Autumn fell, and the trio plus Sagebear found themselves taking shelter with one of Harwood’s old friends. It meant that Annette was in close proximity with the other two once more, even as much as she tried to spend time with the Rackets.
But it did lead to a question, one directed right to Harwood: “Did you go to high school with the parents?” she asked, referring to Bill’s parents. She didn’t know their age, other than them being old, but so was Harwood.
“They were a little older than me,” he said. “But I knew them.”
“Well, what were they like back then?”
“Max was a miserable bastard, always will be, and I won’t miss him when he’s gone.”
“You’re definitely right about that,” said Annette.
She could have guessed that the Racket household was in its own special state of chaos, even without meeting them. She should have, considering that she walked by Bill and Julienne picking a fight on multiple occasions. After sucking up night after night to Julienne just to get a job frying up hash browns instead of waiting tables, she felt bad for being so nice. Bless her heart, but Julienne clung on to the same arguments. Bill was an awful human being, and he was even more awful for taking advantage of a young woman like Annette. She laughed at that notion. And she noticed how Bill never ran away from fighting back.
In spite of that, her experience with the Racket family themselves started out nice, or at least neutral. Annette, if she slept over, would cook breakfast for the whole family once she woke up.
The food wasn’t the issue. Annette might have been. Everyone in the family knew why she was there and who she was there for. They laughed at her follies. In the words of Mrs. Silver Racket, how could she befriend such a dickbag?
It started to be a recurring thing. Over plates of burnt pancakes, she asked Dennis, Bill’s brother, why everyone was so nasty about him. She hung around him all the time, and aside from the smell of cigarettes and a few rude remarks about others, he made for a great friend.
“I guess you just don’t get it, Nettie,” said Dennis. “He’s a loser. He’s a fat, freeloading bastard who none of us want in our lives. Sorry you don’t see it.”
“Man, aren’t you so lovely,” she replied, holding off the urge to flip him off in front of his kids. “Glad I burnt your pancakes, Mr. Racket.”
What she first interpreted as a unified hatred for Bill was true. But it was true for a lot of relationships between the Rackets. Max and Dennis got into a bitter conversation from across the table. Silver and Marigold fought about family values and how digilent Marigold was (not) about taking her anti-psychotic meds. Lolly and Shark, the teens, taunted each other too. With Bill asleep at his place at the table, Annette realized that he might have had his moments as the only sane one. He seemed to avoid his enemies at home more than anything, locking himself in his room with an MMO on his desktop and insults for players’ mums.
But yet, she kept returning. Annette returned to the Racket house, day after day, to all the chaos within. One could say she had fun, perhaps, hanging over Bill’s shoulder to give him new ideas for how to insult online players. Or that, as the autumn nights grew colder, she liked having a choice of five or more fireplaces to snuggle up near. But, for a bit, her very last answer would be “because I love him.” She laughed at the thought; Bill was a better man than she was warned about. But she rattled off superficial excuses. Why would she love him? She was evil, alright, but dating a politician sounded too evil. In all, it just seemed so weird to think about.
But someone might have caught on before Annette did.
Because Annette slept over there, she saw no issue in strutting around the house in her pajamas. Besides, the place was big enough so that avoiding anyone was easy. She thought that she was good at that when she walked into the dining room to see if any silver spoons were left out for her to grab and take to get smelted. She seemed so alone there.
Instead, someone stepped towards her.
“It’s like someone thinks they own this place.” It sounded like someone young, with a fresh voice that still cracked a little.
She turned around to find Shark, Bill’s teenaged nephew, in the doorway. He had a disrespectful grin on his face and his eyes averted away from her bare legs. She didn’t think much about when Bill mentioned that his nephew was gay, but it made being undressed much less awkward.
“Nothing wrong with showing off what I have,” she said, with a joking smile. “Why don’t you go back to taking it up the ass from Mary’s son?” Shark was part of those rumors she heard, after all.
“We’re over and I’m glad I caught you,” said Shark. “I think you need to see another person. Seriously.”
“Of course I do. Another person is better than no one.”
“You mean it’s not him?”
Annette explained the case to Shark. Just because she often slept in the same bed as his uncle, had no qualms about undressing in front of him, and spent the majority of her free time with him, it meant nothing!
