Act 2: Puppet Play
“Come on, sleepyhead. Time to wake up!” Her voice was so full of energy I could feel it even through three layers of blankets and pillows covering my head. I did not share her enthusiasm.
“Five more minutes...” is what I try to say, but between the aforementioned pillows and a raging hangover, it comes out as a slurred jumble of muttered nonsense.
“Let’s try that again,” she said while pulling the covers off me. I could feel the light, even through my closed eyes, enough to feel blinded by it as I pointlessly tried to block the light with my hands.
“What the hell…?” I grumbled, rubbing my eyes furiously to chase away the afterimages of the dream I was having. Images still lingered on the edge of my mind, like flotsam of a shipwreck, floating on the water’s surface.
Theater. Blood. Pain. Struggle.
“Rise and shine, roomie!” said Talia. “It’s a beautiful day out there, begging to be wasted in a drab college classroom.” She sat on the bed beside me and flashed a cheerful smile. She was already fully dressed, with a skirt over stockings and a fashionable vest over her shirt that did nothing to hide her attractive figure. Between that and her beautiful face, with just enough makeup to enhance it, she could easily pass for a supermodel or hollywood actress. And now she was sitting inches away from me, on my bed, while I was wearing boxers and nothing else.
“What the fuck are you doing in my room?” I asked, frowning in confusion.
“Wow, someone woke up grumpy,” she chuckled. “You know, for someone who sleeps so much it’s amazing how you still manage to look like a bear waking up from hibernation every day.” She patted my leg affectionately. “It’s impressive, in a way.”
“There is literally nothing impressive with being a late-riser,” I replied, pulling the covers over my bottom half. “Seriously, what are you doing?”
“Waking you up! Duh!” She rolled her eyes.
“I don’t remember asking for your services as an alarm clock.” I scoffed, bewildered that this was even happening. “Seriously, what if I slept in the nude?”
“What, do you?” Her eyes darted downwards at that question with half-scandalized and half-amused grin. I instinctively pulled on my bed covers to hide more.
“Get out,” I said.
“Cody, there’s nothing to be ashamed of!” She said, smiling playfully. “You see, when a boy likes a girl he sometimes gets...”
“Alright, I get the message,” she raised her hands up in defeat, finally getting off the bed and walking to the door before pausing. “You’re probably the only guy that complains about getting woken up by a cute girl,” she pouted.
She hurried out of the room, only to pop her head back in. “You know, if you need any help getting up...”
And she was gone, leaving me alone in my messy bedroom, wondering what the hell had just happened.
By the time I found some clothes that weren’t too dirty and left my bedroom Talia was sitting by the table eating some cereal. She saluted me with her spoon as I walked into the room, but kept chewing. She was still smiling, even now. Beside her sat Akiko who politely waved at me, while adjusting her glasses. “Good morning! I made extra pancakes today, so help yourself to a couple if you like,” she said.
I sat gingerly on the chair, as if afraid it would blow up, before looking around. The open kitchen was spacious and well-lit, connecting to an equally impressive living room. There was a couch, some chairs, a large HD TV and a console, along with furniture seemingly made of actual wood, rather than IKEA plastic.
“Thanks, uh… I’ll have some,” I said, looking around the room nervously.
“Might grab a cup of coffee while you’re at it,” said Talia. “Seems like you need it.” She gestured to the coffee maker in the kitchen, half-full of coffee so fresh I could see steam coming from the jug. The pancakes sitting on a plate beside it were toasted to perfection, golden brown, fluffy and moist. The perfect kitchen with the perfect breakfast.
“Something feels off,” I said. My fingers drumming nervously on the table.
“Oh? Is there something wrong?” Asked Hiroko, looking nervously at the pancakes.
“No, no,” feeling a pang of guilt, I hurried to the pancakes and put them on my own plate, taking a quick bite. “They’re really good, thanks for… Uh, thanks for that.”
“Aww, you’re welcome. Glad someone appreciates homemade cooking,” said Akiko, looking pointedly at Talia who just grinned back at her and swallowed another spoonful of her garishly colorful cereal.
“Maybe it’s the crappy nightmare I had...” I mumbled between mouthfuls of delicious pancake.
“Was it the one with the cannibal carrots who overrun the world?” Asked Talia. “I always liked that one. You have the best nightmares.”
