Four years ago, I died.
At just sixteen I said goodbye to the world as I knew it, and I watched as my hopes and dreams withered away. Whoever I was before was snuffed out. Annabelle Fray no longer existed.
In the literal sense, I’m still alive. My heart still beats, and my blood still flows, but who I am, isn’t the same. There might be some residue left behind, an imprint of the naïve girl I once was, but if it’s there it’s buried deep below the surface. Hidden under layers of kohl eyeliner and disenchantment.
Still, that day I learnt that all was not lost. Because once I’d heard those three little words, and my soul flatlined in front of the person I trusted the most, I realised I had this rare opportunity to rebuild. My life, my ambitions, my self. It was like reincarnation but without the death. And eventually, I learnt to look past the soul destroying, gut wrenching, agony of it all, and I discovered it really was quite refreshing. Like a perfect glass of chilled white wine in the burning depths of hell. How I chose to view it was just a matter of perspective. My mindset.
This thought rattled through my head as I watched the prematurely balding man scurry out the door. A wry smile crept onto my face and my body sang with cruel satisfaction. He would think twice in future before assuming his waitress was neither educated nor mouthy enough to call him on it.
“Sometimes you have to be nice to people, Anna,” Kelly said with a disapproving stare as she filled the coffee machine with fresh beans. I inhaled deeply at the smell like an addict seeking my next fix.
The ring of the bell sounded as the door shut behind the man. I watched him like a cat watches a mouse as he hurried up the street. Fleeing with his tail between his legs.
“Well sometimes people are dicks. Do I still have to be nice to them then?” I asked, lounging against the counter and closing the cash register beside me.
“If they’re paying customers, then yes,” Kelly huffed, but I could hear the laughter in her voice. She liked to pretend she was all sweetness and light, but I knew as well as her that she had a dark side. She just didn’t let it out to play as often as I did.
“So, if Hitler walked in that door,” I postulated as I turned, “or Mussolini. Or that chirpy weather guy from the nightly news. You’d still want me to be nice to them?”
Before Kelly could answer, Emma swept through our conversation, depositing dirty glasses at the sink and pinching one of the complimentary biscotti in the process.
“How is Barry the weather boy in the same league as Hitler? He’s so nice!” she said through a mouthful of biscuit, busying herself gathering extra sugars to fill the caddies.
“He’s too nice-” I stressed, hiding my jealousy as Emma tossed glorious blonde hair over her shoulder. “-Too nice is just as bad as not nice at all.”
“Oh really,” Emma replied, raising a hidden eyebrow under her fringe. Kelly placed a steaming cup of coffee in front of me, so I talked as I gathered a napkin and a spoon.
“Yes. Look at the pervy shawaddy waddy guy and the Australian paedo with the wobble board. They were nice. Too nice and look what happened.”
I gave Emma a pointed look, steely blue eyes meeting her doe-like brown for a second before she whisked the coffee away to the waiting table.
“OK, Anna,” Kelly interjected. “How about we just stick with the rule that if you haven’t got anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all.”
“If I did that, Kel. I’d practically be a mute,” I drawled as I stacked glasses within easy reach.
“A nice one though,” Emma added with a cheeky smile over her shoulder.
Kelly grinned as she passed me, lugging crates of bottles to the opposite end of the bar. Ready for the only boy in our quartet, Callum, to move them to the storeroom. After four years of working together we had become a well-oiled machine.
The bell rang out as another customer traipsed in from the wet. Like always, I felt my body tense. One day the person I dreaded most would walk through that door and that thought plagued me every day I stood behind this bar. Covertly, I gave the person a cursory glance as I cleaned leftover soap stains off a pint glass. The second I saw them I relaxed.
It was a man with dirty blond hair and an impeccably groomed moustache. I watched as he situated himself at one of the far side tables, propping his vintage umbrella against the chair. He was exactly Callum’s type, but then again, most men were.
As if drawn to the smell of a new man in the room, Callum came for another crate. His hazel eyes passed over the new arrival.
“Hottie at ten o’clock,” he murmured.
I smirked at his predictability.
“That’s not a hottie, Cal. That’s a hipster.”
“And?” He paused holding the crate as he admired the fresh meat.
“A hipster cannot be a hottie,” I retorted.
“Hot is far too mainstream a concept to apply to a hipster,” Emma added as she breezed past us both with a cloth in hand, ready to clear a newly vacant table.
“Fine, let’s just say I’d like to give his moustache a twirl.” Callum wiggled his eyebrows suggestively, but by the way the guy looked at Emma I had a feeling —despite his honey coloured hair and Italian roots— Callum wasn’t his type.
This day was like most of the others we’d shared at Kelly’s bar. There were other staff that came and went, but more often than not it was the four of us. We’d all found ourselves here through different paths. Kelly’s, most obviously, was a daring adventure into a world of self-sufficiency. That leap to see if she had what it took to make a dream a reality and run a successful bar in our beloved city.
For Callum, it was less an adventure and more a necessity to subsidise his otherwise lavish lifestyle of celebrity endorsed facials and extortionately priced footwear. Emma and I found ourselves here for the same reason, although it served entirely different purposes. We both liked the work. The hustle and bustle of the bar. The new faces and friendly regulars. The warm smell of coffee that hit you when you walked in at the start of the day and the buzz of music that bid you farewell at the end. Emma loved it because it was a welcome break from the monotony of studying, but for me it was somewhere to avoid the silence.
The bar had been the first place I had come to when all hell broke loose and from that day on it had become the cornerstone to the new life I built. The wage I earnt dictated where I lived and the food I ate. The people I worked with replaced the friends I’d lost. The earthy urban décor bled into the clothes I wore. It had become more than just a place of work; it had become a part of my identity. A safe haven in my darkest hour.
“Hottie alert,” Callum hissed frantically, pulling me from my reverie as I refilled the small bowls of complimentary sweets. Today it was Skittles.
I glanced up as I poured, expecting to see another bearded man with a handlebar moustache and neat little topknot. Callum had a type.
Skittles scattered across the counter as my eyes watched the man walk leisurely across the bar.
His tall lithe body moved gracefully through the tables. One hand lightly moved chairs that got in his path, while the other wrapped around a thick pile of belongings: a book, a phone, a worn-looking jacket.
“Shit,” I gasped quietly, as I tried to gather the Skittles before they tumbled to the floor.
“I know, look at him,” Callum sighed while he continued to stare.
I stole another glance as I surreptitiously herded stray sweets towards my hands.
The man had settled at one of the tables in the far corner, his broad shoulders rivalling the width of the table while long legs claimed the floor below. ‘Man’ seemed appropriate at first, because of the air of confidence he exuded, but now he was stationary he seemed more boyish. Or maybe something in between, a twenty-something like so many of the other customers we had in.
Except, he wasn’t like those other customers at all. For all their ordinary features, he was something else. Thick dark hair, tousled this way and that, sat in stark contrast with his ivory skin. The embodiment of light and dark whereas all those around him seemed to exist in shades of grey.
As if subconsciously aware he was being watched, he shifted and unfurled a black book onto the table.
I tore my eyes away as he started to write but Callum didn’t.
“Cal!” I hissed.
“What?” He looked at me, his eyes wide and sweet like a child caught doing something it shouldn’t. I raised my eyebrows as he continued to stare.
“People like that expect to be stared at,” he reasoned.
“Well could you drool elsewhere. I’ve just cleaned the counter.” I grinned, trying fruitlessly not to let my eyes pass back to the boy with the book.