Love (...and other drugs)

Submitted into Contest #227 in response to: Write a story where someone shares a cup of hot chocolate with a friend.... view prompt

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Fiction Romance Holiday

“I don’t want to hang up.”

“I know, me neither”.

She flipped over on her stomach and indulged for a guilty moment in the idea that she was in some pathetic romcom (her least favourite film genre) where the girl gets all giggly and restless whilst phoning her guy.

Her feelings for him and his for her were deep. It had been admittedly an incredibly fast and perhaps reckless love.

*

For years, they’d been within each other's radar due to sharing mutual friends. They'd grazed shoulders at student bars and participated in games and debates at their inner circles' house parties. They were, unknown to each other until that summer, even members of the same social club. Both were surprised to find out that they were science majors and more uniquely, had a quiet love for the arts of literature and film.


They were truly, on the outside, an unlikely match. She wouldn’t have given him a second look normally, he wasn’t her usual type. He was scrawny and pale-skinned and she was curvy and dark-skinned. He was a stereotypical "academia" boy with dark hair and a tall frame - an ideal for just about every basic girl who liked chick flicks and lived their lives through Tumblr and creating aesthetics. And although she had somehow befriended plenty of these girls, she was certainly not one of them.


He once acknowledged that his thinness was due to his underconsumption of food and overconsumption of the university labs. He willingly spent so much time inside, surviving on cereal bars, just to play chemist. Which often landed him in hot water with his friends, who complained he was hardly available. He was elusive - which likely added to the fascination of being his acquaintance.


Ironically, at present he was calling her, his girl from inside one of the labs. He'd been working overtime as usual on a little experiment. But she was worth the interruption. The evening call was supposed to be a quick catch-up, a quick confirmation about their plans for the very next day. But of course, they were infatuated, and their conversations spanned hours with easy delight.


He wasn’t her type but gosh, was she glad she’d taken a chance on him. He’d been as daring too, taking the biggest risk being in a relationship with her. Their love was fast, but it was also a secret.


Every day, she was thankful when he crossed her mind or texted her burner phone because he had chosen her. She was the one he made time for, the only one he’d scrape his studious plans for. He had never done that for the other girls.


Of course, she knew about the other girls. After all, they had been in the same circles for years and she’d seen for herself the comings and goings of the herd. It was no secret he had had several, short relationships. For such a reflective guy, they were distinctively loud affairs, but only because he unfortunately attracted the attention seekers. His exes were all the same: basic, short-sighted, and clingy. He was an irresistible offering to those opportunists who sought eye candy to drag home for cosy family shenanigans at the holidays or memorialize in diary entries to gawk over in years to come.


As with most guys, he’d confessed to her he’d been "going with the flow" all along. Girlfriend Gate was his haphazard attempt to supplement his otherwise individualistic life with a passable dose

of socialness just to keep some sanity and his parents from thinking he’d get sick with his overachieving ways. And boy! was he an overacheiver. The “When you want something, you’ll do anything to get it” type.


So now, three years in, he’d learnt many lessons after “going with the flow” and decided he should be as methodical with his relationships as he was with his studies. He now knew exactly what he wanted and this time, he would chase both his degree and his girl with passion, but careful planning. Science and art.

Both disciplines the secret couple respected and loved, which made them far more compatible than the superficial exes. They were compatible in their values, interests, and views of the world. They had substance, they had lasting power. And that was what made their secret relationship worth fighting for. It would be a great failure to do anything less. 


So they agreed to go to dramatic lengths, to do whatever it took, to keep their Bunsen burners blazing.

*

“I can’t believe we’ll go public soon,” she sighed to him and drummed her chin.

“I can't wait, Zee.”

She smiled hard at his tender but expressive voice.

“No one will even believe us,” She pointed out and they both laughed.

Such an unlikely pairing. But it had made their secret easier.

*

It had been almost six months of loving undercover. Summer had morphed into autumn just as rapidly as things had progressed between them. And now at the first signs of frost, the new season felt like the right time to make their move. Christmas, after all, was a period of creating memories, celebrating the year’s achievements, and looking ahead to new beginnings. They deserved to celebrate; they had lasted, retained their cover, and had an entire future to spend together openly.

Out with the old and in with the new.


It was almost time. They just had one last thing to deal with.

*

“You got the parcel?”

“Yes,” she gazed towards her nightstand where the brown Manilla package sat. She’d opened it as soon as she arrived back to her en suite. She’d torn it open with a racing heart, but equally almost had a heart attack when the item pinged across her bed. She’d handled the tightly sealed but delicate item with care, turning it over in her hands and holding it up to the lamp to admire its stunning colour. He’d warned her not to fiddle with it, but she couldn’t resist. She couldn’t believe it was real. She’d waited for weeks for its conception, listening to him describe it in the mind-boggling detail that few could truly decipher. But they, unlike other couples, were of the same high-level intellect. They had that mutual understanding and appreciation for science and art, “It’s beautiful”. She wished she could cup his face in her hands and pressed hers into his hair.

