Even more days passed and I tried to find ways to keep busy. I still visited Mary and talked to Claire, but now that the moment of truth was coming up, I felt terrified. I guess I figured if I didn't bring it up then nothing would change. Maybe I didn't want things to change. At least work at the blacksmith shop was good at keeping my mind off things.
"What's wrong with it now?" I groaned for the third time.
"I told you before, the blade isn't proportional to the head." He grunted, holding up the axe for careful inspection. "The angle of the handle is off too. It can easily break after a few uses. Do you want to end up injuring a customer of ours? Do it again."
I stared at Gramps with frustration, wanting to yell back at him. Though I knew if I would, it would wind up with us arguing again. There was no use in fighting it. I looked at the clock. Only about an hour until the shop closed. I had to do it today. Not wanting to prolong this hell any longer, I grunted and took the axe from him.
Three hours and eight attempts later, the axe was finally on the right track, as he liked to say. There was still some ways to go, but it was finally good enough for the day. It was unusual for him to keep me pass the usual time. It was like he knew I had something important to do and decided to make it as difficult as possible for me.
Once four-thirty hit, he finally looked at me and sighed. I couldn't really place the expression on his face. Then again, I tried to avoid looking at him as much as possible.
"Good work today."
I stared at him in disbelief. Was he actually congratulating me? "...Thanks."
We stared at each other for a few seconds before he cleared his throat suddenly. "Well then, you may as well take off. Will you be seeing Claire today?"
The name brought a jolt to my chest and a feeling I wasn't really used to feeling; weird and jittery. "Claire? No...not today."
"I thought you two made up?" He asked with an eyebrow raised.
"It's not that," I replied, "I just have something else to do."
I pretended not to notice as he mumbled something under his breath. "Well, good luck."
After excusing myself, I started running to the library. There wasn't much time left, there was only fifteen minutes before it would be closed for the night. Each step made my stomach churn and even though I felt jittery and nervous as hell, I had to keep going.
I pushed the door open with all my strength, not thinking about the consequences and I looked around quickly. She wasn't at her desk; she wasn't at a table. Then I saw a glimpse of blue on the second floor. I pushed my body up the stairs, feeling nothing but the adrenaline running through my system.
"G-Gray! What on earth is the matter?" She squeaked, bending down to pick up the book that slipped out of her fingers.
I inhaled a breath of much-needed air, then let it out. "I...need to talk to you." My heart was hammering against my chest and I knew this was it. Moments turned into days which led to years and it all came down to this moment. "Mary, I...I..."
"Do like me?" The air around us stilled and she watched me warily.
Suddenly everything disappeared and it was just the two of us. "Yes."
I watched her, waiting for a sign. Any trace that might just say she liked me too. It wasn't there; no light of recognition, or smile of happiness. Just a stare.
"I see..." She said quietly. I see? This wasn't the answer I was hoping for. I knew that face: she was weighing my answer. "And how long have you felt this way?"
The question took me by complete surprise. Why did it even matter? "Ever since I can remember." I muttered. "Like, ever since we met."
"What about Claire?" She asked, her expression never-changing.
"Claire?" I repeated, confused. What about Claire?
"It wouldn't be fair to her. I see the way you look at her. You like her."
I could feel my face heat up. I opened my mouth to fight the accusation, but I could feel the words jumble. "That's insane. She's just a friend."
"So you're saying if she started dating Cliff you'd be okay with that?"
"If the two of them started dating, would you be able to cheer them on?"
I wanted to reply and tell her she was wrong, but something inside of me stopped myself. Why couldn't I answer her? Her sigh broke my train of thought and I turned my attention back towards her.
"I'll give you some time to give me your answer. Good night, Gray."
I could only watch in silence as she turned her back and continued sorting.
I watched as I polished off another glass of beer. Somehow it made me feel better. I wasn't one for excessive drinking, but I wanted to erase the memory from earlier. The look Mary gave me when I told her; the click of the library door once I left. It was all too much to bear.
The jingle of the Inn's bell went off and I became cautious at the sound of footsteps that approached me from behind.
