Chapter 50: Rika’s Interlude (Part 1)
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I had an unexpected stay in the hospital last month and was discharged today. It wasn’t too bad, well, it wasn’t as bad as it has been in the past. I feel much better now, and the doctor has forbidden me from going into work for the next two to three weeks because the root cause of the problem was overworking. Thank you to everybody who sent me messages of concern and for checking in on my wellbeing. I did not expect anyone to, considering everything was unexpected, but I appreciate it, nonetheless.

Writing has always been a source of stress relief for me, so for now I will be redoubling my efforts into this story. I’m hoping to be able to crank out an extra chapter every week, so I can complete this story by the end of this month and begin working on the next story that has been on my mind. I obviously can’t promise this will always work out, as I imagine some days are going to be worse/more exhausting than others for me. Still, I wanted to let everybody know that I appreciate their continued support, and I will not let you down!

Marcus continued to drone on. He had been like this for some time, with no end in sight. No one seated at the table was brave enough to inform the president that his constant focus on team-building was a useless endeavor. We were all here for different reasons. Some wanted to put it on their resume, while others enjoyed this kind of thing. That was cool, I supposed. I only needed a distraction, an excuse. Whether the Spring Fling succeeded or failed had no bearing on me. I agreed to be on the planning committee on a whim, faking enthusiasm to keep myself busy.

My exhaustion wasn’t faked, however. My back was sore, my legs and arm shaky, and my temper was frayed after over a week of moving everything to the venue and setting it all up. Having to attend constant meetings where Marcus didn’t know how to cut a monologue short made it worse. My eyelids were heavy, and I had to actively avoid nodding off. I distracted myself by playing with the drawstring of my dark sweatshirt, tightening and loosening the hood resting against the back of my neck. My raven hair occasionally tickled my fingers as I did this, but I refused to succumb to sleep.

With a final grand gesture befitting the end of a musical, Marcus looked at me. “Do you have something to add, Rika?” 

I yawned, willing myself not to snap. It wasn’t his fault I was in a foul mood. “Not at all. Just tired.”

“In that case, we should all head home early today. We still have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Fan-freaking-tastic. Suddenly, my forehead itched to make contact with the top of the table. 

Chairs scraped across the tiled floor as the others stood, grabbing their belongings and shuffling out the door. They were a general buzz in the air, excitement from being free of any further responsibilities. I felt it too, but I was much slower packing up. Folders were stuffed into my backpack, as I wondered, for not the first time, why none of them picked up after themselves. Scraps of papers and manilla folders lined the table, leaving Marcus to have to gather them together and put them away. For someone who constantly preached teamwork, there wasn’t much to go around. Not much except my charity to stay after and help him that was, as I pulled the trash bin closer to sweep scraps into.

“Is Rika in there?”

“Yeah, she always hangs back for a bit.”

“Thanks.”

I heard him from down the hall well before I saw him. When he did enter the room, he burst through the entryway. His fists were clenched, not in a threatening way, but in a thoughtful manner. It was obvious he was upset, though, he seemed to be struggling to find the words to express himself. Eventually, he let out a sigh. He often sighed whenever he struggled to express himself. It was another one of his little habits that I had come to like. “Rika.”

All he did was utter my name, but my heart pounded in my chest. He looked so serious, so dead set on meeting with me. It was a shame my throat was dry. I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t bring myself to. Not when he looked like that. 

Not when I was going out of my way to avoid him, even if it was better for him that way.

Marcus had scooted closer to the door, keeping his gaze trained on the two of us. His fingers grasped the doorknob, and he seemed to be having an internal debate with himself. “You’re going to have to leave for now. We still have to clean up.” 

He turned his steely gaze toward the student council president. “I’ll leave once we talk.”

His grip tightened on the door handle, misreading the situation. “That’s not how–”

“It’s ok, Marcus. Head home. I’ll finish cleaning up.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow, then. Please make sure to get some rest. You look exhausted.”

“Right,” I said.

He took one more glance at us and departed. The tension in the air he left was palpable, too thick for a knife to cut, and for once I wasn’t sure how to fill the void with endless chatter. A good thing he always handled pressure well.

“Why have you been avoiding me?” he asked, his tone pleading for an answer. I felt shame pool up in the bottom of my gut as I continued to look away. He didn’t let that deter him. “You haven’t answered a single one of my texts either. I’m worried about you. Was it something I said? Something I did? Damn it! I’m not a mind reader, so talk to me… please.”

I cracked, disgusted at myself for spilling forth lies like it was nothing. “You don’t need to worry. Like I said, I’ve just been tired after helping out the student council. They’d be lost without me.”

