to myself. She had put on flamboyantly large sunglasses to keep the sun out of her eyes. I was reduced to squinting like Clint Eastwood every time the sun poked through buildings as the afternoon set in.
  809.  
  810. We'd probably get to work with a good 10 or 15 minutes to spare. Star had been quiet and I wasn't sure how to break the silence. I just blurted out "Thanks for the good time Star."
  811.  
  812. Star looked over at me then back to the road. "Listen, Ed, about earlier. I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I really enjoy being with you. I feel like I can be myself around you. That's really important for me." Was this the crescendo to a friend zone announcement? I felt like she had moved fast earlier as did myself. The tone of her voice made me worry regardless of her intent. She continued "I don't think I could trust someone else with my heart. Not that I don't trust you, Ed, it's just I've made a lot of mistakes so I don't really form attachments like I used to. I do love you though. At least as much as someone like me can love another person."
  813.  
  814. Star bit her lip and I felt if I said the wrong thing now I could really screw up whatever our relationship is. I ran through all of the things I could say and tried to pick the one closest to the truth but far enough away from anything that could hurt Star. Above all else, she was a good friend and I didn't like seeing her sad.
  815.  
  816. "Star, I really enjoyed spending time with you. You're my friend and..." I paused before continuing, thinking to myself  "Stick the landing."
  817.  
  818. "...I like seeing you happy. So whatever you're worried about don't worry about it. If you have something you want to talk about I'll listen." I spoke with the same kind of voice I used on the phones to reassure customers and I'm sure Star recognized it. I squeezed her hand that was sitting on the armrest. She brushed my hand away to get the small liquor bottle out and take another sip. She sat it between her legs instead of back in the armrest.
  819.  
  820. She swallowed down the shot "Thanks, Ed, although I was kind of hoping you'd do something you'd regret so I'd have a reason to be angry at you. You've been nothing but good to me despite how much I coerce you." I saw a tear roll down her cheek from behind her shades "I'm used to assholes I guess. It'd be easier for me if you weren't so goddamn nice all the time." She smiled, a pained chuckle escaped her as another tear rolled down the path of the previous one. "I kept toying with you. I liked to watch you squirm and give in to my demands. It made me feel in control." She wiped her nose and sniffled.
  821.  
  822. "At the same time, you're my friend. Even if...even..."  She nudged her shades up to wipe her eyes and sniffled. "I just wish... I wish that I had met you sooner is all."
  823.  
  824. She turned up her speakers and drowned out whatever crying she was doing with her trancy music. I wanted to say something but all I could manage were halfway glances at her as she took an occasional shot from the tiny bottle between her legs. I didn't know what to say or even where to begin. I certainly didn't have enough time to unpack everything she'd give me before we got to work. Tears continued to leak from her and her lips were quivering. My heart ached to see her like this but I wasn't sure how to comfort her.
  825.  
  826. The sky had a blend of soft oranges and yellows as the sun crept beneath the horizon. We got further downtown and cars were switching their headlights on. We arrived at work and I got out. Star stayed behind and shooed me away not wanting to look at me. Her music continued to seep from the car. I had about 10 minutes to clock in so I went to work.
  827.  
  828. I hadn't even gotten situated at my station before Star appeared to take a seat at her desk. She was a bubbly as ever and whatever evidence of the episode she had earlier was gone. I wanted to talk to her about whatever it was she was feeling. That would have to wait. Calls were coming in quickly; I put my feelings on hold,  applied a fake smile to my face and went about my customer service duties.
  829.  
  830. Time seemed to creep by at a painfully slow rate. When my first break came I smiled at Star and she smiled back "Don't forget the survey!". I nodded and replied shortly "You know it!". The song and dance of consummate professionals. I wasn't about to make a scene any more than she was. Lunch came and went just as my first break did. My second break was just as uneventful as my first. Throughout the night Star maintained her composure. She even chided me for not accepting overtime as usual. It all felt very fake. My shift was winding down and calls seemed to be tapering off as well. My last call ended about two minutes after my shift was done -an almost perfect stop if I ever got one.
  831.  
