I started writing this about a year ago, on and off, (mostly off) when WN got too much. Now it's morphed into something entirely different but I'm loving on it hard, and I really hope you guys are gonna love it too.
Thanks to Monica for being the best beta ever, and Maria, May, Ciara and Heather for holding my hand when I just want to backspace the whole thing. I also can't forget all the amazing people on FB who cheer me on... your support means everything.
Taste of Ink
This summer was going to change everything. We weren't prepared for how much. Not even the tiniest bit. And had I known, I might've done things differently.
I would've changed everything.
Everything... except him.
Leaning on the counter, Rose buries her face in her arms.
"I know," I sigh, my fingers brushing through bleach blonde hair. It's not as soft as it looks. "You need to deep condition this."
"Yeah." Her voice is muffled by skin, eyes fluttering closed.
Something smashes, the sound travelling through the store. There's a pause, footsteps going one way and then the other, hurrying closer to us. Rose lets out a disgruntled groan as my hand moves from her hair to the plastic yellow warning sign to the right of me. I hand it to her, smiling in sympathy. Clean up duty is the worst.
Straightening, Rose turns, not letting the lady even finish before answering, her voice bright and false. "Coming!"
I watch her disappear down aisle two before my gaze turns toward the sun-soaked street outside. Worse than clean up duty is being stuck in here on days like today.
College is beckoning, a line in the distance we're running full tilt towards. When we cross that line in a few months' time, it's not even the end. It's the very start of something. A new life, thousands of miles away from the comfort of the streets we currently call home. From the places we've known with such familiarity that we barely take the time to properly look at them anymore. From the people we've grown-up with our whole lives; sharing gapped-tooth smiles, first crushes and kisses, and so many hours spent in the suffocating confines of school and social cliques...
It's the unknown.
And this summer; this tiny slither of freedom between high school graduation and a fresh beginning, is where expectation and reality clash.
Dreams of carefree sunny days, hanging out with my friends, getting blitzed, shattered with the words:
"We think you should get a job, honey."
Suddenly I traded endless possibilities in favor of a green apron, the harsh fluorescent lighting of the independent wholefoods store, and a growing, untouchable amount of money in my savings account.
Frustratingly, my parents are right. In the long run, sitting at this checkout desk most days of the week will help me out with college funds and allow me to have fun when I start in the fall.
But I don't even think that's the point.
The point is… it's not fair.
Garrett never had to get a summer job before he left for college. I can still remember all the times he came stumbling into the house, way past his curfew, smelling like weed and beer. Sure, Dad went ballistic, but I think Garrett would say it was worth it.
Heidi and Jasper don't have jobs either, but their parents are better off than mine. It's not like we're destitute though. Not like Rose and her mom.
Feelings of guilt stir, and suddenly, I feel like I'm being a brat. I don't have the right to whine. Things could be worse. My parents aren't divorcing. My dad didn't cheat on my mom with a woman half his age, with fake tits and a chihuahua called Betty.
A summer job… it is what it is. And on the days where it's raining, at least it's something to do.
Drumming my fingers on the register, I glance at the clock, counting down the minutes until Mike, our manager, comes to take me off for my break. A whole thirty minutes where I can escape out the back of the store, sneak a cigarette, and pour over the latest issue of Alternative Press; hopefully with Rose.
We pretended we didn't know each other at the group interview, even though we've been friends since seventh grade. We both needed a job, Rose probably more than me. She needed to get away from her mom, and she needed the money.
She catches my eye as she wheels out the mop and bucket, tilting her head with an unsubtle jerk behind her.
And, I guess, this is the highlight of my summer so far.
Seeing him. Watching him. The two minutes of awkward interaction we have almost every day.
Tattooed with dark hair and a black plug stretching out his left ear, he's currently browsing the magazines with a frown.
My face grows hot. I know what's coming. Every day he buys the same three things for lunch and every day I hope we'll go beyond the standard 'hi' and 'bye'. Every day after he leaves, Rose comes over and wants to know everything.
The things I know about Tattoo Guy I can literally count on one hand.
I know he works at the upmarket flooring shop a few doors down from here. I know his voice is deep and lovely. I know he doesn't wear a name tag; so he'll forever be known as 'Tattoo Guy.'
And I know he waits to be served by me, mostly.
He approaches slowly and I can't help but eye him up, head to toe. He's wearing a gingham shirt today, snug over broad shoulders. His sleeves are rolled up to his elbows, ink trailing down his arms, over the tops of his hands.
"Hey!" I'm already cringing at myself; my voice too shrill and chipper.
"Hey. How're you?" He places the freshly made chicken salad sandwich, packet of organic hand cooked chips, and a green machine smoothie on the counter. The same things he always buys between twelve and one.
I try not to notice these things, but I can't seem to help it. Not when it comes to him.
"Good. Bored, you know?"
