|Outside the Sternwheeler Snack Bar, Williamstown WV|
Photo courtesy Brenda Rainwater and Charles W. Showalter
(The following is a pre-release excerpt and may change somewhat during edits.)
Holli did her best to block out the menagerie of local voices mixed with the whiny country-pop female artist streaming from the too-loud jukebox as she stepped inside the Beachcomber and scanned the crowd for her friend. During the day, the nondescript little building next to the Ohio, its view of the river blocked only by a wide row of trees, was nearly always quiet to the point of looking abandoned. On Saturday nights, though, it was hard to get in through the door and to the bar with its row of black vinyl stools. She rarely bothered to try, to deal with the crowd.
Neither Holli nor Brenna could remember, while on the phone a couple of days before, how long it had been since they’d met face-to-face. Holli preferred the phone. She could hide her not-so-good days over the phone much better than she could in person. Especially in crowds. More especially in crowds in small places. The bar was now called something with letters and #95 because of the games room, but it had been called the Beachcomber for so long, that’s how she and most other locals still thought of it.
With luck, today was an okay day. Not terribly up. Not down. Just okay. She liked okay days. It felt normal, or what she assumed was normal. At least people didn’t look at her funny on okay days. She figured that was as good as it was ever going to get.
It was easy enough to find Brenna. Her friend’s long straight light brown hair was again highlighted, this time with a few blonde streaks running scalp to ends and some dark red peeking through from underneath. Always fashion conscience, back in school and now. She was planted on a bar stool in the middle of the bar, of course. Brenna was always in the middle of everything, the popular groups, social gatherings, fundraisers, everything. The girl had a constant up attitude. Everyone loved her for it. If she hadn’t been such a good friend through so much of what Holli put her through, Holli would definitely not love her for it. It was plain annoying.
Brenna Townsend, who had gone back to her maiden name after her recent divorce, was the only high school friend Holli still had, not that she’d had many then, either. Some of it was her own doing, on purpose. It was easier to stay away from people than to think they’d be cool to hang out with just to have them walk away later. They all wouldn’t, she supposed. But how did you know when so many had?
You didn’t. It was a gamble. And Holli was not the gambling type. Too impulsive at times, definitely, but not a gambler.
Which, maybe, was why she was twenty-seven and single with no reason to hope that would change any time soon.
Holli made her way through, making sure not to notice whether anyone in her path or vicinity recognized her, and Brenna jumped off the bar stool to give her a big hug. Only Brenna got away with hugging her, and only sometimes did she get away with it.
“I’m so glad you actually came! It’s been so very long. We have to do this more often. How have you been? Well, I know that already since we talked a couple of days ago, but it’s different in person. Anyway, I could only wrestle one bar stool away from this hot guy behind me.” She pointed a thumb and a grin at a guy Holli would never call hot. “You can have it, though. I’ll stretch my legs a while. We can trade.”
“Hi to you, too.”
Brenna laughed. “Sorry. I’m just so excited to see you again. Sit. I’m doing this incredible mixed drink thing Beth suggested. I forget the name, but you’ll love it. Should I order another?”
Brenna nodded toward the bartender. Of course she knew her name. Probably knew half her life story already, if Bren had been there more than ten minutes. Since the drink was half gone, Holli hoped she had been.
“Thank you, no. And I’d rather stand. Go ahead.” She ordered an iced tea with no sugar and ignored the look she got for ordering tea in a bar.
Brenna leaned closer. “Not a good day?”
“Yes, it’s fine. I want to keep it that way.”
“Oh. Good. Because I thought we might cross the river and go dancing at that club. You know, that one we used to go to all the time. I don’t remember the name of it.”
“I think it closed years ago.”
“Did it? Oh, well, we could go to the Enigma. I think it’s Ladies’ Night, so no paying to get in...”
“Bren, you know I’m not going there again.” She pulled away from an elbow to her back and didn’t acknowledge the apology. “Anyway, how are things with Rowdy Ronnie? You sounded strange about it over the phone.”
“Yeah, I broke it off last night.” Brenna shrugged and chugged part of her drink she couldn’t name. “He got too rowdy.”
