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Authors: O'Beirne, Emily

Astory of now (page 9)

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“Great, see you next week, if not before.” He runs a hand through his unruly blond curls. “Besides, there’s something you’ll want to see.” And then he is gone.

CHAPTER 12

Claire misses the days when she used to feel invincible.

Sometimes she craves those confident, cocky times—particularly the last year of high school. Freedom was coming, she nearly always had a good time, and the social order was in place. All was right in her universe. Back then, she didn’t have to work so hard to feel as if she could face off against the world and win nearly every time. It just happened.

That feeling lasted pretty much through her first year of uni, too. This year started out smelling of potential but turned into raw anger and hurt before it withered into something bloodless and divested of colour. Now those invincible days don’t come like they used to. Some start with the promise of that feeling, but it never quite goes the distance.

She’s getting that invincible feeling back. At least she thinks she is. But sometimes all it takes is a small blow—another “Claire’s future” argument with her mother, or an awkward exchange with someone in class because they don’t get each other. Or maybe it’s another apologetic, pleading message from Michelle that reminds her of the current, sad state of her friendships. Any one of those can cause any assurance she’s rallied to dissipate. Without so much as a warning, she’s back in that grey, depressing place.

This time it’s the re-appearance of Brendan.

Fuck Brendan. And fuck him for throwing himself like a grenade into a week that started with promise. On Monday life looked good. Her mother went away for the week for a court case, Melbourne’s forecast called for a few solid days of spring sunshine, and there was even the potential of some new people in her life. And she had a plan for Thursday night that didn’t involve going to work.

But the week she envisions is shot down by a missed call. She discovers it on Monday afternoon as she walks out of the lecture theatre. The sight of Brendan’s name on her phone throws her into a stunned tailspin. She nearly walks straight into an information desk as she stumbles out the door, staring distrustfully at the phone. Mortified by her extreme public clumsiness, she shoves it in her pocket. Claire heads home, unable to fathom a single reason why he might want to contact her.

He didn’t leave a message, but it doesn’t matter. The damage is done. Even though she’s reached the point where his new relationship isn’t a constant, painful presence in her mind, he once again inserts himself into her world. And he does it with just his name on a screen, a call she will never return.

Instead of enjoying a halcyon week, she mulls and stews and revisits the bitter ground of their sad, sorry breakup. So begins a shitty week of lying around the house between classes while she tries to ignore the pervasive question of why he decided to contact her after months of silence.

And, of course, it means the epic return of all the debilitating self-doubt that comes with thoughts of him and what he did. It’s not just the betrayal that depresses her. It’s the relentless, merry-go-round tedium of these feelings—feelings that aren’t even really about him. It’s about how the whole situation causes her to feel. No, she isn’t prepared for this week, not for this small backslide to this depressing place. And now she wants out.

She doesn’t tell anyone, either. Who would she tell?Toughen up and don’t let on. That was her mother’s advice back when it first happened. In fact, that andjust apply yourselfare her mother’s advice for everything. She dispenses her wisdom in two finely whittled-down pieces of cure-all guidance that she tosses out during her brief appearances in the land of motherhood.

And sure, that’s great advice for when she’s out in public, and it’s advice Claire learned to take on in order to leave the house in those first weeks. But it does nothing to help with the long hours she spends alone in the privacy of her room in the aftermath. It does nothing to ease her through the hurt, humiliation, and anger. Her mother never told her how to deal with that part. No one did. And no one told her how long it would take to get back even a fraction of the assurance she used to have. Now, just when she’s finally feeling the capacity to move on, he happens again.

So Claire decides he’s not going any further into this week with her. Especially not today. It willnotbe one of those days. This just might be one where she gets to feel good about herself. She has a new jacket, she has new hair, and she has somewhere to be tonight. Also she has new people to hang out with—people who don’t know anything about the Claire she used to be. She can spend time with them because they are not her old friends. With them, she can always detect the traces of their kind but irritating sympathy over the fact that she is no longer untouchable.

So tonight she’s going to do whatever she can to find a sliver of that old confidence. And right now, she’s finding it in the form of eye makeup.

