I’m the last to reveal my score, and I do so reluctantly, knowing what will come next.
“Thirty-eight points,” I say with a sigh.
“I win! Take that, Will!” Sam shrieks so loudly that I swear she’s damaged my hearing—yet again—and starts dancing around the kitchen, flapping her arms like a chicken. This has been my little sister’s victory dance ever since she was five and I let her win at checkers. Even at thirty-three, some things haven’t changed.
I wish I could say I let her win this game of Race for the Galaxy, but she won fair and square. I didn’t have the greatest cards, but that’s no excuse—I still should have been able to cobble together a decent strategy.
Mom and Dad bought this board game for me a couple of years ago, thinking it was appropriate because I’m a science fiction writer. It is a good game, and at least half the time, I do win when I play with my family. Just not today.
Yes, we regularly get together for an afternoon of board games. Sam’s in-laws have the kids and her husband is at a ball game, so it’s just the four of us. Like old times. We’re sitting around my parents’ kitchen table, except for Sam, who is still doing the blasted chicken dance.
“Victory for me!” she shouts.
I roll my eyes. “I guess you need to make a big deal of it, considering you haven’t won a game in…how long? A year?” Though I know she won Settlers of Catan at Easter.
She sticks out her tongue at me and finally sits back down.
Mom decides it’s time for a break. Dad makes coffee for me and tea for everyone else, then brings out a plate of double chocolate cookies.
“I made them this morning,” he says.
Homemade cookies and board games.
I know, I know. We practically reek of familial bliss.
“So, Gerald and I were thinking…” Sam pauses for a bite of her cookie. “Why don’t we all go down to the Dominican for a week this winter? Maybe in January? I found a great deal online.”
“That a wonderful idea,” Mom says. “A big family vacation.”
Dad nods. “Sounds good. The boys will come, too?”
“Of course,” Sam says. “What do you think, Will?”
I try not to let a look of horror cross my face. I try really hard.
But I suspect I’m failing.
Here’s the thing. I love my family, I really do. An afternoon of games at my parents’ house is fun, Sam’s chicken dance aside. However, an entire week at a resort with my parents, my sister, my brother-in-law, and my little nephews?
Just shoot me now.
A fucking week of socializing? What kind of fresh hell is this?
Because I know my family will not let me have a minute to myself that entire week. I won’t be able to read in silence for a few hours, sipping cocktails in the sun. I won’t be able to write or go on a little trip out of the resort alone.
It will not be a vacation at all, and I’ll have to pay for it.
When I was a child, I liked to hide out in my room. Reading, doing puzzles, playing with Lego by myself. It’s not that I didn’t have any friends—although I only had a few—but I liked spending time alone and not having to deal with the stupidity of humanity. That hasn’t changed.
I also don’t understand the desire to escape down south during the winter. Toronto winters aren’t that bad. You throw on a jacket and a hat, and it’s fine. What’s the big deal? There’s no reason for people to bitch about winter here.
“Will?” Sam says again.
“I’ll pass,” I say. “I have a book due at the end of January, so I’ll be busy.”
“We could go in February instead. The kids aren’t in school yet, so I’m flexible, and since Mom and Dad are retired now…”
“We haven’t had a family holiday in years,” Mom says. “They were always so much fun.”
She has a selective memory when it comes to our family vacations. They were not all fun and games. There was something about traveling with two kids in tow that set my parents on edge. The only times they ever had really bad fights were on our holidays. Our two-week road trip to the Maritimes, for example, included an unfortunate fight about lobster, which turned into a fight about anything and everything that had ever happened in their marriage.
I have not been able to stomach lobster since.
Anyway, my family isn’t always like a Norman Rockwell painting, and it’s not just because of my grumpy attitude.
I doubt there will be a big fight on this trip to the Dominican. There will be less to argue about at a resort than on a road trip across the country pre-smartphones. But this just isn’t my idea of a nice holiday. I prefer a bit of solitude, if not complete solitude.
“Come on,” Sam says. “Please?”
“I’ll think about it,” I grumble, even though I have no intention of thinking about it unless I want to give myself a nightmare.
Everyone in my family wants to do one thing, and I want to do something else.
Same as always.
If only I had a family who understood me and could accept that I’m different from them. But as the Camp Rocky Cove incident proved many, many years ago, they do not.
