A Story of Now: Chapter 25


Robbie brings the new guy he’s seeing to the park to eat lunch with them. Eli is short and slender with curly black hair. He speaks eloquently as though he has all the time in the world to tell a story. And he brought Tim Tams to eat, so he’s popular.

They lie around on the grass and talk about breakups—their backward-assed way to comfort Nina. Claire can totally see the flaws in this method, but still it’s pretty entertaining.

“I broke up with someone by text message once,” Eli offers. “Classic asshole act. Couldn’t face the real thing.”

“Don’t do that to me,” Robbie warns him. “I’ll be pissed.”

Eli laughs and pats Robbie’s leg. “I promise I’ll tell you in person when I’ve had enough of you.”

Claire grins. She’s glad Robbie’s found a guy who’s going to pay out on him a little. He deserves it. Scratch that. He needs it.

Robbie laughs. “I may have once just completely stopped responding to calls because I didn’t know what to say. He was just too intense. I was like, ‘If he’s like this normally, what’s he going to be like in a breakup scenario?’ So I dodged it.”

Claire takes a biscuit from the packet and squints up at him. “You’re such a wimp.”

He smiles blithely as though he knows but doesn’t care. “What about you. How’d your last breakup go? Oh God. I’d hate to be on the receiving end of your rage.”

Claire shrugs. “I believe it went something along the lines of a simple ‘Go fuck yourself.’ I can’t really remember.”

She can remember, though. Vividly. That’s exactly what she said. And she remembers his face as she said those words, that look in his eyes of hurt mixed with relief. Brendan was glad that she was the one calling it. She’s not ready to share the details of that humiliating little scene with anyone. She probably never will be.

Nina pipes up. “I cheated on Josh once.”

“What?” Claire’s whips her head around, mouth open. “When?”

“It was right after we first met. We weren’t really an official thing yet. I only kissed the guy, but I felt so guilty I called Josh ten minutes later. I never did anything like that again.”

“Maybe you should have,” Claire mutters. She checks her watch. “Hey, Neen, it’s one thirty. You told me to tell you.”

Nina sighs loudly. “Damn. I have to go.”

“Where are you going?” Mia asks her. “Work?”

“No, Josh is coming over to get his stuff in half an hour and then, you know, get the hell out of my life.”

Mia smiles sympathetically at her. “Good plan.”

Nina picks up her bag and sighs again. She looks as if this is the last thing she wants to do. It’s the last thing Claire would want to do on this divine day too. Or any other day, really.

Nina stands and looks down at Claire. “See you at work?”

“Yep.” Claire gives her an encouraging smile. “Don’t take any crap, okay?”

“Hang on,” Robbie says suddenly. He sits up on the grass. “You’re going on your own?” Then he turns and looks pointedly at Claire.

Nina shrugs.

Robbie keeps staring at Claire. “You shouldn’t have to go by yourself.”

Claire glares right back at him. “Don’t look at me like tha—”

Nina rushes to her defence. “Believe me, if there is one person who is under, like, no obligation to help me out with this, it’s Claire.” She nods. “She’s put up with enough crap from me and that asshat.”

Eli tips his head sideways. “Asshat? What’s that?”

Claire just shakes her head. She too has no idea what Nina is talking about. As usual.

“Whatever you say.” Robbie holds up his hands. “But do you want someone to come with you? I’ll come.”

“Would you?” Nina asks, eyes wide. “Really?”

Claire can’t help feeling a bit bad that she is not the one helping her friend. In fact, if it weren’t for this particular situation, Claire would have made Nina stay in the park and done this moving-out supervision for her. But Claire is not putting herself anywhere near Josh. Not even for poor Nina.

“Sure, I’ll come be moral support slash security guard.” Robbie turns to Eli. “Want to see what an asshat looks like in the flesh?”

“I kind of do.” Eli scrambles to his feet and dusts off his jeans. “It was nice to meet you guys.”

Claire gives him a perfunctory smile and wave.

Robbie gets up too. “Okay then, I’ll see you guys later.” He strides off across the park with Nina and Eli.

Claire calls out to Nina. “Remember, he’s a giant douche and you can do better!”

Nina turns around and gives her a wave.

As they watch them cross the busy street, Mia taps her gently on her wrist. “Hey, Robbie doesn’t know what happened. He wouldn’t have said that if he did.”

“I know.” Claire looks at her watch again. “Do you have to go yet?”

Mia leans over and checks Claire’s watch too. She shakes her head. “Not for a bit.”