She has no real idea what to wear to this show, but going on Robbie’s comments about cheap booze and cheaper attendees, she decides to go casual in jeans and a top. And eyeliner. There must always be eyeliner, her second favourite form of armour.

“Hey, person vaguely resembling my sister.”

It’s Cam, already making himself comfortable on her bed.

“Where have you been?” She leans toward the mirror and carefully applies the pencil to her lower eye.

“At work.”

“For a week? You can’t be sleeping there. Elana?”

“Sort of.”

“Lucky her.”

“I’m just trying to make it up to her.” He picks up Claire’s wallet from the bed and starts idly picking through it.

She holds out the mascara wand and turns. “Get out of my stuff.”

“No.” He grins. “I’m checking for fake ID.”

“Hey, idiot boy.” She gently swipes away a teeny smear of black from her eyelid. “I’m nearly twenty, remember?”

“Oh yeah.” He chuckles and continues his rifling. He examines every single receipt, card, and coin. “I forgot.”

She leaves him to his knee-jerk detective work and focuses on the task of long lashes. She has nothing to hide, anyway, except an embarrassing student ID photo. And he’s already seen it.

“What are you doing tonight that requires all that war paint?”

She frowns into the mirror. She’s not wearingthatmuch makeup. She hasn’t even put on lipstick yet. “Going to an exhibition opening.”

“I don’t even know what that is.” He holds up a card and reads it.

“It’s a party where they lure you in to look at the art and maybe buy it on the promise of free alcohol.”

“Ah.” He nods. “Now I get it. At first I was thinking you…and art?” He gives her a dubious look. “But you and booze? That I understand.” He returns the card to her wallet and tosses it onto the bed. Within seconds, though, he picks up one of her school notebooks and looks through it. She shakes her head. Cam just can’t help himself. No wonder he wanted to be a cop so badly.

She grabs her brush and runs it through her hair. “Brendan called me.”

He frowns. “What for? What did he want?”

“I don’t know. I missed the call.” She puts down her brush and turns around. “And no way am I calling him back.”

“Good. Don’t, Claire.”

“Don’t worry, I don’t plan to,” she can’t help snapping. Who does Cam think she is? One of those desperate girls who’d return to a guy who is too gutless to tell her he’s fallen for someone else? That kind of feeble crap is more Cam’s bag. He’s the one who crawls back to Elana even though she’s kicked him out at least half-dozen times since they started dating. Sure, she’s supermodel hot, but seriously? Cam has zero willpower, especially when it comes to that psychotic…whatever she is to him. Guys can be so spineless sometimes.

“You know, that offer to kill him is still open.”

Her irritation is replaced with a smile. She’s got to hand it to her brother. He’s incredibly annoying, but he’s loyal as all get out. “Thanks. You’re very sweet. I think ignoring the asshole will suffice for now.” She stands and pulls on her jacket. “But I’ll let you know if I need you to get out the tire iron, okay?”

“Who else is going with you to this thing tonight? Michelle and her sidekicks don’t seem like the art-loving types. Unless it’s prints from IKEA.”

“Nope. I’m going with Nina and some other people. A friend of hers has photos in the show.”

“You’re hanging out with photographers now?” Cam runs a hand through his hair. He finally had a haircut, thank God, and looks normal again. Well, normal for Cam.

“So what?” She stands and looks at herself in the full-length mirror behind her door. She’ll do, she supposes. “Maybe I don’t want the extent of my social life to be trashy nightclubs like those girls.”

“Yes, you do.” He picks up her phone and turns it over and over in his hands.

“Okay, sometimes.” She whips the phone out of his hands and tucks it in her back pocket. “But not all the time.”

“You’re full of it.” He squints at her and delivers his best I-know-you look, because calling each other out on their crap is one of their favourite things to do. “Let me guess, this artist is some hot guy you’re chasing?”

“Nope.” She grins and then tips her head to the side, considering Robbie. “Well, he actually is a little hot. But also very gay.” She turns toward him. “What are you doing tonight?”

“Some club with Vito.”

“See.” She rolls her eyes as she zips up her jacket. “Boring.”