  832. I approached Star's station, she was talking to someone on her desk phone. She looked busy. I was going to ask her about driving me home but all I managed was a wave and a smile. Sometimes she worked later than I did and I wasn't about to cry for her to take me home if she was working a late night. Star waved back at me and returned my expression more or less.
  833.  
  834. The bus stop was cold as usual. I called the number Amanda gave me. I figured a conversation would help keep my mind off the chill as well as my worries over Star.
  835.  
  836. It rang once.
  837.  
  838. Again.
  839.  
  840. A familiar squeaky voice picked up "H-hello?"
  841.  
  842. "Amanda?"
  843.  
  844. "Who is this?" the squeaky voice sounded worried.  It took me a moment to recognize her.
  845.  
  846. "You're Amanda's friend? The one at the booth? I was going buy something from you guys."
  847.  
  848. There was a pause. "Hold on."
  849.  
  850. A sound of shuffling and rattling carried over the phone. Amanda's cool tone emerged from the noise "Hello Edward. Wanting to pay by phone?"
  851.  
  852. "Always the salesman, er woman." I smiled as the wind whipped by me and cut into the phone's receiver. I curled up and tried to shield the phone from the wind before continuing "I'm just waiting for the bus and I was checking to see if this phone number would work."
  853.  
  854. "It works. You didn't come by our booth today."
  855.  
  856. "I know, sorry, I'll come by tomorrow."
  857.  
  858. "We're not going to be there tomorrow." Amanda sounded frustrated.
  859.  
  860. I tapped my foot, annoyed at the passage of time. It was Friday night, wasn't it? "Alright, well, I think Maddie can still buy something on my behalf. You know Maddie right?"
  861.  
  862. "The that ditzy scaled girl who hangs on you? With the rattle..."
  863.  
  864. "That sounds about right. She owes me money for tutoring. Tell her I told you to give you 30 dollars on my behalf for one of those scarfs. They look pretty warm." Maddie would still owe me 30 after paying Amanda but I didn't sweat the details for now.
  865.  
  866. "They are warm. I don't think she'll believe me though. You should probably call her and tell her yourself. I'll find her tomorrow and get the money."
  867.  
  868. "What about my scarf?"
  869.  
  870. "Don't you worry about the scarf. Try not to freeze to death in the meantime." The bus still hadn't come and I more or less exhausted my conversational ammunition for Amanda. I wrapped up the call and thanked her for letting me put the scarf on free layaway. I called Maddie to let her know about the scarf money.
  871.  
  872. It rang once.
  873.  
  874. Again.
  875.  
  876. and again.
  877.  
  878. It went to her voicemail which I had no patience for. I decided to text her instead. Halfway through composing the text, I got a call from Maddie. I picked up.
  879.  
  880. Her voice came through "Hello? Is this Eddy?"
  881.  
  882. "It is. Hey Maddie."
  883.  
  884. "Hello! I was worried about you. I spoke to will. He gave me your number."  There was brief hesitation. I picked up the conversation
  885.  
  886. "Yea he told me you gave him a visit. Listen, about that tutoring money I-" Maddie cut me off.
  887.  
  888. "I gave that to your roommate. He said he handled your money for you." I rolled my eyes at this telephone game I was playing. I trusted Willard. Even if he ended spending the cash on hand he would be good for it later.
  889.  
  890. "Thanks for the update Maddie. Did you pass the test?"
  891.  
  892. "I'm not sure...I'll find out next Tuesday"
  893.  
  894. "You can check with the professor if you're not sure."
  895.  
  896. "I know, but I'm nervous. I'll feel really dumb if I failed after all the studying I did."
  897.  
  898. "How much studying did you do after you left?"
  899.  
  900. "Well, I left my books at your place after we..." She paused "...anyway I couldn't study when I got back to my house but I remembered a lot of what you taught me so I just drilled myself on those things like you said to do."
  901.  
  902. "Willard said he delivered your bookbag to you. Did he get it to you in time to go over the rest of the material?"
  903.  
  904. "Yes! He came later that afternoon. I thanked him but he said there was no need to. I guess he's not completely a bad guy. I still don't like him though. It's like he has no filter whenever he opens his mouth."
  905.  
  906. "That's Willard."