“Awesome. Me either.” Claire rolls over onto her stomach. “I could lie here all day.”

“Mhm.” Mia stretches out on the grass next to her.

Claire thinks about Josh and about Eli and Robbie and their breakup stories. And about Brendan, of course. “Why are guys such pussies sometimes? Why can’t they just end a relationship instead of cheating or avoiding? Why are they so freaking scared to just say something?”

Mia is quiet for a minute. “Well, I don’t know if it’s gender specific.”

Claire runs her hands through the cool blades of grass and frowns. “I don’t know any girls who do stuff like that.”

“Yeah, you do.”

“What?” Claire turns to stare at her. “You?”

Mia nods slowly, but she doesn’t look at Claire.

Claire is instantly curious. “Which one? Cheat or avoid?”

“Both, I guess.” Mia drops her chin on her arm. “Is it actually cheating if they’re there when it happens?”

“Um, A, I don’t know. And B, what? What did you do, exactly?”

“Only the worst thing I have ever done.” Mia takes in a deep breath. “A couple of years ago I got really, really drunk and kissed another guy at a party. While my boyfriend was standing right there.”

“Whoa,” Claire says before she can stop herself. But she’s a little shocked. “And here I was thinking you were just too darn nice to have a terrible breakup story. I’m assuming it ended in a breakup?”

Mia nods. “And how. The worst part is it was kind of like what you just said. I think I just wanted to break up with him, and I didn’t know how else to do it at the time. Then, while ridiculously drunk, it looks like I found a way.” She shuts her eyes for a long moment. Then she finally lifts her head. “Now I bet you think I’m an asshole.”

“No, I don’t,” Claire says quickly. She doesn’t really know what to think. But she is a little thrown by this information about Mia.

Maybe she’s been a little bit unrealistic about her new friend. For some reason, Claire had Mia pegged as the kind of person who does no wrong. She can’t be, though. No one is. Besides, it kind of looks as if Mia might be a bit of a hot mess when she gets drunk at parties, going on this story and Claire’s experience.

She watches as Mia frowns and plays with the straps of her bag and decides she should at least try and cheer her up. “Anyway, who am I to judge? I may never have cheated, but I’ve definitely been an asshole plenty of times.”

Mia gives her a half smile but doesn’t say anything.

“You know what I did once?” Claire asks.

“What?”

Claire bites her lip for a moment as she debates whether to tell Mia this sorry, ancient story. Then she decides to dive in. Even if it doesn’t comfort Mia, at least it will distract her.

She laughs, not quite believing she is about to tell this tale. “It was ages ago, and I am still deeply ashamed. I was twelve, maybe thirteen.”

Mia lets out a kind of snorting laugh, reaches over, and pokes her in the side. “Hang on a minute. Your ‘Claire is an asshole’ story happened at age twelve? And it’s supposed to make me feel better?”

Claire reaches over and puts her hand over Mia’s face to stop her laugh. “Just shut up, Mia, and listen. Maybe you’ll learn something.”

Mia laughs into her hand.

Claire takes her hand back and continues. “You know how when you get to that age and the social pecking order at school is, like, everything, right? And then when that’s established, there’s the amateur, prepubescent dating stage? You know, when you first start going out with each other but you barely touch each other or even talk? And your relationships last anywhere from a few days to a week, tops?”

Mia grins and nods. “I remember. It was all such high drama.”

“There was this kid in my class. Tom. He was an idiot. Well, at school he was an idiot. Out of school, we were kind of secretly friends. I never talked to him much at school, but he lived on my street, and we’d hang out on the holidays when we were bored. At school he was this total attention seeker. Completely hyper.” Claire rolls her eyes as she remembers how even the usually tolerant Ms. Clayton would constantly lose her patience with him. “He was always talking, always interrupting the teachers, and bugging everyone.” She turns to Mia. “You know that kid?”

“I do.”

“But out of school, he was kind of sweet and chilled, and we’d do totally geeky stuff together like sit in my backyard and make up really long stories about what we’d do if we got to explore the whole world. Totally nerdy.” She grins. “You would’ve loved it.”

“Shut up,” Mia says dutifully and smiles. “And get on with it.”

“Well at some point in grade six, he caught up with me on the way to school and asked me if I would go out with him. Totally out of the blue.” She starts giggling, remembering that awful, awkward moment, the look on his face when he asked, and her own answering shock. She tries to take a breath but hiccups instead. It makes her laugh harder.

“And?” Mia jabs her in the arm. “Don’t leave me hanging.”

