I haven't read through all this since I last sent it to my feedback team, but I'm pretty sure it's all fine, maybe just a few typos. Enjoy!
Ten Things I Hate About Ric
1. His name. Ric Mason? I mean, really? It sounds made up. “Ric the Dick” would suit him better. And who spells Rick without a ‘k’?
2. His chaotic hair. Is it so hard to wash that furry yellow animal on your head?
3. He smokes. Ew.
4. He smells like ash. That’s really a part of number three, I suppose.
5. His eyes are too small.
6. Arms too skinny.
7. Fingers too calloused and kind of always dirty, like he’s just worked on his engine and hasn’t washed his hands.
8. He claims he was famous once, a ‘long time ago’! But won’t tell anyone his band name.
9. He never wears anything but black on black. Even black board shorts when he swims.
10. His leg hairs look like drowning tree branches when they’re wet.
11. His toes are hairy—in that weird sandy colour that blond guys get for body and facial hair.
This is more than ten. So much hatred!
12. He’s a jerk.
13. He’s only nice to girls he wants to sleep with.
14. He wants to sleep with every girl whose waist he can fit his hands around.
15. He can’t fit his hands around my waist. No. Wait. That’s a positive.
16. His nails always have bike grease under them.
17. He doesn’t own a car.
18. He doesn’t have any prospects for the future.
Okay, there’s no reason I should care about that.
19. He’s arrogant, self-absorbed, he cheats when we play cards, he’s a condescending, womanising, chauvinistic, pale freak, whose lips are too thin, and whose eyes are too small. Oh, I said that already.
20. He wears jackets in summer!
21. He walks into the bathroom without knocking. In my house. When he’s not invited over!
22. Slaps me on the ass at work.
23. Drinks the booze when Jack’s not looking.
Right. So, new title: Twenty-three Things I Hate About Ric.
“There.” I dusted my hands off and slid the list across the dining table to Ali. “What do you think?”
Her black eyes darted across the page, shrinking with amusement. “This was supposed to be therapeutic, Lors—to help you guys work better together.” She scrunched it up and tossed it over her shoulder onto the kitchen floor. “Looks like I just fuelled the hatred.”
“Hey!” I demanded, sliding my chair out and running over to pick it up. “I was enjoying that.”
“Well—” She plucked it from my hands, standing suddenly behind me when I turned around. “Maybe enjoy it mentally. Lists like this can be damaging.”
“How so?” I snatched it back.
“Imagine if he ever saw it.” Her thick black eyebrows moved up to make the point.
So I did imagine it—I imagined Ric picking it up, reading it slowly, then, filled with remorse for his arrogant ways, coming and apologising for ever existing.
But, from what I knew about Ric after the last few weeks working with him, he would more likely just frown and then put the list away so no one knew he read it. Then he’d be really quiet for the rest of the day.
“Fine.” I folded the list. “I’ll put it where he’ll never see it.”
“Okay.” She watched me hide it in the hall table drawer by the front door, her arms folded smugly across her black singlet. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” I scooped my keys off the hook tabletop and offered her the way into the corridor.
She glided out, her self-righteousness filling the air, and planted her butt on the big cream sofa by the plastic fern. I pressed the elevator button then crossed the corridor to use the giant gold-framed mirror right above her head.
“Hey, get your vagina out of my face.” She pushed me backward by the waist. “I’m not into that sort of thing.”
I laughed. “Stop it. I just found lippy on my teeth.”
“Gimme a look.”
I lowered my face and bared my teeth like a horse.
“You’re fine,” she declared. “Besides, who are you trying to impress?”
“No one.” I moved to the elevator when it pinged. “Why would you think that?”
“Because you’ve only started checking your make up, no, in fact, you only started wearing make up since sexy-dreads started at the cafe.”
I licked my teeth clean again, staying back as she hopped into the small mirrored box. “Lies. All lies.”
Ali just laughed and pressed the button to hold the doors. “Come on.”
When we reached the plastic-plant-dominated lobby, which wasn’t really a lobby so much as a space locked off from the outside world where everyone collected their mail, the doors opened to reveal a slinky redhead.
“Hey there, Dee.” Ali gave her a sleek high five as Dee stepped in and we stepped out. “You coming to Open Mic Night tonight?”
She looked at the designer watch on her bronzed arm. “Not tonight, ladies. I’ve got a meeting in the city.”
“New job?” I asked.
Dee pressed the hold button. “No.” Then she grinned, blushing. “A date kind of meeting.”
“Oh yay!” Ali and I said, clapping our hands once.
Dee let go of the button and waved her fingertips as she disappeared.
“You know what this means?” I said excitedly.
“No more six a.m. good vibrations,” Ali chimed.
I folded over with a crack of laughter, slapping my knee. “Yes, but I will miss having it wake me up every morning though. She was so reliable I’ve stopped setting my alarm.”
“Well, at least an alarm has a snooze button.” She folded her arms, looking thoughtful. “If we want to turn off Dee’s vibrator we have to turn her off.”
“We could always send Ric over,” I joked.
