Jayden felt his shirt soak at the sudden impact of having someone knock into him, emptying nearly half of his glass of orange juice on the kitchen floor.
“Ana! Look where you’re going!”
His little sister glared at him before appraising her own sweater, “Me? Oh, nice one, Jay. As if I was the one rushing out of the kitchen.”
“This kitchen is big enough. And what? You can’t manage not bumping into me?”
“You are impossible! I’m running late as it is, Jay. And I put a lot of thought into that outfit. Thanks for nothing.”
“Break it up, you two. I’m heading out in 5 minutes. I’ll give you a ride, kiddo.” Eric threw a cloth at Ana who immediately started scrubbing frantically at the blotch on her sweater.
Moments like these, Jayden appreciated Eric’s rescue and him playing the part of eldest son. Otherwise, he and Ana might’ve never stopped the blame game. Eric threw him some paper towels and he bent down to clean the mess on the floor.
“What’s your hurry anyway? For crying out loud, you have your own business. You can get there when you want.” Ana scowled at him from the kitchen sink where she soaked the cloth in her hand in water.
“Well, there are some things you just wouldn’t understand, little girl. I mean, senior year high school shenanigans take up enough of your time as it is.”
“When I leave to college you’ll be begging me to come back.”
Jayden straightened and trashed the paper towels, “Well, until then…avoid bumping into me when I have a drink in my hand.” He sighed and approached Ana at the sink. He ruffled her long brown hair and pretended to mess up her fringe. She tried pushing him away but instead gave in to chuckling.
Jayden made sure she met his eyes, “I’m sorry, Ana. You look great. The stain’s all gone.”
Ana nodded. Her sincere smile reassured him the incident was already forgotten.
“See, this is why I’ve missed home. The morning chaos and the arguments.” Terrie bit into her toast at the breakfast table.
“No one ever noticed you were gone, blondie. No one.” Eric ate the last of his apple then aimed at the bin. The apple core landed right in. He turned around and shot Terrie a wicked grin.
“Okay, someone tell me why this guy still lives here. You have a place of your own, remember?”
Eric rolled his eyes and turned his back.
Jayden locked gazes with Terrie and immediately mirrored her comical grin. He turned to Ana who shared the same look. They were all thinking the same thing. Eric loved home. Wishing him away was like wishing for snow in July. Despite the fact that he was engaged, he and his fiancée still spent a considerable amount of time at the forest cottage.
“Terrie, you gonna be OK with just you and Mum again?” Jayden sat opposite his sister.
Terrie nodded, “You know how she is, she hates not being able to move about as much as she’d like. But we’ve been getting on great as always. Stubborn streak and all.”
“I still can’t believe it. You all go to Auntie’s place for the weekend and Mum comes back with a broken ankle.”
It’d been two weeks since Terrie’s return and two weeks since his mother’s accident. She’d barely ever been sick – not to talk of breaking anything - for as long as any of them could remember, which meant the whole situation needed some getting used to, for all of them.
“Like we said, she tripped over Auntie’s new puppy. The cute thing came out of nowhere and Mum tripped down the stairs. Good thing Eric was there or it might’ve been much worse.” Ana winked at the eldest sibling.
“The perks of having a paramedic in the family, right? Now, if only he wasn’t such a pain at home.” Terrie smirked.
“Couldn’t have said it better myself.” Ana laughed.
Eric shook his head from side to side and rolled his eyes, “I love y’all too”. He donned his paramedic jacket and headed for the large glass doors but then suddenly stopped and turned around, “What’s this about Mum hiring a managing director? Someone straight out of grad school. Dad mentioned it the other night.”
Jayden shrugged, “You know how since she opened up Cassandra’s Creations she’s been wanting an extra pair of hands to run things and also keep an eye on the antique store? Well, what with her accident, she really needed someone ASAP. So she got someone who’ll be managing director. I’m actually meeting her in…” he glanced at his watch, “20 minutes, to show her the ropes.”
“Her, huh? Careful, little brother. She might just be the answer to all our prayers…you know, the one about you not ending up alone.” Eric’s usual teeth-revealing dimpled smile broadcasted his amusement.
“Get out Eric! Go!”
Eric laughed while holding the door for Ana, “Just make sure to change that shirt”.
Despite having to assure his mother over and over that he would spend as much time as necessary with the new employee although he had enough work of his own that needed doing at the studio, he managed to get to his mother’s newest store on time. He stood in front of the store and read the big white sign with Cassandra’s Creations written in purple elegant cursive print. The ladies’ fashion store of vintage styled clothes was an old dream of his mother’s that had come into realization about a year ago. He loved that about his mother. She was a dream-chaser and she’d taught her children to be the same.
