“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”
J. M. BARRIE, PETER PAN
“To bang, or not to bang? That is the question.” Kaylee peered at me from behind her black-rimmed glasses and set a briefcase on the stool to her left. She’d just walked in, and instead of saying hi like a normal person, this was how she greeted me.
Frowning at the empty highball glass I’d just finished drying, I debated how to best respond to my good friend’s noteworthy dilemma. “Are we talking about a guy? If so, I recommend making a pro-con list.”
“No, Abby. My hair. I love your bangs.”
“Oh. Thank you, it has pockets.” I’d taken to saying Thank you, it has pockets as a means of dealing with the discomfort caused by unexpected compliments.
Picking up a second highball glass, I wiped it clean of watery residue and checked my watch. Kaylee was an hour early, not that I minded. She usually shuffled in ten minutes before closing on the nights she had custody of our car, already wearing her pajamas and a silk bonnet on her head. By then Walker, my boss, would be playing “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley over the bar’s speakers. He had this automated to happen every night, four times in a row, even when he wasn’t here. His way of driving out the stragglers.
Currently, “Monster Mash” reverberated from overhead, a herald of the season, with Halloween just around the corner. The end of October to January 1 was my favorite time of the year for so many reasons, not the least of which were all the decorating opportunities. Orange lights zigzagged across the bar shelves behind me, and I’d covered every tealight on the dining tables and bartop with ceramic ghost covers. I’d also set up a creepy, black Halloween tree—like a Christmas tree, only a spooky and leafless fake willow instead of a lush and vibrant evergreen—in the corner of the dining area, complete with cobwebs, strings of spiders, an eyeball, finger, and miniature ceramic doll head ornaments.
More doll heads—larger ones, fifty or so—were strung back and forth high above the entire bar. They hung from fishing line, which gave them the appearance of floating midair. I’d spent all spring and summer cackling in hilarity while making the heads at my pottery studio via slip cast molds procured for fifty cents each at Goodwill. Their freakishness did not disappoint, and I’d loved watching some of the customers cringe, smile, and then laugh uncomfortably while drinking under the doll head canopy.
“I’m tired of this haircut.” Kaylee tossed her long braid over her shoulder, curls straining against and protesting the tidy style. She slid onto the stool adjacent to the one holding her briefcase.
I gave Kaylee’s hair a quick once-over. I liked her hair, and she’d mentioned before that cutting bangs would require her to chemically remove the natural curl.
So I said, “I like your haircut and the curls.”
“I knew you’d say that. But thank you. I like it too.”
The bell over the front door jingled, announcing one or more new customers just as the song switched to Frank Sinatra’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I liked Frank, but I’d always considered it an impertinent and bossy song; who was he to tell me how to spend my Christmas? Plus, late October was entirely too early for Christmas music.
“Be with you in a sec,” I called without looking toward the sound, keeping my eyes on Kaylee as I reached for a few drink menus and cocktail napkins. “I don’t understand wanting to change something about yourself you already like. If you like your hair, don’t change it. If you don’t like your hair, have at it.”
“See, I knew you’d say that too.” She leaned forward, lowering her voice. “Your statements are unsurprising, and I am unsurprised by your unsurprisingness.”
I frowned. Kaylee was obviously in a sassy mood tonight. Maybe her court date hadn’t gone well.
“Gee. Thanks,” I said, sending her a disgruntled look, knowing better than to argue with a lawyer.
“You’re in a rut, Abby.” Her eyes turned soft. “You do the same thing every day. You wear the same thing every day. You eat the same thing every day. The only things you change are the color of your nail polish and your hair cut.”
“And look how happy I am.” I glanced toward the door to count the newcomers but found only a solitary man, already sitting on a stool at the far end of the bar closest to the door.
A huge, enormous, colossal mammoth of a man. He was so big and tall, the rest of the bar seemed to shrink in comparison. Great. Just . . . great.
“Who is that? Is he a regular? Why do you look so irritated?” Kaylee glanced between my face and the man, keeping her tone hushed even though we were too far away for him to overhear our conversation, especially with Frank Sinatra crooning at us over the radio, telling us our Christmas will be merry and little this year.