“He didn’t hurt you?”
“No. No, nothing like that. I would have sent my brothers after him if he even thought about it.” She shrugged again. “Just too much to deal with all the time, you know?”
“I warned you.” Holli returned the stare of some guy at the end of the bar, back in the corner, until he looked away. Some days, she’d yell down to him to either talk to her or don’t, but don’t be a rude ass and just stare. Today, she let it go. More proof it was an okay day.
“It was fun while it lasted, though, right? No big deal.”
With a swallow of her tea, Holli couldn’t help wondering how Brenna could shrug things off so easily. Holli’s mother used to call her friend an airhead, said of course she shrugged things off because they never really got into her head in the first place. Holli disagreed. Brenna was smart. She was. She didn’t always show it, but it was there. She was, after all, number four in their class. Some may have gotten up in the top ten by cheating, but not Brenna. The girl was far too honest for that. And far too honest to deal well with most men who generally weren’t.
Her mother also said Holli should have been number three. Those other two would have been hard to beat since once did nothing at all with her life but study and read and the other wasn’t above cheating and everyone knew it. But she should have been third, instead of eleven, which meant exactly nothing since it wasn’t that big a class and eleven didn’t get recognized. Unlike horseshoes and hand grenades, close to the top ten didn’t count for anything.
Whatever. Her mother didn’t understand her struggle. The woman always called her spoiled and dramatic. How her mother could ever call Holli spoiled was way beyond her comprehension. She worked for everything she had. Even when she was little, she’d swept the floors every day with that old heavy broom that was taller than she was. Earning her keep, so she was told.
Maybe she would have whatever Brenna was drinking.
As she tried to catch the bartender’s eye to ask for one, Holli got a glance of a tall blond guy with a pool stick in hand and muscles big enough it should be illegal. She knew him. Didn’t she?
He returned her gaze and she gave him a nod before ordering a drink that was actually a drink. She wouldn’t look away as though he hadn’t caught her looking. That was a coward thing to do, and Holli was a lot of things, but she was definitely not a coward.
“He’s cute. Going to go talk to him?” Brenna leaned against her shoulder.
“No. Just thought I recognized him.”
“It’s a small town. How would you not recognize someone like that in a small town? I don’t remember him, but then, I’m not in town much anymore.”
“Neither am I.”
Brenna laughed. “You live in town and you work in town. How are you not in town much?”
“I go to work and then back home, sometimes with a quick stop at the grocery store. And I don’t live in town. I live out of town.”
“Your grandma’s cottage is technically in town, Holli. Still like it there?”
The guy on the stool next to her got up and said she could have it, so Holli pushed herself up onto it and propped her arms on the narrow ledge of the thin black bar counter. She hated that ledge. It would be more comfortable without it, but she supposed there would be far more spilled beers without it, also. “It’s free other than the property tax. It has electricity, running water, and flushing toilets. And it’s easy to heat up in the winter. What’s not to like?”
“It’s just me. How much space do I need?” Again, she pulled from a bump of her shoulder when some guy leaned in to grab a beer.
“I guess. But coming from how you grew up...”
“I like small and cozy.”
“Okay. As long as you’re happy. Hey, don’t look now, but Mr. Someone You Recognize is looking your way.”
Holli looked back over at the blond guy as Brenna fussed that she wasn’t supposed to look now because he would know Brenna just told her he was looking. This time, he gave her a nod. Not a coward, either. The way he was built, why would he be? The guy had to be nearly a foot taller than she was and half again as wide. What in the hell did he have to lose by flirting, or looking, or whatever?
Her friend was still fussing that she looked when she shouldn’t have when Holli turned back. “We’re not sixteen, Bren. Relax.” She definitely recognized him, but she couldn’t at all think from where. She only knew people by where she’d seen them. If she ran into them in a place she didn’t expect them to be, she might recognize their face if she bothered to look at it, but not who they were. This guy, though... “Oh.” She had to hide a laugh when it came to her.
“What?” Brenna’s gaze shifted. Her expression said the blond stud was still looking, or looking again.
Managing to thank the waiter for her drink, Holli took a sip and tried to calm herself.
“What’s so funny?”