He pushed opened the glass door and was welcomed by the familiar ring of the bell. The white-painted cashier desk was empty and no one seemed anywhere in sight. The light sunshine from outside cast a faint yellow glow on the impeccably white walls and on the systematically organized clothes racks. His mother had managed to make the place look just as elegant as she wanted.
Still no sign of anyone. He approached the changing rooms, “Anyone here?”
He knocked on the staff quarters but hearing nothing, went ahead and inserted the code. The door clicked open and he finally heard some mumbling from his mother’s office. The more he approached, the more he realized the mumbling was actually singing. In the small space his mother usually used as an office, a woman stood with her back to him. She wore high heels, a gray knee-length skirt and a tight fitting black suit jacket, as dark as her long wavy hair pulled tight in a ponytail. She seemed to be singing along to whatever music was delivered to her through her earphones as she examined his mother’s file on sales records.
He cleared his throat.
She continued her singing.
“Excuse me…” He raised his voice and approached her.
She spun around in shock, dropping the file in her hand in the process.
Flustered, Jayden bent down to pick up the file, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle y…” He stopped short when he made eye contact. “You?”
Kim raised an eyebrow and folded her arms across her chest, eyes narrowed, “You work here? Cassandra didn’t say anything about you working here…” She froze as if realization hit. What looked like dread took over her features. She took a deep breath. “You’re Cassandra’s son.”
She looked different. Stiff. Rigid. He nearly questioned whether she was the same person from two weeks ago. And what was up with the attitude? Or was it his imagination?
“Yup, I’m Mrs. Finnegan’s son.” He emphasized the words. Maybe she’d get the message.
She eyed him from head to toe, “Right. Mrs. Finnegan.”
He smiled. She got the message alright.
“So, you’re the new managing director.”
“Obviously,” She didn’t even crack a smile. Yup, she was definitely giving him attitude.
They stood in awkward silence for a few seconds.
She was wearing makeup today, unlike when he’d run into her at the forest. She was even prettier. If that were possible. Heck, she was stunning.
He heard her clear her throat, “Well?”
“Errr…” He tried gathering his thoughts.
Kim smirked. A look in her eyes. Cunning. As if she knew. As if she was used to guys going speechless around her. Arg, he wanted to kick himself.
“Errr…I- I see you’ve been looking through the books.” He handed her back the file.
She nodded, “Yeah, I thought I’d get a general idea of how sales have been.”
“And what do you think?”
A small approving smile took its place on her lips, “I’m impressed. This place has been doing quite well considering…”
Jayden cocked his head to the side, “Considering? Considering what exactly?”
“No, nothing. I just - I didn’t think there was a demand for second hand stuff.”
Wow. She was a bigger snob than he could’ve imagined. The look in her eyes as she said ‘second hand’.
“The clothes are vintage styled. But they are new stuff. Sure, there’s an actual thrift section. But the stuff are in excellent condition. That’s actually my favorite part of the store.”
She shrugged as if dismissing the discussion - because she obviously didn’t care - and sunk her nose in another file.
He stood there and watched her work. To be honest, he wanted more than anything to get to the studio. This wasn’t what he signed up for. This. With this girl. What was Mum thinking hiring her? And why hadn't he been warned? Maybe his mother could still fire her. He ought to be ashamed of his line of thought but he wasn’t. Terrie was right. He wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near this girl.
“Gina should be here in thirty minutes. Mum must’ve told you about her. She knows everything there is to know about this place. I help out once in a while. And then there's Carol who works fifty percent. She’s usually in between the antique store and here. But she doesn't come in on Mondays.”
Kim looked up, “Yeah, I was wondering about that. Why does Gina come in so late? According to Cassan- I mean, Mrs. Finnegan, she comes in at 9:30. But the store opens at 9am. She should be here helping set up by 8am.”
Jayden shoved his hands in his jeans back pocket, “It’s a clothing store, not a bakery. I think one person – usually Mum – is enough at that time.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, “I’m the one with a MBA and also the one who’s been named managing director. Which means I have the right to make such changes, not only that, it also means I know what I’m talking about.”
“You’re still Mum’s employee.” He stared her squarely in the eyes.
A momentary flash of anger burned in those dark eyes, “I’ll have a word with Gina when she comes in.”
“Look, Gina has a little boy she has to drop off at school. It’s pretty tough for her to get here by 8.”
“She’ll figure something out.” Kim turned her back to him to examine more files on the shelf.