“Don’t make fun of him,” Akiko protested, before turning to me with an encouraging smile. “Nightmares can be pretty rough, even if other people don’t understand it.”
“I was in a theater...” I struggled, trying to remember. Another memory, kept floating on the edge of my conscious mind, infuriatingly close but not quite making its way to my thoughts. Was it something? Someone? I couldn’t remember. I could not remember her face.
“My girlfriend...” I whispered, frozen in sudden realization. The two girls perked up when they heard me.
“Oh, you have a girlfriend? That’s new,” said Talia, for once not smiling. She seemed genuinely surprised. Akiko seemed also taken aback, but hid it better.
I rubbed my temples, trying to force myself to remember more, but it was pointless. “No,” I said. “In my dream, I had a girlfriend.”
“Oh. In the dream.” Akiko looked slightly relieved. She smiled and asked, “so, who was the lucky girl?”
I closed my eyes, willing myself to recall, but her name slipped from my memory as water from a net. “I… I don’t remember her name,” I said.
“Alright…?” Said Talia. “So, what did she look like?”
I hesitated. “Well... Huh. Can’t remember what she looked like either.”
There’s another awkward pause, longer. I squeezed my hands into fists, pointlessly, as if it could do anything with that damned gap in my memories. Whatever happened in that dream, it felt important.
Talia broke the silence. “So… What? You had a girlfriend from Canada in your dreams?” She chuckled in sheer disbelief. “Are things that bad, Cody?.”
“It wasn’t like that,” I crossed my arms, frowning again. “She was there. She meant something to me for… A long time?” There was a growing sense of unease within me, refusing to let go. I drummed my fingers on the table, but it didn’t help. The anxious feeling only grew.
“You.” Talia pointed at me, trying her best to keep a straight face. “Need to get laid.”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” said Akiko, looking exasperated. “You did not just say that, did you?”
“I’m 100% serious,” the other girl protested, although a cheeky smile crept on her face, as she continued. “Even in his dreams he has an imaginary girlfriend now. If this continues he will reach critical levels of loneliness. We gotta intervene and...”
“This feels wrong,” I interrupted. My eyes darted around the room, taking it all in. My sense of unease only grew.
Talia stopped mid-pantomime and looked at Akiko with a confused expression, which the other girl returned. “Is there something wrong?” Akiko asked, eventually.
“I am sharing a really fancy apartment with two pretty girls as roommates, one who could be a model and constantly flirts with me, the other one who makes me breakfast...” I paused, searching for a way to put my unease into words, struggling. “Why?”
“I object to that,” said Talia, with mock seriousness, pointing her spoon at me. “I actually AM a model. Part-time, but it still counts. ”
Akiko was more obviously bothered by it. She looked at her friend nervously before looking back at me. “Are you ok, Cody? Is something wrong?”
I looked back at her. “Why all of this?”
“Well...” She fumbled for words. “We needed another roommate to split the bill and help me move here, and when we, um... Put the ad, you just showed up.” She chuckled, remembering that day. “You didn’t notice that we asked only for girls. Boy, were you surprised! But in the end we decided to just...”
“That’s how I got in this situation, but not why,” I pointed out. It felt ridiculous to complain in the first place, but I couldn’t stop myself. It all felt wrong. “What did I do to deserve any of this?”
She looked confused now, hesitating over her words, which bothered me. Whatever my feelings were, she did not deserve this. Neither did Talia, for the matter. I looked away.
“You don’t have to deserve things, to get them,” she spoke quietly. “It’s… It’s not about deserving things in the first place… I think? This is how things turned out. I mean… Are you unhappy here?”
It was wrong to be unhappy in this situation. I should have been leaping for joy at living with two beautiful girls who obviously cared about me, each in their own way. I should embrace the well-lit, modern apartment with open kitchen, three seat sofa, mahogany table, coffee maker and automatic orange squeezer. Embrace the comfortable bed I slept on and was woken up by my attractive roommate I had never seen before in my life. But we knew each other for six months, so it was fine for her to tease me, but not to propose me directly, dancing the razor’s edge between friendship, romance and sex that gave courtship all its awkward charms. Akiko was kind, caring and demure, the perfect housewife without being a wife, even her pancakes were perfect. Too perfect. The kind of perfect you see in advertisements and magazines, where they’re trying to sell you something, next to an idyllic beach unmarred by civilization and maybe an attractive model with a plastic smile. All frozen until the end of time in ink and paper for all to see.