“I knew you’d take a peek,” he said with a sly quip. He truly knew her so well.

“I wanted to admire your artwork. And commitment to the cause”.

“I know, baby. But please. Please be careful and put it away. No more playing around with it, you’re making me anxious”.

“Of course.”

They shared a unified yawn, which signalled that they should probably get some sleep (or in his case, cram with the remaining twenty minutes in the lab). They were going to need all their wit and energy for the next day.

“Everything will be just fine, you'll do great. Remember, call or text me when you’re done. I love you”.

“I trust you. And I love you too”.

*

The snow squelched powdery flurries beneath Zuri’s boots as she stamped to keep her feet from turning into icicles. Her face burned from the cold beneath her scarf, and she dabbed miserably at her steaming nose with a damp tissue.


The annual university Christmas markets were an essential part of the ending the winter term on a high. It was the only event hundres turned up to in their cliqued hoards, expecting to find festive entertainment and refreshments to keep them warm and jolly long into the night.

The various food and drink stalls were always the highlight. Enticing with the usual offerings of warmed spicy alcohol, chocolate in every form and sweet pastries stacked high like edible Christmas trees.


Every year, Zuri made the pilgrimage to the university green with the other students, but not with the same enthusiasm for the overly sweetened and priced concessions as the others.

It was, secretly, her idea of hell. She didn’t do cold, and so the frequent snowy weather in Edinburgh had been the hardest adjustment for her since moving up from the South for university.

But just like her boy, she had been going with the flow. Her degree had always been her priority (until of course, she met him) and so she had been doing whatever it took to keep her own sanity by fitting in and keeping her head down, to finish with the highest accolade.

And if that meant getting in with the majority, befriending the “it” girls and parading around after them for three years, she was game.


The queue for the famous Wesley’s - “the best hot chocolate since Wonka” - had barely moved. Zuri turned away from the line and dared to check her phone, fingers shaking as she flicked open WhatsApp.

“Having fun?,” he’d texted. His contact was saved as “Einstein” even on her burner phone.

“No,” she texted back truthfully, “So cold. But at Wesley’s now.”

“How long?," “Einstein” typed.

Zuri squinted back at the queue, silently counting the hat-cladded heads.

“10-15 mins.”

“Good. Remember call me as soon as you’re done. Meet me at the Ferris wheel. We’re almost there, baby.”

She smiled hard.


Zuri stuffed the outdated iPhone back into her puffer jacket just as her best friend Olivia crunched back over the grass, face optimistically rosy in the cool night air.

“Who are you texting?” Olivia asked playfully, “Zuri, you’re as discreet as a red light!”.

Zuri laughed with squeezed lips – she was cold, and her patience was wearing thin. She was over this. Over everything. She just wanted to leave. She just wanted her boy to come by and rescue her, this time for good.

Zuri’s lie came easy.

“My mum, she was checking when I’d be arriving home tomorrow.”

“At least you have plans,” Olivia said wistfully, kicking up whitened soil with her UGG boot. “And someone who actually gives a damn about you…”.

“Aww, you know at least I love you," Zuri fibbed again. The friends embraced, rocking back and forth. It felt wrong and Zuri felt bad. But she’d had done this thousands of times before. And she hoped today would be the last time she had to pretend, "Still no word from Nate? What’s he done this time?.”

Olivia pulled away, sighing.

“What he’s always done,” she admitted sadly, “Being as elusive as ever. I can’t believe he’s not here with us, with me. He knows how much I love the Christmas markets.”


Zuri stuttered for a response. A wave of nerves smacked her in the gut, and she dug into her coat pockets to steady herself. One tingling hand brushed against the Manilla envelope, feeling the delicate item jostling around inside. Zuri took a long slow breath. She noticed Olivia’s face brighten when she realised they were now both at the front of the queue. 

Everything will be just fine; his words from the previous night rang clear in Zuri’s ears.

He believed in her. She trusted him. And that was all that mattered. She could do this.

She could and would do this. For them, for their love.

*

Zuri and Nate planned to kill Olivia only weeks into their secret affair.


Olivia was Nate’s fifth relationship, but as non-descriptive or memorable in every other way. Just like the others, she was merely one of Nate’s attempts to keep balance.

There was no bad blood between the boy and his well-liked and hyperactive girlfriend. She was the perfect partner material on paper. She was fiercely loyal, charming, and of course attractive with her Swedish strawberry-blonde hair and cool hue eyes.

Olivia was just very unfortunate that Zuri, despite knowing that this lily-faced Nate wasn’t her type and witnessing firsthand Olivia’s passion for him blossom, experienced an unexpected transformation of her own heart over the same boy.


Once Nate was just an acquaintance, who acknowledged Zuri’s best friend status by raising a glass to her with a slight nod whilst holding onto Olivia’s waist. But it was a close encounter at one of their shared society clubs which had flicked the switch on their indifference and kindled a strange but fascinating fire.