My attempt at humor did the exact opposite. He looked irritated, brows narrowed, and his lips thinned. “I asked you if you needed help. You kept telling me you were fine. Well, you sure as hell don’t look fine.”

I waved off his concern. “I am.”

“You’re not. Even that guy noticed. Seriously, tell me what’s going on. I just want to be there for you.”

“And I appreciate that, but I’m fine.”

He stared at me like he wanted to say more, which made it hurt more when he left. I watched his back as he charged down the hall, disappearing around the bend. My breath hitched, and I briefly considered chasing after him. That would be foolish, however, since I’d have nothing to say to him when I caught up. Sure, I would apologize, but then what? Tell him I like him, tell him I had wanted to go on that date with him, and that he should break up with Nora and go out with me instead. That way I wouldn’t have to feel guilty for these feelings. I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about all the other things I did.

The sun shone brightly through the window, splaying warm sunlight onto my cheeks. I savored the sensation for what it was, knowing warm days like this were a rarity in February. Today would have been a good time to enjoy the warm weather with friends. I knew he would be; he mentioned to me in a text that him, Amelia, and Chloe would be going downtown in South Creek to hand out flyers. While it wasn’t the most exciting thing, the company would have made it worth it. I could have easily gone if I wasn’t being stupid. 

I let out a long sigh, in my best impression of him, and put away a few folders that had been left out. Once they were placed into the filing cabinet, I planned on locking up the room. My hand hovered above the lights when a cheerful voice greeted me. 

“Hey, Rika. Long time, no see.” He didn’t push in any further, content to lean on the doorframe. His arms were crossed, and he wore a small grin. “That student council’s running you ragged, huh? You look like crap.”

I spun on Ethan, a sneer threatening to burst forward at any moment. “I’m not doing this with you right now.”

“If not now, when? When you’re even unhappier? Or even better”–his stupid smile split across his face–“maybe when he gives up on you completely. Is that what you’re going for? Because he was absolutely pissed when he pushed past me.”

I snorted. “You don’t have any proof he’s mad at me.”

“I don’t, but I figured I would find the source of it if I retraced his steps. Funny, it ended up leading me to you.”

My hands trembled, and I swallowed deeply, not wanting to hear anything else he had to say. He was being more and more manipulative recently, almost as bitter as the chocolate I had given him. I didn’t have to spare him another moment of my time. “You can leave.”

“I don’t really care about what you’re hiding. I care even less that you're miserable since it’s your own choice. What I don’t like is that you’re making him miserable too.” His eyes narrowed. “I’m starting to regret helping you get close to him.”

“Out! Get out and take your shitty advice with you!” 

My breath came out in ragged pants, but my glare didn’t waver. Who did he think he was? Coming here and telling me how to live my life? I felt bad enough without him piling up more guilt. I already knew I was acting like an idiot. I didn’t need anybody else to point it out. 

I was doing this for him–for what I did to him–because it sure as hell wasn't for myself.

“Well, I think you get it. If you need anything, let me know, or better yet, talk to him. He really does miss you. I feel like all I ever hear about is Rika this and Rika that. Later!”

He vanished as quickly as he had appeared. Once Ethan was out of sight, I felt the tension leave my body. I hurried over to a chair, slumping onto it, and fished my phone out of my pocket. The phone rang once, twice, three times until I heard her soft greeting.

“Rika?”

“Hey, Chloester. I heard you’re handing out flyers for Josh’s band.”

“I am. We’re just getting ready to leave.” There was a pause on the other end. “Did you want to come with us?”

“I’d like to, but I still have to finish up some work over here. You know how it is. Oh, but what did Ethan think about your new shirt? Did he love it?”

“He said it looked nice.”

“Boo, you know if he doesn’t make a move soon, I might. Just steal you away and elope.” A small grin bloomed on my face. I had meant it as a joke, but that actually sounded pretty nice. Chloe would make a wonderful wife. Whoever ended up with her would be a lucky man. “Don’t let me keep you. I’ll call you tonight for more deets.”

“You sure you’re ok?”

I waved my hand, knowing she couldn’t see it. “I’m fine. Talking to you always makes me feel better. Like I said, I’ll call you later.”

“...It’s a promise?”

“A promise,” I agreed.

“I’ll hold you to it.”

The line went dead, and I tilted my head to allow for the rays to caress my face once more. Calling Chloe had been the right decision. I always felt more relaxed after talking to her, and this was the first time in a while I could let everything go. Everything with him, everything with Ethan, and everything with Nora just floated away. 

Birds chirping and the sun shining outside the window proved to be the final straw. Today really was too beautiful of a day to pass up. I’d have to go for a walk when I got home. Maybe I could decide what to do then.

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