“The only thing that would turn her off about him is that he has a dick.”
“Or that he is a dick,” I said, and Ali just rolled her eyes at me.
We took the door inside the lobby leading straight into the cafe, where a hot pink poster for the weekly Screeching Cat Convention, otherwise known as Open Mic Night, had been hung lopsided.
Jack looked up from the bar and sent a nod our way, going back to polishing glasses after we waved.
Every time I walked into Uncle Mike’s cafe, I got this undeniable feeling of being home—part of the reason I rented one of the apartments up top instead of living with him a few doors down. He loved books and music as much as Ali and I did, and themed the whole cafe around it. The walls were mahogany and emerald green, with bookshelves stacked full of titles from all genres—free to read while customers enjoyed the leather arm chairs, great coffee and views of the long jetty over the ocean. If reading wasn’t their thing, they could take up a table inside or out, and just enjoy the music and the crisp summer breeze rolling over the quiet streets. Being the only business on this side of the boulevard, about six minutes walk from the main strip of cafes and restaurants, we got pretty busy most days, especially at lunch time and for Sunday breakfast. The other good thing about being the only business under the apartments, and the only apartment building for ten minuets either side, was that Mike owned the entire bottom floor. The building had a semi-circle frontage, giving the cafe it’s inviting shape—with a rounded bar inside, alcohol on one side and coffees on the other, a flat rustic brick wall on the right of the bar, with a black ‘Open Mic Night Thursday’s’ banner, a small wooden stage and, of course, a mic—the cafe had a very urban feel, considering it was on the beach. I looked at it as my escape from the nautical.
Outside, spring fun owned the air. School wasn’t out for another few weeks, so we weren't overrun with teens just yet, but for the better part of the day, the cafe forgot the peaceful existence it had in autumn and winter, and opened itself to floods of beach goers, coffee lovers and locals. The windows spanning the entire front of the cafe had always been a constant source of distraction for me—the ocean and the cool waves calling me toward them—but I had to be ‘star employee’ and ‘super niece’ right now while Unci Mike was away, so I’d taken to pretending the windows were a moving picture—that the cafe really overlooked a busy city. And the dark, cool style of the cafe made forgetting the bogey boards, sunscreen and towels laid out on the sand just across one small road, much easier to forget.
Ali and I ducked under the counter and dumped our bags by the till, skipping into the kitchen out back to find breakfast. I knew Ric wouldn’t be on until ten—if he could drag himself out of bed that early—so we had at least an hour to get food and start prep for the day before he came in and ruined the atmosphere.
We sat ourselves at the long steel bench in the middle of the room and pondered the glass-doored fridge as though breakfast were a life-altering decision.
Ali tapped her chin, and I crossed one leg over my knee, rocking my ankle.
“Fruit?” she suggested.
I shook my head.
I shook my head.
My face cracked. I reached across the shiny sterile surface and slapper her wrist. “Where do you get this idea that I like him?”
“I saw the way you looked at him when he winked at you last night.”
I felt my cheeks change colour. “I so did not. You are such a liar.”
But Ali never lied. We both knew that.
She poked her tongue into one side of her cheek, digging her proverbial heels in, and toyed with the deep purple leather bracelet: the “I’m right” colour. Dark blue was “I’m making a prediction that may or may not come true. But usually does, so don’t doubt me” bracelet. And the four black ones on her left wrist had meanings that I hadn’t quite figured out. I think the top black bracelet was “Leave me alone or die.” But I never pushed hard enough to find out. Wasn’t worth the bruise I’d get on my arm. Or the spiders in my bed. Not venomous, of course. But still creepy.
“We’re getting sidetracked,” I said. “And we have to start work ten minutes ago. So can we eat?”
“Fine.” She stood up, shoving the stool back so it made a cringeworthy noise. “But he’s playing tonight. And I know you have a thing for musos, so if you get even the slightest tingle in those twinkly toes, Lora Pora, you better admit it!”
I chewed my lips, rocking them from side-to-side. “His musical abilities, if he even has any, will not change my opinion of him. In any way.”
Ali turned away, but I saw her smug grin in the refrigerator glass.
“Lora, Ali?” Jack said as he came in from the bar. “Today’s Ric’s first coffee shift. He says he’s served coffee a hundred times in the past, but just stick close in case he can’t work the machine, okay?”
Even I knew Ric well enough to know he didn’t need our help.
“Um, sure,” Ali said, giving me ‘the glare’.
I shrugged at her, mouthing, “What?”
“Thanks, girls,” Jack said, and when he walked into the office out back, I grimaced at Ali.
“What was that ‘look’ for?”
“I knew what you were going to say—that Ric’s a big boy and can do things for himself, or maybe it was even something along the lines of ‘Help him? How ’bout I burn him?’” We both laughed. “But the only thing Jack loves more than bossing us around is lecturing us. So it’s just easier to say yes-Jack-no-Jack—”
“Three bags full, Jack,” I finished.
“Right.” She winked at me. “Now, I’ve decided.”
“We’re having waffles for breakfast.”