  907.  
  908. I shivered and wondered where the bus was. I continued the conversation to keep my mind on something other than the cold weather. "So you were able to study enough you think?"
  909.  
  910. "I hope so. But really, thanks, Eddy, you saved me with your tutoring!"
  911.  
  912. “You’re welcome, Maddie. Let me know if you want to study again."
  913.  
  914. "I will! Next time though, can we study at my house? I don't want Will barging in like he did before."
  915.  
  916. "We'll see." As I was wrapping up the call with Maddie a tow-truck with yellow flashing hazard lights stopped in front of the bus stop. The window rolled down. It was a feathery fellow. His neck seemed gangly as he hung it out of his door.
  917.  
  918. "Are you uh, like, waiting for the uh, bus?"
  919.  
  920. My teeth were chattering.  "Yes!"
  921.  
  922. He twisted his head around and upside down. His eyes had dark circles under them. He was a literal night owl. "Ooh...well uh, ya see, there was a wreck on the north end turnpike and uhh I don't think any buses are running through that connection."
  923.  
  924. I stared at him blankly "So, when will it be cleared?"
  925.  
  926. "uhh...I don't know, I uhh,  I'll find out when I get there."
  927.  
  928. "Can you give me an estimate?"
  929.  
  930. He returned my blank stare and groaned "Uhhhhhhhhhhhmmmmmmmm. Nope. Sorry." I answer his non answer with a shrug and a grimace as if to say "What the hell do you know!?" I hope he operated that tow truck better than he commanded the spoken language.
  931.  
  932. He perked up as if excited to be helpful for a change "Oh! Uhhh you should probably...uhh call a friend or something. Good luck man!"  He drove off.  His yellow hazard lights danced away into the distance.
  933.  
  934.  I was starting to get mad now. My weekends were free which was a blessing few adults my age shared. It was looking like I might spend the better part of early Saturday morning freezing at a bus stop. I peeked back over into the parking lot. Star's car was still there so maybe I could get a ride with her if she was up to it.  I waited a while longer. The bus definitely would have been here by now if it was on time. Gradually, a new legion of graveyard shift people pulled into the parking lot as afternoon people filed out of the building. I figured I'd wait by Star's car and see if she wanted to take me home like she'd previously offered.
  935.  
  936. A familiar flapping signaled Star had swooped down and landed behind me. I turned to the sound of her landing and watched her large wings fold behind her back.  She wore a genuine look of surprise on her face "You've been waiting for me all night?"
  937.  
  938. "Actually..." I started to go into the tow-truck story but I cut myself off. I figured I'd sound sweeter if I had waited for her "...I just wanted to make sure you were doing okay."
  939.  
  940. "Ed Sweetie, you didn't have to wait for me. Well come on, I can't have you freezing out here." She unlocked her doors and we slid into her car. I wanted to pick up where we had left off but she seemed to be back to her bubbly self.  Whatever was bothering her before work no longer seemed to be an issue. I figured I'd talk to her about it later. No sense in dampening the mood. The last thing anyone wants after work is to feel stressed out. I knew that all too well.
  941.  
  942. "I'm working tomorrow but I have Sunday off. I mean, if you're not busy we can hang out again. If you'd like..." She had a defeated look on her face like she already expected me to turn her down. It would be satisfying to counter this perception.
  943.  
  944. "I don't know what I'll be doing Sunday but I'm up for whatever If you're with me." I looked at her with a genuine loving face. Star smiled and nodded at my answer. I could tell her attitude was a bit different. Normally she'd be the one to insist we hang out and I'd comply or make an excuse for why I couldn't. I wanted to talk to her more about earlier but I'd save that for Sunday.
  945.  
  946. Star drove me to my apartment and recoiled as we pulled up "I still can't believe you live in this dump." She shook her head, having slipped back into her old chiding self that loved to tease me. "I mean, it's not too bad. You really can't find a better place to live?"  
  947.  
  948. "It's an economy place. I'm just trying to save as much money as I can." Star nodded at my answer "That's smart Ed."
  949.  
