‘I’m dating Mordecai.’
Richard stared out at the horizon from his window, holding his phone in his hands, the contents of the SMS evoking strange and puzzling feelings in him. She’s dating. Once upon a time, that would have crushed his spirit, completely destroyed all that was good in him. It would have consigned him to oblivion and made him a husk of his former self.
‘Congratulations’, he typed. ‘I feel happy for you. I always knew you needed an anchor, someone to stabilise you. Now you have him. He’s a lucky bugger, Mordecai is.’
He stared at the message. Lies. All lies. When had he felt happy for her? Richard gave a mental shrug. It didn’t matter to him. All that had happened was water under the bridge. He had moved on beyond that. Ruth was history, now. A short period of history which would remain but a footnote in his life. An obscure, confined footnote.
His phone beeped. She’d texted back. ‘Hug, thank you.’
Richard grimaced. Lying always gave him a bad taste in his mouth, regardless of whether he cared about the subject of the lie or not. His father had raised him that way.
‘Now go and kick that exam of yours in the arse’, he messaged, effectively ending the conversation.
Throwing the phone down on the bed, he examined himself in the mirror. Bags under his eyes, unkempt hair, a short stubble and a suspect stain on his shirt. Wonderful, he thought dryly. Picking up a toothbrush, he went to the washbasin to remedy his state of affairs. He could only go as far as the teeth. Richard stared at the bathroom mirror, all his energy draining away at the seemingly impossible task of washing his face. Weariness flooded him, creating aches where there were none. He closed his eyes and turned his back to the basin. Deodorant it is, then, he thought as he walked back to his room, dragging his feet.
Tom would still be sleeping. Harry had gone back home. Breakfast? Well, it sounded good. Maybe some food in his belly would make his lethargy go away. With an audible sigh, Richard climbed down three flights of stairs to the mess with all the enthusiasm of a man going to the gallows.
His phone beeped again. ‘I will, thank you!’
He closed his eyes again, his breakfast cereal in front of him, the morning paper on the side. Why did she still matter? Or was it something else which was bugging him? He let his frustration bleed out as he gripped the spoon hard. The spoon was metal. It held, as though mocking him. ‘You can’t do anything to me. You’re powerless in front of my might.’ Richard looked away, facial muscles twitching in annoyance.
There was a flurry of motion in front of him as someone sat down. He looked up to see Lee. The newcomer smiled at him and asked, “No test today?”
Richard shook his head, forcing a smile. In reality, it was more of a lemon-sucking grimace. Lee’s smile lost a couple of molars.
“Didn’t sleep well, eh?” he asked, his fake concern not fooling Richard at all.
“No,” replied Richard, his voice breaking. He suddenly felt the desperate need to be elsewhere, somewhere away from Lee. He cleared his throat. “I think I need some coffee. I’ll go get it.”
Not waiting for an answer, he took off. He snagged a cup from near the counter and stood in front of the pot, staring at it, almost willing it to pour its contents into his cup. He looked back. Lee was not looking. He put the cup down, and slipped out the door, completely unnoticed.
The cold wind whispered around him and the chill bit into him. Richard gave it no thought. He’d been in places colder than this and survived. This puny morning chill was no challenge. He retrieved his phone from his pocket. His fingers moved of their own accord, searching out the familiar name. Becky.
She picked it up in four rings, her voice laced with sleepiness. “Hello?”
“Hey, sis,” said Richard, “You up?”
“No,” she groaned on the other end. “It’s seven thirty, Dick. You know I’m not a morning person.”
“Ruth’s not single any more.”
“I know,” came her muffled reply. “You woke me up to tell me that?”
“It’s Ruth, Becky, not anyone else. You know how Ruth and I were.”
It was true. Becky did know. She wasn’t his real sister. They’d met each other when Becky had wound up in his college, a year younger than him. She’d been very scared of him initially, until she’d got to know him. And the rest, as they say, was history. They’d become pretty close over the past semester, and suddenly Becky’d pronounced him her brother. Richard was fine with that, her boyfriend being a good friend of his. When Ruth had come into his life, it was Becky he’d trusted with his feelings, his desires, his fears. And Becky had warned him that the road he was going down was a slippery slope. Fortunately, Richard had managed to stop himself in time and been able to remove Ruth from every equation in his life. Or so he thought.
“Does it bother you?” she asked, her voice neutral.
“No,” he replied honestly. “It doesn’t. I’m happy she’s with someone who understands her.”
“Then what troubles you, oh brother of mine?” she asked, relief plainly evident in her voice.
Richard chuckled. Rebecca was one of the sweetest people he knew. “Nothing, really,” he lied. “How do you think Tweedledum and Tweedledee are going to cope up with it?”
He could practically see her roll her eyes. “Do you have to call John and Patrick that?” she complained. She’d known them for a long time, and John especially was very close to her. Nothing compared to Dick himself, of course.
“Yes,” he deadpanned, knowing it would rile her up.
“Nothing’s gonna to happen to them,” she replied, her tone firm. “Patrick’s gonna be totally fine and John’s just going to mope around for a while before finding himself.”
Richard’s smile turned ironic as he imagined that happening. “Right,” he drawled. “And I am going to grow wings and fly to the moon.”
“Enough, Richard,” she said, her tone sharp. “They’re not going to die. You’re perverse, you know, you take pleasure in others’ suffering. A complete sadist.”
“I know,” he replied cheekily. “And yet you love me.”
She snorted. “That I do,” she replied, her tone affectionate. “But don’t push it,” she warned. “Your luck might just run out.”
Richard laughed, and after a while she joined him. The day seemed brighter, suddenly, the sun seemed to smile at him from behind the clouds. The birds burst into song above his head and began flying around. They were playing tag, he decided.
“Take care of them,” he said, suddenly. “You know what it’s like, liking Ruth.”
“You make it sound like some kind of medieval torture,” her tone was teasing, but he knew she understood.
“Is it very far from one?” he retorted.
“Well…” She was stalling for time, and he knew it. “No. But don’t tell anyone I said that.”
He grinned. “What happens between us -”
“-Stays between us,” she finished, her tone light. “Right. Now I needs must perform my morning ablutions, and you need to do whatever you’re up to.”
“I’m up to something?” he asked her, injecting mock-hurt into his voice. “You wound me, woman!”
“Shut up,” said Becky. “You’re worse than anyone I’ve met, you know that?”
“Uh huh,” she replied, her tone very affectionate. “Totally incorrigible. Now go!”
“Oh kay,” finished Richard. “Bye!”
“See ya.” The phone went dead.
Sisters, thought Richard. They get away with everything. Imagine what she would have been like to grow up with. He shuddered. No. She’d have me wrapped around her little finger. Like, totally. I’d be a total pushover.
Or maybe not.