“Yeah, is there something wrong?” Asked Talia, showing genuine concern for the first time. “You don’t look well, man.”
My train of thought was disrupted, and ideas slipped off my mind, failing to gain purchase before falling into the dark pit of the subconscious mind. I shook my head, trying to remember. Why was I questioning all this? “Maybe I’m sick,” I muttered as a weak excuse.
“Oh, that could be serious,” Akiko chimed anxiously. “Maybe you should rest for a bit, take the day off.”
“Not to dampen the party or anything,” Talia interjected, “but weren’t you talking about a big test coming up today?”
“I’m sure if he explains it, your professor will let you re-take the test, right?” Akiko gave me an encouraging and optimistic smile, which was the complete opposite of my own. Even in my current confused state, the words “Mrs. Higgins” and “test” brought a reflexive response from me.
“Shit!” I said.
From the moment Mrs. Higgins’ test was mentioned to the moment I arrived in the college it was all a blur. Fortunately I had remembered to bring my wallet and a pen; unfortunately I could not remember what the subject of the test would be. The fact I made it on time at all was a miracle. Now all I needed is a second miracle to do well on the exam despite my brain feeling like it was made out of swiss cheese.
As I skimmed past whatever notes or info I could find on my phone, Mrs. Higgins walked into the room. She must have been ten years older than me, and looking the part too in a business shirt and elegant skirt. These did nothing to tone down her body, or hide its attractiveness. It was as if the universe had read the description of MILF and said 'I can do better'.
She carried the test papers under one arm and after putting them on her desk she smiled at the class.
“I’m sure everyone’s ready to ace this exam, right?”
The class replied in groans and whispers, although at least one person cheered. She seemed to be expecting this response, as her smile only widened as she looked around the class before focusing on getting settled. I took a last peek at my phone before shutting it off and putting it away. It hadn’t done me much good.
Before she gave me my test, my teacher winked at me. “Expecting great things from you, Cody,” she joked.
I did not accomplish great things. I did not even accomplish mediocre things. Unless by ‘great things’ she meant ‘spectacularly bomb the test’, if so then I accomplished VERY great things.
Despite the result, I didn’t dwell on it too much. Best thing to do after flunking a test was to take the bus home and worry about it later. I was about to do that when my escape plan was foiled by my arch-nemesis.
“Hey! Sorry but can you come with me to my office?” Asked Mrs. Higgins while putting all the test papers together in a big pile. The last people to finish the test were trickling out of the room so there weren’t many people around, but I still looked behind me to see if she was addressing someone else. “Yes. You, Cody,” she told me directly, smiling.
After a few more minutes packing up she handed me half of the tests to carry and grabbed her bag. Already the next class was trickling in, and she smiled politely at the other teacher before calling me. “It’s not far,” she said while walking briskly, “I just want to have a little chat.”
“Am I in trouble?” I asked, with a guilty face that already provided the answer to my own question.
“No, no! Well… I DO have something important to talk with you, but...” She paused, looking at me and giving another reassuring smile. “You’ll be alright.”
We walked through the hallways until reaching a faculty staff area, where she greeted a few people while walking by until we reached the door to her office. It had Lillian Higgins’ name, along with another, listed on the door, but when we went inside there was nobody there.
“Put the tests here and then close the door, please,” she asked, dumping her share of the tests onto one of the two desks. It was cluttered with books, different papers and letters, as well as a computer, a coffee mug with a stain on the side and a single picture of her holding a cat and smiling.
I did as she told and then sat on the chair, waiting for the other shoe to drop. She took her sweet time too, arranging the tests as neatly as she could and clearing some of the clutter before moving her chair so it was facing mine, without the desk in the way.
“So,” she spoke, leaning back slightly. “Do you know why I called you here?”
“... Is it because of the assignment I delivered late?” I ventured, wincing. She couldn’t have known so early I had flunked the test.
“Well, I know you didn’t do well on the test...” I stand corrected. She gave me a sympathetic smile and a shrug. “I saw some of your answers. Sorry. Between today’s test and your general performance… I’d say you’re dangerously close to failing my class.”
“Oh...” I hesitated, reflecting on my past performance; embarrassed that things had come to this point. While I fucked up now and then, rarely did my grades get as bad as this.
