The Puppeteer by Nicola Platt

I sob convincingly into her shoulder. She’s so sorry. She feels responsible. She can’t believe he’d do this.

Except she does believe it. Of course she does. Why would I lie?

They had started out as a casual, no-strings-attached thing, but now every few days I end up painstakingly picking through the tangle she’s got herself caught up in. And it’s tedious. And I’ve had enough.

I pull away and press the heels of my hands into my eyes, pat my cheeks. I must look a state, I sniff. She says I look gorgeous. But I slide out of the booth to go fix my makeup anyway.

Give her a bit of time to dwell on what I’ve said.

When I get back she’s staring down at her lap, her bottom lip pouting a little. She looks up at me with doleful, wet eyes.

I’m sorry, I say. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything; I didn’t mean to upset her; I thought she had a right to know, etc.

She waves away my apology. No, she’s glad I told her. And the stupid thing is she’s not even that surprised.

Naturally. I’ve been laying the groundwork for a while.

She’s going to get us another round. She grabs her purse, gives my hand a squeeze and totters off towards the bar.

I make sure she catches me rummaging through her bag when she returns with the drinks. What am I doing? I withdraw my hand, fingers wrapped around her phone.

I just didn’t want her to do something she’d regret, I explain. I know she probably can’t imagine being able to forgive him, but I don’t want her to do anything rash.

Her face creases into a slight frown as the idea implants. We’re getting there. I place her phone on the table in front of us.

I suggest we talk about something else and then don’t. I half-heartedly make light of it; I make poor excuses for him; I blame myself. I suggest we’ve probably had enough to drink: she buys shots.

Within twenty minutes she is flailing and furious. She wants to confront him.

I’m not going to stand in her way if she’s sure. But, I remind her, he’ll just deny it; she’s too easily manipulated so she shouldn’t even give him the chance to take advantage of her lovely, trusting nature. No … a text. No right of reply and no opportunity for him to hurt her any more than he already has.

She nods and reaches for her phone. Tap, tap, tap, and it’s done.

I admire the neat array of strings descending from the cross bar I hold high above her head. I flick my finger and she tosses her phone back into her bag; I lift my arm and she rises unsteadily to her feet; I jiggle my hand and she’s dancing.

Nicola Platt lives in Oxfordshire, UK. She works in academic publishing. She hasn’t previously submitted a story for publication but was encouraged to do so by her creative writing group from work, who have continued meeting weekly online even though they are all now working from home.