"Do you mind?" She asked. I barely had time to shake my head before I heard her pull out a chair and plop down beside me. "How did it go?"
"Can't you tell?" I said quietly, and then cursed under my breath. I was in a horrible mood, but I didn't mean to take it out on her. I caught sight of Ann from across the Inn and motioned for another beer. "Not good."
She was silent for a moment before she spoke. "Oh...Sorry."
"Don't apologize." I muttered, my eyes refusing to leave the empty glass. "I never want to hear the word sorry for the rest of my life."
She said nothing until Ann came by with that other glass. There would have been at least three glasses by now if she wasn't continuously coming by and clearing them off while nagging me in the process. Thankfully Claire was now here to take the heat off me. I half-listened while they made small chit-chat and Claire ordered a drink for herself. Ann obliged without a second thought and left the two of us alone.
"What did she say?" Claire asked, her attention now fully on me. "If you don't mind me asking."
I felt my jaw clench. "She said that it wouldn't be fair. That I didn't really like her. That I liked someone else."
Her eyes held mine steadily. "Who?"
Ann finally came by and handed us our orders along with her signature scowl for me then walked away.
"You." Claire's glass hit the table and suddenly the murmurs of other patrons faded away. Her eyes on mine were too intense and I had to look away. I immediately knew that I shouldn't have said anything at all. "I mean...that's what she said."
For a moment she said nothing and I was okay with that. I didn't want to talk. I didn't want to say anything, but she couldn't have that. "Do you?"
"Do I what?" I asked, trying to mask the fear in my voice.
The look in her eyes told me she saw straight through me. "Don't play coy Gray, it doesn't suit you." She tried to laugh. "Do you like me?"
When did my should-have-beens turn into my could-have-beens?
"Why not?" Her voice was small and fragile and it struck me how everything had changed. She was never this small before and she damn sure wasn't as fragile. What had changed? When did I start viewing her differently?
I took a deep breath. "It wouldn't be fair to your crush."
She picked up her glass slowly and brought it to her lips.
Five beers later and my vision was starting to go. A familiar buzz coursed through my veins and it was something I had only experienced once or twice in my life. The first being during the New Year's party two years ago and the second being just last year's party.
"What's so great about Mary, anyway?" Claire slurred.
"What do you mean? She's great. She's quiet and dignified and…what's the word—" I leaned into the palm of my hand. Damn, my head was getting really heavy. Was I drunk?
"Plain?" She threw in, attempting to help my lack of vocabulary. "Boring?"
"What about Cliff? What's so great about him?"
"He's great and...strong. Silent, but caring." Suddenly she sprang from her seat and covered her mouth. "I'll be right back."
Before I could raise to my feet to offer some kind of help, she ran to the inn's bathroom. A few minutes later she came back looking slightly pale and queasy.
"He must be some guy for you to throw up like that."
"I think I should go home," she groaned, pressing her face against the wooden table.
I nodded my head and stood up slowly. The ground was moving. I probably shouldn't have had those last two beers. "You should. Come on, I'll walk you."
"Carry me home mister blacksmith."
"Carry me!" She whined, stomping her feet.
I couldn't believe what was happening. "You're unbelievable."
"Why not?" She asked, tilting up her head briefly just to catch a glimpse of my scowling face. "You did it before."
"You were injured." I rebuffed.
"And now I'm drunk."
"So you admit it."
"I just threw up. I don't think I'm in the position to argue."
There was no helping it, I knew that. I decided it would be better to just give in, so I turned my back towards her and let her climb on. I could barely stand; why would she think I had the strength to carry her home?
"Jeez Claire, you weigh a ton. Did you gain weight?" I muttered, ignoring when she pinched my sides. When she settled down, I took a step. This wasn't going to end well. I had a hard enough time walking on my own without her on my back. I looked towards Ann and Doug. "I'll be back, I'm just gonna drop her off home."
We made it two steps after leaving the Inn before she opened her mouth. "I changed my mind, I don't wanna go home."
"What are you talking about?" I grunted. "I don't want you throwing up on me. You're going home."
"I wanna go to the beach!"
"At this time? Are you serious? Claire, it's three in the morning!"
