A Story of Now: Chapter 42

“I win!” Claire throws her hands up in the air and giggles.

“Claire, you can’t win with a pair of twos.” Pete pushes Claire’s cards back at her and gives her an amused but weary look.

She throws the rest of her hand down on the table. “So what?”

“So why bet so much? It’s a waste.”

“Because, Pete,” she sits back against her chair, “it’s pretty hard to take it seriously when all I’m going to lose is a handful of Skittles. Take them, they’re yours. I hate the yellow ones, anyway.” She pushes the small pile of candy at him. He shakes his head at her like a disappointed father. And she smirks right back like a petulant teenager.

Pete’s taking this game very seriously. He’s even wearing a hat. Because, according to Pete, that’s the rules. “You have to wear a hat when you’re playing cards,” he informed them as he sat at the table in a fishing cap he found hanging in the front hall at the start of the game. “It’s lucky.”

“Uh, okay,” Claire told him as Nina dealt out the first round.

Pete cups his hands over Claire’s losing pile of candy, and drags it over to meet his pile. “I’d hate to see you playing for actual money.”

“Yeah, no offence, but you are really kind of terrible at this game.” Eli grabs up the cards and shuffles them.

“And I do not care.” She kicks her socked feet up onto the wooden table, knowing her mother would kill her if she saw it. She loves this huge old table. Now it’s covered in cards and candy and empty beer bottles.

They’ve been forced indoors for the night after a wind picked up and the air became too chilly. So now they’re playing poker, lamps lit against the darkness, radio on in the background. The wind pushes at the old windows of the house.

Well, the boys and Nina are playing poker, and Claire is just playing along. They explained how the game works a bunch of times, but she can’t be bothered. So she just invents her own version. She bets big, trying to bluff them into thinking she’s got something good, when truthfully she has no idea what she’s got in her hand.

Eli leans forward, ready to deal. “Claire, are you playing this round?”

“Nah, I’ve only got red ones left, and I like the red ones.” She pops two Skittles in her mouth and chews them quickly, relishing the zing of the sweet and sour candy.

Nina giggles and pokes her arm. “That’s not how it works either. You’re not supposed to eat your winnings.”

Claire shrugs and pops another couple in her mouth. She doesn’t care. The only reason she’s still in the game at all is because she takes extra Skittles out of the packet and adds them to her pile after each loss. And no one really cares because they’ll win them off her eventually anyway. Claire is like their default banker.

Robbie pats her hand. “Ah, Claire, you do march to the beat of your own drum, don’t you?”

“Oh shut up.” Claire grins and slaps his hand away. As she sits back and watches them consider their cards with their serious faces on, she hears clattering and banging coming from the kitchen. It echoes through the house even over the stereo.

Eli raises an eyebrow at the sound. “What is Mia doing?”

“Cleaning up?” Pete suggests.

“But we already did the dishes,” Robbie grumbles as he gives Claire a look. “Thanks to Ms. Olympic swimmer over here.”

She laughs. That race was fun. More fun than stupid cards, anyway.

“Never mind, let’s play,” Nina says, incredibly serious. She’s really into this game, and she’s surprisingly good at it. She’s got the most candy in front of her, amassed into a generous pile over many, many winning hands, mostly taken from Claire.

“Where’d you become such a card shark?” Eli asks as he continues to shuffle. “Vegas?”

“My dad.” Nina quickly picks up each card as it’s dealt out to her and organises her hand. “He taught me to play when I was, like, eight.”

Robbie raises an eyebrow. “When you were eight? What were the stakes then, M&Ms? Soft toys? Sand for the sandpit?”

“Nope. Pocket money.”

“What? Really?” Claire laughs, eyes wide. She had to unload the dishwasher and clean the upstairs bathroom for her pocket money. Even when they had a cleaner, her mother still made her do it just to exercise her money-doesn’t-grow-on-trees point.

Nina nods. “Yup. He’d hand out our pocket money, and then he’d play cards against us and win it all back.” She shakes her head. “I was sucked into it for so long. I kept thinking I could beat him one day.”

