Authors: Vanessa Gray Bartal
Tags: #Cozy Mystery
Copyright © 2011 by Vanessa Gray Bartal
This is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The insistent beeping of an alarm confused her. She jumped up, startled, before quickly remembering there was no need for haste; she had nowhere to go. Her head collapsed onto the pillow with what would have been a thump if she had landed on anything but a pile of down.
Most people would kill for a three month hiatus from their jobs, but then Liza Benson was not most people. She loved her job teaching third grade. She lived for it. She thrived not only on the joy of teaching her little pupils, but on the daily interaction with her coworkers. She especially loved getting caught up in the drama of their lives.
Because you have no life of your own,
she thought. She pulled the sheet up over her face and groaned. What was she going to do for three long months? She had to think of something, and quick, because with the end of summer came the event she had been dreading: her five year college reunion.
The phone rang but she ignored it, let the machine pick up, and then sprang for it when she heard her boyfriend start to talk. The receiver fumbled in her fingers and clattered to the floor before she finally brought the mouthpiece to her face.
“Liza, Liza,” Dirk repeated impatiently.
“What? Sorry. I’m here.”
He sighed dramatically. “You are the only person on the planet who still has an answering machine, do you know that?”
“That’s not true. What about the guy who invented it? I bet he hasn’t switched to voicemail.”
“He’s dead,” Dirk said.
“You can’t know that,” she told him.
look it up. It seems like the sort of thing she would be interested in.”
was her best friend and also a reference librarian. Research was her thing. “Anyway,” he continued. He sounded exasperated. He was almost always exasperated with her over something. “The reason I called was to tell you I have to cancel our date tonight.”
“We had a date tonight?” She glanced at the chair where her new outfit was spread. She had bought it specifically for their date tonight, but Dirk was always canceling on her. Feigning ignorance of the event was one small way to salvage her pride.
He sighed in exasperation. Again. “Yes, Liza, we had a date tonight. I don’t understand how you can be so meticulous in your professional life and so scattered when it comes to me.”
“Just one of those things, I guess.”
“I guess,” he echoed. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Later,” she echoed, and they disconnected. Of course he didn’t tell her he loved her. He never had, despite the fact they had been together five years.
She lay back and thought of Dirk with a smile, despite his cancellation and lack of endearment. He was perfect, and he was hers. Well, mostly.
They met in college when he was dating her friend, Scarlet. He had loved Scarlet, but then who hadn’t? She was pretty, confident, and fun. She wasn’t in Liza’s normal social circle, but they were friends in the way that popular people were sometimes friends with someone in a lower social strata--Liza being the one in the lower strata. They met when they were in two classes together the same semester freshman year. Scarlet overheard Liza’s muttered, barely audible comments, thought she was funny, and struck up an acquaintance that turned into a friendship that lasted throughout school. They never hung out in groups, but occasionally they had a girls’ day out together or stayed up for a few late night chat sessions. Despite their differences Liza counted Scarlet as one of her best friends during college.
Scarlet and Dirk dated all through their junior and senior years. He was like her-- one of the beautiful people. He was the quarterback of the football team, physically sculpted, and had a full head of hair he still retained despite the fact he was pushing thirty.
Two weeks after graduation Liza met up with Scarlet and Dirk at a wedding. The next week Scarlet dumped Dirk for her high school sweetheart, and the week after that Dirk called Liza to ask her out. She was the rebound girl who never went away.
Over the years she had learned how to keep him hanging on, such as the tactic with the faulty memory. It drove him crazy when she pretended to forget about him. Another secret was to never, ever mention Scarlet. They hadn’t uttered her name once in five years, despite the fact that she was everywhere lately. She married the high school sweetheart she dumped Dirk for and started a blog that became a sensation. Now her story was being made into a movie, and she was famous. Whenever she was on television or in the paper, Dirk looked haunted. She was forever the one who got away, while Liza was forever the pale substitute. Perhaps it was a pathetic existence, but Liza was a realist. Dirk was beautiful. He was nice to her, for the most part. He didn’t have any vices that she knew of, and he still had all his own hair. He was heir to his father’s car sales empire and made an excellent living. All in all he was a catch.
Liza, on the other hand, was still below him on the social scale, at least in her opinion. She was an elementary school teacher and meticulously careful with her finances. That care made her able to stand on her own two feet, despite her meager income. Her only debt was her small house, and she overpaid her mortgage every month. These were all points in her favor as far as Dirk was concerned. He had a deep fear of “gold diggers,” and applauded her efforts to use her money wisely.
On the negative side she was plain, and she knew it. She wasn’t ugly, but she wasn’t beautiful, either. She was somewhere in between with shoulder-length brown hair, hazel eyes, a passable figure, and full, pretty lips. She was the type of girl that, if you stopped and stared at her, you would say was attractive. The problem was that no one stopped and stared. She possessed an everyman quality that made people pass by her unnoticed. Her sense of humor was her best trait, but she was reserved so most people didn’t know about it. All in all she was the food equivalent of plain yogurt--versatile, bland, but loaded with good things for anyone who took the time to partake.
Dirk was more than she could hope for, but today that thought added to her sadness. Once again she pulled the sheet over her head, and this time she fell back asleep.
When she woke again she still had no energy or enthusiasm to face the day, but she was hungry so she got out of bed and padded to the kitchen. The cupboards yielded only healthy, fiber-filled cereals and she stared at them in disgust. A chocolate croissant was what she wanted, and she cursed
for introducing her to the confection. Who knew a croissant could be improved upon? Apparently the person who decided to wrap one around a piece of dark chocolate.
