A Story of Now: Chapter 51

Nina pulls off her T-shirt and flinches. “Ouch!” She looks down at her shoulder where a purplish bruise is blooming near the strap of her bikini.

“What happened to you?” Claire asks, but Nina’s too busy inspecting her shoulder to answer.

Then finally she lifts her head and laughs. “Oh, I remember. It’s from last night. When I ran straight into the doorframe.”

“Well done.” Robbie leans over to get a look at her war wound. “Excellent spatial awareness there, Neen.”

“Shut up. I was trying to get away from you.” Nina rubs her arm and then lies back on her towel. “And a bucket of water. Remember?”

“Yeah, what the hell were you guys doing last night?” Claire asks from where she clings to the edge of a rock, the lower half of her body submerged in the water. “Other than being incredibly loud?”

“We were playing a game.” Eli nibbles on a piece of bread.

“It sounded kind of terrifying for a game,” Mia mutters sleepily from her rock.

Claire looks over at her. It’s the first thing Mia has said for ages. She’s stretched out under the sun with her book over her face. She’s been quiet all afternoon. Claire smiles to herself. Maybe she’s just tired after last night. “It did sound like you were trying to kill each other.” She pulls herself out of the water and wraps a towel around her waist.

“Nah, it was a game,” Pete says. “Well, we were inventing it as we went along.”

“Yeah, it was like hide-and-seek, but if you won a round, you got tequila.” Robbie grins as he scrapes dip onto a hunk of bread.

Nina giggles. “Hide-and-seek for grownups.”

“And if you lost, you had to save yourself by running around the house before someone caught you.”

“Like, out the back door, around the house, and in the front door,” Nina adds.

Claire nods. That explains all the thunderous footsteps.

“And if you got caught, you got a bucket of water thrown at you.”

And that explains all the splashing.

“And if you got around the house before someone caught you?” Mia asks.

“You got tequila.” Robbie laughs. “Of course.”

“Right.” Claire pulls a face. “Sounds like the world’s most exhausting drinking game.”

“Something like that,” Eli agrees.

“What the hell happened to you guys, anyway?” Pete asks.

“They were too busy having deep and meaningful girl talk all night,” Nina mutters. She picks up a strawberry and munches on it, frowning.

“No, we were hiding from you crazy people.” Claire sneaks another look at Nina. She does seem a little bit hurt, as though she feels left out of whatever she thinks was happening in the sleeping porch. At the same time, she also can’t believe Nina is accusing her, Claire, of girl talk. But she’ll go with it for the sake of avoiding any actual disclosure.

She’s about to explain away their all-night disappearance and tell them that Mia crashed with her because they thought Robbie’s friends would need the bunks. But as she looks around, she realises no one knows about them or cares. Well, Robbie knows, but he’s not saying a word. He’s too busy stuffing his face with food. And he’s the only person who the possibility of Claire and Mia seems to have occurred to.

“Anyway.” Nina inspects her bruise again. “It was kind of brutal, but it was fun.” She winces and then sits up and claps her hands. “Let’s do presents!”

“Yes, presents!” Robbie brushes crumbs off his hands and reaches for his bag.

Claire stares at them. “Presents?”

“Yes, you know that common custom where people celebrate one another’s birth by giving each other stuff?” Robbie winks at her.

She pokes him in the shin with her toe. “Shut up.”

He ignores her. “Hey, Mia, did you remember ours?”

She slowly sits up and stretches her arms above her head. “I did.”

Eli picks up a large Tupperware container that has sat unopened among all the picnic food and brings it over to Claire. “I don’t exactly have a present for you, as such, but I made you this.” He squats down next to her and peels off the lid. “Ta-da!”

Claire peers into the container and laughs. It’s a birthday cake. But it’s completely covered in neon-purple icing and a great big C made from M&Ms.

“Something told me you don’t do fluffy-pink icing and flowers,” Eli says.

“No.” Claire reaches in, swipes off a bit of the icing and tastes it. “Can you tell my mother that?” She smiles at him and turns to behold it once again. “That is an amazing cake. Thanks, Eli.”