“Well, of course, I was so stunned I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to say yes. The only guy I wanted to go out with at that point was Nick Dimas. But he was in a committed, monogamous relationship with his soccer ball. And I didn’t want to hurt Tom’s feelings, either. I had no idea how to say no, so I said yes.” Claire shakes her head. “If I’d been at school, surrounded by my friends, I never would’ve agreed. But because he got me on my own, I just couldn’t. He really was this sweet kid.”

“He must have felt like a real Romeo, landing you,” Mia teases.

“Shut up, Mia,” Claire tells her. “Do you want to hear the rest or not?”

“I really do.” Mia grins. “I’m still waiting for the asshole part.”

“Oh, it’s coming,” Claire warns her. “So, that day we go on a field trip to this eco park. And while we’re there, learning how to recycle or whatever, I’m still so shocked that I said yes, I tell one of my friends about it. And she is all shocked and horrified, saying, ‘You can’t go out with him! It’s social suicide.’” Claire shakes her head. “Social suicide in grade six? Sad really. But true. So, being a totally weak and self-conscious little prepubescent brat, I don’t stick up for him or for myself. Instead, trying to save face, I assure them, ‘Oh, don’t worry. I only did it so I could dump him later.’ Which was so not true.”

Mia pulls a nervous face. “Oh dear.”

“I know, right? It gets worse. My friend demands to know when I’m going to break it off. She was probably terrified my giant faux pas would have some effect on her social standings. I tell them I will do it when we are all back on the bus. Oh God.” Claire puts her face in her hands. She hates the next part.

Mia yanks on her sleeve. “Don’t stop now. What happened on the bus?”

Claire takes a deep breath and lifts her head. “I had no idea that my friends had been telling everyone on the bus that I was going to break up with him at two.” She shakes her head. “Then, the next thing I know, we’re all piled on the school bus. He’s sitting right behind us, and I am looking at my watch, trying to figure out a way to discreetly tell him. Then…” She takes a breath. “It turns out I didn’t need to.”

“Why…not?” Mia looks suitably wary.

“Because at two-thirty, practically the entire bus—everyone except the teachers and the driver—turns around and screams, ‘Tommy, you’re dumped!’ at him.” Claire cringes, waiting for it.

“Oh my God.” Mia claps her hand over her open mouth. She shakes her head. “That poor kid.”

“I know.” Claire buries her face in her arms and blushes and giggles at the same time. “It was horrible, Mia.”

“What did he do?” Mia gasps, eyes still wide.

“He tried to laugh and stuff, like it was all a joke, but he looked so upset.”

“Of course he did. I would have been mortified.”

“I felt so, so bad about it.” Claire lifts her head and gives her a bashful smile. “I went home and cried,” she admits.

“You did not.”

“Yes, I did.” Claire blushes. She remembers how she sat in her room and wept mortified tears and plotted how she could avoid the poor kid for the rest of the year.

Mia rests chin in her hand and grins as if she’s got her caught. “You’re a secret softie, aren’t you, Claire Pearson?”

Claire ignores Mia’s tease. “And the worst part is he was still my friend after that. He’d still come over and hang out during the holidays.” She shakes her head. “I never understood that.”

Mia shrugs. “Boys are suckers for pretty girls. Enough to forgive the most terrible crimes. Fact of life.” She smiles. “The fact that you are still completely ashamed about it is kind of cute though.”

Claire smiles back at Mia. “There. Feel better now?”

Mia chuckles. “Maybe. You know, it wasn’t exactly your fault, though. Those little witches you were friends with had a lot to do with it. They were bigger assholes than you, getting a bus full of kids to do that.”

“Well you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, either,” she tells Mia. “About something you did at a party—how long ago was it?”

“Two years.”

“See? And you still feel terrible about it. That speaks pretty well of you. You just did something dumb. And I bet you never do it again. I’d say you’re not a total asshole. Maybe just…a recovering asshole.”

Mia smiles over at her, squinting a little. “At the risk of sounding kind of Hallmark and mushy right now, how do you always know what to say to make me feel better? In a really insane kind of way?”

“I don’t know.” Claire feels suddenly shy. “Because I’m a genius?”

“Oh yeah, that’s right. Sorry, I forgot for a second.”

Claire grins at her. “Anyway, I am starting to think maybe you shouldn’t get so drunk at parties. You kind of do crazy things.”

Mia looks at her for a second and then clearly registers what she means. She gives Claire a quick, shruggy smile. “Yeah, maybe,” She gets up and picks up her bag. “Come on. We better go.”

