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Authors: O'Beirne, Emily

Astory of now (page 2)

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Cam grins at Claire. “See you in the morning for coffee?”

She nods.

“And Claire?”

“What?”

“Turn the light on before you get dressed tomorrow, okay?” Cam grins. “Don’t embarrass me,” he adds in his best Christine voice.

Claire shoots him a withering smile and kicks the door shut in his face.

CHAPTER 2

Claire is hauled from sleep by sunlight hitting her square in the eyes. She was so distracted by her mother’s pre-bed appearance she forgot to close her blinds before crawling under the covers. She tries to find her way back to sleep, but it’s too late. Her brain busies itself with thoughts.

Then she remembers. Cam is home.

She has to admit, she’s kind of happy to have her brother here. Cam is a pain, but he’sherpain, and she likes to know he’s alive. And, of course, there’s the added bonus that the return of the Prodigal Son might divert the parental spotlight for a while.

She rolls over and finds her mother’s brochure on the other side of the bed. She picks it up and frowns. She can’t believe Cam chimed in, saying she should go to this information night. It’s enough to cope with the twinned expectations of her parents—her mother’s desire for her to find “direction” and her dad’s deceptively simple, yet infinitely more difficult, desire for her to be “happy.” Claire can’t cope with her brother pushing his imagined version of her future on her as well.

She sighs. Law. Now that’s a possibility Claire isn’t sure she can allow. She has no desire to march in lockstep down the family line as if there’s no other choice.

Well, it’s not as if there aren’t other options. It’s just that Claire can’t figure out what fits with her idea of herself in the world. And there are times when she’s tempted to follow her parents simply for the ease of not having to make a decision. But what if she turns out to be the only Pearson who was lousy at law? Even her brother—though he gave it up to work for the police—did well enough to be offered honours upon completing the course. She isn’t sure she could face the humiliation of not matching them. And most of all, she doesn’t think she could handle the disappointment—no, the disapproval—from her mother if she fails. Her mother simply doesn’t believe in failure. Christine Pearson believes that success is well within a person’s own power if she puts in the effort and plays her cards right. Claire isn’t so sure.

At first, when she graduated, Claire didn’t care that she hadn’t come out of high school with a solid, specific strategy. Many of her friends have tedious, add-water-and-stir, three-step life plans that include degrees, weddings, and babies. Claire wants the same at some point, but why is everyone in such a hurry? She also doesn’t care because she doesn’t need the world. But it’s not so great to discover the world doesn’t need her, either. Not unless shemakesit need her.

But the problem is she has no idea where to start. She loves studying French. Being able to read a book in another language is a source of ego-stroking pride. She also knows her studies are barely a step up from doing nothing at all. Lately, the ambitious, highly achieving part of her—the part that was wrangled into being by virtue of residing in the Pearson household—shudders at the thought of leaving university no better off and no more qualified than when she started. Claire was raised todo, and she feels the inexorable pull to dosomethingas she works her way through her course.

She just has to figure out what she wants to do. She sighs and lets the brochure drop to the floor. Right now, though, it’s definitely not law, no matter what her family says.

CHAPTER 3

Claire stands at the end of the narrow bar, staring idly into the dimly lit cavernous pub. Vintage lamps dot the walls and tables without adding any actual light. Work is particularly slow and painful tonight.

Nina calls out from the other end of the bar, “Seriously, come check this out.”

Claire wanders over and looks where her friend is pointing.

“Would you look at what those douche bags are doing,” Nina mutters, hands on her hips.

The guys by the pool table are deeply invested in some obnoxious game where they shut their eyes and try to pinch one another’s nipples through their hockey shirts. From what Claire can tell, it’s a stupid, drunken-frat-boy version of pin the tail on the donkey. If someone hits the mark, they yell “Nipple cripple!” and drink.

And it’s only Monday.

Claire sighs. “See, I need to record this or something.” She leans against the bar and crosses her arms. “Then every time my mum says I should go to university full-time, I can show her this as an example of why I shouldn’t. This is the kind of company I’d keep.” She shakes her head as one of them scores a hit. “Our old dog had more brain cells.”