“Oooh, better hurry though.” I looked at the imaginary watch on my wrist. “They take a while.”
“Okay. You get the batter.” She pointed at me. “And I’ll heat the iron.”
“On it.” I jumped up and ran around the kitchen, gathering various ingredients and utensils, and piled them all onto the bench, sitting down to mix it all up just as a shadow fell over my day.
“Morning, Ric,” Ali chirped.
I groaned before I even looked up. He stood in the doorway with his arms folded, those small eyes appraising everything critically, looking for something to pass a sarcastic comment on.
“Morning, ladies,” he said sleazily, and my skin crawled.
“You’re early,” I snapped, giving him the stink-eye.
He lowered his arms and walked casually into the kitchen as if he was invited. “What’s the matter, Lora Pora? On your period?”
The egg I was cracking slipped on the edge of the bowl and went in shell and all. “Damn it, Ric! Look what you made me do.”
He pulled out the stool opposite me and sat down, laughing. “You have a terrible habit of blaming everyone else for your mistakes.”
I pointed right at him, narrowing my eyes. “Don’t start.”
He smiled across at Ali. “Got enough there to make one for me?”
“Actually,” I cut in. “Uncle Mike says we’re not allowed to let the staff eat in here.”
“Since when?” he said. “We eat in here after work on Fridays.”
“That’s staffies. That’s different,” I said, cracking another egg.
“Well, you let Charlotte eat in here yesterday arvo,” Ali said.
Ric looked blank-faced at Ali. “There’s that damn word again. What the hell is an arvo?”
I rolled my eyes. “Afternoon. Arvo is short for afternoon. God! How long have you been in Australia?”
“A month.” His shoulders seemed to close in around him. “I’m still picking up the lingo.”
My brain went into overdrive, comparing all the words my once Australian now American mum used for things while I was growing up that, when I started school, copped me a few strange stares. “Well, if I tell you to put something on the bench, that would be the counter.” I tapped the steel bench. “Not the two-seater across the road. And if I ask you to run the tap, I don’t mean the beer tap. I mean the faucet. Clear?”
“As a daisy,” he said, resting his elbows on the bench.
My whole face screwed up. “As a daisy?”
He just smirked.
“Give him a break, Lora,” Ali demanded, opening the waffle iron. “And hurry up with the batter. I’m hungry.”
I grabbed the flour and measured it out, tapping it into the bowl with a firm slap.
“I have another question about vernacular differences,” Ric said, looking from Ali to me. “Pertaining to coffee making, since I’ll be doing that today.”
“Shoot,” Ali said.
“I heard a woman ask for a ‘flat white’ the other day. What the hell is that?”
“Well, it’s not some Caucasian guy laid under a steamroller,” I said.
“Lora!” Ali banged the bench, baring her teeth at me.
I shrunk. “Fine. A flat white is a plain coffee with milk, no froth.”
“No kidding?” Ric said. “So why not just ask for a coffee?”
“Because they don’t do things here like they do where we come from,” I said. “In case you hadn't noticed—” I motioned toward the cafe, “—we don’t have a side table with cream and sugar out there. We make the coffee with milk—all except black coffee.”
Ric looked over his shoulder, coming back again with a worried expression. “Ali?”
“I might need you to show me how to work that coffee machine.”
She just laughed.
The central business district—CBD—in my town had grown since I moved here. The local council took great pride in their little town, lining the streets with leafy trees and grass-lined median strips between traffic, maintained better than a botanical garden. My dojo was purpose-built about ten years ago when another martial arts school moved here from Kwinana. But it closed down and another school took over the space last year. It sat right between the public pools and the local kids’ play centre, a two-storey white building with the dojo and cafe at the bottom, and an office and private training area up top.
I smiled at a few familiar faces as I placed my duffel bag down and zipped it up, burying my purse and phone. Through the glass dividing wall I could see they were done with warm-ups and had moved on to paired sparring. Safe to say the lump of dread in my throat was not going down easy.
Bastian looked up from the front of the room by the mirrors, and when he saw me just standing here chewing my lip, motioned me to him with a quick head jerk and cold eyes.
I stood on the cusp of the mats and bowed, cupping one hand over a fist, then entered.
“Late again, Miss Knight.” He strolled quickly across the foam mats, his bare feet leaving slight impressions, and stopped half way between me and the rest of the class.
“Sorry, Master Bas.”
Everyone behind him was laughing at me. I flipped them the finger, dropping it quickly as I stopped walking. I could see Bas was trying his hardest to look annoyed, but his golden brown eyes were as warm as a Sunday roast.
“Ali took a longer lunch break today,” I explained. “She—”
“You got a double shift again?”
He took a large step backward. “Okay, I’ll let it slide again,” he said, then aimed a finger to the other end of the room where a lone white-belt stood, looking lost. “But only until Mike gets back, and you’ll be spending the lesson with our white-belts.”
“Yes, Master.” I cupped my hands again and bowed.
“Oh, and Lora,” he called as I skipped off.
I stopped and turned back.