 

* * *

 

They’re making their way back to uni when she sees him. She never sees her brother at work. Even though she automatically glances into every police car she sees, it’s never him.

Then all of a sudden here he is, outside a grocery store in full uniform with his partner, Vito.

“There’s my idiot brother,” she tells Mia.

When he spots her, he opens his mouth in mock shock and holds out his arms as if to go for the long-lost sibling embrace.

She walks up to him and slaps his jaw shut instead. “Shouldn’t you be busy catching criminals or something?” She grins at him. “Hello.”

“Nope,” says Vito as he gives Claire his automatic sleazy up and down.

“We’re on a break, smart-ass.” Cam turns to Mia. “Hello,” he says in his friendliest who-the-hell-are-you voice.

Claire waves a hand between them. “Cam, this is Mia. Mia, this is Cam.”

“Ahem.” Vito leans up against the window of the store and folds his arms over his chest.

“And that’s Vito,” she says grudgingly. Because Mia, like Claire, could probably have lived very easily for the rest of her life without making his acquaintance.

Cam holds out his hand to Mia. “Hi. I’d say I’ve heard lots about you, but I haven’t heard a thing.”

She laughs and shakes his hand. “Claire probably didn’t want to bore you.”

“Oh, I bet you’re not boring,” Vito says.

Claire serves him a filthy look.

“Are you studying French as well?” Cam asks.

Mia shakes her head. “I’m doing biomed.”

“Whoa.” He raises his eyebrows and looks over at Claire. “What are you doing hanging out with a beatnik like my little sister, then?”

Claire crosses her arms. “Shut up, Cam.” He can be such a dick sometimes.

Mia grins at him and grasps Claire’s arm. “Hey, listen, I have to get going. Got to meet some people in the library. I’ll see you soon?”

“Yeah, see you later,” Claire says. She is kind of relieved to be spared any further embarrassment.

Mia turns to Cam. “It was really great to meet you. See you around.” She even extends the smile to Vito.

Claire gives her a wave as she takes off down the street. How does Mia manage to be so polite to people—even to idiots like Vito? Even though Claire knows Mia probably thinks he’s a dick already, too.

Cam watches Mia stroll back down the street towards the university. “She seems nice,” he muses. “Cute too.”

“Uh yeah.” Vito raises his eyebrows. “Hot.”

Before she can tell them to quit being creeps, Vito starts in on her with his usual come-on shtick. “So, Claire, when are you going to come and have a drink with us one night?” He grins. “You never know, you might learn to like me after a few pints.”

“It’s going to take way more than a few pints.” She shakes her head. In three years of failing to get anywhere with her, he still hasn’t figured out he doesn’t have a chance in hell.

Cam just smiles. He never stops Vito when he starts in on this crap. Claire’s pretty sure it’s mostly because he knows she can handle herself. And she’s also pretty sure he finds it kind of entertaining.

Vito pretends to pout. “Don’t be like that.”

She tips her head to the side and pretends to consider him. “Do you know who you remind me of?”

“Who?” He steps in closer. “Brad Pitt?”

She takes a step back. “You remind me of that dick guy character who is in every teen film. You know the douche who is always friends with the guy lead?”

He just stares at her.

“Oh come on,” she scoffs. “You know the one? The one who tries to crack onto everything that moves and always epically fails because he is a creeper and has no social gauge at all? And yet,” she muses, “he doesn’t seem to notice that he never succeeds.”

He crosses his arms over his chest again but doesn’t say a word.

She shakes her head and holds up her hands. “Dude, some advice. Learn some subtlety. Coming from a girl who has refused your gross advances a gazillion times over the last few years, trust me.” She nods. “Subtlety might just work for you. Not with me, of course,” she adds hurriedly. “But maybe with some poor misguided soul.”

Vito’s mouth drops open, and Cam laughs so hard he doubles over.

She points at Vito. “And you know, I don’t know what’s more terrifying right now, how much you are like that guy or the fact that I just cast my brother as the male lead in this scenario, which is horrifying. So, in answer to your question, I won’t be coming for a drink, ever.”

She turns to Cam and points at him. “And, Cam,” she snaps. “Do not ogle my friends. It’s seriously creepy.” With that, she leaves them there on the footpath and heads back to school.

* * *

Later, during a less than enthralling lecture, she slips her phone out of her pocket. There are two messages. One is from Cam.

Epic takedown. Vito didn’t say a word for thirty whole minutes.

She smiles. The other is from Robbie.

N just told me what happened. I’m sorry. I’m an evil prick. Forgive me.

She quickly types out her response. xo

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