“Did you ever?” Pete asks.

Nina just shakes her head, rueful.

Claire picks up her beer. “Sucker. Your dad is a genius, though.” She leaves them and goes to the open front door. The wind has really picked up, tossing the branches of the trees lining the lake. And even from here, with the sound of the stereo behind her, she can hear the usually serene water lapping at the rocks. It’s kind of nice to feel cosy inside.

She shuts the door against the brisk air and ambles through the living area, humming. She stops to pat Blue, who is asleep on the rug, and continues to wander. She feels good, kind of loose and expansive after this day of sun and swimming and being lazy. And maybe a little drunk. She drinks down the last of her beer and turns up the music. It was such a good idea to come here. It’s summer, she’s with her people, and it’s fun.

She calls out, “Who wants another beer?”

“Yes, please,” they all respond.

She stops in the kitchen doorway. The room has been transformed into a one-person hive of activity. The bench is covered in flour and eggs and dishes, and Mia is busy with a bowl and a spoon and a measuring cup, a beer close at hand.

“Whatcha doing over there, Martha Stewart?” Claire asks as she heads for the fridge.

“I’m making a cake.” Mia takes a slug of her beer as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. She has flour in her hair and a smudge of something on her T-shirt.

Claire raises her eyebrows. “You are what? That’s…nuts.”

“You guys said you wanted dessert,” she says, flushed and grinning.

“We did…but…” Claire shakes her head and laughs. Mia looks kind of drunk to be baking. “Just how much have you had to drink?”

“I don’t know. Some.” She picks up the spoon and points it at Claire. A little flour scatters across to the countertop as she does. “I’ve finished exams. I’ve finished my hardest interview. I’m on holidays, and now I am drunk, and I want to make a cake. So I’m making a cake.” She nods, defiant.

Claire laughs at this enthusiastic tirade. Mia is cutely combative when she’s on the sauce. “And you just know how to do that? To make a cake?”

“Yup. Easy.”

Claire nods. She’s slightly impressed. She carries a handful of beers into the dining room and dumps them on the table.

Robbie takes one. “Thanks. So what is Mia doing?”

Claire shakes her head. “Being insane. And making dessert. I’ll be back.”

“Dessert?” Nina asks. “Awesome.”

Claire spins on her heels and goes back into the kitchen.

“Have you come to watch greatness in the making?” Mia laughs as she cracks an egg into a bowl and then drains the last of her beer.

“I think I should supervise this little drunken episode.” Claire sits on a stool at the bench, happy to feel that familiar lightness with Mia again. It’s great to find this ability to go back and forth like this, no matter how freaking confused she actually is. But she doesn’t want to think about that right now. Instead, she opens her beer and watches Mia bake, enjoying the cute look of concentration she gets on her face as she expertly measures sugar into a cup and uses a knife to swipe away the excess that spills over the top.

“Ah, thanks Claire.” Mia suddenly snatches the beer from her and swigs from it. She puts it next to the bowl and grins playfully at her.

Claire sighs and goes to the fridge to get herself another one. “I can’t believe we even have the ingredients to make a cake.” She shakes her head, unable to conjure a single instance in her memory when her mother or anyone else might have baked something here.

“We brought up the eggs and butter, and I found flour and sugar and cocoa and stuff in the cupboard.” Mia frowns. “That’s okay, isn’t it?”

“Of course. I just didn’t know my mother even knew what to do with things like flour and cocoa.”

“Well, they were here. So someone does.”

“How do you just randomly know how to make a cake?” Claire watches her sift flour into the bowl and stir it, still pretty impressed by this casual show of culinary skill.

“Dad. He taught me. And it’s pretty basic.”

“Yeah, for some.” Claire sighs and sips her beer. “I can barely scramble an egg. I can’t cook anything. And I can’t play poker, either, it turns out. I am seriously lacking in the skills department, I think.” She leans her cheek on her hand and watches the batter smooth out from a lumpy brown mess to a silky chocolate mixture under Mia’s ministrations.

Mia points at her with the spoon again. “That is so unbelievably not true. For one, you are a freakishly fast swimmer.”

