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by Talo Segura

Chapter 1



Many thanks to the two people who volunteered their time to read and edit this book, Arran Culloden and Marty Cooke.

First Edition - 2020

The sun pierced through the bedroom window, a long streak of light that traversed the room touching the corner of the old desk and travelling across the foot of his bed, finally halting at the far wall. The one with the old film poster he'd picked up that time at the cinema when they'd stumbled into an advance preview. Mark had been really excited by that hazard of chance, him less so. Somehow he had ended up with the poster. Oh yeah, that was it, Mark had insisted he take it. "It will always remind you of that day and it'll make you smile," he'd told him.

Today he didn't feel much like smiling. Not because it was the end of summer, nor because his mother had been away and he hadn't stayed over with her as planned. No, it was all to do with Ali, his girlfriend. He sat on the floor leaning with his back against the wall, watching that streak of sunlight. He thought that if he stayed like that long enough time would inevitably make the light disappear. Perhaps, he thought, if he simply did nothing about Ali he might achieve the same reaction.

Juggling the phone in his hand he toyed with the idea of calling Mark. But what would he tell him? Arran didn't know how he felt himself, so how could he seek his friend's opinion? Simply because Mark and Jennifer were like the almost perfect couple, simply because Mark had his relationship sorted, the same didn't naturally follow for him. True, they grew up together, they shared a lot, but Arran had begun to question things. He was not Mark, why should he do what his friend was doing? They wouldn't always be together. The more he considered that idea, the more concrete it became. Eventually they would go their separate ways and he wasn't sure that his future was with Ali.

The sunlight eventually faded and Arran got up, deciding now the day was ending to go outside. He needed some fresh air. He closed the front door behind him, walked down the path, and turned left up the street. It was deserted. He walked like he used to as a kid on his way to school, picking a leaf from one of the privet hedges and flying it through the air. In his imagination he was right back there. Back when everything was simpler. When his parents were still together and he had nothing to worry about. When he didn't pose himself enigmatic questions.

The affluent, well kept suburb on the other side of town was dotted here and there with large detached houses set in their own grounds, usually overlooking neatly manicured lawns and with large broad-leaved trees. There was only one such specimen in front of Jennifer Trials' home, but it was magnificent. From her window on the east side of the house she could look out at this marvel of nature. The tree, several hundred years old, stood solid, like a guardian protecting the domain from the world outside.

This tree, in some way, was emblematic of Jennifer's own situation. She was living the dream: good parents, comfortably well-off, a small group of trustworthy friends, a boyfriend she liked a lot. The contrast between herself and Arran Taylor was evident. He stuck out because he lived alone with his dad and in a part of town that was less attractive, but he was still one of their little group. He was, after all, Ali's boyfriend.

Jennifer had not been off the phone more than five minutes when the doorbell chimed announcing her best friend's arrival. Alison Shroud lived only two streets away - Jennifer and Alison had known one another since they were toddlers. That's one advantage of spending your whole life in the same house - they stayed close.

"You girls will be here for lunch?" Jennifer's mother called out.

Jennifer stopped on the bottom of the stairs. "Yes, mum," she replied. Then turning and smiling conspiratorially at Ali: "You are staying, aren't you?" she asked.

"Yes, yes, of course. We've loads to catch up on," Ali giggled.

Jennifer followed her upstairs and along the hall to her bedroom. The room was awash with the early September sunshine that shone through the large bay window. Little motes of dust danced in the beams of light like tiny sparkling crystals. Alison found her usual place and settled into the comfortable high-backed embroidered chair. Jennifer lounged on the bed looking excited.

"So, you must tell me about you and Arran," she bubbled.

A frown creased Ali's forehead, highlighted by the colourful head band holding back her hair. "I'm not sure I want to talk about him right now. I'm more interested in arranging a shopping excursion. Are you free Monday?"

Jennifer shifted on the bed, her deep red dress flowing over the crisp white bedspread like a river of claret. "I'll make myself free," she smiled.

"Good, because I absolutely have to do some last minute shopping before term starts."

"I can't believe it's our final year. Time seems to have flown," Jennifer said, while looking aimlessly around the room. Mentally she took note that everything was in its place. The little mementos and souvenirs she kept lined up on the bookshelf. The end of summer was a favourite time, she felt content, a feeling reinforced by the warmth in the air, and by having the whole afternoon together with her best friend.

"Have you heard anything from Vicky?" Ali asked. She didn't want to contemplate the last year of college. Not right now.

"No. I invited her over, but she said she was busy."

"She's been busy all summer. We've hardly seen her."

Ali turned her head looking in the same direction as Jennifer, at the souvenirs on the shelf. "You remember that penguin," she smiled. "You and Vicky insisted it was the best memento of that day on the coast last year. I still don't know why a penguin?"

"You'll have to ask her why. I'm sworn to secrecy." Jennifer threw her head back and laughed.

"And you and Mark?" Ali asked.

