Once again, Matt had stayed for dinner. He was nearly a fixture at the house these days, usually only leaving once Alex was ready to turn in for the night. And she loved it. She loved knowing that he was there for her as long as she needed him to be. And if she decided she wanted some alone time, she just said she was ready to call it a night, and he gave her space until she called. Alex didn’t expect his completely undemanding attitude to last forever, but it had been nice to have during all that had happened to her lately.
The three refugees were sitting around in the living room, a smattering of CDs randomly playing in the background, and a deck of cards lying out in front of them. The two guys were trying desperately to teach Alex how to play poker, an undertaking that was not going well. There was laughter, joking insults, and greatly overdramatized ‘tells’ and reactions to hands being played. At one point Ridley decided he was going to recreate scenes from Tombstone with himself as Doc Holliday. Alex couldn’t play for several minutes, laughing at his craziness. Things eventually started settling down, and the guys were killing Alex in each round. On a particularly good hand, Alexandra did her best to keep her cool. Halfway through the betting she paused, slowly shuffling through her cards.
“So I’ve been asked to enter this photography competition.” Both Ridley and Matt nearly dropped their cards. They definitely stopped what they were doing and let Alex take all of their concentration. She smiled and delicately picked up her plastic chips. “I’ll raise two.”
Ridley was the first to come out of it. “What are you going to do?”
“I dunno… maybe nothing. Bet’s to you.”
“Yeah, right, raise, whatever. Maybe nothing?” Ridley was watching Alex as he dropped several chips into the pot.
“See, I don’t know if I like the idea of people ogling my work. I don’t know if it’s ready. Matt? It’s your turn.” Matt still wasn’t talking, but shoved some chips toward the center of the table. “Wow. Good bet. I’ll see you.” Alex paused long enough to count out some chips and flip through her cards. “So I was looking over the work I got back from the shop the other day, and I just couldn’t figure out if I liked it well enough.”
“You got your pictures back?” Matt finally spoke.
“Yep. Sure did. Ridley?” She had their undivided attention, and was ensuring that the betting pool continued. The two guys mechanically pushed their chips forward as they listened to everything she had to say. “Mr. Hubert thinks that they’re really good. He says I have a good eye… but…” Alex sighed dramatically. “I just don’t think so. I think I’ll tell him no.”
“No!” Both voices were in unison. Alex looked confusedly up at the two of them, a silent question on her face and a twinkle in her eye.
“You can’t say no, Alex, you just can’t!” Matt was emphatic. “I just know you’re great. Don’t hide that!”
“He’s right kiddo. If Mr. Hubert thinks you’re good, you need to at least give it a chance. At least try!”
“Hmmm… well, maybe you’re right. Maybe I should give it a try. Besides, unless either of you can beat a straight, I can afford to buy a new outfit for the judging.” As she spread her cards in front of her, Alexandra couldn’t help but laugh at the shocked looks facing her. As Ridley and Matt realized how much they had bet, and how she had just taken them for everything, they had to take a moment to adjust. She had beaten them! They slowly turned toward each other, realizing that they had matching expressions of disbelief. As if by telepathy, they concocted a plan for revenge. In one swift movement, they were up and over the coffee table, hands reaching out for Alex.
Seeing them move, Alex shrieked and tore away through the house. She was just able to get up to her room and slam the door before they began pounding on it. By sheer force of will, she was able to get the lock fastened. Only then did she relax enough to take a deep breath. The pounding continued.
“Let me in, Alexandra Carson, or you won’t live to see sixteen!” Ridley’s voice was incredibly menacing. Alex was almost thrown enough to open the door, but she thought better of it.
“I want a car pretty bad, but I can’t drive it if I’m mutilated!”
“You’ll be much more than that when I get through with you!”
“Oh, yeah, that’s an incentive to open the door! What do you think I am, stupid?!”
“Then think fast, chickie, because I’m gonna bust through in ten.” Alex’s mind started whirring as she heard Ridley’s voice continue. “Eight… Seven… Six…” She saw horrid images of ticklings and slimings in her future.
“Fine, fine! If I show you the pictures, will you leave me alone?” The banging and counting both stopped as though they never were.
“Sure. Fine by me. Okay with you, Matt?”
“We’re fine out here, love. Show us the pictures and no one gets hurt.”
Alex wasn’t quite done sending venom through the door.
“Wow. So polite for blackmailers. Who’dve thunk it?” She slid the latch back and let the door inch open. “Are you gonna kill me?” Alex wasn’t going to open up all the way just yet.
“No, of course not, dear. At least, not until we get our payment.” The two of them grinned in almost the same way, coldly. Alexandra was suddenly very glad that this was all play and not something more serious. She let the door swing open, and her two pursuers entered.
“Give it up, lady. You got nowhere to run.” Ridley was taking long strides across the room.
“All right, Stinky Harry. Keep your pants on.” Alex smirked. “Please keep your pants on.” Ridley stuck his bottom lip out and dropped onto Alex’s bed. She opened the drawer to the desk and pulled out the packet of photographs. Matt sat down next to Ridley and held out a hand. Alex took a deep breath and handed over the pictures.
Ridley and Matt had gushed over the pictures, but it was the next morning before Alex and Ridley actually talked about what she was going to do
“He’s right, you know.” It was so like Ridley to randomly start a conversation while cooking without announcing to anyone what the ‘topic of the day’ was.
“He who?” Alex stifled a yawn as she slumped into a chair.
“Mr. Hubert. He’s right. You do have a good eye.” He started chopping something. “Of course, I guessed that you might. It’s kind of in the blood.”
“Yeah, I think I might have heard that once or twice.” Alex rolled her eyes as she took a sip from the glass of orange juice that was set in front of her.
“That’s it… be a smartass. See how far that gets you.”
“No character references necessary, thanks.”
Alexandra threw a napkin across the room, hitting the back of Ridley’s head as he stood at the stove.
“Nice shot.” Alex could hear the smile in his voice. She let herself smile at his back before taking a deep breath and diving back into the original subject.
“So you think I should go for it, huh?”
“I think I’m scared.” He set down the pot he was cooking in and turned toward her.
“Kiddo, it would be weird if you weren’t. I still get terrified anytime someone reads my work.”
Alex was shocked.
“Are you kidding me? Why?”
“As much as you might think otherwise, it’s always harder to show your work to the ones you love. Their opinion means more than anyone else’s.” He paused. “That’s why it took you so long to show anyone your pictures. It didn’t really matter what Mr. Hubert said.”
“I guess you’re right…” Alex frowned into her juice.
“Of course I am.”
Alex sighed. “Oh Lord, here we go again.”
Ridley chuckled as he turned back around to the stove, his mission accomplished. “So… whatcha going to do?”
“About the competition?”
“No, about the carousel in the back yard.” He sighed heavily. “Of course, the competition.”
“So, it’s okay for you to be a sarcastic smartass, but not me?”
“She’s quick… Watch out world.”
Ridley’s snickers were cut short...