Jayden was burning. Anger brewed in his chest. He wanted to scream at her but he reminded himself to keep his cool.
“Ok…well, I have work to do. Mum says I’m supposed to show you the antique store as well. Could we do that now?”
A mere nod was her response.
His mother’s antique store, Treasures and Memories had been around for almost eight years now. It was a short walk from her clothing store, located on a street full of most of the town’s oldest businesses. A smaller sign under the large brown one where Treasures and Memories was inscribed read, J.F Photography. He turned the key, opened the store and they were both suddenly invited in by the smell of old. A beautiful kind of old. He loved this place just as much as Mum.
There were things in here that Mum would never sell. Like the stunning white piano in one corner, the Georgian Mahogany sideboard that cost so much Mum had gotten it insured, the large Victorian Mahogany chair Mum had gotten restored years ago and the beautiful painting of an unknown girl elegantly playing the piano which hung on the wall.
“Well, this is it. Treasures and Memories – Mum’s antique store” he placed his hands on his hips as he turned around to look at her.
Kim didn’t answer. Her eyes solemnly scanned her surroundings. She turned around the store, eyes resting on every object. Unlike the clothes store, this place didn’t have an air of sophistication to it and it was much smaller in size. Instead, it had a homey feel which Jayden loved. The walls were covered in brown wallpaper with a motif of small flowers in a faded golden shade. The high ceiling was occupied by a stunning chandelier which added to the homey feel. Everything about this place was a breath of fresh air to Jayden. He could spend his days here – and he usually did.
“What do you think?” Not that he cared much for her opinion. The blank look on her face could easily tell him she wasn’t impressed. But something in her eyes was different – unguarded.
She offered no response. Instead, she approached a gramophone. She stared for a few seconds before tracing the rims with her fingers.
“I’ve never seen one of these.” She didn’t turn to look at him.
Jayden pocketed his hands and watched her curiously.
She then slowly approached the piano in the corner. As she stood there staring at it, Jayden almost thought she looked afraid.
He approached her, “Do you play?”
She cleared her throat as if suddenly waking from a trance. “No,” was her blunt reply.
She was disconcerted. Uncomfortable. Her eyes desperately avoided his own and her hands and feet suddenly couldn’t keep still.
“Are you OK?”
She swallowed, “Er…yeah. I...er…It’s a nice place. Really nice.”
Not what he expected she’d think of the place, not after her attitude at the clothes store. “Ok.”
She turned away, “The stairs, where do they lead to?”
He followed her gaze to a flight of stairs on the far end of the store. He grinned, “My studio.”
A look of confusion took up residence on her face.
“C’mon, I’ll show you.”
He walked past her, heading for the stairs. He heard hesitant steps behind him before she seemed to finally decide to follow. At the top of the stairs, he shoved in the key to the door and pushed it open.
The first thing he saw, as always, was the big black plastic letters spelling J.F photography that stuck on the wall at the other end of the room overhead his desk, where he had his computer, phone and a large printer to the side. To the farthest end to the right, he kept most of his equipment and a small space where he set up a white curtain, a white background and lights ready for personal indoor shoots. He had a small kitchenette on one side and a door leading to the toilet. The brown leather couch – sometimes, his bed – sat in one corner in front of a small table full of the photography books he was currently reading. Beside the couch was a high table on which he put shots he was currently working on.
Kim stood still, staring. He found he almost held his breath when he realized she was staring at all his framed shots that decorated the walls. First she stared at his shots of airplanes on the runway, during takeoff and after. The black and white shot of Dad’s small airplane on a rainy day on the runway caught her attention and she stood in front of it. She moved along the wall, eyeing pictures of a few shoots he had done, pictures of the antique store and some of its treasures.
“The angle these are taken in is…spectacular.” She turned to him then quickly looked away and continued assessing.
She stared at his pictures of landscapes, buildings, the forest, the sunrise, a wedding he had done. Then she stopped in front of his pictures of the stars. Her eyes filled with amazement. But then she seemed to have seen all she could take because she suddenly stopped.
“You’re very talented.”
“Thank you.” He appreciated the words, despite her straight face.
Jayden went to his kitchenette and put on the coffee machine.
“So, you have the place all to yourself?”
“Yeah. I’m lucky enough that way. Mum used to use the space down here for storage of some of the antique stuff. But then she didn’t need it for that purpose anymore, so she thought about letting it out. I’d been really thinking of starting my own photography business so I asked if I could rent it,” he paused, “want some coffee?”
He raised his brow, “C’mon. It’s Monday and can’t have your first day on the job without coffee. Besides, its becoming a habit – me making you coffee.”