  950. "Well, goodnight." I started to leave when I felt her talon'd hand grip my wrist. "Ed before you go..." She looked at me like she wanted to say something but wasn't sure how. I figured I'd take the lead for a change and leaned in to kiss her.  She had closed her eyes and puckered her lips with a flush face. She looked cute with her thick glasses and  I diverted to plant a kiss on her forehead instead of her lips.
  951.  
  952. "Edward!" Her feathers stood up on her shoulders. I smiled as I didn't get a chance to tease her often. She grabbed me by the shirt collar and pulled me in for a proper kiss. We slowly separated and she looked at me longingly "Don't be mean."
  953.  
  954. I chortled with an evil grin. "Night, Star"
  955.  
  956. She shut her eyes and squealed "Get out of here before I do something I regret!" She pushed me out of her car playfully. "Don't forget about Sunday! You have some overtime at my place!" She shot back at me with an evil grin of her own.
  957.  
  958. I retired to my apartment.
  959.  
  960. Willard greeted me with a grunt. He'd been drinking but he wasn't completely gone yet.  He was slumped into our paltry couch watching some trashy TV about paternity tests with people yelling at one another. "You smell like you got bird lady on you."
  961.  
  962. "Eh?"
  963.  
  964. He sniffed the air and his eyes darted around like he was trying to figure out a puzzle. That or he was extra drunk. "She's an older bird. Smells like alcohol too." His eyes went wide "You went drinking without me!?"
  965.  
  966. "No Willard, she drinks a lot though so you're probably smelling that on me. Stop being so nosey." I tapped at my nose so he'd get the joke.
  967.  
  968. He huffed poked at his nose "I can't help it when you walk in smelling of women and booze. And you try to act like you're some kinda golden child. You may put on a good face but I know you're just as wild as me Ed man!."
  969.  
  970. "No one is as wild as you Will."
  971.  
  972. "Damn straight! Gyhohohohohoho" he howled.
  973.  
  974. I passed out on my bed. I think Willard said goodnight but I was too tired to hear it. The last thing I remember was the T.V. host saying "YOU ARE THE FATHER!"
  975.  
  976. End of chapter 4
  977.  
  978.  
  979. Chapter 5- Day trading
  980.  
  981. Daylight was starting to harass me as I lay in the sweet soft embrace of my bedsheets. If I wasn't in heaven I was surely close.  I had gotten home early in the morning and my body had the ache for sleep despite my previous departure from consciousness. I felt like I could stay nestled in my bed all day. If it were so easy.
  982.  
  983. I stirred from my covers and slipped on a fleece top to combat the morning chill. Willard had fallen asleep on the couch. The T.V. was still going from last night. Talking heads were debating the state of the world and I left it alone for some background noise.  
  984.  
  985. I would need to get the money he got from Maddie yesterday but I figured I'd let him rest. Even if he was a layabout no one likes being woken up on the weekend.  I tidied up around the apartment and downed some carbonated and caffeinated sugar water. I mulled around for an hour or so and Willard was still dead on the couch. I would have to coax him awake.
  986.  
  987. I started cooking knowing that food would rouse him from whatever state of post-intoxication he might currently be experiencing.  A prized bachelor dish- Egg and noodles with a sprinkling of seasonings to give you a reason to scarf it. Cheap and easy, just the way we like it.  He  started growling as if to say "Bring me a plate over here."
  988.  
  989. "Will, get up you lazy shit" I growled back at him.
  990.  
  991. He grunted back at me and reciprocated with a growling language that only we seemed to understand. We went back and forth making noises at one another. An outside observer would mistake out antics for lunacy but for us, the dialogue was perfectly understandable. Our exchange of noises ended with him rolling off the couch and coming to our meager table.   We ate our egg noodles in silence and gradually became more sociable as our bellies got fuller.
  992.  
  993. Willard told me how all his classes were a breeze but he was still having trouble finding a woman. I asked him about his night of kama sutra bingo intent to hear a good story. All he was willing to tell me was that he lost and she wasn't the woman for him. He asked me about the smell of booze and bird I had hanging on me still. I told him about my boss and how she hung on me. I told him about her kid and her drinking. He nodded but he only seemed to be half paying attention as he'd turn his head to look at the T.V. every sentence or so. I broached my business now that he was starting to get more wide-eyed.
