Half a year after graduation, all three of them with superb grades, they were living in the not very fancy part of Del Sol Valley, squished in a less than great apartment barely large enough for one person, let alone three and still struggled to make ends meet.
In college Hannah had realized that psychology wasn’t for her and switched to Culinary Arts early on, with hopes of one day running her own restaurant. Currently she worked as a line cook in a less than prestigious restaurant chain. Not exactly her dream of working her way up the food chain in one of the upscale dining spots in the city of dreams, but it helped pay the bills.
Eric had graduated in Fine Arts and contributed to the household income by playing piano nightly at a fancy lounge, while occasionally painting on commission. He lost a few jobs as a piano player due to his tortured looks, patrons had complained that he made them uncomfortable. The current establishment had mood lighting and the angle of the piano was just right that nobody noticed.
Ewan’s acting career was off to a slower than slow start, at this point he still had not landed even one single role in anything but lame commercials against negligible pay, despite a distinguished degree in Drama from a renown university. He had been told that pretty boys like him were a dime a dozen. Still, he wanted this bad enough to keep trying and the other two were too loyal to abandon him.
Ewan knew, the moment he went back to Brindleton Bay with his tail tucked, he’d end up working at EC Architects with his father till the day he’d die.
Then finally he got a lead and suddenly auditions just started pouring in so fast, he barely had time to learn all the lines. A gleam of hope?
Eric hated Del Sol Valley. Their only saving grace was Ewan’s older sister Briar Rose, who lived here with her family, and had helped them out every so often, careful not to upset her and Ewan’s father Elias by getting in the middle of what was a big father-son argument.
Eric longed to be back in Brindleton Bay, but realized his selection of degree was a shot in his own foot. There was no employ he could find without a serious commute, except maybe as an Arts teacher at the local high school. Standing in front of an audience was the last thing he could ever do, especially one as cruel as high school kids. So for better or worse, he was stuck here.
Hannah and Ewan went on dates quite a bit, both determined to make it all count. While Hannah was looking for Mr. Right, Ewan usually was still plenty happy with any Miss Right Now. He wasn’t against marriage or kids per se, just was far from ready to settle down. Eric kept to himself, still.
Good things come to those who wait, they said. One night that seemed to come true for Eric, even though not in a manner you’d expect.
After finishing a shift playing the piano at the lounge, Eric decided to surprise Hannah by picking her up fom her shift at the restaurant. Safer that way.
He hurried but still almost missed her. When he arrived he caught her walking off in the distance.
“Hannah! HANNAH!” he yelled, but she didn’t hear him so he ran after her, grinning to himself thinking he’d prank her a little. When he got close enough, he pulled her back and planted a big, wet kiss on her cheek from behind.
“Gotcha!” he said triumphantly, before he let go to watch Hannah’s reaction.
His grin vanished instantly as he stared with the same horrified expression as the girl now staring back at him once she turned around to face him.
Eric blushed, then stuttered
“Oh my God, you’re not Hannah!” was his very much unnecessary evaluation.
“Nope!” the girl agreed, eyeing him with a mixture of disgust, surprise and shock.
“I am so very sorry. I thought you were my cousin Hannah. I swear!” Eric explained nervously.
“You kiss your cousins like that?!” the girl frowned.
“No, not normally … I wanted to surprise her … uh … a joke … so very sorry!” Eric realized he wasn’t improving anything.
“You have issues!” the girl told him determined.
“Tell me about it.” Eric sighed.
“Eric?” he now heard Hannah’s voice – the real Hannah this time – as she walked up to them, looking back and forth between him and the girl.
“Hannah …” it was almost a cry of relief from Eric.
“So you are real. Guess it really was just a misunderstanding after all and not the world’s dumbest pickup attempt in all history. Your cousin here almost got himself maced big time. He’s a special kind of weirdo!” the girl informed Hannah.
“What? Eric, what did you do?” Hannah wondered.
“I … uh … ” he tried.
“He wanted to kiss you and by some weird happenstance kissed me instead. You better have his head checked, if you really are his cousin, unless that’s how you two roll! Kissing cousins, now I really have seen it all!”
