After The Ending
(original) CHAPTER 1
Fumbling through the door, Zoe was miffed that the house was quiet. Granted, it was three in the morning, but she’d been hoping for some sort of distraction that might give her an excuse to postpone calling Dani. She was dreading sharing the bad news.
After grabbing a mostly empty bottle of tequila from the cupboard above the fridge, Zoe dragged her feet down the hall and into her bedroom. She took a swig of the potent poison, then pulled her cell out of her pocket and called her friend.
Across the country, Dani read the name on her caller ID and excitedly hit the answer button. “Are you drunk dialing me?”
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that,” Zoe said, her voice dry.
Dani laughed, “So…what’s the news, Zo? When are you getting here?”
“Yeah, about that…I found out—”
“No,” Dani interrupted. “Don’t you dare…”
Squeezing her eyes shut, Zoe blurted, “I have an exhibit opening in two weeks. I just found out about it.” Zoe cowered mentally at the thought of missing her best friend’s birthday. With Zoe and Dani, birthdays had been sacred from the beginning, and they’d never spent one apart. “I’m so sorry, D.”
Dani twirled a crimson curl around her finger methodically. “So you’ll be leaving right after my birthday—that’s what you’re saying, right, Zo?”
“Umm, that’s not exactly it.” Zoe paused, waiting.
Dani felt her heart sink.
When Dani said nothing, Zoe continued, “I’m sorry, D. I don’t have a choice. I just won’t have enough time…” Trailing off, she waited anxiously, biting the inside of her cheek.
“I know, I’m a shitty friend.”
“It’s fine. I understand.” Dani sighed. “I’ll survive…somehow.”
Zoe couldn’t help but smile at Dani’s dramatic acquiesce; she missed her best friend. “This is so frustrating,” Zoe groaned. “We’ll do something special when we’re both home for Christmas. Sound good?”
“It’s a date. And it’s okay, really. It’s just that...”
“I know, this’ll be the first time one of us has missed a birthday.”
Dani sighed. “I wish we didn’t have to grow up. Remember how simple life used to be? It was Zoe and Dani against the world.” She made a disgusted sound. “Stupid life has to step in and ruin everything. The ‘real world’ sucks.”
“Tell me about it.” Zoe sighed. She’d just come off a night shift at the bar and was headed into the gallery in five hours. “Working two jobs is kicking my ass. I’m not looking forward to this exhibit.”
Frowning, Dani said, “Why not? Is it your work? It should be…”
“Nope, it’s not mine, but thanks.” Zoe rolled her eyes. “I’m curating some local talent—some watercolors that look like shit, to be exact…even your masterpieces back in Mr. Orville’s class were better.”
“That’s pretty effing bad…like, snake-bite-in-the-ass bad. And my ass doesn’t have enough padding for that.” Dani hauled her aforementioned tush off the couch to refill her empty wine glass.
Zoe lay back on her bed. “Snake bite? Really?” Grinning, she shook her head at her friend’s ridiculousness.
“Uh, yeah.” Filling her glass halfway, Dani paused before emptying the rest of the bottle into the glass. “It could totally happen. Maybe in the desert…or in some dusty hills somewhere. You know, places where you like to go for your hiking vacations.”
“Right…” Zoe chuckled softly. “Anyway, you’ll like this little tidbit—one of the regulars at the bar gave me a ride home tonight.” She frowned, furrowing her brow. “I think I’ve told you about him. His name’s Andrew. He’s pretty cute, a law student I think…he comes in a couple nights a week.”
“Oh, yeah,” Dani said, not sure she actually knew who Zoe was talking about. There were so many men moving in and out of her friend’s life that it was impossible to keep up. “So, did he give you a ride home because you, ya know, had a few too many on the job? Or does he fancy you a bit, m’dear?” Dani winked at her wine glass, thinking that maybe she shouldn’t have poured herself the rest of the bottle after all.
“I’m not gonna lie, the few shots I took may have impaired my judgment. I mean, he’s cute, but he’s also sort of creepy. I’d never ride home with him sober,” Zoe confessed.
“It’s cool, D. He just drove me home. He didn’t try anything.” Recalling how pale and quiet the usually chatty Andrew had been, Zoe added, “He seemed kind of sick, actually.”
“Hmmm…all the sick people—it’s weird, huh? It reminds me of Grayson’s horror stories about the Middle Ages and the Plague.”
“Yeah, I guess. But, it is flu season…” Zoe stared at the nearly empty tequila bottle sitting on her side table. She considered finishing off its sleep-inducing contents.
“But a lot of people are sick. Like, a lot a lot.”
Groaning, Zoe gave in and reached for the bottle, her muscles laden with exhaustion. “True. Business at Earl’s has been pretty slow lately,” she mused.
“Oh, that sucks, Zo. Low tips, then?”
“Meh…not too bad. The ‘ladies’ have served their purpose well.” She paused to take another swig. “How are your classes going?”
“They’re fine. Whatever. Grad school...blah blah blah.” Dani waved her hand through the air, dismissing what she considered to be a very dull subject. “Back to the ‘ladies’…Cam has a friend I think you’d like, and—”
Dani ignored the mild protest. “He’s tall-ish and plays on Cam’s soccer team, so he’s got a nice body. Or at least I think he does. I mean, it’s not like I’ve seen it or—”
“He works at the restaurant with Cam so he can cook.”