Zuri remembered being unable to look away from Nate after they had literally collided whilst trying to sneak into the book club to avoid detection and judgment from their wider circle. She remembered the slow smile he’d rewarded her gaze with. And she found herself analysing it all evening in her mind’s eye.

She concluded that his smile was his trademark. It was unique, it had duality.

It said, “Ooops, you caught me”, but it could have also said, “Ooops, come and catch me”. His smile told her everything about him, and yet nothing at all. It told her she’d discovered something special and yet invited her to keep seeking.

And just like that, Zuri came to understand finally the allure of him – that elusiveness that had drawn many dazed fireflies into his aura.

That evening at the social club, they felt an obligation to partner up, the obvious connection from their respective relationship with Olivia prefacing their initial conversation. But in the shadow of this new environment and away from their usual hangouts and companions, Olivia quickly became obsolete and irrelevant.

At the back of the book club’s gathering, against the civilised discussions about a Margaret Atwood classic, Zuri and Nate explored their own chemistry and forged a dopamine-fuelled connection. 

*

The memory momentarily disabled Zuri’s senses as she lingered blissfully in her daydream, visualising Nate’s dark eyes.


“You’ve never been this happy about our annual hot chocolate before,” Olivia nudged her best friend back into the present and then gestured to the menu on the wooden shack. "One peppermint hot chocolate, please. No cream, extra chocolate shavings. You know the deal, Wes".


Wesley, the notorious chocolatier, grinned down at the duo.

Zuri and Olivia came to the market every year and always purchased one cup to share of his signature chocolate. He’d learnt through observation, that the market was Olivia’s scene but her best friend couldn’t have cared less.

He’d watched Zuri shuffle around, every year, after the lively blonde, eyes flittering back and forth as though searching for her long-lost puppy.

The seller tried not to take it personally when he’d catch Zuri’s eye and she’d look straight through him as if he didn’t even exist. Her gaze was even unchanging whilst she took her obligatory sip of his bestseller handing it off impassionately to Olivia who always raved about it.

This year, he expected no different.


So Wesley was surprised when Zuri suddenly leapt forward, as he lowered the decorated paper cup to an anticipating Olivia, and snatched it from the air.

I’ll get this, Zuri insisted; let me get this.

“Oh?,” Even Olivia was taken aback. She happily paid every year for the extortionate beverage, “It’s totally fine, I’ll cover it…”.

“No,” Zuri interrupted, smiled and rummaged around in her coat pockets, “Let me. For once. Let me do something for you, Ol.” At her friend’s furrowed brows, Zuri added with haste: “Besides I think it’s you that needs a pick me up. I’ll forward the bill to that useless boyfriend of yours if it makes you feel better.”

Olivia’s expression softened.

“Thanks, Zee. And you’re right, it’s the least he can do for being such a let-down.”

“Honestly, I wonder why you still put up with him,” Zuri whipped out a Manilla envelope and produced her bank card from within. She held the card out to Olivia, “I’ll let you do the honours, you know my deets.”


Wesley wasn’t surprised that Olivia knew her best friend’s pin. He said nothing as the blonde fumbled with the card machine and punched in the code whilst her friend stepped away from the glare of the truck lights, juggling the hot cup from hand to hand. Wesley guessed she was letting the hot steam disperse before tasting because Zuri returned moments later, with an exposed cup seemingly inspecting the dark moody liquid inside.

But unlike before, when they caught each other’s eyes, Wesley noticed Zuri’s were swelling with life.


“How’s it taste?” Olivia thanked the merchant and the two escaped the line to enjoy the hot chocolate on their way to meet their circle at the next attraction.

Zuri stroked her warm phone inside her pocket. She knew her body was pulsing with a cocktail of adrenaline and dopamine beneath her coat. She wasn’t cold or miserable anymore - her boy was on her mind. And she’d be in his arms again soon.

She’d already texted him. That night, their facade would be over.

We’re almost there, baby.


Zuri didn’t even look at Olivia as she handed over the untouched hot chocolate. Her face was already turned towards the sparkling Ferris Wheel. She felt dizzy with excitement watching it thrust thrillseekers high into the night air.

“See for yourself,” she replied coolly. And then held her breath as Olivia obliged, taking a large sip.


The pair strolled shoulder to shoulder towards the rides, to the soundtrack of Olivia’s incessant chatter. As they neared the wheel, Zuri realised that Olivia had stopped talking all together and was gagging.

Zuri’s phone started vibrating in her pocket.

He’s here. She almost cried with joy and relief.

“What’s up?” Zuri asked her best friend, just to keep face.

The last thing Zuri heard Olivia say was that this was the worst hot chocolate she’d ever had and that it tasted off.

Not at all pepperminty. More like bitter almonds.


“It’s a good job I don’t have a nut allergy,” Olivia joked, as Zuri sped away to reunite with her boy, leaving the oblivious student to her fate, “Otherwise I’d probably be in deep trouble right now, right?”.

December 08, 2023 23:13

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1 comment

Gretchen Bonney
16:27 Apr 02, 2024

OMG, that was amazing I loved it. such a great twist. Amazing

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