The girl shook her head, then turned to walk off, while Hannah stood there, dumbfounded, staring at Eric, who just wanted to sink into a hole.
“What? Why would you want to kiss me in the first place?” Hannah was confused.
“I didn’t! Not really. Just the cheek… a joke, like a wet willy but on the face to startle you.” Eric briefly told his cousin about the misunderstanding and the intended joke.
“Eric, she looks nothing like me!” Hannah complained with one last look at the girl.
“She did in the twilight from the angle I was coming from …” he defended himself.
“I cannot believe you just kissed some random girl!” Hannah started laughing.
Ewan laughed till he fell off the couch after they had gotten home and Hannah told him what happened, while Eric just went to hide in the bedroom. More humiliation was the last thing he needed, even though he knew they were just teasing him. At least it was over.
But – as they say – you always meet twice.
Eric was getting ready for his shift at the lounge one night when none other than that girl, whom he had mistaken for Hannah, appeared next to him.
Trying hard to just ignore her, he continued his warm up, while she stared at him.
“Uh, can I help you?” Eric finally labored out, avoiding to look at her.
“You are the pianist here?”
“You have got to be kidding me!”
“Excuse me?” Eric stopped playing and rose up to face her.
“What is your policy for kissing colleagues?” the girl asked.
“I was just hired to sing here. Evidently you are my accompaniment on the piano. So, do I need to find a place to hide mace in this dress or can you act civilized?”
“Very funny. Look, I am really sorry about what happened. No, I do not frequently do this, but is there any way we can drop this, even forget it ever happened? You are perfectly safe from me, I promise.”
“Your name is Eric?”
“I am Charlotte.”
She offered him her hand, after looking at it for a moment, Eric shook it.
“Nice to meet you. Officially.” Eric’s facial expression belied his words. He was the exact opposite of pleased.
“Yeah, I can contain myself from doing cartwheels too. So, what do you usually play? I was told to keep it light, but middle to slow tempo.” Charlotte admitted.
They talked about music, tried a few pieces. Evidently she had studied music as well, her voice was well trained.
It didn’t take much for them to work together harmoniously. At least as long as music was involved. Aside from that, there was little to no interaction between them.
One night after work, they had been colleagues for months now, Eric had finished up and was about to leave when Charlotte confronted him.
“Why don’t you like me, Eric?”
“You are always borderline rude to me, and that is only on days when you don’t choose to completely ignore me altogether. I mean, we have to get along. For work. Might as well make the best of it.”
“I thought we do get along at work.”
“Yeah, we have been working together for months now, and I know nothing about you. Not even your last name.”
“It’s Cameron. Don’t take it personal, I just don’t really socialize much.”
“Figured as much. Is that because of your … ” she gestured to his facial scars, which stung inside Eric’s mind and heart.
“You can say it, yes, it’s because I am disfigured. Have a good night.” he shot back, then turned to leave.
“Eric wait! I didn’t mean to upset you. Didn’t know you were so touchy about this.”
“Touchy? About you pointing out the obvious? Yeah, what’s there to be touchy about, right? I don’t socialize because I look like a monster. Does that satisfy your question?”
“Hey, come on, I didn’t mean to aggravate you. Can I get a mulligan here?” Eric tried to get to the stairs to leave, but Charlotte blocked the way.
“Still waiting for my mulligan from you.” he told her, unamused.
“Okay. Well, fine. I won’t ever mention the kiss again, if you give me another chance.”
“Chance for what?”
“To be civil with each other.”
“I am being civil, I thought. I have not come near you, I am polite, what more do you want?”
“You have to eat, right? Have dinner with me at the diner around the corner. I am buying.”
“What?! Where the heck is that coming from all of a sudden?!”
“You do not have to buy me anything. I can buy my own food.” ‘At least sometimes‘, Eric sarcastically added in his mind, while his stomach growled.
“Are you going to make a girl beg?”
