The Pretend Girlfriend

By: Lucy Lambert

Chapter 1


Gwen rushed inside out of the rain. Water dripped in tiny rivers from her umbrella as she wrestled it closed, and she tried not to see her reflection in the door, knowing what the moisture did to her hair.

The rain soaked right through her flats, and she could feel her toes getting all pruny.

So, shifting the big messenger bag on her shoulder to try and stop the strap from biting even more deeply into her, Gwen went and checked the mail. Janice, her roomie, usually got it, but Gwen still liked to check out of habit.

Junk, coupons, junk, junk... And one white envelope stamped URGENT! in a shade of red Gwen might have also called urgent. It was from the property management company that owned her apartment.

"Probably raising the rent again."

"Pardon?" Gwen said. She turned around, water droplets spraying in a ring from the bottom of her coat, to see an old lady sat on the bench outside the manager's office, her hands resting on her aluminum cane. The woman nodded at the envelope, indicating it with thin, grey eyebrows.

"They're probably going to raise your rent, dear. They like to do that. Everyone's always just in it for the money, now. No sense of community..."

Gwen smiled politely, agreeing. Something about that URGENT stamp tickled her insides with anxiety. And the prospect of even higher rent sent her thoughts to her latest bank statement, and the balance (or lack thereof) therein.

Thanking the elderly woman, Gwen called the elevator. She started tapping her foot, but the feeling of the water shifting between her toes stopped her. She made a mental note to make sure and dry them out right away so that they wouldn't be ruined. New shoes were at the bottom of her list, which was topped by things like Rent and Food. All those books she'd had to buy for school (which weighed down her messenger bag so much she started losing feeling in her arm just standing there) cost a fortune!

Finally, the elevator came. She just wanted to get out of these soaking clothes, throw the books into the corner for now, and close her eyes for a few moments on the couch...

Fishing for her keys, she almost didn't see the piece of paper taped to her apartment door, blank side out, over the peephole. She frowned; that was weird. Janice always got home a good half hour before she did. Why hadn't she taken this in?

Gwen took the paper down, shaking her head at the little sticky strip left on the paint. True, it wasn't the nicest apartment building to begin with. Cheaply made, with cream and white walls and awful carpets worn almost to the bare floorboards in spots. But it was all she could afford, even with a roomie.

"Janice? You see this note on door...?" Gwen said, stooping to pull off her shoes while the door closed behind her. It took some real peeling, and she bit down on her bottom lip, getting the feeling that this pair was ruined beyond the capabilities of a hair dryer to fix.

She wriggled her toes, glad at the touch of air once more. They were all pruny, as she suspected.

It distracted her so much that she didn't really pay any attention to the state of her apartment until she gingerly pulled off her coat and hung it on the stand next to the door.

"Janice?" she called out again, looking down the front entrance hall. Directly ahead of her was the door to her bedroom, and to the right of that, Janice's room. You could get into the small kitchen through the doorway on her left, and, going through that, into the cramped den.

Janice liked to keep one of those small, thin hallway tables out here. It always had a small vase with a single fake long-stemmed rose, and a rectangular bowl in which Janice and Gwen threw their keys and whatever change remained from buying their customary morning lattes.

Except Gwen couldn't find the table. Only four marks left in the white carpet where it stood said anything once stood there.

"Hey, what's up?" Gwen called out. Something was wrong, she could feel it.

She knocked on Janice's door, waited, and then knocked again. After a third attempt, she opened it.

Janice's room was empty. Not even curtains. There were little holes in the drywall over the window where the rod had been mounted.

Gwen had a trusting nature ever since she was little. It came from watching all those Disney movies, where everything turned out all right in the end. Sure, people could be mean and evil. But they always got what they deserved, and the good people always won out. She blamed this trusting nature for her first reaction.

Her thoughts went something along the lines of: Oh! We've been robbed! I hope Janice is okay; I should get a hold of her.

It wasn't until she had to shift the notice from the door and the URGENT letter from the mail to her other hand so that she could find her cell phone that she made the connection.