“Tuck those chains in.” He motioned to his own collarbones.
Great. Another thing I forgot. I opened the front of my shirt and shoved my silver chain and the leather necklace inside, then refastened my red belt. “Happy now?”
Bas didn’t look impressed. He scratched his upper lip, his brows high with disapproval. “Stay back after class,” he said, turning away.
Damn. I knew what he was going to say. I shouldn’t have smart-mouthed him in front of the class. A “Yes, Master” was all he required.
Across the room, beyond pairs in white pants and tops, wrapped with different coloured belts, Bas hugged one of the red punching bags hanging from the ceiling and yelled instructions at the black belts. The whole dojo smelled like rubber and sweat, and the sound of the strength and drive of each hit or kick, roaring in a mighty “Hu!”, all seemed to blend into one sound; one smell; one feeling. I breathed it in deep and put my hands on my hips, turning around to find my white-belt.
She looked up timidly from her feet and gave me a small wave.
“Hey,” I said.
“First lesson?” I stood beside her, taking up double the space she did with confidence alone.
Most people that came here needed to learn to protect or defend themselves for some reason. Some of the stories were tragic, some inspiring, but I’d learned to be careful about asking questions. “First lesson?” was suitable, “What brings you here?” was most definitely not. And usually resulted in that person crying.
This girl looked as timid as a wet piece of paper. She was clearly here to learn how to fight back, and in the seconds it took her to answer me with a simple nod, I decided that’s exactly what we’d start with today.
I showed her how to block an attack, how to land if she was thrown down, and after she flinched as I touched her waist, I also showed her how to get herself out from under an attacker—and knee him in the balls on the way—not an official Hapkido move. But Bas wasn’t watching.
When class finished for the day, I’d barely broken a sweat and certainly hadn’t released all my ir-Ric-tation, but Shelly left with a smile on her face, her cheeks flushed with blood, and her soul alive with energy, thanking me then Bas on the way out. So my unfulfilling lunchtime workout wasn't a total waste.
“You’ll be back next week then?” he asked her.
She just nodded once, her eyes flicking to me, then left, forgetting to bow on the way back into the cafe area.
“Do you remember when you first came here?” Bas said, keeping his eyes on the happy, buzzing people filing out the front door.
“Yeah.” I untied my belt and unwound it from my waist. “What about it?”
“When you walked in that door, or should I say charged in—” he looked at me then, “—I thought for sure you were a victim of bullying—looking for a way to kick some butt.”
“And you shouldn't have taught her how to attack.”
“Because your assumptions about her are wrong.” He slipped his white jacket off, revealing a black singlet, then his shoulders and that perfect set of pumped guns. “I saw you pity her, Lors. But she doesn’t need pity.”
All I could do was frown and really hope we didn’t both assume the same things about this girl.
“She’s got a vendetta,” he added. “She’s here because her boyfriend cheated on her.”
“I know.” He started walking. I followed. “You did exactly what she wanted you to do—after I told her we only teach defence at first.”
“Yes, oh.” He stopped and spun back to face me. “Lors, you know there’s a reason I do things the way I do, and yet you went against the rules.”
“I’m sorry, Bas.”
“Master Bas.” He presented the dojo we were still standing in.
I rolled my eyes and took one step outside it, making my bow, then put my hands out, presenting the cafe area. “As I was saying, Bas, I’m sorry. I misjudged her. It won’t happen again.”
He put his black belt and jacket down on a chair and rolled himself out of that singlet. My favourite part of the day. “Apology accepted.”
“Thank you.” I slipped my jacket off, making a deliberate effort to press my chest out.
“All things aside, anyway,” he said, only half noticing my perky boobs. “You’re ready for grading. I’m putting you forward next week.”
“Yup.” He made a pile of his sweaty clothes then looked up to grin at me. “I’ve been so busy with the rapid growth of the school lately, so I haven’t really assessed your progress properly, but I think you might be a belt better than brown.”
I squeaked and jumped on the spot, making Bas’s grin stretch across his whole face.
“I thought you’d be happy with that.”
“Can I be an instructor when I pass?” I grabbed his forearm with two very excited hands. “Please?”
“You’d need to get your instructor’s rating first, Lors—and a Dan or two, but you can certainly help out a bit more.”
“Yes.” I fist-pumped.
“But I want you to come in a few days next week for a private class.” He couldn't maintain eye contact then as he bent to collect his things. We both knew damn well I didn’t need those classes. “I’d like to work on weapons a little more.”
“Sure,” I said, but I couldn’t drown out the suggestion behind it, and he caught it—caught on that I knew he just wanted to spend more time with me but didn't want to admit it. “Or, you know, you could just take me to a movie.”
“Can’t do that, Lors.” He threw his bag over his shoulder. “I’m your instructor.”
“Didn’t stop you from having your way with me on the sparring mats last week.”
He ran a hand through his careless brown hair. “I gotta go shower. Lock up when you leave, ‘kay?”