Laughing, Zoe started shaking her head. “I don’t think so.”
“C’mon, Zo! He’s nice, but he also has a little of that sullen bad boy thing you like so much.”
“Now you’ve got my attention,” Zoe joked. “But, seriously…the last time you tried to hook me up with someone was a nightmare. Remember Toby?”
Dani cringed. “Oh, right…well, that wasn’t my fault. How was I supposed to know he was so hung up on his ex.”
“Dani, he was sexting her at dinner.” Zoe remembered reading his description of maneuvering a select few body parts in a way she didn’t even think was possible.
Dani exhaled heavily. “Well, Charlie hasn’t had a lady friend for a while, so you won’t have to worry about that.”
Dani’s enthusiasm was unmistakable, and Zoe didn’t have the heart to shoot her idea down completely. “I’ll think about it.”
“That’s all I really wanted.” Dani’s German Shepherd trotted up to the coffee table and stuck his nose in her wine glass. She leaned forward, snatching the glass away and nearly knocking it over in the process. “Jack!” she said, laughing. “You big goof—that’s mywine!”
Zoe laughed at the image drawn up by Dani’s words. “Like mother, like dog.”
“Oh please, like you’re not drinking right now, little miss sassy-pants!” Dani took a satisfied sip from her glass. “So what is it? Vodka? Rum?” She knew that, whatever Zoe was drinking, it would be the hard stuff.
“Actually, it’s tequila tonight, thank you very much.” She raised the bottle, saluting Dani clear across the country and took a final gulp. “So how’s Cam doing? Is he in bed?”
Dani sighed, thinking of her handsome young chef. “No. He had the dinner shift today. He should be home soon. Hmmm…I hope he brings some food.” Dani couldn’t cook to save her life, but with Cam around, that didn’t really matter.
“How’s living together going? What’s it been…a month? Still liking it, or have you gotten sick of him?” Zoe hadn’t been sure Dani would ever get over her crush on Jason, Zoe’s older brother, but her friend had been so happy the last few years, always smiling and gushing about Cam. Zoe grinned. It was about damn time.
With an audible smile, Dani said, “No…it’s good. Great, actually. And Callie really seems okay with it now.”
Zoe rolled her eyes at the thought of Dani’s roommate’s annoying voice. “So she’s finally gotten over her friend hoarding?”
“C’mon, Zo, don’t be so hard on her.” Thinking of the last three times Zoe and Callie had interacted, Dani scowled. Mixing her lifetime best friend with her closest college buddy never seemed to work out as well as she hoped. Oil and water were downright compatible in comparison.
Zoe took a deep, calming breath, her head fuzzy and her insides warm. “Fine, okay, whatever. Moving on…”
“Oh! Speaking of moving,” Dani said in a slightly higher pitch. “Have you thought more about coming out here…you know, permanently? Seattle would love to have you…”
Sighing, Zoe sat up. “I’ve been thinking about it, but…I don’t know. I guess I’d like to find a gallery that’s interest in my work before I make any decisions.”
“Well…I have this friend whose parents sort of own a gallery. I could show them your work...?”
Zoe shrugged, trying not to get her hopes up. “Sure, that’d be awesome. I can email photos or you can show them my blog. Just let me know.” She paused, feeling a burst of anticipation. “Thanks, D.”
“No need to email, I’ll just use the pics online.”
“Okay, cool. I love the opportunities over here and everything—there’s a gallery on every street corner—but the winters suck. If I’m stuck in another snow storm I might lose my mind.”
Dani chuckled. Zoe’s dislike of all things cold had always amused her. Checking the clock on the cable box, she sighed. “Zo.”
Dani glared at the basket of clean laundry sitting on the end of the coffee table. “Don’t hate me, but—”
“You’re really a man? I knew it!”
“Right. That’s it. I’m a short, skinny man…with boobs. But really”—Dani let out a deep, sad breath—“Cam’ll be home soon, and I promised I’d finish up a few chores, so…”
“You’ve gotta go. We finally get a chance to catch up a teensy bit, and you’ve gotta go.” Although frustrated, it was mostly with herself. Zoe knew her hectic work schedule made keeping in proper contact nearly impossible.
“Well…we might get to talk more if someone didn’t work all the time,” Dani said. She missed the days when they would spend hours talking on a regular basis. Or better yet, would sneak over to the other’s house for an impromptu sleepover. But real life kept butting in.
“Sure, blame it all on the struggling artist!” Zoe said, feigning irritation.
“Hellooo…starving student here,” Dani countered.
Zoe laughed. “Alright, alright…we’re tied.” She paused, then said,
“By the way, I’ve got a date this weekend…”
“Of course you do. Call me after? I want all the deets, and I mean all the deets.”
“Yeah, yeah…scout’s honor.”
Dani barked a laugh. “If you're a girl scout, I’m a nun.”
Completely amused, Zoe said, “I’ll talk to you soon.”
“Damn straight, you will!” Dani said, swirling her wine glass. “Get some sleep, Zo...you sound pooped.”
After the goodbyes, Zoe ended the call and dropped her phone onto her nightstand. She stared up at the ceiling, deep in thought. The idea of leaving Salem made her both anxious and hopeful. She’d made a lot of connections on the East Coast, but she missed her Dad and Dani, and Seattle was a lot closer to Bodega Bay than Salem was. If Dani’s gallery connection panned out, she thought she might just have to do it.