Stranger

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Toby woke up the next morning to the sound of the alarm clock beside Quinn's bed. He stood, stretching, and picking up the clothes he laid out for himself the night before, walked to the bathroom. Turning at the door, he looked back around at Quinn's bedroom, and thought he ought to do a little straightening up before she came home.

Then he remembered he still had a few weeks left before her return. Stretching, he turned on the hot water, and climbed in the shower. He hung his head, with his hands on the wall in front of him. The water flowed through the thick waves of his hair, running in little streams over his neck and shoulders that chased each other down the length of his long body.

His shirt was still hanging open over his trousers when he noticed he had a missed call from a number he didn't recognize. Picking up his tablet, he opened the message app, noting that whoever had called had bypassed video to leave only an audio recording. Entering his pass code, he was surprised by the voice he heard. It was a girl's voice, throaty, but timid at the same time.

"You don't know me, and I know it's a lot to ask coming from someone you don't know, but I really, really hope you will at least meet me. My name is Leah. If you don't call back, don't worry. I won't bother you again." That was all she said.

Toby replayed the message a few times, checking the number recorded for the missed call. He then finished dressing, packed his tablet in his bag, and headed home to meet Cass for breakfast.

#

Cass stood staring out of the window over the kitchen sink. She liked the way this window, with the leafy green vine that had grown up around its perimeter, framed Toby as he came down the road on his bicycle each morning. For a brief moment, while he was still a distance up the street and appeared miniature in her field of vision, she could picture him as a boy again.

She watched him ride up and turn into the yard, as she had every morning since he started sleeping over at Quinn's house. On this morning though, instead of coming directly into the house, he stopped in the yard, in full view of Cass's kitchen window, and placed a call. His head was tilted in the same direction it always was when he was giving a matter careful consideration. He talked in a low tone, and Cass found herself hoping he had heard from Quinn. When he ended the call a moment later, she remembered he was the one who had placed it, and resigned herself to wondering in a vaguely frustrated way where Quinn even was at the moment.

Her thoughts were interrupted when Toby walked in, and kissing her on the cheek, set about making himself some breakfast.

"Are you okay?" He asked.

Cass looked at him, surprised. "Of course. Why do you ask?"

"You just have a strange look on your face." He shrugged, spreading almond butter over toast.

Cass was thoughtful, "Life is strange. It is utterly baffling that a person could waste their childhood wishing to be older, only to have the day arrive when you realize that you just keep getting older."

"Sounds like an adventure." Toby said, studying her as he spoke.

Cass nodded, "That is one way to describe it."

"And another?" He asked, his voice a bit concerned.

Cass laughed at the seriousness of his tone. "Strange."

They talked a little more as he finished his toast, and then Toby rose to leave for class. As he was walking out, he turned back around and said, "I'll see you tonight."

#

When lunchtime rolled around, it was Cass's turn to pick up the lunch she and her coworkers had ordered from a local deli that day. As she stood waiting on the order, Cass smiled to herself as she recalled the activity she had done with her preschool class earlier that morning.

She had constructed a cow out of white paper board, standing it over an easel. She then filled a rubber glove with milk, tying it off under the easel-turned cow. She made a prick in each of the fingers of the glove, which ballooning with milk looked remarkably like an udder. Each of the preschoolers was given a turn to milk the makeshift cow, with a bucket placed squarely beneath the easel to catch any mess.

One little boy, whose name was Sam, had tugged on her sleeve when it was his turn.

"Can we color the cow brown?" He asked.

Raising an eyebrow, Cass had responded, "Why would you want to do that?"

"So he'll make chocolate milk." Sam had replied with wide eyes.

Cass was still smiling, thinking of her conversation with Sam, when she heard her order called. She walked over to the counter to collect the bag, and checking that everything was correct, took her receipt and turned to leave. As she turned, something unexpected caught her attention out of the corner of her eye.

Toby was sitting at a table in a far corner of the restaurant, engrossed in conversation with a girl Cass had never seen before. The girl had sandy blonde hair, and her arms were rail thin. The rest of her body was hidden from view by the tall table dividing the space between her and Toby. Her eyes were a big, luminous blue, and gazing at Toby as though they might swallow him.

Toby's eyes were locked on the girl. Relieved not to be noticed, Cass walked somewhat awkwardly out of the restaurant, carrying her large take-out order in tow.

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