This story is by Elisabeth W-H and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I could see him on the other side of the bar, his long, beige coat draped over his arm as he talked to the group around him. I knew most of the people here, although it was quite a crowd. Most of us only saw each other here on Fridays, where we’d share our stories of the week before returning to our lives, waiting to repeat the process.
Jack was a mystery to me. I saw him as much as everyone else here, yet he was the one I knew least about. It fascinated me to watch him, to see how he interacted with others, and yet I couldn’t work out why.
“You playing tonight, Elena?” Damien’s voice jolted me.
I swivelled around on my barstool, feeling a smile tug at my lips at his happy face. Damien was my best friend – the first friend I’d made since I left school. “Nah, I’ll sit this one out.”
His dark eyes rounded. “You sure?”
“Go on,” I smiled, waving at the pool table.
“Since when did you refuse a game?” Rachel prodded me as she sat on the stool beside me, her long, mousey-brown hair brushing my arm.
“I’m just not feeling it tonight.” I hadn’t explained to anyone about my personal trials at work; that the promotion they knew I’d been vying for could go south if I wasn’t careful. The company had been making lots of cuts lately, so my last few weeks had felt akin to walking across a tightrope. I just wanted it to be over.
“Can I take your spot then?” She grinned.
“Go ahead,” I smiled, taking a cool sip of my drink. I watched her skip over to the pool table and join Damien.
“Hey.” I felt my breath catch in my throat as I recognised the voice. Inwardly, I was glad I hadn’t fallen off my barstool in fright. “It’s Elena, right?”
My heart performed an erratic lurch at the sound of my name on Jack’s lips, and I turned to meet his blue-eyed gaze. “Hi.”
“How come you’re over here alone?” He asked conspiratorially, looking pointedly at Damien and the others.
“It’s quieter.” In my peripheral, I could see Damien frowning next to Rachel. Maybe he was losing the game.
“I get that,” Jack half-sighed as he sunk into the vacant barstool. He looked at me curiously. “Do you want to be left alone?”
I almost laughed. “No, but wouldn’t you rather talk with your friends?”
He shook his head. “It’s quieter here.”
He got me there. “You’d rather sit with someone you don’t know?”
“Isn’t that the best way to meet people?” He smiled.
“Aren’t you famous enough here?” I jested, ignoring the pulse of warmth that shot through me as his lips curved.
“What do you mean?” His smile widened.
My laugh broke free. “I think everyone in this bar knows who you are.”
“Do you?” There was a glint of challenge in his eyes.
“Not a clue.” Ha!
I didn’t know what I expected after that; that was the problem with an unsolved mystery. Our conversation ran through with ease until Rachel told me that she and Damien were leaving for the night.
I offered Jack an apologetic grin. “Guess I should go, too. It’s getting late.”
We stood at the same time and, as I went to retrieve my coat from the back of my barstool, our hands lightly brushed against each other and electrical heat surged up my arm. I automatically jumped back out of reach.
His eyes met mine. “Until next Friday, then?”
I felt my traitorous smile emerge. “Yeah.”
At work during the week, I found myself constantly distracted as my thoughts centred on Jack, and I wondered how I even survived meeting the deadline for my boss. Frustration welled within me as I left the office on Friday, and I wasn’t sure if it was due to my lack of concentration while I needed it the most or impatience at seeing him again.
Rachel pounced on me within moments of my arrival. “I think Jack’s waiting for you.”
I looked over at the bar and found him sitting on the barstool he’d occupied last time, his smile a beckon that pulled me from somewhere behind my stomach. I automatically stepped forwards before Rachel took my arm.
“Quick question,” she said, her eyes scrutinizing. “How do you feel about him?”
“Jack?” I felt heat brush across my cheeks. “I don’t know.”
I frowned. “He’s my friend.”
“Does he know that?” Rachel raised her eyebrow.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t he?”
She smirked. “Go and talk to Jack, Elena.”
I picked my way over to the bar, tentatively resting my hand on the back of my barstool. “Hey.”
“Keeping her to yourself, Jack, or you guys coming?” Damien had appeared at my shoulder. He was all smiles, yet I could feel an icy tension brush over me.
I looked at Jack, who was grinning like a schoolboy. “We’re coming.”
I grabbed my drink as Jack donned his coat and we followed Damien out of the bar’s back door, granting access to a small beer garden. There were eight other people outside, enjoying the sun as it fought against the coming night, the autumn air cutting as it whipped through the slats in the fence. Our bodies were packed tightly together and I had to tuck my elbows in so I didn’t spill my drink, I lost sight of Jack through the bodies around me.
“You two good friends now?” Damien’s voice came from behind, startling me.
“Stop sneaking up on me!” I admonished him, but when I looked up at his face I was taken aback by the seriousness there.
“We’ve not talked properly for a week,” he continued as if I hadn’t spoken, turning his dark eyes onto me. “Is it because of Jack?”
“Wha-” I felt my mouth fall open. “I barely know him! I’ve been busy at work-”
“Yet he was the only person you spoke to last week – and the first person you looked for tonight.” He dragged a hand through his dark hair.
“Isn’t that how you make friends?” I couldn’t prevent the smile that formed as I realised I’d repeated Jack’s words.
His next words came out in a rush. “Look, Elena, I didn’t want to push anything – but I thought me and you were-” He scowled at his feet. “Well. I guess I was wrong.”
This was what Rachel had meant. I suddenly felt like something was tearing at my chest. “Damien, you’re my best friend-”
“Yeah,” his breath gushed out into a sigh. “And that’s it, right?”
I didn’t know what to say to him, I didn’t want to lose him. I felt sick to my stomach as my mind argued between offering him comfort or confirming what he’d said was right.
“Guess that says it,” he laughed without humour. He nodded stiffly and disappeared into the bar, Rachel tearing after him.
Jack was at my side in moments, his eyes studying my face and seeing more than I wanted him to. “So Damien finally confessed his love?”
I felt my eyes narrow. Tug at my heartstrings as he might, this wasn’t a game. “Why do you care, I wonder?”
His smile was slow, hesitant, warming me despite my turmoil. “Honestly? I don’t know. There’s something about you.”
Ha. It’s like he’d read my mind. The sun fell into darkness, so Jack and I returned to the warmth of the bar, and it was sometime during our conversation that I figured out a piece of his mystery. He was almost masterful at steering conversation, revealing very little of himself. Something I found as frustrating as it was intriguing, drawing me further.
When the time came to leave he stood up with me, his eyes searching mine before he brushed a kiss against my cheek, leaving a trail of fire where his lips met my flesh.
“Until next Friday, then?” I breathed, repeating his words of the week before.
A grin spread across his face. “Until next Friday.”
I was offered the promotion three days later, told that I’d have to move to the other side of the country if I accepted. It wasn’t a choice I made without hesitation – this was the job I’d wanted since I was a girl, but I wasn’t bouncing with victory like I’d imagined.
I made my way to the bar, hoping to see Jack’s grin as he waited upon his barstool, but he wasn’t there. I fished a wad of paper from my bag, scribbling my number and a small message: Call on Friday – E.
I gave it to the barman, telling him who to hand it to, and left the bar for the last time. I had to complete my dream and see it through, despite the alluring mystery of a man I barely knew. If something could have begun… Well. I smiled. I’d leave it in his hands.