Jennifer sat upright on the bed and began playing with the bedspread between her long fingers.

"Is it getting serious?" Ali continued.

"Yes, I think it is." Jennifer let her hand rest palm down. "I think we make a good couple."

At that moment there was a knock on the door.

"Yes?" Jennifer turned around to see who it was.

The door opened slowly and her father popped his head inside the room. "Your mother says to come down. And would you mind laying the table?" He glanced over at Ali and smiled. "Hello, Alison."

"Hello, Mr Trials."

He retreated back through the half open door. "Ten minutes," he told them in parting. Then he quickly leaned back around the door. "Oh, and your Aunt Alice is here."

"Aunt Alice is the slightly eccentric one, isn't she?" Ali asked when Jennifer's father had gone.

"Yes. I think secretly she's a lesbian, but no one has ever said. And she is odd. Even her clothes are odd. She's like a modern version of Miss Marple, without the hat. I'm sure she could easily find work as an extra in a period drama. The quintessential English lady, ever so slightly strange. You know, sometimes she comes out with such weird expressions." Jennifer spoke quietly, leaning forward, as if imparting a family secret. "We were talking about swimming one time and I mentioned the Howard's had an indoor pool. She called it a pond and has always insisted on calling swimming pools ponds. Which has to be a little oddball."

"Definitely," Ali confirmed.

Arran found himself walking across the little common, his gaze shifting from the tennis courts to the traffic on the main street. Taking his phone from his jeans pocket, he hesitated a moment as he scrolled through to Mark's name. He would see what he was doing he decided, but before he hit call, the phone rang. It was Mark.

"Man, that's weird. I was about to call you," Arran told him.

"Spooky! Where are you?"

"Taking a walk."

"Why were you about to call me?" Mark asked.

"I don't know. No reason."

There was a reason, but Arran wasn't certain he wanted to have that conversation.

"You wanna come over?" Mark sounded happy.

"How come you're so cheerful? It's the last day of the summer hols."

"Come over and I'll tell you."

Arran couldn't refuse, he knew his best friend wanted to share something. Maybe he even had an idea what.

"Sure. See you in a bit."

It was a long walk, but that suited Arran because he needed time to think. Except for the occasional passing vehicle, very few people were about. All the shops were closed and it was too early for the pub. The only sign of life came from the cinema across the road, a trickle of humanity emerging into daylight. It made Arran think about the film that Ali wanted to see. He had put her off, saying he was busy. It was a lie.

Mark was quick to answer the front door. They sat in the lounge, him in the armchair, Mark on the sofa.

"You wanna drink?" Mark asked.

"A drink, as in..."

"Yeah, alcohol. The folks are out, my brother's with them. We have the whole place to ourselves." Mark spread his arms wide and smiled. He was obviously happy and it rubbed off on Arran a little.

"Why not?" he replied.

Mark fetched two beers, handed one to Arran and resumed his place on the sofa.

"Okay," Arran smiled as he took a sip of his cold beer, the condensation making his palm damp. "Tell me, then. What are you so happy about?"

"Jen and me. We're sort of a seriously real couple now."

"That's your way of telling me you've slept together."

Arran looked across the room at Mark, trying to gauge his reaction. He was certain he was right. He could read his friend like a book. Which worked both ways.

Mark just nodded. "And what's up with you?"

"Nothing," Arran replied rather unconvincingly.

Mark sat there, staying silent. It was how he always reacted, knowing sooner or later Arran would feel compelled to talk. For what seemed like ages both boys sat there taking occasional sips of their cold beer.

Finally, Arran cracked. "Well, okay. You want to know?"

Mark nodded again. He wasn't going to push. He never pushed. Which could be infuriating.

"It's not working out between Ali and me. Well with me really. It's nothing to do with her. It's just..."

He trailed off.

Mark had finished his beer. "Another?" He gestured with his bottle as he stood up.

"Yeah, thanks."

Arran made up his mind to tell his friend.

"I'm splitting up with her. I can't keep stringing things along. It's not like you and Jennifer."

"What's wrong?" Mark asked.

"Nothing, nothing's wrong. I'm just not ready to spend the rest of my life with Ali. Maybe not with anyone."

"I see."

"Is that it?" Arran demanded.

"What do you want me to say? If that's how you feel, I guess you're right to split up. Have you talked to her?"

"Not yet, but I will."

"Well just try..." Mark began to say.

Arran couldn't help the grin. "Yeah, I know. Just try and be gentle. I'm not a complete arsehole, you know?"

Mark chuckled. "You want a lift back?"

"If you're offering."

The streets were more lively, and the pub on the corner loomed up like a beacon in the sultry evening, all lit up with people spilling out onto the street. The music merged with the voices and drifted across the road to touch them like a tentacle of some imaginary strange beast. Mark had the top down. But, before they could be sucked in, the lights changed and they roared off, the voices and music retreating like a faintly distant memory.

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