  994.  
  995. "You got my money from Maddie yesterday?"
  996.  
  997. "Oh? Oh yea.  Lemme get it for you" He shifted around in his chair, picking through his pockets with a quizzical look on his face. "Actually I think I know where your money is!"
  998.  
  999. "Where is it?"
  1000.  
  1001. Willard was downing some noodles as if they held the answer "uhmmnn.  I remember taking the dosh but last night is kind of a blur."
  1002.  
  1003. "You lost my money?"
  1004.  
  1005. Willard looked slighted "It's not lost Ed-man, I just don't know where it is right now. I'm sure it'll come to me after breakfast. Anyway, I got a Christmas present for you."
  1006.  
  1007. I shot him a glare like I usually did but the emphasis was lost without my glasses "It's still a while until Christmas Will. You better not have used my own money to buy me a Christmas present."
  1008.  
  1009. "No dude, it's not like that. Also, I can't really give you the Christmas present yet."
  1010.  
  1011. I finished up my noodles with a slurp "Were you just telling me you got a present so I'd forget about the money?"
  1012.  
  1013. Willard was finishing up his noodles and shook his head. He swallowed and pointed at me "I just woke up, lemme' remember what I did with it okay? Thanks for breakfast Ed man."
  1014.  
  1015. Willard poked around the apartment while I tossed our plastic dishware into the trash. I huddled in my corner of our apartment and checked for new texts and browsed news and online videos. My vegetative state was short lived as Willard emerged from the bathroom with the sound of a toilet flush echoing behind him.
  1016.  
  1017. "Here ya go Ed man." Willard handed me three crisp twenty dollar bills.  I wanted to know why he'd left them in the bathroom but I decided it would be better left unknown.  He motioned to me like he had more "About your Christmas gift, I know when you're done with classes but I gotta check with you about work."
  1018.  
  1019. "You know my schedule."
  1020.  
  1021. "Yea but can you ask for time off during winter break?"
  1022.  
  1023. "I can, but I can't guarantee I'll get it. What are you getting at Will?"
  1024.  
  1025. Willard gritted these teeth exposing his wolfish canines. He squirmed around like he knew I was onto something I shouldn't be "Listen, you gotta ask off ahead of time right? Don't forget to ask off for your break. Like, from the 21st of December for at least a week after that."
  1026.  
  1027. I shook my head "You want me to ask off for those dates? Everyone and their mother is going to be putting their ticket in for it. I'll be lucky if I get one day off in December let alone a week."
  1028.  
  1029. Willard looked frustrated "Ed man, I thought you said your boss was all about you? Can't you sweet talk er' or something?"
  1030.  
  1031. I laughed at this proposal "Will, she's the one who sweet talks me. I'll ask for the time off but I already know the answer."
  1032.  
  1033. Willard made a fist. I could tell his brain was firing on all cylinders "Fine, just,  tell her to take time off with you so she can come with us. Tell her you got a sweet beach house down on the coast you wanna take her to."
  1034.  
  1035. "That's a nice idea Will but I don't have one of those."
  1036.  
  1037. Willard pointed at himself with his thumb "Well I do! You might not wanna mention everyone else though."
  1038.  
  1039. "Everyone else?" Looks like Willard was up to something for sure.
  1040.  
  1041. My eyes went wide and gave him a questioning look. Willard could tell I needed an explanation "Well, I guess the cat's already crying over spilled milk." He shrugged "I invited some of our friends out to my parent's beach house. I was gonna surprise you but I figure I should tell ya now since you gotta take time offa' work."
  1042.  
  1043. "Our friends?" I shook my head "Wait, listen Will, between the apartment and other living expenses I can't really afford any kind of vacation right now. If you want to go on-" Will cut me off.
  1044.  
  1045. "I got the apartment covered Ed-man. I also figured you'd be bitchin' about how poor you are so merry Christmas."  He handed me a fat stack of money. It was a proper wad with a money clip barely containing it.  I'd never felt paper money have such a weight to it.
  1046.  
  1047. I handed it back to him "I can't accept this Will."  Willard pushed it back into my hands "That's your money dude."