“I know where I’ve seen him.” The picture was suddenly vivid. Too vivid. If she was the blushing type, she’d be all-over red by now. Luckily, she wasn’t the blushing type.
Brenna pushed for an answer, but Holli couldn’t say it out loud in a packed bar where she had to talk over whatever music someone put on the jukebox. She had to force herself not to look at him. Instead, she focused on the wallpaper border below the old tin ceiling. Planes, trains, and automobiles, like that old movie she loved. Transportation. People going places and seeing things. It always made her jealous to think about it. Trains, especially. If she ever...
“Excuse me.” A deep voice at her back turned her head. Figuratively. A nice voice. And then literally.
The blond had actually come over without standing across the room flirting half the night in between playing pool with his buddies and then getting pushed by them to take a chance. Definitely not a coward.
“Do I know you?”
Forward, though. Or a line. She wasn’t sure. Holli tried to choke back the vision of him swirling in her head, not at all easy to do, considering. He tilted his head, which somehow made his massive chest muscles move enough to take her attention. The blue and black plaid shirt with rolled up sleeves did little to cover how tight the black T-shirt was underneath.
“No. We haven’t met.” Holli congratulated herself on the line. It was true. They hadn’t been introduced. Not exactly.
“You were looking at me like you knew me.”
“Yes. Sorry. I’ll stop.”
“No problem. I was just curious. If I’d seen you out and about, I think I would have remembered.”
Her back straightened. “Yeah? Why?”
“Defensive, aren’t we?” He ordered a beer and returned his attention. “So, you’ve seen me around, or...?”
“Why would you remember?”
“Those eyes would be impossible to forget.”
She laughed. Out loud. “Okay, really bad line, dude. Considering...”
“Didn’t mean it that way.” He looked actually insulted. “Honest. I meant it ... well, just as a fact. Are those contacts?”
“No. They’re just green. All natural.” She shrugged. “How about you? All natural?” Holli skimmed his build without trying to hide that she was studying him.
“No steroids, if that’s what you mean. I do work at it. Part of it’s just the job, though.”
“What? Olympic weightlifting?”
He smirked. “Is that a line?”
“No. Sorry. I’m a little...”
“Sarcasm is just her thing, but she doesn’t mean anything by it.” Brenna stuck out her hand. “Hi, I’m Brenna Townsend. This is Holli Jacoby. She thinks she recognizes you...”
“Bren.” Holli flashed her a stop it look. They were supposed to use first names only with strange men. Long-standing rule. And she didn’t want to tell this guy why she recognized him.
“Guess I’m just one of those faces.” He took a sip of the beer after reaching past her to accept it from the bartender, still eying her, and not accidentally rubbing his arm against her shoulder. Holli had to give him points for letting her out of it so easily.
Brenna laughed and said he absolutely wasn’t one of those faces, but he cut her off by offering Holli his hand. “Isaac Bradshaw. No relation to the football player, so you don’t have to ask.”
“I wouldn’t have, but I can guess why people do.” She accepted his hand. A strong gentle rough grasp. His hands were working hands. Hard working hands. More points for him.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
She grinned and nodded at the one she just got. “Thanks, but I’m good.”
“Okay. So how about finding a table in the back so we can talk?”
A table? Already? Too fast. Points subtracted. “I’m here with my friend, so...”
“I meant all three of us. I know how it works. You gotta stick together to fend off the assholes. I get it.”
While Holli was trying to decide how to answer and whether or not to return a few of those points, Brenna accepted the offer. Holli thought about kicking her friend under the bar, and then considered allowing another hug. She wouldn’t mind, actually, talking to him for a few minutes, just because. Since he let her out of it, she wouldn’t have to tell him where she’d seen him.
Or how much of him she’d seen.
He stopped to tell his buddies he was done playing pool for a while and led Holli and Brenna around the wall to the few tables in the back hallway. Surprised there was one open, she took the inside chair beside her friend and Mr. Blond Muscle Man took the outside chair on the other side. More points in his favor.
She added more points when he was every bit as friendly with Brenna as he was with her.
Watch for Shadows of Rusts & Reels late Fall 2016 from EllaMKaye.com