“Why would you beg? I don’t get why, after all this time, are you so dead-set about us hanging out tonight? You couldn’t care less about any of this for months and now you want to share a meal?!” Eric was more than suspicious and very much taken aback.
“Because I figured since I already put a foot in my own mouth, might as well put a burger in yours. Plus, it’s my birthday, and I’d be all alone otherwise. My family is far away and as you may have noticed it is pretty hard making friends in this town, everyone has an agenda and usually they don’t line up with mine. You’re different. We could have a pity party together. And I could make up for upsetting you.” Charlotte suggested.
“I told you it’s okay. You are not the first or the only person and definitely not the last who gets hung up on my appearance. I should be used to it by now. No need to buy me off with a burger. We are okay. But happy birthday.” Eric tried to blow her off.
“What if I add fries and a soda?” Charlotte smiled at him.
Eric couldn’t help but chuckle.
“All right, fine. I actually am pretty hungry. I give up, you win. We’ll go have that burger, but I am buying, birthday girl.”
The dinner went well and they discovered they had a few things in common, subsequently they began to hang out off the clock sometimes. Purely platonic. Eric was lightyears from letting his defenses down any more than he already had with her.
One time, some weeks later, they joined Ewan and Hannah at a karaoke lounge, when the girls decided to go dancing, leaving Ewan and Eric behind.
“Dude, how much longer are you gonna sit on it until you make a move on her?” Ewan asked Eric.
“Charlotte. When are you gonna tap that?” Ewan shrugged.
“She and I are friends, Ewan. Just friends. Contrary to what you might think, males and females can be friends without ultimately ending up in a relationship.”
“I didn’t say marry her. Just get closer, work off some of your bottled up steam with her, if you catch my drift. The way she looks at ya she wouldn’t be against that.”
“Let me correct my statement: males and females can be friends without ending in the sack!” Eric growled. He did not like where this was going. Very sore subject.
“Yeah, right. But not at our age. Well, if you are not interested, suit yourself, because I am. And I am going in.”
“No, you won’t!” Eric growled.
“Give me one good reason not to.” Ewan countered.
“I am asking. Is that reason enough?”
“That’s not a reason. That’s you being a ninny. You can still be friends with her in between me nailing her.” Ewan grinned shrugging.
“Don’t you dare! I will punch you out if you lay a finger on her!” Eric looked very upset.
“Why? Sounds to me like you are a little more than just friends after all. Or at least you want to be.” Ewan probed.
He wasn’t trying to anger Eric, but get him to finally snap out of his paralysis. Ewan knew full well that Charlotte was off limits to him and he would never cross that line. But he wanted Eric to finally get in gear, by any means necessary.
“No, but how am I supposed to have a friendship – not to mention work – with a girl you added to your list of hump and dumps?! That would be more than awkward for me and her once you get tired of her and move on. You cannot do that to me. Or her! So hands off!”
“Charlotte looks like a girl who likes to have fun. I am sure she can keep the two separate.”
Eric could no longer contain his anger, nearly yelling at Ewan now
“You will NOT bang Charlee! I won’t let you!”
In an attempt to rush off Eric turned quickly – and ran right into Charlotte, both stumbled and ended up on the floor together, Eric atop Charlotte, in some last minute reflex he managed to catch himself so he wouldn’t squish her.
“Yeah – get in there man! Finally!” Ewan cheered laughing.
“Oh, Ewan, put a sock in it!” Hannah exclaimed.
Eric looked horrified, scrambling back up on his feet, then offering his hand to Charlotte.
“So sorry! Are you okay?” out of breath Eric asked.
“I’m fine, thanks.” Charlotte looked slightly amused, which Eric had no eye for, as he was absolutely horrified.
“So so so sorry! For everything!” he gently stroked her face, she smiled at him.
There was a moment, everybody present could almost feel it physically.
Nobody spoke, just Eric suddenly gasped, before he just turned on his heels and rushed out the door.
“Eric!” both Charlotte and Hannah called after him, while Ewan called out
“Dude, I was just teasing you …”
Eric had started running as fast as he could as soon as he left the club.
-to be continued-