  1048.  
  1049. "What!?"
  1050.  
  1051. "You don't remember? When we were first getting to know each other I told you about my day trading didn't I?"
  1052.  
  1053. "You told me you lost the money I loaned you so I stopped loaning money to you." I cocked an eyebrow at Willard.
  1054.  
  1055. "I didn't lose it so much as I spread it around to a few startups. Most of them went nowhere so pretty much all the capital was burnt.  There was this one software company that was basically 2 dudes out of their basement that didn't crash and burn. Anyway a few lucky stars later and some big wig buys them out for way more than the company was worth. I had a handful of shares so I cashed out while the getting was good. By then the shares had gone up in value at an exponential rate. A pittance of an investment suddenly became worth a several grand. I already took my cut.  That stack is yours. Hence the merry christmas and whatnot."
  1056.  
  1057. "I don't know what to say Will. Thanks?" I fanned through the wad and counted it out. It came to $1400. I wasn't going to split hairs on how much interest if any he owed me since I never expected any return let alone a windfall of $1400. Considering I only loaned him 50 bucks that's one hell of a return.
  1058.  
  1059. "That should cover your fun money for the trip aye Ed man?"
  1060.  
  1061. "That'll do it. If I can get time off you can count me in. I could certainly use some R&R."  I nodded and smiled at Willard. He can be a simpleton sometimes but he's certainly not stupid. At least when he's sober.
  1062.  
  1063. I stashed the wad in a secure crevice and set out for the college. In the batch of texts I was sorting through earlier, one from Amanda had advised me she'd be at the sewing club's room. The sky was blue but the sun had trouble making an appearance on the part of the solstice I was in. The campus was pretty dead on the weekends.  I passed a few people in the courtyard and hallways. Leaves had all but disappeared from the trees. The few hangers-on were deep orange and brown.  December was definitely here.
  1064.  
  1065. The sewing club's annex was a little underwhelming; Sewing machines, scrap fabric scattered around, works in progress, abandoned mistakes, and assorted sewing wares. There were boxes of miscellaneous fabrics and tools that were tucked in corners and they seemed to be balanced in unsafe orientations.  Amanda greeted me.
  1066.  
  1067. "Hello, Edward. Your scarf." She handed it to me.  Embroidered on it were the words "better late than never." I immediately started laughing. The joke hit me right in the funny bone.  She continued "You like it?"
  1068.  
  1069. I nodded and grinned "It's nice and soft" I threw the extra length around my neck and felt properly snug.  Amanda pulled me close with the remainder of the scarf. "Madeline said she gave your money to your roommate."
  1070.  
  1071. "Yea yea, here ya go" I handed her two of Maddie's 20's  "Keep the change. Santa came through for me early and I have some extra money."
  1072.  
  1073. Amanda crossed her arms and smiled at me. "You were a little late for the charity drive but the sewing club graciously accepts your additional contribution".  I tried to find the right words to shuffle through a conversation with Amanda but I didn't know where to go. She was very short and to the point with her tone and she was somewhat intimidating with her additional legs and extra eyes.
  1074.  
  1075. "This place is certainly... busy" There were a few club members traipsing about and fiddling with things but I couldn't be sure what if anything was being accomplished. A rather plump minotaur fellow with yarn wrapped on his horns seemed to be looking for something. He waddled as he walked with an apron and a tool belt full of scissors and spools.  Amanda's club booth companion looked like she had a paper pattern pinned to some fabric and was marking it with some kind of special pen. She had a similar apron to the minotaur fellow.
  1076.  
  1077. Amanda nodded and walked me around the club's room going over what various machines did and what items were stored where. I began to fear she mistook my cordial comment for interest in joining the club. She was in the middle of explaining how she embroidered the words on my scarf when I interrupted.  "Well, thanks for the scarf Amanda. I may be getting too warm wearing it in here."
  1078.  
  1079. "You have to go already?"
  1080.  
  1081. "I guess I don't have to but I don't want to interrupt you if you're busy."
  1082.  
  1083. "It's alright. I am curious though, Willard said he'd be having you at his beach house for winter break but he wasn't sure if you'd make it." She patted herself down. She was wearing an apron, not unlike the other club members. I noticed an embroidery on it upon closer inspection "Tight-knit crew". A sewing joke?  