“Well, that training was plenty new and exciting for me. I’m kind of happy to go with predictable for a while, you know?”

Claire nods. She’ll give him that. “Fair enough.” She straightens her collar in the mirror and asks, “How do I look?”

He looks at her, raises his hands in the air. “How would I know? You look like Claire. Only with magazine hair.”

“Gee, thanks.” She picks up her wallet and shoves it in her jacket pocket. “Now get out. I have to go.”

CHAPTER 13

The gallery is a mob scene with people spilling out onto the pavement. As she approaches, Claire shoves her hands into her jacket pockets and slows her pace. Nina is supposed to be here somewhere, but that doesn’t mean she will be. Nina is always late. And Claire is always painfully on time. She can’t help it. It was drilled into her. She wishes she were better at that casual, party’s-already-started arrival, because the fear of standing around on her own makes her nervous. Like now.

As she nears the mass of people already gathered—mostly students and a few proud-but-beleaguered parents—she knows she made the right choice about what to wear. Everyone, except the parents, firmly embraced the dressing down.

She stops at the fringes of the crowd and wonders how she’s going to get inside. She edges closer to the wide, glass doors and stands on her tiptoes to get a glimpse inside. All she can see is bodies. How does anyone even manage to see the art at these events? She steps to the edge of the pavement, out of the way of the steady stream of people weaving in and out the door.

She considers elbowing in so she can find someone she knows or at least get a drink. Either would alleviate the social anxiety that is taking firm hold of her. Before she decides, a hand clutches her arm. She spins around. It’s Nina.

“Hi!”

“Hey.”

Nina dyed her hair again, a darker blonde this time. Nina is always changing her look. It’s a constant work in progress.I like change, she tells Claire. Raised in a huge, vaguely hippie family, Nina learned to go with any kind of flow. It’s a source of envy for Claire. She’d like to be that free and easy but knows she’ll never find anywhere near that level of calm. Nina’s carefree behaviour can also be annoying, because it’s difficult to pin her down. Claire can never count on her to be where she’s supposed to be at any given time.

“I like your hair this week.”

“Thanks,” Nina says as she runs her hand over her head and smiles self-consciously. “I still like yours too. It’s awesome.”

“Yeah, better since I got it fixed.”

Nina doesn’t respond to her dig about the botched bleach job. Instead, she says, “Josh has gone in to find drinks.”

Claire nods, chewing her lip. She forgot Josh might be here. Awkward.

“Have you been inside?” Claire asks.

Nina shakes her head. “Too hard to get in.” She glances at the teeming crowd. “I’m going to wait a bit and then try. Let’s find somewhere to sit.”

They end up on the curb with their feet in the gutter. A lot of people do the same and line the edges of the street with drinks in their hands.

“Classy,” Claire grumbles as they sit.

Nina smiles, not bothered in the least by their position or by Claire’s complaint. Josh finds them eventually. He clutches a bottle of bubbly and a small pile of plastic cups. He pours them each a glass, hands one to Claire with barely an acknowledgement of her presence, and sits on the other side of Nina. At least he seems to have returned to his old grunty ways. She hopes he stays that way. She sits back and sips her—as promised—disgusting champagne. She watches the people around her, all dressed to appear as casual as possible, a look that probably took just as long as anything fancier would have.

She stares idly down the street, half listening to Josh talk about a sporty obstacle course he’s doing on the weekend, and spots a guy who looks kind of familiar. She runs through a list of ways she might know him, trying to figure out if he’s in one of her classes at school or maybe a customer at the bar. When he gets closer, she notices Mia walking next to him, dressed in jeans and a loose red top. That’s when Claire realises that the vaguely familiar guy is Mia’s coffee boy.

Mia’s clearly mid story, talking animatedly while he listens avidly. Claire smirks to herself and wonders if he’s gotten anywhere with her yet. As they get closer, Mia spies her and waves. She veers over to where they sit.

“Hi! You came.”

“Hey.” Claire smiles. “You know Nina, right? And that’s Josh.” She flaps a hand in his direction.

Josh nods at them and holds up the bottle and glasses.

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