"Yeah, I know."
I can see his Adam's apple bob in the corner of my eye as I push things through the scanner, each beep breaking up the silence that's descended.
Trying not to look him in the face is hard, but I manage it because I really don't want to be a flustered mess by the time I've finished. When I do risk a glance at him, he's drawn his lip ring between his teeth.
"That'll be nine dollars and thirty-four cents."
He fiddles with his wallet and I catch a flash of a driver's license, but I can't see the name; he closes it too quickly.
And that's it. He hands me the money and I count out his change, tearing off the receipt and accidentally brushing my fingertips against his palm as I hand them to him.
"Have a nice day." I smile, but he doesn't smile back.
He nods and mumbles, "Thanks," before he walks out.
I watch him until I can't see him anymore, looking down at chipped blue nail polish and sighing.
Shit. I didn't even ask him how he was. I drag my tongue bar along the back of my teeth. He probably thinks I'm really self-absorbed. Urgh.
A cough makes me look up and Rose is there, mop still in her hand.
She waves her hand in a spill motion.
"He can drive."
"So can most people."
I stick my tongue out just as Mrs. Banner rolls up, looking at us disapprovingly. Rose slopes off, mouthing that we'll talk about this later, but really, there's nothing more to talk about. I have a crush and that's pretty much it. There's not even a smile to gush over today.
Some kids with pic 'n' mix are next, and a little while after them it's Ben Cheney and a couple of his jock friends I graduated with earlier this month.
"Hey, Bella," he greets, leaning on the counter toward me, so close I can smell the mint on his breath. "Party at mine on Friday night. Are you in?"
"Um, I'll think about it."
"Bring Rose and Heidi too, if you want." He winks, pushing off the counter, taking the protein bar he just bought with him. He playfully punches Jake in the arm, casting a look back at me over his shoulder, smiling before disappearing through the door.
Ben is arrogant. He's not always been that way, he was sweet in middle school, but I guess that's what happens to you when your ego's been stroked too much. We won state for football this year, and it was mainly due to him. The star player. I guess he lives up to the hype in that department. The other hype I have no experience of, because apparently his ego isn't the only thing that's big about him.
Still, a party's a party…
I curl a lock of hair around my finger, eyes landing on something white as I do.
Thinking someone may have left something important behind, I reach out, picking up a card from the counter; rectangular and business card in size. Frowning, I turn it over in my hands, but it's completely blank apart from the words:
And a cell number.
My head flies up, eyes scanning around the store and then through the windows, half expecting to see someone watching, or lingering, but there's no one around.
I stare at it again; at the slightly slanted letters printed in thin black biro, at the indentation from pressure on the exclamation mark, at the number I don't recognize... before I stuff it in the pocket of my apron.
Text me? Text who?
I think back through customers, wondering how long it could've been there for. I mean, it could be for anyone, really; escaped someone's purse or pocket. People have left stranger things behind.
I'm tempted to call Rose over and show her, but I know she'll probably suggest something rash like checking the CCTV. Instead, I keep it to myself and spend the rest of my shift overthinking every person I've served.
The real estate agent, the bar manager, the crazy old man who comes in wearing his pyjamas and a dirty dressing gown… the girl who works as a piercer at the tattoo parlor a block away and always flirts with me… They all come under my cloud of suspicion.
My gut says it was Ben. It's not like I'm his type exactly. We don't really run in the same circles. But, he's just asked outright for me to come to his kegger… so, maybe not.
I keep the little rectangle with me until Friday night, when I'm five shots of tequila down at Rose's house and we're in the middle of getting ready to hit up Ben's party. Her mom is out, which isn't unusual. Rose says sometimes she doesn't come home for days and won't answer her cell at all. She worries, and then she gets angry, but this isn't one of those times. Tonight she's uncaring, but I think that's more to do with the pill she slipped earlier when she thought I wasn't looking.
"You've kept this to yourself for two entire days?" Heidi plucks the card from my hand, studying it with wide blue eyes.
"I wasn't sure what to think," I say defensively. "I mean, I don't even know whether it's meant for me and if it was… Let's face it, it's probably Ben's idea of making me look like an idiot."
Rose clicks her tongue and tells me to shut up.
"Ben's a prick sometimes, but he's not that much of an asshole." She tugs skinny jeans over long lean legs. "Have you thought it might be Tattoo Guy? He waits for you to be free every time he comes into the store. It's cute."
Truth is, I had, but I can't think why he'd leave it either when he could just ask me. I haven't seen him around for a couple of days though, much to my disappointment.
"Well, there's only one way to find out," Heidi says, picking up my cell, clutching the card tightly in her other hand.
"What? No! Don't you dare!" I fling myself across Rose's bed, flailing like a dying fish before managing to get up on my knees, shuffling towards her.
Rose tackles me and we fall back on the mattress, her face in my back, my cry of, "Nooooo," muffled by her hot pink comforter.