“Yeah, well, that’s what my dad taught me so I wouldn’t drown in the lake when I was a kid. And it’s not about being fast, Mia.” She uses her best gruff-dad voice. “It’s about being efficient with your stroke.”

Mia laughs and goes on, “And you can insult people in French. In fact, you can read entire books in French.” She shakes her head. “I couldn’t read a bus timetable in another language if I tried. You have skills, Claire.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Mia goes back to her cake.

Claire smiles and watches her work. Typical Mia. She wasn’t fishing for compliments or reassurance, but it doesn’t matter. Mia gave them to her anyway. Because she’s like that.

Mia lifts the spoon out of the bowl, taps it on the edge, and lays it across the top. “One thing I haven’t found yet, though, is a cake pan.” She leans over and starts hunting through the cupboards under the counter. “Any ideas?”

“Maybe in the pantry?” Claire climbs off her chair. “I think we used to keep some cooking stuff in there.” She goes over to the huge, old, walk-in pantry, a little room stacked with shelf upon shelf of cans and packets and jars and kitchenware accumulated through the years. Mia follows her in, and they comb the shelves.

Claire stands on her tiptoes and pushes aside large serving bowls to search behind them. “What am I looking for, exactly?”

“I told you. A cake pan.” Mia hunts at the other end of the shelf.

“Yeah, but what does it look like?” She yanks out a large, flat tray. “Like this?”

“What?” Mia laughs as she takes the tray out of her hands and holds it up. “What exactly do you want the cake to look like when it’s done, Claire? A doormat?”

“I don’t know, Mia.” Claire sighs loudly. “I told you, I plead ignorance on this whole baking thing.”

“I just didn’t realise how ignorant.” Mia turns on her. Her mouth is serious, but her eyes are laughing. “Really, Claire, you don’t know what a cake pan looks like?”

Claire shrugs. She really doesn’t.

Mia laughs and continues to rummage.

“Ah ha!” she cries a minute later and reaches deep into a shelf. She turns to Claire and holds aloft a deep round tin. “This, Claire, this is what a cake pan looks like, for future baking reference.”

“Hey, no judging.” Claire giggles and swats at her jeering grin. “You’re the one who is drinking and baking. Keep this up and I won’t help you at all.”

Laughing, Mia grabs at the hand and pulls it away. She doesn’t let it go, but holds it in the air between them instead.

For the longest moment they look at each other as some unnameable something passes between them. Mia bites her lip and then smiles a tiny smile, her face flushed with beer and baking and whatever is currently charging the air between them. She drops Claire’s hand but leans slightly closer to her.

Claire stares right back at her. There is a buzzing through her body as she wonders if what she thinks is about to happen really is about to happen.

And then they are kissing again.

Just testing, Claire tells herself as she automatically responds to the thrill by clasping the back of Mia’s neck with one hand. And the kiss shifts quickly from something tentative to something deeper.

At first, Mia doesn’t touch her. Her hands stay put, somewhere down where she’s leaned back against the shelves. But then mouths open, and tongues are suddenly, electrifyingly, involved, and Claire feels a hand ease cautiously around her waist and stop on the small of her back. Mia’s fingers rest lightly on the exposed skin where her top has ridden up.

Oh shit. A rush of blood centres on the feel of that hand.

This is going to be a problem.

Because it’s the small but somehow mammoth presence of those fingers alighting on Claire’s bare skin that answers her question about Mia. It’s the place where the thrill starts and radiates outward as they lean deeper into the kiss. It’s the epicentre of the newfound truth that she’s into Mia in a way she can no longer just fleetingly suspect, let alone try and push away.

Claire reaches out and steadies herself on a shelf. Cans and jars shift as they lean back, but their lips don’t part ways for a second. At first, all she can hear is this kind of loud humming in her ears and the sound of their breath as she slides her hand from under Mia’s hair and cups her cheek. Those fingers on her back press in just a little harder in response.

They are jolted from this moment when Pete shouts from the dining room.

“Hey, Claire, are you in this round?”