“Now, I now you’re a smart guy. The way you talk in class shows me you understand the material, and your essay was good! I had to take away points, because you handed it to me five days late, but it was still good!” She moved closer to me, staring straight at into my eyes now. “Why, Cody?”
“I’ve uh… Not been feeling well lately,” I said, darting my eyes away. I wasn’t sure how true that was, and neither could I explain why I felt this way. But, when in doubt, intertwining truth and lies into a single strand from which you craft an exquisite web of deceit is a tried and true method of getting away with shit. “Maybe it’s stress, I don’t know.”
She considered me for a moment, looking up and down. “Are you under a lot of stress right now?” She asked.
“Didn’t sleep well last night,” I muttered, trying to be vague. But the self pity grated me, so I looked back at her and said, “I’m sorry though, I know it’s not a good excuse. Next time I will do better.” And I meant it, surprisingly enough.
She smiled in response, putting a hand carefully on my shoulder. “Something keeping you up at night?” She asked, looking concerned.
The nightmare. But I couldn’t say it out loud; it sounded childish. Monster in my closet. I felt ridiculous for even considering it a problem, never mind saying it out loud. “Nothing specifically,” I said. “Just trouble sleeping.”
“Sleep is important,” said Mrs. Higgins, patting gently my shoulder. “If stress is preventing you from getting sleep, you need to address that.”
This conversation was getting more awkward by the minute, as the more concerned and solicitous she was, the more embarrassed I got. I desperately wanted to leave the room, but her helpfulness made it impossible to politely do so. I decided to wait until she had finished her pep talk.
“I know a way to help,” she said, after a moment of silence. I imagined suggestions of seeing a psychiatrist, correction of my daily habits or even a food to eat more or avoid. Instead she took her hand off my shoulder and gently put it on my crotch, looking straight at me with a smile.
Have to admit I wasn’t expecting that.
“What…?” Is all I could muster as an answer, straightening my back and staring at her with my eyes wide open. Slack-jawed.
“Relax, honey. Leave it to me,” she said, looking playfully down before her eyes darted up at me. Her expression said she liked what she saw, as she purred, “I’ll help you relieve that stress.”
“I… What?!” Let’s just say I was not fast on the uptake.
As a reply her hand rubbed against me, eliciting the usual shiver of warm, intimate contact that made the heart beat faster. I looked down, then back up, but there was no way to deny it. This was really happening. This woman ten years my senior, and all the more beautiful for it, was rubbing my penis through my pants while smiling seductively. And she was doing it in her own office. It wasn’t even night yet, I could still see sunlight peeking through the blinds of her window, conveniently closed. But it was happening! My body responded to her warm touch. My mind could only think of a single thing.
“This is SO unprofessional...” I said, in utter disbelief. Just running through all the possible ways this could go wrong. I started to speak again but her other hand went to my lips, gently silencing them.
“Shh… It’s ok. Nobody comes here,” her smile enigmatic as a sphynx as she traced the edges of my lips with her finger. “Just relax and... enjoy.”
As she moved her hands away from me and started slowly unbuttoning her blouse, I looked around desperately for anything I could use to get out of this situation. I found a pencil on her desk.
So the only rational thing to do was to grab it firmly with my right hand and, with one sudden movement, stab my left palm with the pencil tip as hard as I could. If I was in a movie that would have ran the pencil through my hand and out the other side. But either I wasn’t strong or the pencil was not sharp enough, because it only went halfway in, puncturing a hole that generously spurted blood that dripped down my arm while I doubled in pain, fighting both tears and the urge to scream.
If you’ve never stabbed your hand here’s a pro tip: it really hurts.
“My god… Your hand!” She shouted in alarm and jumped back. It was her turn to look at me in disbelief. She opened her mouth to say something, only to close it again, still not taking her eyes off my bleeding hand. “Why?!” she shouted at last.
“Oh no,” I mumbled, utterly unconvincing in my dismay. At least I didn’t have to fake the pain, that was real. “It looks like I hurt myself. By accident. Uh... Permission to see a nurse?”
She continued to stare at me, unable to say a word. Her blouse still half-unbuttoned with a few drops of blood staining its cuff. I clutched at my bloody hand and got up, shuffling awkwardly towards the door.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” I said. And fled before she could regain her composure.
Overall, my plan to escape that awkward meeting had been a great success.