“Probably the same guy who invented the answering machine and that’s what killed him,” she muttered. Living alone since college had gained her the bad habit of talking to herself. Even worse than that, she used hand gestures and laughed uproariously at her own jokes. These were traits she hid from Dirk. Part of her allure for him was her normalcy. She wouldn’t even allow herself to get a cat because she was afraid it was the gateway to becoming the crazy cat lady who smelled like a litter box and handed out individual Lifesavers for Halloween.
The phone rang. She let it go to the machine again. It was
“I know you’re there. Pick up or I’ll just keep calling.”
“What’s up?” Liza answered as soon as she picked up the phone. They never said hello anymore. After four years of rooming together in college they had a comfort level beyond the normal, especially after all the steaming rows they had once had. They were best friends, but terrible roommates. Despite the fact that they could save money if they lived together now, they had vowed to never live together again.
“Meet me for lunch,”
said. “I have the afternoon off.”
“I just ate breakfast.”
“Good point. Where and when?”
“The coffee shop at noon.” She hung up without saying goodbye. Liza wondered at what point they had adopted the short hand that was now a hallmark of their phone conversations.
Noon was less than an hour away. She would have to hurry if she was going to make it. Still, when she jumped in the shower she took her time. If felt like going against nature to rush a shower on a day off. Her hair wouldn’t look great if she didn’t blow it dry, but since it was summer she decided she could get away with tucking it into a ponytail. She grabbed her makeup to apply in the car, something which Dirk would never approve.
“Do you know how many used cars we get because the owners wrecked while applying makeup?” he would say.
“Maybe you would get a lot more if they caught sight of themselves without makeup and then slammed their cars into trees,” she had replied once. He had actually laughed at that and kissed her. The memory made her smile. There were good times scattered among his indifference. If only he would love her, really love her like he had loved Scarlet. Being second place hurt. Being second place to someone who was now a celebrity was mortifying. Ever since Scarlet’s star began to rise things had been more strained than usual with Dirk.
She shook her head and pushed aside her dreary thoughts as she arrived at the coffee shop.
had heard it all before. There was no need to rehash it today. But despite her best intentions that was exactly what she did. Once upon a time she and Marion had talked about their dreams and goals, their futures, their families, other friends, movies, books, philosophy, and religion. Now their conversations centered around one topic: the men in their lives.
In the five years Liza had been dating Dirk,
had entertained a revolving door of losers in her pursuit of Mr. Right. For the past year and a half she had settled for a guy named Puck. Puck wasn’t his nickname; it was the name on his birth certificate.
knew this because she did a background check on him when they first started dating.
Her past relationships ended so badly that background checks were now standard for the beginnings of her relationships. More than one of her boyfriends had stolen from her. Compared to some of them Puck was a dream come true. He was still “finding himself,” even though he was thirty years old and had been in college since he was eighteen. He still didn’t have a degree. He had no job. He lived off student loans he kept deferring.
“As long as I’m in school they won’t kick in,” he was always quick to point out.
had tried to tell him that he was sitting on an educational Ponzi scheme. Eventually the loans would kick in and he would face a mountain of debt. That was why
told herself she wouldn’t marry him. In reality it was because he hadn’t asked.
The two women had a bet going. The loser was the first one to get her man to the altar. They made it that way because they were both such longshots for matrimony. It was less depressing to pretend they didn’t want to get married than to realize they probably never would.
“Dirk canceled again tonight.”
“Of course he did,”
said. She used her finger to scrape the remainder of cream cheese out of the small container in front of her, and then she licked both her finger and the container.
Liza watched in disgust. This was why they hadn’t been good roommates. She was neat and orderly while
was like the Pigpen character from Charlie Brown. Mess and chaos followed her wherever she went.
“What does that mean?” Liza asked.
“You make it too easy for him to walk all over you. And don’t give me that look. I haven’t loaned Puck money. I learned my lesson from the last three guys. Okay, four. But this isn’t about me. He takes you for granted.” She dropped her napkin on the floor before retrieving it and using it to wipe her lips. Liza fought her gag reflex.
“What am I supposed to do about it?”
“Stop being so predictable. Shake up the status quo. Do something different. Get a makeover.”
“I do need a trim,” Liza said. She touched the ends of her hair.
“Not a trim, Liza. Go fuchsia, or purple, or something crazy like that.”
“I don’t think Dirk would like that,” she said.
“It’s not about liking. It’s about shocking, it’s about making him realize you’re not the meatloaf and mashed potatoes he’s come to expect. You’re steak and pommes frites.”
“Do I have to be food?”
“I don’t know. It was all I could think of. I’m still hungry.” She turned to stare at the menu board while Liza thought about what she had said. Maybe it was time to make some changes, not only for Dirk, but for herself. This could be the summer of Liza.
“Maybe I should do something different,” she agreed after
retrieved another bagel and sat down.
“I know the perfect place. One of my coworkers and a couple of patrons go to this place, and they all rave about it. And they always look amazing.” She pulled out her phone and scrolled through a list of salons. “There it is: Trés Chic. I’ll call to see if they have any openings right now.”
“Now?” Liza echoed weakly.
“Now. I know you. If I let you go today, you’ll talk yourself out of it and never do it.”