“Kay,” I said, widening my sarcastic eyes at him as he walked away, leaving behind the hot scent of his sweat and the thick air of confusion. This is exactly why Ali warned me not to mess around with much older guys. But both she and I, and Bas, knew I’d come to those ‘private lessons’ next week, and we all knew how private those lessons would get. Then I’d go home and beat myself up for not being able to keep the sex casual, and Bas would just go about his day.
Ali suited this cafe. Especially on Open Mic Night, with the music pumping and the younger, hotter crowds in for alcohol instead of coffee. She rolled past heads with trays in both hands, a black apron around her black jeans, her purple Doc Martins over the tops, looking funky and kind of modern-gothic. The nose ring put Uncle Mike off at her interview, but as soon as she spoke, with her elegant intonation, and told him all about the part-time law degree she’d be financing with this job, he hired her on the spot. He did say the blue streaks in her hair had to go, but a year later, they were still there. And Mike did nothing more than groan when they changed colour every season.
Ali and I exchanged a look as our second performer of the night tried to shatter the glasses with her vocal acrobatics, hiding our laughter before anyone noticed. I loved hearing all the performances every week, though, even the bad ones. There were two or three people that had been coming since it first started, back when I first arrived here from America just after my sixteenth birthday, and they sounded worse than Glass Breaker Lady back then. But they improved. And it was cool, you know, to have witnessed that.
In the back corner of the bar, Charlotte squealed loudly, bumping into the shelf. I glanced back at her, shaking my head when I saw Ric there as well—a tea towel rolled up like a snake in his hand. He struck her on the bum and she cackled, tossing her hair around like a ridiculous schoolgirl with a crush.
I groaned, wishing Mike were here to fire them both, then leaned over the counter and turned my ear to the bearded man yelling at me through his hands. “What?” I called.
His fingertip circled the air near his ear to say the music was too loud.
I made a head gesture toward the Open Mic sign.
He rolled his eyes.
I said, well, yelled, “Do you want something, mate?”
“We don’t sell mushrooms at night.” I pointed to the sign: ‘No food sales after nine on Thursdays.’
He shook his head and leaned closer. “No. Marth woon.”
I frowned, about to laugh. “What the hell is a marth woon?”
“Bathroom, ya deaf bitch!” he said at the top of his voice, just as the music stopped. Everyone. And I mean everyone turned and looked at him.
“Forget it,” he said, and stormed away.
I picked my jaw up off the floor, and all heads went back to the show, rowdy applaud following for the girl’s glass-breaking performance. And as I steadied my heart, still a little shaky, a tall blond in black jeans made matters worse.
“You should have punched him.”
“I should punch you,” I said, polishing a glass that I’d already polished.
“What I meant to say was…” He turned and leaned his back on the counter, his arms folded over his black shirt, his small eyes smaller with the smug grin. “Are you okay?”
“Why wouldn't I be?” I shoved past to stack the very clean glass on the shelf.
“Because you’re not used to being yelled at.”
“My skin is a bit thicker than that.”
“Yeah, except—” I felt him right behind me “—it’s not. And you and I both know it.”
When I turned to face him, he motioned down at my shaky hand.
I hid it behind my back. “He’s just a jerk. I’m used to jerks,” I snapped, and if he was at all smart under that grit and arrogance, he caught on that the snooty flick of my head and the vehement look I gave him meant that he was the jerk.
“Lors, seriously,” he said, his arms out wide as I walked to the other end of the bar—as far away from him as possible. “What did I do to piss you off?”
“Oh, so now you don't remember?”
He wiped his hands on a towel that he flung he over his shoulder as he made his way toward me—cornering me at the end of the bar where he and Charlie had been—where no one could see us. “So I stepped on your toe. Big deal.”
I scoffed, puffing my chest to make myself taller. “No. You stepped on my bare, french manicured toe, with your giant bike boots, on a hot day, crushing it into the melting ground, and then tried to say I was the one not watching where I was going. You broke my toe!” I pointed to it, even though it was housed neatly in my flat back work-standard boots. “And you never said sorry.”
He just looked up from my foot, and laughed.
“I hate you.” I punched him in the arm and ducked past as he recoiled.
“You know, one day I’m going to report you for all this workplace violence.”
“Yeah, and I’ll report you for the sexual harassment.”
“It’s not harassment if you enjoy it,” he called.
“Argh!” I threw my towel down on the counter and exited to the safety of the kitchen—where no one would get hurt.
“Got news for ya, Blondie,” Ric said, appearing in the doorway.
“Would you get out.” I ran at him and shoved his chest hard, but he didn’t even budge, as if he was glued to the door frame, his arms still folded, his chaotic wavy, almost-dreads barely bouncing. “I came in here to get away from you.”
“Well—” He took off his apron and chucked it in my face. “I’m on in five.”
He jerked his thumb to the cafe. “The stage, short-stuff.”
“Hey! I am not short.”
“Um, actually…” He considered me smugly. “You are.”
“Yeah, well, you need a shower.”
“I need a shower?” He looked at me with big open brown eyes, halving them again as he smiled. “Well, you need to wax.”
“Excuse me?” I folded my arms, tucking his apron in with them.