A slow smile took possession of her lips, “Ok.”
Jayden gasped, “She smiles! She actually smiles! I was starting to think you didn’t know how.”
Her smile grew and she rolled her eyes at him. Jayden had to make himself look away - that smile. Maybe it was better when she didn’t smile. When her smile couldn’t wreak havoc on his emotions.
He turned back to the coffee and made himself talk – that way he didn’t have to think about her smile.
“So Mum agreed I could rent the place. But what I wasn’t expecting was that she and Dad would get it renovated with the help of my siblings as my graduation gift.” He poured her a cup and handed it to her.
She took the cup and quirked a brow, “Graduation?”
He paused and studied her, “Yeah…graduation.”
Her eyebrows furrowed, “You went to college?”
Jayden chuckled and sat on the couch. She walked up to the couch, stood awkwardly before finally sitting beside him.
“Ahh, I see. You somehow assumed that because I’m a photographer…”
He caught the look of embarrassment that played on her face, “Well, no. I mean, I just thought. I mean, you don’t need a college degree to just pick up a camera –” She suddenly stopped and shut her eyes with dread.
“Just pick up a camera, huh?” He faced her.
“I’m not saying what you do is not important, its just some people would call it a hobby. You don’t exactly need years of study for it. It would make sense if you didn’t go to college.” She shifted in her seat.
“Have you ever picked up a camera, Kim?” He watched her.
Kim swallowed, “Not really my thing. I’d just go with my phone.”
Jayden smiled, as if he’d just proved a point.
“Well, little miss MBA, apart from insulting what I do, I can somewhat partly understand where you’re coming from. Not that I agree.”
“I wasn’t trying to offend you.”
He chuckled and waved off her statement. “Don’t worry. I’m not offended. Ignorance doesn’t offend me – much.”
“I’m not ignorant.” He couldn’t miss the hardness of her tone.
Jayden grinned, “No, but you’re easy to provoke. Loosen up.” He bumped his shoulder against hers. At his mere touch she was suddenly rigid again, holding her cup tighter.
“I should go. Gina will be at the store any minute.”
“She has a key. Don’t worry, I’ll walk you over and introduce you. Right now, I want to know how you’ve been.”
The question seemed to completely take her off guard, “How I’ve been?” Her eyelashes fluttered in surprise.
Jayden shrugged, “Yeah, last I saw you was two weeks ago. And…you were talking to yourself in the forest.”
She stared long at him before sighing, “That was an off day for me.”
Jayden nodded, “Uh uhn. Well, I hope so, because talking to yourself? Kind of makes me wonder…” He leaned in, “You know, coo-coo” and grinned.
Kim stared at him before chuckling, “I’m not crazy. Just wasn’t my day. Can we…can we please forget that whole day ever happened?”
Jayden suddenly realized she was more embarrassed about their encounter in the forest than he could have imagined. Was that why she was cold towards him at the store?
“No. I liked that Kim. I wouldn’t date her, but I liked her.”
“I liked the way she wouldn’t stop laughing despite me beating her at the Wii. I liked that she wasn’t afraid to call me babish or that she didn’t mind getting her hands dirty and throwing leaves at me.”
The smile slowly faded from Kim’s face and she looked down at her cup, “I’m not usually like that.”
“Because…” She quickly got up and placed her cup on the table, “I really should go.”
Jayden nodded, “Ok.”
He could tell she was upset. And instead of forgetting about it, he wanted to know more.
He walked her back to the clothing store in silence. The town was now fully awake and the streets were buzzing with activity. When they reached the store, he placed a hand on hers to stop her from going in.
“Hey, I’ve got something for you. Will you come by the studio after work?”
She took a deep breath and shook her head, “I don’t think –”
She opened her mouth. Then closed it. She made another attempt to speak, “I have a lot of work to do. I need to go through the files and everything.”
“It’ll only take a minute.”
A deep pensive look appeared in her eyes and she suddenly seemed utterly uncomfortable.
“Anyway, come if you can.”
A soft wind blew stray strands of her hair into her eyes.
Without thinking, Jayden reached forward and brushed the dark strands from her face. And before he knew it, his gaze had laced onto hers and refused to let go.
She was the first to snap out of it and look away. She opened the store and the bell rang but she stopped, turned halfway towards him and said, “Yes.”
“You asked if I played the piano. Yes. I just haven’t for a long time” a bout of pain contorted her features but before Jayden could let anything sink in, she stepped into the store.
He waited at the studio that evening but she didn’t come by.
CLICK HERE for Chapters 1-3