  1084.  
  1085. I snapped back to attention "Well, I need to check with my work first. I could use a vacation for sure. How do you know Willard?"
  1086.  
  1087. Amanda blushed "We've met. I'll leave it at that."
  1088.  
  1089. She seemed disarmed by my question. I made my move to vacate the club "Thanks again for the scarf. It's gonna keep me nice and toasty."  She could tell I was angling myself for the door stopped me.
  1090.  
  1091. "Ed,  we're still cleaning up from the club event last week. Could you give us a hand?"
  1092.  
  1093. I  was curious "The other club members too busy?"
  1094.  
  1095. Amanda shrugged "Nick has a bad back so he can't really lift things" The minotaur fellow waved at the mention of his name with a defeated look on his face before continuing to waddle around. "And Natalie is really clumsy so-"
  1096.  
  1097. Natalie cut Amanda off and attempted to defend herself but when she went to stand all of her sewing spools and fabric spilled onto the floor. She yelped and attempted to clean up the sewing supplies but she'd accidentally pinned her fabric to her clothes and pulled more debris on top of herself.  The ensuing avalanche was a proper mess.
  1098.  
  1099. Amanda turned her gaze to me once more. She twirled some scissors around her index finger and further commented when I gave her an apprehensive look. "Don't worry, I'll reward you. I wouldn't expect you to work for free." She gave me her best cute smile to egg me on.
  1100.  
  1101. I shrugged "If there's a reward in it I suppose I can't turn down your offer then." I hadn't planned on an extended outing at the sewing club but it did look like they needed my help.  Amanda explained all the haphazardly stacked boxes needed to go into the closet. "Make sure you stack them side by side on the shelves! Don't put them on top of one another!"
  1102.  
  1103. I set about putting their boxes away. They weren't seriously heavy but it would take me awhile. I watched the club work as I moved the boxes. Amanda skittered back and forth helping Natalie and Nick with their respective projects.  She seemed to be quite knowledgeable and spoke with an air of authority.  
  1104.  
  1105. I went to pick up another box and noticed it was heavier than the others.  Amanda barked at me from across the room "That's a sewing machine, Ed! Put it next to the others. I'll take care of it later."  I waddle walked in a similar fashion to Nick as I passed him by on the way to the sewing table. He smiled at me and nodded "Thanks for the help friend" His voice was deep but friendly.  I wondered if he had hurt his back moving all those boxes. I'd ask him later after I was done.
  1106.  
  1107. I took a sit down and fanned myself. I had a handful of boxes left to put away but I was already feeling pooped. Amanda chastised me "You're not giving up, are you?! You won't get your reward if you don't finish." She was grinning at me like she had me cornered. I didn't feel like playing games with her so I lifted up the portion of my scarf that said "Better late than never".
  1108.  
  1109. She loomed over me and after grabbing the ends of my scarf and choked me slightly. "Listen, Edward, this is a time-sensitive reward. I want you to hurry up and finish alright.  It's almost here after all."
  1110.  
  1111. Nick seemed to perk up on her last sentence  "Oh yea, we ordered the pizza not too long ago. It should be soon shouldn't it?" Amanda's eyes went wide. I smiled "Let me guess, my prize is pizza?" Amanda threw the ends of my scarf into my face in frustration and began to skitter towards Nick.
  1112.  
  1113. She stopped and turned to me "I'm serious Ed, try to finish up soon. Alright?" I nodded and got up. There weren't that many boxes left and it'd probably take me a minute at most so I wasn't sure why she was so anxious about it. As I was putting the last box away the pizza delivery guy arrived. "Impeccable timing." I thought.
  1114.  
  1115. I went to wash my hands as Amanda retrieved the pizza box and was setting it up on an open table. Everyone halted their activities and began to help Amanda.  I wanted to help but it seemed like everyone already had a routine and I didn't want to interrupt them.  Amanda gestured for me to join them so I took a seat next to Nick. Natalie and Amanda sat across from us.  
  1116.  