Even so, I also lowered my voice. “It’s just, we’re less than an hour until closing and he’s not a regular. Convincing non-regulars to finish up and head out can be . . . annoying.” And he was big. And he was male.
This wasn’t always the case, but in my experience—maybe nine times out of ten—a big, burly guy coming into the bar so close to closing didn’t typically want a quick drink.
Her gaze stayed on him, assessing. “He’s handsome though, right?”
“Is he?” I grumbled, putting back all but one drink menu and one cocktail napkin.
“Uh, yeah. Very. And he looks familiar. . .” She placed her elbow on the bar, narrowing her eyes as she leaned an inch toward him, as though to see him better in the dim light. “I thought you had owl vision. Who does he look like?”
The truth was, other than noting this person’s size and a general impression of his clothes, my eyes were blurry with visions of tonight’s likely unpleasant conclusion: my coworker Ingrid and I coaxing him to leave, failing, and then having to either call Walker at home or the security company.
I didn’t care if this stranger was objectively the best-looking guy in the world. After tonight I had three days off. Anyone making me work late tonight was a blobfish.
My voice must've hinted at my thoughts because Kaylee tore her attention from the man, her eyebrows raised expectantly. "Why do you always sound so irritated when there’s a hot guy? Why do you dislike hot guys?"
“You have to admit, hot guys have hot guy problems, which are like first world problems on steroids.”
“Come on, everyone likes hot guys. It's biological. There's nothing you can do about it. You have no choice.”
I would've argued with her, told her that I had nothing against hot guys in general, but she made a sound of protest before I could speak.
“Abby.” Her eyes were full of sympathy. “Eventually you're going to have to date someone.”
Ugh. Dear. Lord. Not this again!
“Do I, though?” I’d tried dating. In fact, I’d even tried marriage. Everything about it was a horrific disaster, on so many levels. This topic was why Kaylee and I currently shared just a car instead of a car and an apartment.
“Yes.” She looked entirely earnest and concerned. That just made her pushing worse. “You can't let one bad experience—what, eight, nine years ago?—dictate the rest of your life."
“Can't I, though?” I tucked a drink menu under my arm.
Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, but I’d never been one of those people who needed to learn a lesson more than once. One and done, that was my motto, especially when the “one bad experience” had ended in jail time.
“You must get back on the horse, Abby.”
“Must I, though?” I tapped my chin.
“Yes you—” Finally recognizing my attempt at deflection, she snapped her mouth shut and gave me a flat look. “Your dense barrier of sass notwithstanding, you know getting out there, putting yourself out there, would be healthy.”
Kaylee hadn’t been there for my marriage, but she’d witnessed the aftermath. She’d watched me struggle under the mountain of debt and sorrow and anger and helplessness. Why couldn’t she just drop this? And even if I hadn’t barely survived my divorce, I’d heard and seen enough sad stories from bitter and depressed bar patrons to convince me that desire was a scam, soul mates were a lie, and the only thing romantic love did to your heart was break it.
And then send it to bankruptcy court and jail for your ex’s massive—I mean impressively colossal—debts and Ponzi scheme that you had NO IDEA about when you’d gotten married at an impressionable eighteen years old.
“Why can’t you let me live my best life, Kaylee? Maybe my best life is eating scrambled eggs every day and never dating.” Legit, I loved both scrambled eggs and never dating.
She scowled, but her words were teasing, “This is a good time to tell you. I, and others, consider your perpetual contentment with life a personal attack.”
I laughed. “Here, let me go serve this hot guy real fast and then you can continue to beat this dead horse that you insist I take for a ride.”
Utilizing her ninja skills, she grabbed my wrist before I could move away. “Wait. Wait.” Her eyes darted to the end of the bar and then back to me, whispering, “What if, instead, you flirt with the hot guy?” Kaylee indicated to the man with her chin, like I wouldn’t know to whom she referred. The man’s presence seemed to inhabit one tenth of the available space in the bar, there was no missing him.