"Too late!" Heidi cackles with a shrug as I lift my head, blowing hair out of my face.
I glare at her as she turns my cell so I can see.
Snatching my cell out of her hand, I clumsily press all the buttons to find out exactly what she's text.
It isn't nearly as damaging as I thought it would be.
Just three simple words.
Who is this?
We're at Cheney's house when I get a response, hours deep into alcohol, and I'm feeling good. The tequila, a little weed, music blasting out… Not my type, but I can deal. Jasper not being here is a bonus, because we'd literally never hear the end of it if he was. Musically he's a snob. It's one of the many things I love about him.
My cell glows, vibrating.
I frown at the screen, someone knocking into me from behind.
Who the fuck is Edward?
I elbow Rose sharply, shoving my cell in her face so her head reels back.
"Who the fuck is Edward?" she shouts in my ear as her eyes focus on the screen, a slur to her words.
"I don't know!"
We both look across the room at Heidi, as if she'll know. She's leaning over Tyler, scrawling on his leg cast with black marker pen, oblivious to the way his eyes are fixated to her boobs. Rumor has it he tripped up over his dog and didn't get knocked over by a car like he claims, but either way breaking your leg two weeks into summer has got to suck.
"Should we go ask her?"
Rose doesn't reply.
I turn to face her, but she's disappeared into a sea of people. Instead, I'm face to face with Ben, two red plastic cups in his hands.
"Hey! You made it," he says with a genuine smile.
I shrug, telling him what I've been telling myself.
"A party's a party."
"I'll drink to that."
He offers me one of the cups and I take it, sniffing it dubiously.
"Some kinda punch Jake put together; tastes like ass but it'll get you fucked up."
I wrinkle my nose and take a sip anyway. He's right, it tastes fucking awful. I pull a face and Ben laughs, eyes still on me.
"This hurt?" he asks, bringing his finger to tap the industrial piercing I have through my right ear.
"Oh, um. Not really?" I'm uncomfortable with his interest now. It's not like he's ever been interested in anything about me before. Sure, we interacted, but this is… different.
"Where's Rose gone?"
He jerks a thumb behind him.
She's talking to Royce. They hooked up in junior year; then he got with someone else two days later even though he told her he loved her. She's hated him ever since and, if she were being honest, I think even she'd admit she's still not quite over that shit.
"You wanna go outside, or somethin'?" Ben asks at the same time I ask him whether he knows an Edward.
He frowns. "I don't think so." He hollers over to Jake and Sam, overseeing a game of beer pong. "Yo! Y'know anyone called Edward?"
They don't, unsurprisingly.
Ben's just about to ask me to go outside with him again when I'm saved from having to give him an answer by Rose hurling all over Royce's shoes.
"Oh, shit!" I shove my drink back at Ben.
Rose is holding a hand over her mouth, eyes watery as Royce starts shouting and swearing. He kicks his sneakers off before angrily peeling away damp socks, as a crowd gathers to watch. Some are laughing; at Rose or Royce I'm not sure, but the sudden rush of anger I feel channels into the roughness of my movements as I push past them.
My hand finds Rose's arm, my apology to Royce laced with sarcasm, because really, I'm not sorry, and I'm pretty sure Rose isn't going to be either.
Royce's nostrils flare, dark eyes narrowed. He knows I'm being as insincere as shit, and I'm glad.
"Fucking skank!" he hollers, throwing the balled up socks towards us as I tow Rose to the nearest bathroom.
"Shit," Rose says, fingers white as she clutches the basin and stares at herself in the vanity mirror, pale except from pink cheeks. "I can't believe I just did that? I can't believe that just happened."
I rinse out a tumbler and fill it with water, passing it to her.
"Drink this." I pause as she sips. "I mean, if you were serving up some karma, I'd say that was it."
She manages a faint smile and then a moan. "Never gonna live this down, it's like freakin' graduation all over again. Thank fuck for moving away from this shithole and these assholes."
She swills another mouthful of water around her mouth, spitting it back out into the sink.
"What am I going to do without you?" she asks, pitiful. Wordlessly, I hug her tight as her head rests on my shoulder, because I'm not sure what I'm going to do without her either.
We head out not long after, Rose sandwiched between Heidi and me as we walk the couple of blocks home in the middle of wide tree-lined streets, until the houses get smaller and closer together. Rose pukes again in her neighbor's rose bushes and then at the bottom of the 'for sale' sign outside her house.
And all thoughts of who exactly 'Edward' is, and why he wants me to text him are pushed right to the back of my mind.
So like, this one time, at band camp.. kidding. But really, I was working in a shop and a cute guy who worked at the flooring shop a couple of stores down always came in for lunch. One day he left me a card with his number and 'text me' on it. I had a boyfriend at the time, so I never did, but I always thought it was sweet!