He squeezes her arm. “Happy birthday.”

Pete steps onto the rock, peers into the container and shakes his head. “Wow, what is it with all the baking talent in this group?”

“Yeah, we do seem to like channelling our inner old ladies around here.” Eli laughs.

“I think your creation was a little more spectacular than my drunken effort,” Mia tells him.

“Yeah, and no old lady is going to ice a cake like that.” Nina comes over to Claire and puts a small package in her lap. “Happy birthday, my evil friend.” She crouches down and clutches her arm, waiting for her to open it.

“Thanks, Neen.” Claire picks up the present and feels the hard square object inside. “How did you even get this here?” she asks, remembering the debacle that was getting Nina out of the house the morning they left. “I packed for you, remember?”

“Smuggled it in Eli’s bag. Thanks, Eli.” She blows him a kiss.

“No problem, sweetie.”

Claire unwraps the package. It is a book—a travel guide on how to get around Europe on the cheap.

“You said you were saving to go away. I thought maybe some inspiration?”

“And it’s kind of perfect after our conversation yesterday, too,” Pete adds.

Claire nods and flicks through the glossy colour photos of all those exotic destinations inside the middle pages. “Thank you, Neen.”

“You like it?”

Claire smiles at her. “I love it, stupid.”

“Hey, Mia, where’s ours?” Robbie asks.

“One sec.” Mia reaches into a pocket of her bag and pulls out a small package. She passes it to Robbie.

He turns to Claire. “This is from both of us.”

“We actually saw it ages ago.” Mia jumps lightly from her rock to theirs and sits down beside Robbie. “Before we even knew when your birthday was.”

“And we thought it was so you,” he adds.

“So we went back to see if it was still there last week.” Mia gives her a shy smile as Robbie passes it to Claire.

Incredibly curious, Claire turns over the tiny package in her hand, wondering what might be considered “so her.” She peels away the thin crepe paper and reveals a tiny card box. She flips open the lid. Nestled inside on a piece of fabric is a ring. The wide band is made from silver, and a delicate engraved pattern encircles each edge of the ring. It’s tarnished already, as though it’s old.

“It’s vintage,” Robbie tells her.

She pulls it out, slips it on her index finger, and holds it up. It’s perfect. She loves it. It looks like something she’s been wearing forever.

Nina leans over her shoulder. “That’s hot. I’m jealous.”

“Do you like it?” Mia asks.

Claire nods. “I do. It’s awesome.” She smiles at them, feeling suddenly shy. “Thank you so much.”

Mia smiles back.

“Good. Neither of us could really afford it, so we decided to split it,” Robbie says as he pulls a large envelope out of his bag. “One more thing from me.”

“More?” Claire’s eyes widen as she turns the ring on her finger. She’s already feeling spoiled.

He passes the envelope to her. “A little bonus.”

She opens it and pulls out a piece of folded plain white card. She unfolds it and inside is an unframed photograph, her photograph, a smaller copy of the portrait from his exhibition. She stares at it, refamiliarising herself with this version of Claire.

He kisses her on the cheek. “You’re going to need this. So when you are old and wrinkly, you can show your grandchildren what a hottie you were.”

“Thank you.” She smiles at him and then stares at it a while longer, feeling slightly unnerved by the uncanny sensation wrought by this familiar yet strange image. This mousey-haired Claire of a couple of months ago already seems like a different person. She wonders what she was thinking in that moment as she stared out into the bar at the very moment the photo was shot. She can’t remember much about that night at all, except that she talked to Robbie properly for the first time. It was, in so many ways, so long ago.

“Is it the photo from the exhibition?” Nina asks. “That was so beautiful. Can I see?”

Claire nods but then stares at it for a fraction longer before she hands it over to Nina.

Pete sighs. “I feel bad, Claire. I don’t have anything. I didn’t even know it was your birthday until this morning.”

“It’s totally fine, Pete,” she assures him.

“Nah.” He shakes his head. “Before we leave here, you’ll get your birthday present. I’ll think of something.”

“Thanks, everyone,” she says shyly. “Except Pete, of course,” she adds, and gives him a dirty look.


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