On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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Scott knew it had been a mistake to accept the invitation. But the gesture had been kindly meant, and he liked to do the right thing.
He’d had a bad run of luck recently, personally and professionally, and his friend Chris from work was just trying to cheer him up. We’re having a dinner party, Chris had said. Really informal, just some people we know. You should come.
Even the idea itself had mistake written all over it, and as he looked around at the faces — almost entirely of strangers, including the woman who was apparently Chris’s wife — Scott told himself he only had to get through another couple of hours of this at most, then he could excuse himself and go home, never to think about the evening again.
Most of the other people seemed annoying, in one way or another. There was the attending-solo female vegan sat directly across from him, for one thing. Not only did she look entirely like the TV comedy sketch show version of a vegan — with hair pulled back, zero makeup, and a knee-length chunky-knit maroon cardigan over the kind of summer dress a cult member would wear, with a big wooden necklace — but she had mentioned her dietary preference no fewer than three times in the forty minutes since Scott had arrived. At this point, he was almost hoping she’d choke on a nut.
“So are you reading anything right now?” he asked the vegan, drawing a flicker of a glance from Chris. The look lasted less than half a second, but conveyed everything from amusement and admiration to exasperation and admonishment. Scott knew they’d laugh about it later.
She looked up at him, and he suddenly remembered that her name was Angela. Chris had gone around the table like a good host at the start of the evening, introducing everyone. It wasn’t an especially new-age name. Actually, it was quite ordinary.
“I’m reading about making your own compost,” Angela replied brightly, and Scott felt the eyes of the room turn in unison towards the two of them, but mostly him.
Jesus, he thought.
“That’s interesting,” he said instead. “Do you do a lot of gardening then?”
“A fair bit. And I like to minimise my impact if I can,” she said. To Scott’s ear it sounded a little defensive, but her tone was mostly neutral. He thought that she probably rubbed people up the wrong way quite a lot, unintentionally or otherwise.
“I was voted most likely to have minimal impact in my year at high school,” Scott said, making it up on the spot, and Angela the vegan laughed politely.
Scott took a sip of his drink and glanced at Chris again, who raised an inquiring eyebrow, and it took a full minute for Scott to understand that his friend actually thought he was flirting with this hippy.
Jesus, he thought for the second time in as many minutes.
But Angela was talking again, and he tuned back in to something about coco coir, and a shipment of worms she’d recently received. He had asked her what coco coir was before he could stop himself, and all at once he realised that he was baiting her, and that she had no idea he was doing it. He was going to ask question after question, feigning interest in whatever nonsense she responded with, and he wouldn’t stop engaging her in conversation until she moved on or brushed him off.
It was like a game of chicken. Or in her case, maybe chicken-flavoured shaped tofu pieces. He silently congratulated himself on his own wit, nodding enthusiastically at her the whole time.
It continued for the whole evening, ultimately even drawing remarks from some of the other attendees on how well the two of them had hit it off. After the dinner itself had finished and people started to drift around the living and dining rooms of Chris’s house, Scott and Angela found themselves a spot near the patio doors and continued their conversation. Scott wasn’t entirely sure what the conversation was about, but he thought he might have an aneurism when she used the phrase cruelty free. Even so, he kept his game face on, he listened, he asked questions, and he listened some more.
Chris came over to him when Angela went to the bathroom, and hesitantly asked how the evening was going. Scott said it was going fine, and that Angela was interesting, and he was grateful for the invitation. Chris looked at him doubtfully at first, then shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
“Just be kind, alright?” he said, and Scott pretended to be affronted.
By the end of the evening, it was clear that Angela was going to ask for his phone number, and his prediction turned out to be correct. He didn’t hesitate to give it to her, following the same impish, perverse principle of the entire evening so far. He would not disengage. And a small part of him actually did want to know more about her damned herb garden and self-built greenhouse, since she’d told him so much about it already.
She texted him the following day, and there was a cautious breeziness that hadn’t been there in person. Scott understood that it was a self-protective measure, and he didn’t keep her waiting for a reply. He could certainly understand how she might have been unlucky in terms of previous potential entanglements.
Especially if they were on a high-protein diet, he thought, but this time he didn’t enjoy his own joke, and he frowned it away.
He kept his own text message in the same tone he’d used at the dinner party, and they ended up texting back and forth intermittently for a few hours. The following day, she called him, and said she was going to a farmer’s market at the weekend. He said he’d like to join her, if she wanted the company, and Angela said that she would like that.
As the day drew near, Scott found that he was a little nervous, and told himself not to be so bloody stupid. He was doing this for… what, exactly? Contrariness? A childish game, gotten out of hand? Or something else?
Be kind, Chris’s voice said in his mind. Scott’s own inner voice added another version: Be cruelty free.
“Jesus,” he said, throwing a third casual shirt onto the bed because it wasn’t quite right either.
Scott had realised entirely too late that a studiously-faked interest in something — or someone — was functionally indistinguishable from a genuine one. He smiled ruefully.
Despite his best efforts, he had to admit that he liked her.
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