“Excuse me for being fooled then,” said Shark, perhaps with a touch of snark.
“And even if there was something going on between us, you don’t need to be an ass about it-”
“Please, you think you’ll change him?” Shark taunted, putting on a fake-sweet face. “Have you even listened to my dad? The guy’s a fucking wreck.”
“Hey, don’t use that language!” Annette retorted. “That’s my job, as an adult. And don’t say shit about your uncle. He…he matters so much to me. I won’t let some snothead talk shit about him.”
He mattered to her? Annette had to think about it as time went on. She kept it a secret from her housemates, but the line running through her head? Guys, I’m in love with Bill and it hurts to not know if he feels the same way.
She didn’t keep her plans for dinner out a secret, however. There were some complaints from Harwood and Amy about how she was being a horrible roomie and ignoring them in favor of her rich new friend. Annette gave them the middle finger and went downtown to find a nice dress. She could nag Bill into paying for dinner, but she needed to look nice to do it. A low-cut dress to show off her tattoos (definitely just those) could convince him of that, and maybe of some other things too. She stole it off the rack, in true Annette style, and paid for the silk gloves to go with it.
“Fifteen minutes late?” she asked, when the night came and he arrived at the Bistro, looking formal for once. “Ah well. I might work for this place’s competition, but I’ve heard good things.”
The menu looked nice, as did the two of them. Annette thought she looked great in the mirror, anyways. But without those sunglasses and underneath the glow of a candle, she thought Bill looked better. If she had her way with him, he would show those lovely grey eyes more! But, baby steps. She invited him out for one serious discussion, not two.
That wasn’t to say that they couldn’t start with small talk. But Annette twiddled her fingers as she grasped for conversation points about how pretty the autumn foliage in town looked, and about how awesome her dog was. After five minutes, she ran out of things to say. Everything but prodding Bill about things to do with romance.
“I know things sucked with Julienne, but there had to have been someone else,” said Annette. “Someone better.”
“Sure there’s been, but you know what? Relationships are awful,” Bill said.
“All of them?”
“Maybe I just need some more time to get jaded about them. Not like I’ve had a good one yet, it’s just been casual sex and regret, and I don’t like regret. I want to stop that.”
“You have some odd thoughts about what it means to grow up,” said Bill, putting down his menu in an act of seriousness. “You’re not more of an adult just because you quit smoking, or got hitched, or started a family. I’m not less of an adult just because I’m a nasty bachelor.”
“Look, I never meant that.” Annette rubbed her neck and bit her lip, nervously thinking of how to save herself. “Maybe I just have different priorities, that’s all.”
It was harsh enough to shut her up. Annette stayed silent for most of dinner itself, only to tell the chef that her lasagna sorpresa was indeed some of the best she ever had.
Once their dishes were cleared, Annette had a way to continue: by being her blunt self.
“So, you’ve seen me this entire night. They handed me a wine menu, and you saw that I didn’t order anything off it. So I’m as sober as I’ll ever be,” said Annette. “And that being said, Mr. Bill Racket, I only invited you out because I think you’re hot.”
“Did you drink beforehand?” he asked.
“Nah, not tonight.”
“So, you mean it. That explains putting up with my family.”
“Yup, not just for a warm house and a place to cook. Not like I hated that either, but yeah…for you. And I would put up with a whole lot more, for you.” She extended out a hand on the table. “I’ll live if you say no, but goddamn, all of me wants you to say yes.”
It didn’t take long for her to hold something else in her silk gloves.
“I don’t know what I’ve done for you,” Bill said, trying to look away after taking her hand. “But…I’ll admit. You’re cute and have the nicest ass on that side of the river.”
“Now that’s just sweet,” she said, with a chuckle. “I’m not asking for much out of this. I get that romance tends to suck. I just wanna be listened to.” Flustered, he squeezed her hand harder.
“I’m listening. And, fuck it, I’ll give this a try.”
“You mean it?” Annette asked, with sparkling eyes and a heart full of new hope. She still held onto his hand, able to feel its warmth even through the fabric of her gloves. At once, everything about him made her heart melt into a warm puddle. Everything, from the story of how he embezzled 100 grand from the town treasury to fund his re-election, to how thick his fingers were.