He nodded to my nether region. “When you bend over in those tiny little shorts, I can see so clearly that you’re a natural blonde.”
An anvil of dread squashed me flat. “You asshole!” I ditched his apron at him, but he just caught it, laughing, and tossed it into the laundry bin.
“Enjoy close tonight, Blondie,” he teased as he swung around cooly and sauntered off. “I’ll be sure to throw my beer back up into the glass when I’ve had too much—give you something nice to clean.”
“If you do, I’ll spit in your—” I started, but stopped, because he was already gone. And I knew he was probably lying anyway. I hoped he was.
“Problem?” Ali asked, popping her head into the kitchen.
“Yeah.” I pushed past and walked back out to the noise and heat of the bar. “I lose my wits when I’m around him. That’s the problem.”
Her eyes moved across the crowds to the shaggy head of blond hair on the stage. “I can help you with that.”
“Imagine him naked.”
“How will that help?”
She waved her hand, inviting me to her side, and we stood at the end of the bar, watching as Ric took a seat on the small round stool and looped his guitar strap over his head, plugging in the lead while the growing crowd waited eagerly. “He’s scary to you because he’s smart and snappy, and he always knows what to say. But if you imagine him naked, he’s vulnerable. Try it.”
Luckily, just as I started picturing it, he placed his acoustic guitar in his lap and looked up to wink at Ali. And that wink, combined with his nakedness, made me want to vomit, like I'd just walked in on him after sex, or something.
“He’s too bony to imagine naked,” I said, moving back down the bar to the line of customers. “My brain won’t let me.”
“You’re just doing it wrong.”
“Or maybe he’s just ugly, and anything my mind cooks up will make me sick. Not witty.” I opened the till and rang up two Jack’s n’ Coke. “You gonna work now, or am I the only hardworking person on tonight?”
She pulled out a bar stool on the wrong side of the counter and sat down. “Get the other girls on bar service for a bit. I’m gonna watch Ric.”
I could only grumble. Ali was without doubt our best worker bee, and therefore entitled to a quick break. But I sure as hell would not sit to watch with her.
“So, I’m gonna do a cover by an Aussie guy, you may know him: his name’s Johnny Diesel.” Ric’s deep easy voice sounded cooler, calmer, and somewhat … sexy through a microphone. He tweaked the nob on top of his guitar while everyone cheered or wolf-whistled, then strummed once, and that single chord was as complete and full and perfect as if every finger was precisely on the right string—no overhangs. “It’s called Faith and Gasoline.”
The crowds cheered and clapped again, settling down as the song began. I turned to the fridge behind me to grab a couple of Corona’s and then handed them over as the next guy placed his order. But as I turned again to grab another beer, a smooth yet kind of raspy sound came in over the music. I stopped to listen for one moment and found myself checking out completely—walking through the door of attention into a foggy haze. If I closed my eyes and listened only to the verse and his fingers over those strings, I could actually imagine him as nice guy. Someone I might've liked in another life.
The rest of the room cheered and talked over him, breaking through my foggy haze now and then, but I forced them out—even forced out the guy leaning over the counter to tap my arm, yelling something about my ears being damaged.
“I’m trying to listen,” I said, brushing him off. When the sentence ended and the last consonant left my lips, my throat trembled a little. My parents had put me in front of a piano before I could even sit, and my father played guitar like it was made from his own flesh. But Ric could put my dad to shame if given the chance, and my body sung to that in ways it never had before. That kind of magical talent deserved some recognition. Even if it meant I had to drop my pride on the floor for a moment and give Ric the thumbs-up. No matter how much I hated him, we had one thing in common now, and there’d be no going back—no way to un-hear that magical voice and the heartfelt interpretation of that song.
When I snapped back to reality, Ric’s arrogant know-it-all eyes were right on mine.
Feeling exposed and caught off guard, I acted quickly to get my cool back, moving my hand in a sideways motion to tell him his song was merely “Okay.”
He just laughed and shook his head, burying his lips again in the spit-lathered mic other’s were using all night, his throat moving with each word he sung. The pink and blue lights overhead made his forehead glow and his near-dreads look purple, but it suited him—the lights, the mic, the guitar—the music. As if he was born for it. And I suddenly started to believe there was some truth to this story about him having been famous once. Just a little.
“Argh!” I shook my hand and wiped it on my shorts, looking at it again when it was dry.
“What’s wrong?” Ali asked, stopping in the middle of the kitchen, a tray of shiny, steaming cups in arms.
“My hand,” I said, rubbing it across the scratchy denim. “Those vibrations are back.”
“Hm. Wanna know what I’ve noticed?” She put the tray on the stainless steel bench and wiped her hands on her apron. “When you wear that leather necklace instead of your golden apple, you always complain about the vibrations.”
“So, what…?” I lifted the brown leather chain and held up the stone on the end. “Citrine is no good for me now? You’re the one that told me to—”
“I’m not saying that.” She huffed, walking over. “I’m saying that maybe there’s some spiritual connection to your other necklace. I mean, you’ve had it since you were born. Maybe you developed some link to it,” she suggested.