“That’s not too hard.”

“Why do we work here again?” Claire wipes down a bottle she’s already wiped twice tonight.

“Better hours. No evil boss breathing down our necks. No getting sexually harassed on the job. Free knock-off drinks,” Nina recites, still staring at the game as she fixes her hair into a high ponytail. “And we wanted to work in a place where we’d never hang out, remember?”

“Oh yeah.”

It was Nina’s idea that they should find a bar somewhere around the university, near Nina’s flat. Just a regular bar with no deafening house music or pretentious idiots in their poorly chosen, all-money-no-taste suits and ties. A place where they could stay safely tucked behind the bar making drinks. A place where they might get the pick-up lines but not the grabby hands.

“Now, instead, we have all this.” Claire flicks her cloth in the direction of the idiots.

Nina nods grudgingly.

The problem, Claire quickly discovered, is that it doesn’t matter if a place doesn’t have house music or suits. There are plenty of annoyances to replace them. In fact, this bar offers up a veritable Pick ’n’ Mix of stupidity—particularly on the quieter weeknights. There are the nipple-crippling, dimwit jock types. The usual hipsters come in, too, looking for the cool, no-frills ambience of this place. They go gaga over the “real authentic jukebox” one minute and complain about the music selection the next. There are the cynical and needy hospitality workers who come here for after-work drinks. Some nights, there are even a few crusty, overly earnest hippies, drawn in by the sign saying they have vegan beer on tap. Claire doesn’t get that one. Since when is there animal in beer anyway?

The pub is a motley place, and Claire is pretty sure she doesn’t like it any better than the last job. When it’s not weird, it’s boring. Especially on quiet nights like tonight. Aside from Team Douche, there are about six other people in the place, and she and Nina have been pretending to clean for hours in case the owner, Andrew, comes downstairs. But there are only so many times she can clean a bar that’s already as clean as it’s ever going to be, which, as it turns out, isn’t very clean. This place has the ingrained grot that comes from years of drinking embedded in it, the kind that won’t be lifted with a wet cloth and sanitiser spray.

But at least she won’t run into any of her old high school friends here. That’s one bonus.

“I’m thinking of finding a few shifts somewhere else too, though.” Nina checks the state of her eye makeup in the mirror behind the shelves. “Somewhere more exciting.”

“What?” Claire pulls a rack of clean glasses out of the washer. “Don’t leave me here. What is it with you? I’ve known you for three months, and you have had four different jobs already.”

Nina grabs a towel and picks up a glass to dry. “Yeah, well, it’s not like I should stick around for the pay raise. Besides, I need fodder for my memoir. That’s what’s going to make me rich one day.”

“A book about your crappy jobs?” Claire raises an eyebrow. “Sounds like a real best seller.”

“It will be. And you know what it is going to be called?”

“What?” Claire isn’t sure she wants to know.

“From Behind Bars,” she announces proudly.

“Oh wow. I see what you did there. Hilarious.”

“No, Claire.” Nina flicks the rag at her. “It’s genius.”

“Genius like that game.” Claire tips her head in the direction of the douche brigade and their nipple crippling.

Nina smiles as if it washes right over her.

And Claire can’t help smiling too. Nina is such a damn optimist. One of the things Claire likes most about her, though, is she doesn’t care what she does. Nina doesn’t care about university or getting a high-paying job. Nina just wants to live. She doesn’t quietly judge Claire or constantly remind her about what Claire should be doing. There aren’t any little comments like she gets from her high school friends or her parents. For Nina, Claire is what she is, taken as a fact and not a lack of promise.

“You staying at ours tonight?”

Claire nods. “Is that okay? Mum is on leave this week. Yesterday she left an ad for a temping agency on my bed. Can you believe that is the height of her aspirations for me right now? That is how low I have set the bar,” she says wearily.

Nina laughs. “Sure, our couch is your couch. You know that.”

“Thanks.”

They polish glasses in silence for a while, idly staring at the television on the shelf above the door. Just as they finish, the door swings open for the first time in an hour, and a couple of people walk in. They drag some of the chilly night air with them. They wander to the far end of the bar and pull up two bar stools, all while laughing quietly. Once seated, they take books, notepads, and pens out of their bags. Claire puts the glass on the shelf and frowns and then picks up another. She can never understand why anyone would want to study in a bar.

