The Pretend Girlfriend

By: Lucy Lambert

"In time for what?" Gwen said, the twisting in her stomach telling her she already knew the answer.

"In time to pay your back rent. And I see your next rent check is due the end of next week."

Gwen pushed herself off the chair. More like peeled, really, with the way her skin, still dripping with rainwater, clung to the vinyl covering. The pain made her grimace, but she quickly forgot about it in light of other issues.

"You can't give me any more time? How am I supposed to come up with that kind of money?" Gwen said. She tried to run her fingers through her hair. It helped to calm her down normally. This time, her fingers tugged at knots created by the wetness.

"I'm sorry, really I am..." He tapped some more at his keyboard, "The best I can do is push it back to the end of next week. You can have until then for the back rent, and next month's rent.

That pushed the total up to more than $5000.

Gwen wanted to get mad. She wanted to scream at Gabe, to tell him how ridiculous this whole thing was, to tell him that she would be homeless. But she also recognized that Gabe really was trying to be nice and understanding. He wasn't the one who'd stolen her rent money. And Patterson had already given her three months to come up with it. Not that she had known about it. And he had just given her an extra week, not that it would make much of a difference.

No, that, too, was Janice's fault.

So Gwen swallowed her anger, forcing the lump back down her throat. She thanked Gabe for his advice, and the extension. He wished her luck.

Right after that call ended, Gwen found the number for the police non-emergency line and called, her cell starting to get hot against her ear.

She told the constable what had happened, and the constable told her that they'd open an investigation into the matter. However, he also said that in cases like this, the suspect usually skipped town, and that all the missing belongings made a strong case that Janice had done exactly that. The constable said they might get lucky and find Janice within a few months, but it was probably going to take much longer than that.

Again, doing her best to keep her feelings in check, Gwen thanked him and hung up.

It was all too much. She felt overloaded, strained, cold, wet, tired, and angry all at the same time. A thousand different thoughts fought for control in her mind, most of them reminding her how there was no way she could get the money in time.

So she went to her room, nearly tripping over the messenger bag full of expensive school books. She stripped out of her wet clothes, throwing them over the radiator, pulled on a set of comforting wool pajamas (the little yellow duckies all over them usually made her smile) and climbed into bed, intent on letting sleep pull her away from the world for a bit.

It was right about now she wished she had a boyfriend she could curl up with. It would be so nice to have a strong pair of arms hug her close as she sobbed quietly, to have a deep, comforting voice to tell her it was all going to turn out fine.

But Gwen had only herself and her comforter. She wanted sleep so badly, even though she knew her problems would still be waiting for her when she woke up, and however many minutes or hours gone, taken from the time she'd been given to come up with the money.

Chapter 2

The thoughts racing through her mind began growing distant. Her eyes stayed shut without her needing to clench them. Slowly, she started to doze.

But then her cell began to buzz. She'd put it on silent and left it on her desk, but she'd forgotten to disable the vibrate function.

At first, she tried to ignore it. But it didn't stop.

Grumbling about being left alone, Gwen climbed out of bed with a stormy look on her face. She snatched up the phone, meaning to just turn the thing off completely and get back to her very important nap.

But the screen lit up, showing her a slew of missed text messages with their little green icon, as well as several calls, all from the same person. All from Beatrice. The texts were all along the lines of, "Hey! What's up?" "Come on, let's do something!" "If you don't answer, I'll tell Steve Messner you think he's cute!"

The phone vibrated in her hand again. Beatrice's mug shot appeared on the screen, smiling at her. She had curly auburn hair and full cheeks. They'd been friends ever since meeting during orientation week back in first year.

Gwen bit her lip again, finger hovering over the power button. Beatrice was a bit of a... strong personality. People usually thought she was joking when she threatened them with something embarrassing. But she wasn't. Gwen had learned that early on. And she certainly didn't want Beatrice telling Steve Messner anything. He was a decrepit old Intro to Psych professor who liked to leer at all the girls in class and flirt with them in front of everyone.

Gwen did her best to stay away from any of his classes after first year.

So Gwen answered the phone. "Hey, B, what's up?"