"Let's go to the beach!" She kept wailing.
I grunted in response. When it came to being stubborn I knew I was no match for her. Why couldn't I just say no to her?
The thirty-something steps were some of the hardest steps I had taken in my life. This whole situation had disaster written all over it. We managed to make it there in one piece and I quickly set her down, fearing my back would give out. I followed her lead and sat on the sand next to her.
At first I didn't know why she wanted to go here, then she piped up, "It's pretty, huh?"
I turned to her. She sat on the sand, unfazed by the fact that it would later be near impossible to get all the sand off her clothes. She wasn't smiling, but she looked happy. It was probably the way her eyes drifted from the waves to the moon, or the way she pulled her knees closer that gave her away. "Yeah."
We sat in complete silence for a moment; the only sound coming from the waves that crashed on the shore. I don't know how long it had been. Maybe seconds; maybe minutes. Then the wind picked up, sending a blast of chilly ocean air towards us. She cupped her arms in her hands in defense. "Gray?"
"What if...you were my crush?"
My heart pounded once, then stopped. I couldn't feel the coldness of the wind, even though it continued to lash at us. "I can't...I can't be your crush. I've never looked at you that way." I knew I was lying when I said it. I thought about it more than I would like to admit to, but we were all wrong. I was all sorts of messed up and she was too. She knew how much I liked Mary. How would I look if I just changed my mind and went for her? "You said so yourself, Cliff—"
"I'm asking you now," she said, taking my hand and pulling it towards her. "Look at me that way."
I don't know if it was the full moon or the way her face looked, but when she leaned in towards me I didn't move away. The kiss was fast; just a small peck on the lips, but it still managed to send my heart into overdrive. She pulled away and even in the vague darkness I could see her eyelashes flutter open.
We didn't say anything. I don't know what came over me, but I placed my hand on her arm. I watched as she swallowed, preparing herself for what was to come. This was it. The end of our friendship and the beginning to something new. She drew closer and her eyes closed. As my lips pressed against hers I realized I didn't know anymore. I didn't know anything anymore.
The only thing I knew was, damn, it felt good.
I felt the sudden disappearance of all my concerns. I felt her hands in my hair and I didn't mind. The only thing that managed to bring me back to the situation was a small moan. It managed to dispel the barrier blocking off my brain.
I pulled away reluctantly. I couldn't get carried away; I had to refocus. "Come on, let's get you home."
She nodded and wordlessly climbed on my back once I got up from the sand. I think the break helped me sober up a bit. Carrying her wasn't as difficult as it was before. On the other hand, after what happened at the beach I couldn't get rid of the thought of her body pressing against mine.
We didn't say anything on the way home and it wasn't until I helped her into bed and pulled the covers up when her hand caught my arm and she finally spoke.
I looked at her, bewildered by the request. "What? I can't stay. You don't even have a sofa to sleep on."
Her eyes wandered to a painting that hung over my right shoulder. "Stay."
"Where am I gonna sleep, Claire?" I asked with bemusement. "The kitchen floor? The bath tub? The barn? How about in the dog house?"
"Or you can sleep here." She said, giving a small pat to the space beside her.
My laughter stilled and I watched her. She didn't look away, or take back her words and instead shifted her gaze from the painting straight to me. I shifted uncomfortably.
"I'm not gonna sleep in your bed."
"Are you worried I'm going to attack you?"
"It's not that." I replied instantaneously. The truth was, I didn't know if I could trust myself around her. The situation was too appealing.
"Then you can sleep here."
I stared at her, carefully weighing my options. She didn't back down. Why did I have to? Besides, it's not like I would do anything indecent. I wasn't that drunk anymore. I carefully took off my shoes and sat on the bed beside her. She didn't have to ask for my answer.
"Fine. Just sleep." I stayed on the opposite side, aware that I should keep my distance from her. She wrapped herself with the blanket a bit more, which I interpreted as a signal for me to turn off the lamp. With a click I turned off our only source of light and laid down. I was at that point of being so tired, that I just wasn't sleepy anymore.
Or maybe her presence was keeping me up.