  1117. Before I could get my hands on a slice Amanda smacked at my wrist "Hey, pizza is for club members only!"  I was handed fleece beanie from Natalie after Amanda nudged her. Embroidered on it was the quote "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today". The text was wrapped around the brim. I had to spin the hat around to get the whole message.
  1118.  
  1119. "You guys really like embroidery don't you?" I slipped the beanie on my head and irony of the competing slogan on my scarf wasn't lost on me. I had figured well enough where this was going Amanda affirmed my suspicions with a grin. "If you were to become a member of the sewing club today I then you would definitely be entitled to some pizza."
  1120.  
  1121. I figured if it gets me some pizza I didn't have trouble saying I'd join the club. "I'm in."
  1122.  
  1123. Amanda nodded and smiled at me "Good! Somehow I knew you'd join! I'll get us some drinks to celebrate your joining." She skittered off leaving the pizza to picked apart by those at the table. It was cheesy and greasy and all kinds of good. It was just the kind of food that box lifting left me craving.  I decided to ask Nick about his injury.
  1124.  
  1125. He swallowed a bite of his pizza "Well originally I came here on a wrestling scholarship but during my training..."  he fiddled with his yarn covered horn pensively "I messed up my back bad and the college yanked my scholarship.  Amanda helped me apply for another scholarship and got me into classes. In return, I said I'd do anything if she ever needed it so joining the sewing club was the least I could do ya know?" He took a bite of his slice after I swallowed a bite of mine.
  1126.  
  1127. "Do you actually have an interest in sewing then?"
  1128.  
  1129. He shrugged "Well, I don't hate it. I just do what Amanda tells me to mostly. Making things is fun though. I helped my dad when worked on construction projects so it's kinda like that except you use needles and thread instead a' hammers and nails."
  1130.  
  1131. "Will your back ever get better?"
  1132.  
  1133. Nick looked a bit unsure and groaned "I...uh"
  1134.  
  1135. Natalie butted in with an annoyed look "Edward,  maybe Nick doesn't want to be reminded of his how is back is jacked."
  1136.  
  1137. Nick shook his head and attempted to calm her "Natty it's okay, I don't have a problem talking about it." He turned to me "My doctor said my back is pretty bad. It'll be a few years before I can lift weights again. Until then I just have to take it easy ya know?"
  1138.  
  1139. I nodded, not sure what to say to something like that. Luckily Amanda broke the awkward tension by plopping some bottled soft drinks on the table. "I wasn't sure about your choice Ed so I just got a few extra."  The drinks all looked to be from a vending machine. She had wrapped them up in some of her webbing to make carrying them easier.
  1140.  
  1141. "Thanks, Amanda"  I plucked a bottle of carbonated caramel-colored sugar water from the webby bag and drank it straight from the container. I figured I may as well ignore the cups since there was an excess of bottled beverages anyway. Amanda went over a schedule of club activities and future projects they had planned as we ate. She rounded off the meeting with a glance in my direction. "And now, for the club's Winter getaway.  Ed's friend Will has a beach house and has graciously opened it up for the club's use, isn't that right Ed?"
  1142.  
  1143. Amanda had a big grin on her face as she said this and I was gulping down some soda trying to process her claim. I pursed my lips before I began "Ehh, it's Will's place so he has the final say on who's welcome."
  1144.  
  1145. Amanda nodded "...and naturally as a member of the sewing club you'll speak kindly on our behalf, right Ed?"
  1146.  
  1147. Suddenly the overarching scheme became clear.  The boxes and the 'reward' were just a ploy to get me join the club. I'd be angry at the ruse if I wasn't so impressed. Amanda's manipulation reminded me of Star except she employed more brains and less buxom charm compared to my feathery boss.
  1148.  
  1149. I rolled my head around and leered at Amanda "I can't promise anything but I'll talk to Will and let him know the sewing club wants to utilize his beach house."
  1150.  
  1151. Amanda clapped her hands together happily "Great! I knew I could count on you Ed! Welcome to the sewing club!" Amanda clapped for me and Natalie and Nick joined in. I grinned at the applause and the meeting adjourned after I was officially added to the club's roster.
  1152.  
  1153. End of chapter 5.
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