"Not you, apparently? Jeez, Gwen, I was about to come over there and knock down your door. Anyway, you're lucky. I found Messner's phone number off his faculty page; I have it written down here and everything."

"You know, that wouldn't be the worst thing to happen to me today," Gwen said. She went over to the window and parted the blinds, peering down at the street as though she might see Janice coming in through the front entrance to tell her this was all just some misunderstanding.

But the only things down on the street were cars and vans and trucks, and none of the pedestrians looked like Janice.

"What's up?" Beatrice said. Despite her jokey nature, she really did care about her friends, and could be serious if the need arose.

For the third time that day, Gwen related her story. Every time she mentioned Janice's name, she stomped down on her messenger bag. It felt good to hit something, and the books had a nice give to them.

"Okay, here's what you're going to do: you're going to meet me down at that Starbucks on the corner in twenty minutes and we're going to figure this out..."

"I can't afford a latte..." Gwen started. It felt good to get some sympathy, but she needed more than a Janice-bashing session over espresso.

"My treat. Just meet me in twenty minutes..." Beatrice's voice grew mischievous, "Remember, I still have Messner's number written down."

"Okay, okay, fine. Just make it twenty five minutes; I have to fix myself up."

"Twenty," Beatrice said. Before Gwen could argue the point, Beatrice hung up, and the text Gwen sent received in reply an image of a notepad with a phone number scrawled across it and a little devil's face drawn beneath.

To Gwen's surprise, it actually felt good to do something. The urge to crawl back in under the covers receded as she threw socks and jeans and shirts out onto her bed looking for the right thing to wear.

Even though this wasn't going to magically make thousands of dollars suddenly appear in her bank account, it was a step towards some sort of solution. Even if it was just a solution to her burning need to unload on someone.

Just moping about in bed also felt good, but it usually led to just sitting around feeling sorry for yourself, and that definitely wasn't going to get her the money she needed.

So, just shy of twenty minutes later, Gwen stepped into the busy corner Starbucks and out of the only slightly lessened downpour outside. The brief walk kept her from getting soaked again, but the bottoms of her jeans did get wet, and she could already feel the quick drying and straightening she'd done on her hair turning to frizz.

Beatrice waved her over to a set of comfy chairs she'd somehow managed to commandeer. Gwen never got those chairs; they always seemed occupied by middle-aged men in business suits sipping at espressos, pretending to read the Wall Street Journal while they actually just watched the cute young baristas make drinks behind the counter.

Beatrice had them banished to the less comfortable chairs and tables farther back in the coffee shop, and they shot resentful glances her way that she ignored.

"How much did you say it was again?" Beatrice said, sipping from her grande mocha. She'd bought Gwen a grande vanilla latte, which sat steaming on the little table.

"Around $5000," Gwen answered, sitting down. It felt like someone had loaded about 5000 pounds worth of lead into her stomach, which currently tried to pull her through the tile floor.

Beatrice swallowed some of her mocha, then whistled at the number.

"Not helping," Gwen said.

"Yeah, sorry, sorry, I didn't mean to. It's just... wow. Man, that just makes me wish Janice was here, I'd..." Beatrice set her mocha down and wrung an imaginary Janice's neck. It was quite a thorough and realistic demonstration.

Gwen couldn't help smiling. "Yeah, me too. But something tells me she's already far away. And I bet she's already spent all the money, too."

"You know, I always thought she was a jerk. You really should've come and stayed at my apartment."

Gwen forestalled that argument. They'd tried to live together after first year, renting a basement apartment below a bungalow together. But they were just fundamentally incompatible as roommates. Gwen liked things tidy. Beatrice let the dishes pile up for a week. Gwen liked to get up and turn her alarm off right away. Beatrice liked to doze in bed for an extra half hour, her radio blaring. To cut the story short, they decided to save their friendship by agreeing to not live together any more.

Though, Gwen doubted that Beatrice would have tried to make off with the rent money on her.

"Maybe, but unfortunately they haven't invented time travel yet, B. What am I supposed to do in the here and now?" Gwen said.

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