If only teleportation existed, like in my books, then I could teleport to the Dominican for a day or two and return to Canada when I was sick of my family.
Alas, there is no teleportation on twenty-first century Earth.
* * *
After leaving my parents’ house at four o’clock, I drive back into the city from the suburbs and head to my midtown condo. I like living in a big city. There’s an anonymity to urban life that’s rather nice.
I make another cup of coffee, go over some emails, then cook myself dinner before heading out to meet Jeremy at the bar.
Two social activities in one day. That’s unusual for me.
Jeremy Kwan and I were roommates in my first year of university. I was supposed to have a single room, but someone screwed up and I got stuck in a double. Which wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, since Jeremy is so damn agreeable.
We remained friends when he got a proper job and I went to grad school to study fusion energy. Fusion is pretty neat, and it would be the solution to everything. Sadly, it’s always fifty years away.
While I was doing my PhD, I spent a lot of time writing fiction. I’d always wanted to write, and my supervisor had warned me that there were no jobs in fusion in the country, so I wasn’t looking at good prospects when I graduated. Fortunately, I was able to get a post-doc in the US. By that time, I also had a polished science fiction manuscript, which I proceeded to send to several literary agents. All I received was a slew of rejections.
I was on the verge of giving up when I sent the book to Jeremy, who stayed up all night reading it. He loved it, but there was one critical thing he thought I should change. I changed it, and then I managed to get an agent and a publishing deal. When I finished my post-doc, rather than trying to get one of the few fusion jobs available, I started writing full-time, and I’ve been lucky enough to make that work.
So I owe a lot to Jeremy.
I walk into the bar on the Danforth, which is near his townhouse in the east end. It’s a craft beer bar, but they also make great cocktails, which is essential since, unlike a lot of men, I think beer tastes like piss.
Jeremy is sitting at a booth near the back, a beer in hand and another drink across from him. He’s gone and ordered me a cosmopolitan again, hasn’t he?
Cosmos are not my favorite cocktail, but they’re still better than beer, and Jeremy seems to get some kind of joy out of ordering them for me. A cheap shot at my masculinity, I guess, but I’m confident enough that I’ll drink whatever the fuck I want without feeling threatened.
It’s just that I’d prefer a dry martini or an old fashioned. That’s all.
“Hey,” Jeremy says, grinning at me. “How’s the family?”
“The usual.” I shrug. “They want me to go to a resort with them this winter.”
He starts laughing.
“It’s not funny,” I say. “It’s a bloody nightmare.”
“I know that’s what you think, which is why it’s so funny.”
“Thanks for the support.” I have a sip of my cosmo. It’s a little too sweet, but it’s not bad.
“Pretend to catch an STD the week before. They won’t ask questions.”
“Clearly you don’t know my mom. Because she will ask questions. Plus, it’s a bit of a stretch considering…”
Considering I’m always safe, and the last time I had sex was six months ago, when I slept with the barista at the independent coffee shop around the corner from my condo. She was a big fan of my work and had been flirting with me for ages. But after we had sex, it was too awkward to return to that coffee shop, and I had to start going to Starbucks.
Jeremy slings his arm over the back of the booth. “How long has it been?”
I don’t say anything, which shouldn’t surprise him. I prefer my privacy when it comes to these things, even with my only friend.
Well, no. Jeremy isn’t my only friend, although he’s the only one I see in person on a regular basis. I’m also friends with a former fellow grad student and a couple of writers, none of whom live nearby. Frankly, seeing people in person is overrated. Online communication is just fine for me most of the time.
I shoot him a glare, and he smiles and says, “How’s the book going?”
Jeremy is still my first reader for everything I write, and I put out two novels a year.
I start describing the problems I’m having with Captain Renata Walker, the lead character in my series. I’m now on book seven. This is the final one, and Renata is supposed to finally get together with Professor Jon Sinclair, something that has been hinted at for the past few books, but those parts aren’t going as planned.
“As fascinating as I find this,” Jeremy says, “I have—”
“You can tell me to shut up whenever you like. No need to be polite.”
“Oh, your book is interesting. I just need to ask you something before I forget.” He pauses. “You’re not going to like this.”
“Wonderful,” I mutter. “Let’s get it over with.”
I know. I’m full of charm.
“Do you have plans for the Canada Day weekend?”
“No,” I say.
