Ruthless Creatures by J.T. Geissinger




1





Nat





“I’m sorry. I just can’t do this anymore. It’s obvious I’m the only one trying.”

The voice on the other end of the line is somber. I know Chris is telling me the truth. He really is sorry it isn’t working out between us. But it’s not a surprise. I knew this was coming. If only I could work up enough energy to care.

If that were the case, however, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

“Okay. I get it. I guess I’ll see you around, then.”

In the short pause that follows, he goes from sorry to annoyed. “That’s it? That’s all you’re gonna say? We’ve been dating for two months and all I get is ‘see you around?’”

He wants me to be upset, but I’m actually relieved. Though of course I can’t say that out loud.

Standing at my kitchen sink, I look out the open window to the small, fenced yard beyond. Outside, it’s bright and sunny with a crisp sniff of fall in the air, a typical September day in Lake Tahoe.

Perfect time of year to get married.

I shove that unwelcome thought aside and refocus on the conversation. “I don’t know what else you want me to say. You’re the one who’s breaking up with me, remember?”

“Yeah, and I would’ve thought you’d have more of a reaction than that.” His tone turns dry. “Guess I should’ve known better.”

Chris isn’t a bad guy. He’s not short-tempered like the last guy I tried dating, or a weepy clinger like the one before. He’s actually pretty great.

I think I’ll try to set him up with my girlfriend, Marybeth. They’d make a cute couple.

“I just have a lot going on with work, that’s all. I don’t really have time to invest in a relationship. I know you understand.”

There’s another pause, this one longer. “You teach fingerpainting to sixth graders.”

I bristle at his tone. “I teach art.”

“Yeah. To a bunch of twelve-year-olds. I’m not trying to be insulting, but your job isn’t exactly high stress.”

I don’t have it in me to argue with him, so I stay silent. He takes it as a cue to continue the frontal assault.

“My friends warned me about you, you know. They said I shouldn’t date someone with your history.”

My “history.” That’s a nice way of putting it.

As the girl with the missing fiancé who vanished the day before their big church wedding five years ago, I don’t have baggage so much as cargo. It takes a certain kind of self-confidence to take me on.

“I hope we can stay friends, Chris. I know I’m not perfect, but—”

“You need to move on with your life, Nat. I’m sorry, but it has to be said. You’re living in the past. Everyone knows it.”

I know they do. I see the looks.

King’s Beach—a funky little beach town on the north shore of the lake—has a population of about four thousand people. Even after all these years, sometimes it feels as if every one of them is still saying a prayer for me at night.

When I don’t respond, Chris exhales. “That came out wrong. I didn’t mean—”

“Yes, you did. It’s fine. Listen, if it’s all right with you, let’s just say goodbye now. I meant it when I said I’d like to stay friends. You’re a good guy. No hard feelings, okay?”

After a moment, he says flatly, “Sure. No hard feelings. No feelings either way, I know that’s your specialty. You take care, Nat.” He disconnects, leaving me listening to dead air.

I sigh, closing my eyes.

He’s wrong about me not having feelings. I have all kinds of feelings. Anxiety. Fatigue. Low-level depression. An unshakeable melancholy paired with gentle despair.

See? I’m not the emotional iceberg I get accused of being.

I hang the receiver back onto the cradle on the wall. It instantly rings again.

I hesitate, unsure if I want to answer or start binge drinking like I do every year on this day at this time, but decide I’ve got another ten minutes or so to kill before I start the annual ritual.

“Hello?”

“Did you know that cases of schizophrenia rose sharply around the turn of the twentieth century, when domestic cat ownership became common?”

It’s my best friend, Sloane. She has no interest in starting a conversation in a normal way, which is one of the many reasons I love her.