I rolled my eyes. “I doubt it. It’s just a necklace.”
“Whatever.” Ali shrugged and went back to the tray of glasses. “But it’s happened often enough now for me to notice the pattern. And I know it’s not the citrine.”
The pale orange stone felt warm against my fingertips. I rubbed it a few times and then tucked it away in my black teeshirt. “I never wear the coin when I wear the apple. What makes you think it’s not that causing the vibrations?”
“It’s a cheap surf shop fashion accessory,” she said, squatting down then standing up again to put the glasses away. “The citrine gives off vibrations and so does that apple. But—”
“How do you know it gives off vibrations?” I cut in. “It’s just a stupid charm my parents liked when I was little. It—”
“Ouch!” she squealed, standing up again with her fingertip cradled in her palm. “Curse that fucking nail!”
I ran over and pulled her backward before she could kick the cabinet like last time and knock down another set of glasses that Mike would make her pay for.
“He really needs to get that fixed!” she added, as if she were talking to the loose nail sticking out of the cabinet.
“I know.” I grabbed a tea towel and wrapped her finger in it, squeezing the end tightly. “I’ll ask Jack to do it tomorrow. You go upstairs and put a band-aide on.”
She opened the towel and inspected the cut. “Shit. That’s gonna need some clips.”
“Don't show me.” I put my hands out and turned my face away. “I’ll drive you to the hospital if you need, but please don’t show me.”
Ali laughed. “I don’t need a doctor. I have some butterfly clips in the medicine cabinet.” She looked over her shoulder at the bar then. “You be right to close up?”
“I’ll be fine.” I turned her by the shoulders toward the bar and gave her a shove. “Just get that dressed before you bleed to death. I’ll be up soon.”
“Okay.” She winced apologetically. “Don’t forget the road sign out front.”
“Got it.” I winked at her and grabbed the keys from beside the microwave. “See you in five.”
“You owe me,” I called, marching across the freshly-mopped floors.
I pushed the glass door open and stepped out into the still air of summer. The ocean whispered softly to the shore across the road, and crickets sung happily about damp lawns, the freshwater sprinklers having cooled the soil and the hot pavement around them. In the warm layer of air above my shoulders, the sweet scent of roses and flowering frangipanis gave the street its own perfume—something to make this time of year familiar to me. I could almost relive my entire first summer here as a teen in just one breath of that smell.
Across the cement surrounds of the cafe, the road sign had moved slightly from where I put it this morning, now a little closer to the raised zebra crossing. I walked over and kicked the steel arm up in the A frame to collapse it, looking up a second later as the light from our apartment sent a yellow glow over the bin beside me. I hoped Ali’s finger was better.
With the sign against my hip, I walked like a wooden-legged pirate toward the shop, so looking forward to shutting that door and ending the day. A very long, very hot shower would follow, and it would be bliss.
As I reached the cafe, a familiar ashy odour tainted the perfumy sweetness of summer. My nose twitched, sniffing around for the location of the stench.
“Smoke?” said a deep voice from the shadows. A tiny orange dot glowed in the air, the smoky smell wafting toward me, mixing with the toxic scent of fuel from the parking garage behind the cafe. For a second I thought it was Ric, but when the man stubbed his cigarette out on the pavement with his thong, I knew it wasn’t him.
“Ew. No, thanks, mate. I don’t smoke,” I said casually, walking a bit faster toward cafe.
He moved swiftly then and placed his hand on the door, closing it. “Nice manners there, luv. Your daddy teach you that?”
With a bit of dread, I looked from his big, broad hand, down his long tattooed arm to his bearded face. Marth-woon guy. “Did you leave something behind tonight?” I asked.
The heavy sign in my hands slipped slightly. I let the corner rest on the ground. “Well, if you’re just hanging around, how ’bout you gimme a hand with this sign? It’s heavy.”
“You know—” He took a step toward me and stumbled slightly, laughing as he did a little dance to right himself. “You ….” he slurred. “You made me look like a fool in there tonight.”
One thing my father did teach me from an early age was to hold my quick, snappy tongue in these situations—or I’d end up getting myself into trouble. I kept that in mind as I gently laid the sign down on its face. If I dropped it, the sudden noise might startle this guy, and the first reaction to a scare would usually always be anger.
“I’m so sorry about that,” I lied, standing up again. “Perhaps I can buy you a drink to make up for it.”
“Don’t get smart with me.” He grabbed the stone pillar to hold himself up, pointing at me. “I don’t like to be pat…pat…pat…”
“Patronised?” I suggested with a smirk.
His eyes snapped up from their drunken haze and caught me in their sights with cold irritation. I crossed my hands over my big fat mouth, feeling the darkness and the desolation of the late night enlarge and freeze the world suddenly at my back. No one would be walking around here at this hour, and Ali and I had tried and tested the sound limits from our apartment to the cafe. She wouldn't hear me if I called for help. Maybe someone in one of the houses would, but they were mostly old epode that kept to themselves. If this guy’s malicious glare became a physical need to express his damaged pride, I would be forced to defend myself.