“And Mia!” another voice calls. “Where the hell is this dessert?”

She hears the sound of a chair scraping against the wooden floor. And that’s all it takes for that hand—and that feeling—to desert her, and for the charge in the air to evaporate.

Footsteps come toward the kitchen. Claire pulls back, and her eyes go wide as she gulps for air.

When Mia meets her gaze and sees her expression, her face also changes.

Just as Claire is about to smile, to try and say something to keep them in this moment, a look passes over Mia’s face. She places a hand fleetingly on Claire’s hip, but only to use it as leverage to edge her way out from between her and the shelves. She slips out of the pantry and back into the kitchen, the cake pan somehow still miraculously held, jeeringly mundane, in her other hand.

Claire is left alone to regain her breath and her grip on what just happened and why the hell it stopped happening. She tries frantically to assess what that look on Mia’s face might mean while it’s still clear in her mind. Was it disconcertion or regret?

Mia chats to someone in the kitchen as if nothing of any magnitude even happened, as if there hasn’t been a seismic shift between them in the last few minutes. Claire orders herself to pull it together. She takes a deep breath, tugs at the back of her top, and quickly grabs up something she’s pretty sure is baking related—some vanilla essence—and brings it out into the kitchen as an alibi.

It doesn’t matter anyway. Nina is too busy delightedly watching Mia pour the cake mix into the pan to even notice her. Mia slides the cake in the oven, then takes the mixing bowl and spoon to the sink. She glances at Claire and meets her gaze for the briefest of seconds before she returns to her task. Her expression tells Claire nothing.

Claire puts the small bottle on the bench and walks unsteadily past. She stalks into the living room and takes her seat at the table.

“Good timing.” Robbie holds up a bottle of tequila. “We’ve decided this deal is the tequila deal. Shot?”

“Yes.” Claire nods numbly but doesn’t meet his gaze. She wonders how many minutes have passed in real time since she left the table. And yes, she’d really like a drink. A serious drink. A tequila-shaped drink.

Then Nina returns with Mia behind her, fragments of that unreadable look still on her face. She sits at the far end of the table. As far away as she can possibly get, Claire can’t help noticing.

Robbie turns to her. “Shot, Mia?”

She nods, definite. “Shot.”

* * *

Later, thoroughly drunk but unable to sleep, Claire lays on top of the covers and tries to make sense of this night and of the way something partly unconscious has suddenly become very, very conscious.

Just to be sure, she asks herself the question again. Claire, do you have a thing for Mia?

This time she’s pretty damn sure she knows the answer. Yes.

It doesn’t matter if the kiss was cut short. It confirmed all she needs to know. There is no point telling herself otherwise. She has some sort of crush on Mia. And it’s more than emotional. This truth no longer comprises wanting to talk to her, to be in her radius. No, what she wants from Mia has just as much to do with that kiss and that hand on the skin of her back as it does with as any other connection they’ve made. There’s no other way to explain away what she felt during that kiss.

It explains everything, in fact. It explains that strange, slightly sick feeling that rippled queasily through her when she saw that girl first touch Mia and then lead her off the roof. Claire knew full well in the pit of her gut what was about to happen. It explains why she hasn’t stopped thinking about it. It explains why she left Jeremy on a street corner instead of going home with him and why she hasn’t returned his calls. It explains her awkwardness in the café on the Sunday after the party and her unwillingness to hug Mia this morning, to show affection despite her surge of pleasure at her arrival.

And she knows she would have kept whatever was going in the pantry going if they hadn’t been disturbed, and if Mia hadn’t backed off like that.

And now, faced with these feelings, she’s also confronted by that fact that Mia didn’t talk to her or look at her for the rest of the night. And Claire has no idea what this means, or what the regret she thinks she saw in Mia’s eyes means. Was it regret that they were caught or that it happened at all?

Even though she has her question answered, Claire isn’t sure it leaves her any better off given the way Mia reacted. She crawls into the bed fully dressed and focuses on the nauseous twist of her stomach and the slight spin of the room as she shuts her eyes.

Tomorrow is going to hurt.


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