The notice on the door had the property management company's letterhead in bold face, PATTERSON HOLDINGS, INC. Gwen read quickly, trying to take the entire document in all at once. This, of course, didn't work out so well, so she forced her eyes to scan each individual line, all the way down to, "Sincerely, Mike Patterson."

It was an eviction notice. Apparently, Patterson Holdings had not received a rent check in three months. And, unless Gwen could come up with the $3600 owed in back-rent by the end of the week, in addition to another $173.45 in fees for the bounced checks (it was already Tuesday!) she would have to vacate the unit.

Panicking, Gwen dropped the notice and then tore at the letter.

It was about the same thing, except laying everything out in somewhat more depth.

Gwen's first reaction was thinking she was having a nightmare. She went so far as to squeeze her eyes shut and command herself to awaken. But when she opened her eyes, that partially-crumpled letter still waited in her hands.

Her second reaction was that this was all somehow some big mistake. They'd gotten the wrong unit (even though both the letter and the notice both said Suite 705, her unit). Janice always took care of this stuff right away. Gwen always saw the rent come out of her bank account the next day after giving Janice her check.

She tried giving Janice a call. It went to voicemail. Gwen left a message. Then she texted Janice, just to be sure. Something inside told her that she was never going to hear from Janice again.

At least Janice only took her own stuff. When Gwen realized what had really happened, she rushed frantically through the apartment, checking. All her own stuff still waited in her room. The old TV and entertainment center her aunt gave her when she first went off to school still sat against one wall in the living room. The small breakfast table with its two mismatched chairs still waited in one corner of the cramped kitchen.

Gwen pulled one of those chairs out and sat down. Her wet clothes hugged her skin, but she barely noticed.

She always hated it in movies and TV when characters sat around telling themselves "This can't be happening!" and not doing anything about their problem.

But she really couldn't think of anything. The pittance she earned from manning the desk at the campus library a few days each week barely paid her half of the rent, groceries, cell bill, that sort of thing.

Where am I going to get almost $4000?

It wasn't like she had anything worth selling. No one would want the old TV; it weighed almost as much as she did. Her laptop might get her a couple hundred bucks. She could take on every shift at the library anybody offered. Even so, it would take her months to save up that much. And they wanted the money in three days!

Gwen found the rental agreement from the files she kept by her desk in her room. People are reasonable, she figured, if I just explain the situation to them, we can work something out.

The phone rang once before a deep-voiced woman answered, "Patterson Holdings, how may I direct your call?"

"Hi, I live at your building on Maple, unit 705. I need to talk to someone about late rent."

The secretary put her through to gravelly-voiced guy named Gabe. Gwen associated voices like that with those new Batman movies, and so her mind supplied her with the ridiculous picture of Batman sat at a desk in a boring office, licking his finger to flip through some paperwork as he squinted beneath the fluorescent lights.

Gwen explained the situation as best she could, feeling proud of herself that she managed to keep so much of the panic burbling in her stomach out of her voice.

"Look, Ms. Browning... Gwen, can I call you Gwen? Good. Anyway, look, you're already three months behind. Patterson Holdings knows that sometimes people have difficulties, and we do give a grace period. However, you've already used your grace period up. This was all outlined in the letters we've been sending..."

"Letters? What letters?" Gwen said. The panic swirling in her stomach mixed with cold apprehension.

"We normally begin sending out letters reminding you of your obligation one week after failure to pay your rent... Yeah, it says right here that we've given you twelve letters over the last three months," Gabe said, his fingers tapping softly at a keyboard in the background.

"Janice..." Gwen said. She always got the mail. Insisted on it, even. And no wonder, Gwen knew, she'd been stealing the rent for the last three months and covering her tracks.

Gwen bit back a few choice words doing their best to push their way out through her lips. The way she felt, nothing she could say had any chance of truly expressing her feelings at that moment. Betrayal, rage, frustration, terror. Those came close, but still missed the mark.

"So what am I supposed to do?" Gwen said, addressing the question to both the ceiling and to Gabe.

Gabe answered first. "I'm sorry, really, I am. I'd get in touch with the police as soon as possible. They'll start searching for your roommate. Who knows, maybe she'll even still have your money if they find her in time."

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