He looked her in the eyes, with a rare smile on his face. “I’m sober too, you know.”
The two of them shared their first kiss that night after that, with the waiter making a disgusted face before leaving the check at their table.
They stayed to watch the stars and snuggle together, sitting on the cobblestone. Annette checked her phone, and it was getting late at 1AM. Most of the patrons had left, except for one party carrying on a whispered conversation towards the back. It pained her to let go of Bill’s arm, but maybe she would have to. They both held jobs during the daytime hours, after all.
“I know you have work tomorrow,” she said to Bill. He nodded a bit, but was more content to close his eyes and nuzzle the top of Annette’s head. “So maybe we can head back to your place, and I’ll think of something to put you to sleep.”
They were almost set to leave together, when Annette’s ears pricked up at the sound of a deep, restrained laugh and an “oh dear god, really?” from the back. It sounded familiar, and by familiar, it sounded just like Harwood’s laugh and reaction.
“Christ, those two,” Annette muttered. “Sorry Bill. I’ll catch up with you later.” They departed with a peck on the cheek, and her walking to the back to confirm her suspicions.
What cheeky friends they were! Amy and Harwood, dressed in the finest clothes Annette could steal for them, must have been eavesdropping. Granted, they did bring a third guest with them, who looked young and far enough in a pregnancy to go into labor. She and Amy shared a joke while Harwood smiled all slyly over a text message.
“Real classy of you guys,” said Annette, with a hand on her hip. “What, you need to get to the gossip machine first?”
Amy looked at her, with sad eyes. “We didn’t mean to annoy you,” she said. “This really was supposed to be a dinner with Harwood and I and some old neighbors. Didn’t quite work…but we got Jenni to come!” The blonde woman waved at Annette.
“She forgot to throw me a baby shower, but I’m fine with this,” said Jenni.
“Geez. How far along are you?” asked Annette.
“Been timing contractions all day. But dinner was great!”
“And how have you been faring around these ladies, Harwood?”
“They’re nice,” he said. “I mean, I’ve lived next to Jenni for years. No complaints about her, and she’ll make a fine mum when it happens.”
“Doesn’t even fill you with an ounce of sexual frustration?” He rolled his eyes at that.
“So,” said Amy. “It worked?”
“I guess it did,” Annette said. “Worked how I hoped for it to. We’ll see if he regrets it.” She got attacked with a hug from Amy.
“I’m just so happy for you too!” Amy squealed. “And who knows? Maybe he’ll move in one day, open a bank account with you, stuff like that.”
“I’m not in this for that. Really.”
“But…I mean…look Nettie, I think we need to talk about things. We’ve told you this, but you’ve been away a lot and things haven’t been as great for the rest of us.”
“Come on, you guys have friends too, don’t you? Weren’t you staying with Harwood’s old buddy…Juan, right?”
Amy sighed. “The dude’s a little odd. And a creep. I just want something better than that. We can’t mooch off our friends forever. And maybe this is our big break!”
“Maybe I can do something for it. Maybe. But, you know me. I don’t perform miracles.”
The four of them carried on a conversation after that, forgetting how much later the night was getting. It then turned into two of them doing so, as Amy and Jenni were close friends with local girl stuff to chat over. The other two backed away. Annette inched towards Harwood and said “I’m sorry. For being a bad landlady.”
“It’s fine,” he said. “I’m happy for you and him. And stop being defensive and get honest with ourselves, he might be able to afford something we need the most.”
“Like a house.”
“Look, Amy’s right. You can’t be a squatter forever,” Harwood said. “None of us can be.”
“Right. But come on, I’m not here to spend eternity as a leech,” said Annette. “I’m here to make it however I can. And that’s what I’m doing.”
A/N: Funny to think that I initially played out this chapter’s contents before the Bistro venue at the Store was released…having menus added what was missing from the original screenshots, if you ask me.
Was Annette a bad roommate/landlady? I mean, in terms of the game, everyone lived. But I think in retrospective, a year and half after I played these events, it was easy to see that I put my focuses on Annette and ignored her roomies. And her story is through her limited perspective, which makes everyone else harder to remember.