“I’ll go.” Nina trots off to their end of the bar and starts chatting with them in that guileless, affable way she has with the customers. That’s what earns her all the tips, while Claire is lucky to get any. Claire knows she could make more if she were nicer. And if she had to pay rent like Nina, she might consider it. But while she can still call her parents’ house home, she can’t be bothered.

When she is done with the glasses, Claire drops her polishing cloth, carries the empty tray to the end of the bar, and slides it back in the rack.

“We totally deserve a beer, right? After that shift?” A guy with dirty-blond curls and shaved sides nudges the girl next to him.

She nods, head down, as she digs through her bag.

Nina leans on the bar, smiling. “Which beer?”

“What have you got?”

“Ah, we’ve got—”

“Really?” Claire interrupts, her eyebrows raised in disdain. “You’re going to make her list all the beers in the place?” She can’t help herself. It’s her pet hate.

He purses his lips, tips his head to the side, and looks at Claire thoughtfully. “You’re kind of rude,” he muses, as if it’s more noteworthy than objectionable. “But you do make a good point. Who am I kidding?” He turns to Nina. “We’ll have two pints of the cheapest drinkable beer you have, please.”

Nina nods and goes to the taps.

“Classy,” Claire mutters as she wipes down a shelf, revenge for the “rude” comment.

“Rich coming from someone working in this high-end establishment.” He puts his pen in his mouth, chews the end, and looks her up and down. He has dark-brown eyes, which contrast weirdly with his blond curls and pale skin.

“Rich coming from someone doing his homework at the pub.”

“Actually, we’re not studying,” he tells her cheerfully. “We’re working on our definitive ranking of nineties-era heartthrobs.”

Claire raises her eyebrows again, but before she can fashion a suitable comeback to that particular piece of insanity, the girl pipes up.

“Uh, your definitive ranking.” She slips on a pair of glasses and waves her book at him. “I’m actually trying to study.”

They’re the first words she’s spoken in front of Claire. In fact, it’s the first time her gaze has parted ways from her bag or her book. Claire notices what an odd couple they are. He is kind of a rocker, with his shaved sides and band T-shirt with the sleeves hacked off. She is dressed simply in a blue top and jeans. Her only adornment is a chain around her neck with a long, delicate, silver pendant hanging from it. Where he is short, she is long and skinny. Not in the underfed, needs-a-cheeseburger way but in a naturally slender way. A curly mess of dark hair falls behind her shoulders. The only similarity is their dark-brown eyes. Except his are wide and hers are slightly sleepy and catlike. But it’s enough to make Claire wonder if they’re related.

The boy scoffs at her response and taps her hand with his pen. “What do you mean, Mia? Your input has been invaluable. I mean, if it wasn’t for you…” He taps the pen harder to get her attention.

She complies, a patient, amused expression on her face as if she’s completely used to his shtick.

With her attention won, he continues, “If it wasn’t for you, dear friend, I would have forgotten Christian Slater actually straddled the eightiesandnineties, which would have thrown everything off. And, your statistical know-how has been fundamental to this endeavour.”

Mia says nothing. She shakes her head at him, pats his arm placatingly, and returns to her book. He grins and delivers a smacking kiss to the side of her head.

He turns back to Claire. “Sothatis what I am actually doing.”

“The fact that you’re making that list and not studying doesn’t make you any less weird,” Claire tells him as she wipes a spot on the bar near his elbow. She returns his faux-sweet smile with one of her own.

“We’re absolutely fine with that.” He nudges Mia with his elbow. “Aren’t we?”

Mia shrugs and flips over a page in her book. Then she leans her chin on her hand and gives him a slow smile. “Well, I admit I wonder what would happen if you used your considerable brainpower for good, instead of for crazy.”

He just smiles at her.

Nina returns with the beer, takes their money, and makes the change. She takes Claire by the arm and drags her to the other end of the bar. “Please, don’t insult them,” she mutters. “If you haven’t already.”