“Excellent. I need you to do me a favor. My sister dated a guy, Jordan, for two years. Then he broke up with her six months ago and started going out with someone new.”
I stare at Jeremy blankly. “What does this have to do with me?”
“My sister and Jordan had a bunch of mutual friends. Couples. But now that they’ve split, it’s awkward, and Jordan has a new girlfriend.”
That just highlights why it’s best to have only a few friends. Much less drama that way.
“Every year,” Jeremy continues, “they go to a beach house on Lake Huron for the Canada Day weekend. One of the guys has rich parents, and they’ve got a swanky beach house near Grand Bend. My sister would like to go this year, but she thinks it’ll be weird if she’s the only one who’s not part of a couple, especially with her ex there.”
I keep staring blankly at my friend. “Still not seeing the connection here.”
One corner of his mouth curls up. “Don’t you?”
I go back over what he said. He asked if I had plans…
Oh, dear God.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I say. “You want me to go to a stranger’s beach house with your sister for a weekend?”
“A long weekend. Three nights.”
“Why me? I hardly know her.”
Jeremy shrugs. “She needs someone who would be believable as her boyfriend.”
I nearly spit my bright-red cocktail all over him. “I’m supposed to pretend to be her boyfriend? This doesn’t sound like Courtney.”
I’ve met Courtney a few times. She’s a biomedical scientist and we had lunch together last year so I could ask her some questions as research for one of my books. She seems quite sensible. I can’t imagine her dreaming up a fake-boyfriend scenario.
“I’m not talking about Courtney,” Jeremy says. “This is Naomi.”
Oh. His baby sister. Naomi is seven years younger than us. I remember when she came with her parents to visit Jeremy and me in our dorm. She was a twelve-year-old with braces. But I’ve seen her more recently than that—at Jeremy’s wedding three years ago. It was hard for me to reconcile my memory of her with the pretty petite woman in the bridesmaid dress.
Not that I spent too much time looking at her. Of course not.
“Was this your idea?” I ask.
“She wants a guy to go with her and asked me to find someone.”
“And you immediately thought of me?”
He smiles and takes a sip of beer. “Why not? You’re just the fake boyfriend type. You’re friendly and easygoing and sweet.”
We both burst into laughter.
“To be honest,” he says, “I couldn’t think of anyone else who, first of all, is single. And second of all, doesn’t have plans for the long weekend.”
I cannot believe this. First, I was asked to spend a week at a resort with my family, and now I’m being asked to spend a weekend posing as Jeremy’s sister’s boyfriend.
What will happen next? The Apocalypse?
“Look,” he says, “it sounds a little silly to me, too. But Naomi begged for my help, and I couldn’t say no, could I?”
A weekend—a long weekend—with several people I don’t know in a freaking beach house while pretending to be someone’s boyfriend is pretty much the worst thing I could imagine. I would never subject the characters in my books to something that cruel. And I can be cruel, though I’m not George R. R. Martin.
If anyone else were asking, I would have already turned them down.
But it’s Jeremy.
Like I said, I owe Jeremy a lot. If it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have my current career, which I love. I can sleep in late, set my own hours, and best of all, I rarely have to see people. Working in a lab wasn’t bad, but this is even better. I get to play God and make shit up and pretend humans have figured out how to harness the power of fusion. It’s pretty awesome.
But aside from how he’s helped with my writing, Jeremy Kwan is my only in-person friend, and we’ve known each other for seventeen years. If I were the kind of guy who used terms like “best friend,” I suppose I would say he’s my best friend. And it sounds like he really wants to do this for his sister.
“Fine,” I say. “I’ll sacrifice my Canada Day weekend, but you’re paying tonight.”
“No problem. Just one more thing.” Jeremy holds my gaze. “You have to promise nothing will happen with Naomi, okay?”
“She’s your little sister. Of course nothing will happen.”
“She hasn’t been in a very good place since the break-up. The last thing she needs is you screwing around with her. But I trust you. That’s the other reason I’m asking you and not someone else. Okay?”
He has nothing to worry about. I don’t like those sorts of complications in my life—too much drama—and this situation is complicated enough as it is. Sure, she’s rather pretty, but I can’t imagine I’ll be tempted.
Jeremy lifts his pint of beer, and I lift my cosmo. We clink our glasses.
God. A fake relationship. What am I getting myself into?