I blinked at her. “Why would I do that?”
She searched my face. “If you flirt with him, I won't bring up dating again for—for . . . a month.”
Typical Kaylee. Life was one big bargaining opportunity. She was only happy when she was negotiating or arguing.
“One flirting encounter buys me a month?”
“I promise.” She drew a finger in the shape of a cross over her heart.
“Make it three months and we have a deal.”
“Deal,” she said quickly, her eyes brighter, happier, like my agreement was a victory for her. “Three months. And maybe unbutton the top button of your—”
I twisted my arm from her grip. “I can flirt without showing my boobs.”
“Yeah, but you have really nice boobs, and they deserve to be admired by someone other than me.”
“And take off that ring!” she loud-whispered.
Grunting, I did remove my grandmother’s ring from my left ring finger, my shield against handsy and aggressive patrons, but I did not adjust the buttons of my shirt. I slipped the antique ring onto the middle finger of my right hand and walked down the long galley to the giant stranger. Obviously, if I got any creeper vibes from him—any at all, even a smidgen—the bet was off. Better to be safe than sorry.
If he was perturbed by my lack of attentiveness thus far, he showed no outward signs. The man's eyes were on the screen of his phone, his arms braced on top of the bar, shirtsleeves rolled up, broadcasting some seriously tantalizing forearm action.
Hmm. Maybe I should’ve undone the first few buttons of my shirt.
Exposed male forearms, in my opinion, were the equivalent of exposed female cleavage. Tits for that, er, tat. I meant, tit for tat.
“Hey, what can I get you?” I asked, placing a drink menu and the square napkin on the bar while studying what I could see of his features.
Dark blue or dark gray dress shirt, top three buttons undone, tie loose and slightly askew, a bright white undershirt beneath. He’d pulled off a heavy coat and it hung haphazardly on the back of his stool. His hair was short on the sides, longer on the top, and either light brown or dark blond. The color was impossible to tell given the dimness of the room and the orange glow of the Halloween lights decorating the liquor shelf behind me.
He had a nice forehead, what I could see of it, but his face and focus remained fastened to the screen of his phone as he responded in a monotone, “Beer. Whatever amber you've got on tap, please.”
“Sure thing. You want a pint or—”
“Pint is fine, thanks.”
Polite. I'd say he had a nice voice except it had remained monotone.
Stepping to the side, I grabbed a pint glass and positioned it under the tap of our most popular amber.
Somewhere to my right I heard the distinct and obnoxious sound of Kaylee clearing her throat. Sliding my gaze to the side, I found her eyes wide with meaning. Sensing her dissatisfaction with my lack of flirting, I shrugged, like What can I do?
She waved an exasperated hand toward her chest, then at the big guy, her eyebrows high arches, and then tugged at the neck of her top, mouthing a word that looked like buttons but it might have been boobs.
I pressed my lips together, removing my eyes from hers. Again, what could I do? The guy was into his phone way more than the idea of flirting with a female bartender. I wasn't currently, and never had been, in the habit of forcing men to pay attention to me. Live and let live, I say!
The glass filled, I placed it on the napkin near his elbow. “Hey, you want to start a tab?”
“Please.” Still without looking up, he set down his phone, pulled out his wallet, and placed a credit card and his driver's license on top of the bar. I swiped up both, my brain telling me to look at his birthdate even as my eyes strayed to his photo and the name beneath it.
“Be right b—ba—ack.” My mouth fell open as I stuttered, ending my sentence with a silent gasp, my eyes bolting to the stranger who wasn’t a stranger at all. Gaping and caught within a snare I’d fashioned years and years ago, I was quite literally stupefied.
Oh dear Lord in heaven.
I gaped. I gaped and gaped and gaped, stared and stared and stared, my mind reeling. But how? And when? And how? And—
“Uh ahem, ahem, AHEM.”
Kaylee’s obnoxious throat clearing snapped me out of my stupor, and I quickly turned before Rex spotted my shock-trance. I stared blankly, not sure what to do next, not remembering whether I was coming or going, my breath tight in my lungs, my heart racing.