But it turned out I couldn't.
In the present, all I said to Seth was: "Yeah. It didn't work out. Not at all. I cheated on him."
"Oh." A pause. "Why?"
"Because I could. It was stupid."
"That's why you don't date?"
"Everything about that hurt too much. No good justified the bad."
"You can't know that the next one will turn out badly. Things change."
"Not for me." I closed my eyes to hide the tears welling up. "I'm going to pass out now."
He might have left or he might have stayed; I didn't know. I simply slept, lost in black, numbing sleep.
Sometimes you wake up from a dream. And sometimes, every once in a while, you wake up in a dream. That's what happened to me. I opened my eyes, head throbbing, vaguely aware of something warm and fuzzy in my arms. Bright sunlight made me squint at first, but when I could finally focus, I realized I was looking straight into the faces of Cady and O'Neill.
I shot upright, a motion my head did not approve of at all. Surely I was mistaken. Surely, no... there they were. Before me, next to the bed I sat in, was a large oak desk surrounded by bulletin boards and white boards. Pinned to the bulletin boards were magazine cutouts, faces and faces of people who reflected every nuance of the characters described in Seth's books. One section was even labeled NINAcady, displaying at least twenty different cutouts of slim blondes with cropped, curly hair, while another section - marked BRYANT O'NEILL - displayed brooding, thirty-something men with dark hair. Some of the cutouts were from major ads I recognized, though I'd never before connected the resemblance to Seth's characters. Other minor characters from the books also had places on the display, though less noticeably so than the leads.
Scrawls of notes and words filled the white boards, most done in a bizarre shorthand type of flow chart that made no sense to me. Working Title: Azure Hopes - fix later; Add Jonah Chap. 7; Clean up 3-5; C&O in Tampa or Naples? Check stats; Don Markosin 8...On and on the scrawls went. I stared and stared at them, realizing I was seeing the skeleton foundation of Seth's next novel. Part of me whispered I should look away, that I was ruining something, but the rest of me was too fascinated at glimpsing the way a novel and its world came to life.
Finally, the smell of frying bacon made me turn from Seth's desk, forcing me to piece together how I'd arrived here. I cringed, recalling what an idiot I'd been around Doug, Roman, and even Seth, but my hunger won out in temporarily allaying my remorse. It seemed odd that I should feel hungry after what I'd put my stomach through last night, but like Hugh's beating, I could bounce back quickly.
Disentangling myself from the covers and the teddy bear I'd unknowingly been holding, I made my way to the bathroom to rinse my mouth and study my appearance: wild-haired and downright adolescent looking in the T-shirt. I didn't want to waste the energy to shape-shift, however, and trotted out of the bathroom, following the sounds of sizzling against a background of "Radar Love" by Golden Earring.
Seth stood in a modern, well-lit kitchen, tending a skillet on a stove. The color scheme was bright and cheery, maple wood cupboards and beams accented with cornflower blue paint on the walls. Seeing me, he turned down the music and gave me a solicitous look. His shirt today displayed Tom and Jerry.
"Good morning. How are you feeling?"
"Surprisingly well." I made my way to a small, two-person table and sat down, tugging the shirt to cover my thighs. "My head seems to be the only casualty thus far."
"You want something for it?"
"No. It'll clear up." I hesitated, detecting something through the smell of salty, greasy meat. "Is that... coffee?"
"Yup. Want some?"
"Yup." He walked over to a pot, poured a mug of steaming coffee, and brought it to me, along with a cute sugar and creamer set.
"I thought you didn't drink this stuff."
"I don't. I just keep it on hand in case caffeine-crazed women wake up in my bed."
"That happen a lot?"
Seth smiled mysteriously and returned to the stove. "Are you hungry?"
"How do you like your eggs?"
"Nice choice. You want bacon too? You're not a vegetarian or anything?"
"I'm an honest carnivore. I want the works... if that's not asking too much." I felt kind of sheepish about him waiting on me, considering everything else he'd already done. He didn't appear to mind.
The works turned out to be more than I'd imagined: eggs, bacon, toast, two kinds of jam, coffee cake, and orange juice. I ate it all, thinking about how jealous Peter would be, still confined to his low- carbdiet.
"I'm in a food coma," I told Seth afterward, helping with the dishes. "I'll need to go back to bed and sleep it off. Do you eat like this every day?"
"Nah. Just when aforementioned women are hanging out. It ensures they don't leave too quickly."
"Not a problem, considering this is all I have to wear."
"Not true," he told me, pointing toward his living room. Looking up, I saw my dress - clean - hanging on a hanger. The sheer, bikini-cut panties I'd worn under it had been looped around the hanger's head. "It said dry-clean, but I took a chance on putting it on extra-gentle cycle in the wash. It came out okay. So did the, uh, other thing."
"Thanks," I replied, unsure as to how I felt about him washing my underwear. "Thanks for everything. I really appreciate what you did for me last night - you must think I'm a total freak - "
He shrugged. "It's no problem. But" - he glanced at a nearby clock - "I may need to run out on you soon. Remember that one party? It starts at noon. You can still hang out here."
I turned to the same clock. Eleven forty-seven.
"Noon! Why didn't you wake me up sooner? You'll be late!"
He shrugged again, infinitely unconcerned. "I figured you needed the sleep."
Setting down the towel I'd been holding, I darted to the living room and grabbed my dress. "I'll call a cab. You go. Don't worry about me."
"Seriously, it's no problem," he argued. "I can give you a ride home even, or... well, if you wanted, you could come with me."
We both froze awkwardly. I didn't really feel up to going to some strange party. What I needed to do was get home and do damage control with Roman and Doug. Yet... Seth had been terribly nice to me, and he had wanted me to go to this thing before. Didn't I owe him? Surely I could do this for him. An afternoon party probably wouldn't even last that long.
"Would we need to pick up anything?" I asked at last. "Wine? Brie?"
He shook his head. "Probably not. It's for my eight-year-old niece."
"Oh. So no wine then?"
"Yeah. And I think she's more into Gouda anyway."
I looked at the dress. "I'll be overdressed. You got anything I can put on over this?"
Seven minutes later, I sat in Seth's car, driving toward Lake Forest Park. I had the georgette dress back on, along with a man's plaid flannel shirt in shades of white, gray, and navy.
The shirt was open save for a couple buttons. I had French-braided my hair in lieu of shape-shifting it into place and now frantically applied cosmetics from my purse as I rode. I suspected I had a sort of Ginger-Rogers-Joins-Nirvana look going.
We arrived at the suburban house I'd dropped Seth off at a few weeks ago. Pink balloons fluttered from the mailbox, and a mother in jeans and a sweatshirt waved goodbye as a small girl disappeared into the house. Said mother then returned to the massive, soccer team-carrying vehicle running in the driveway.
"Whoa," I said, taking it all in. "I've never been to anything like this before."
"You must have when you were little," Seth amended, parking across the street.
"Well, yeah," I lied. "But it's a different experience at this age."
We approached the front door, and he entered without knocking. Immediately, four small, blond female forms slammed into him, grappling onto his limbs, nearly knocking him over.
"Uncle Seth! Uncle Seth!"
"Uncle Seth's here!"
"Is that for me? Is that for me?"
"Desist, before I have to break out the tear gas," Seth told them mildly, unclasping one who threatened to rip his left arm off.