“You’re just a little bitch, aren’t you?” he said, slowly getting closer.
I stood my ground, turning the door key in my hand slightly so the tip sat between my index and middle finger. He grabbed my arm tightly and the fear shaking my knees left my mouth in a little squeal.
“I had a bitch like you once.” His stinky beer breath made me want to puke, carrying on the hot air from his lips right into my ear. “I put her down good. And I—”
I didn't let him finish that sentence. With the full force of my skinny arm I jammed the tip of the key like a knife into his hip. He roared at the top of his lungs, crouching down to cover the pain, so I ran—left the sign behind, yanked the handle downward and swung the door back, slipping inside as he got to his feet. He slammed his fists into the glass, rattling the entire front wall as I pulled the door shut and held it. I didn't have time to lock it, and my palms were so sweaty the handle was slipping.
“Come back out here, you little bitch!” he yelled. “If I have to come in there, I’ll … I’ll…” he staggered around, looking for something, and when he saw the sign laying facedown on the ground, he bent to pick it up.
My heart raced and my hands trembled like pebbles on a conveyer-belt. I tired to lock the door but the keys slipped and hit the ground with a clunk.
The man looked back at me, half bent to grab the sign, and the movement put him off balance. He tumbled forward and landed on his face, his bum up in the air, groaning and moaning about someone pushing him over.
“Hello?” I said, holding my hand to my ear as if I had a phone. “Yes, I’d like the police please.”
I hoped he wouldn't look right at me to see I didn't have a phone. I turned slightly away in case he did, and gave my details to the imaginary police, wishing to God I’d grabbed my phone off the counter just four meters away before stepping outside.
“Yes, and I’d like to press charges,” I said loudly.
The man fought against gravity to get up, but when he finally did, the reality of the situation clearly set in, because he stumbled as fast as he could across the road, without checking for traffic, not that there was any, and charged down the street—away from the cafe.
I held the imaginary phone to my ear until I was sure he was gone, then forced my icy cold knees to bend so I could grab the keys. They clattered and rattled as I turned each one, looking for the front door key, and when I finally found it, my hands were shaking too much to fit it in the lock.
I sat down on the floor for a second and let myself cry.
I screamed at the top of my lungs, tossing the keys up into the air as a pair of heavy black boots appeared in front of the door.
“Lora,” the muffled voice said through the glass, and as the man squatted down to my level, Ric’s smug grin lit the entire street up with relief. His expression changed though when he saw my face. “What happened?” He rattled the door handle and, realising it was open, shuffled out of the way and swung it outward, kneeling down on his hands and knees in front of me. “You okay?”
“The man.” I pointed down the street, tucking my hand away when we both noticed it shaking. “He… he…”
“Aw, Blondie.” Ric reached forward and wrapped one hand around my back, pulling me closer. “Did someone hurt you?”
I sobbed into his shoulder for a second, letting my tears soak his black cotton shirt, then shook my head. “I don't even think he planned to. He was just drunk and being a dick.”
Ric sat down on the floor then and wrapped both arms around me, rubbing my back. His shoulder felt bony and hard under my cheekbone, and he smelled like tar and sweat, with a slight undertone of a rather pleasant musk.
“You want me to go after him?”
“No.” I shook my head, leaning back to wipe my face. “I’m okay. I just got a scare. I’ll be fine in a sec.”
“What happened to all that defence training you’ve been doing?” he asked in a smart tone.
I looked down at my hands, folding them closed after. “I’m good at one-on-one combat, and I’ve done competitions and stuff, but I’ve never actually been in danger before. I couldn't call on my skills.”
“Sounds like you need a few private sessions with Bas.” He winked suggestively.
I stuffed my secret grin between my teeth. “So I guess Ali told you about that, huh?”
He laughed, resting his forearms over this knees, making himself comfortable there between the pavement and the hardwood floors of the cafe. “Didn’t know it was a secret.”
“It’s not. I guess.” I put both hands on the ground to help myself stand, my whole body stiff and cold as the fright left my limbs. “What are you doing back here anyway?”
He stood up too, dusting his jeans off as though the dirt actually bothered him. “Left my wallet on stage.”
I looked at the dark corner. “You could’ve just gotten it tomorrow.”
“Nope,” he said, walking across the room. “I’m not on tomorrow—so I’m heading out at dawn to stretch my Ducati’s legs along some winding roads.”
“Where are you gonna find those around here?”
“Up in the hills.” He shrugged, bending down then to grab something off the stage.
“It is.” He jammed his wallet in his back pocket and spun round, wearing that smug grin again. “You need me to stay while you lock up?”
“No.” I offered the door. “You can go. I’m fine.”
“Suit yourself,” he said, sauntering past me. “But don't blame me if you get another visit from your friend and can’t defend yourself.”
“I can defend myself.” I slammed the door in his face. “He just caught me off guard.”
Ric shrugged, stuffed both hands in his front pockets, and walked away, blending with the darkness as the street lights went out on their automatic timers.