Jayden clicked on his computer trying to decide whether he should go with black and white on a particular picture or colored. He could always just print out both. He sighed. He had promised his client he would have these ready by tomorrow. But he was off his game. Instead he would find himself staring at the large print of Kim on his table. One of the ones he'd taken at the forest. He'd meant to give it to her but she hadn't stopped by the antique store since Monday. In fact, he hadn't seen her since Monday, her first day on the job. He'd thought about going over to say hello but keeping his distance was best. He couldn't pretend to be her friend. If she knew the truth, she certainly would not consider him a friend. His stomach twisted inside of him and he suddenly felt sick. He got up, agitated. Even his studio didn't feel so safe anymore. Not when his mind would take him back from time to time. He'd gotten rid of any framed picture that helped torment him, yet he still felt that void in his chest. That feeling that made him want to sit in a corner and bawl. Or punch a wall with all his might. Or simply not get out of bed in the morning.
He shut his eyes, "God, I don't know what to do".
His phone beeped. It was a reminder for bible study with the guys in an hour. They had a bible study once a week, usually around lunchtime like today. It was one of those things he highly looked forward to. One of those things that kept him going.
He walked to his high table where he'd spread out the pictures he'd already printed, trying to work out what was missing and what he still needed to print. Definitely going with the black and white shot.
The vibrating of his phone, followed by its ringing noise from his pocket, interrupted his thoughts. He found it wasn't a number he recognized.
"Jayden Finnegan here."
"First order of business for the antique store, we need to get it its own telephone."
Jayden froze. He immediately recognized her voice. And something about that voice made his heart jerk in pain. He ground his teeth and swallowed.
"Hello to you too, Kim. I'm doing very well, thank you for asking."
"How come you have a landline in the studio but the antique store doesn't?"
He passed a hand through his hair, "I don't know. I guess I'm hijacking the store's landline. Mum usually uses her cell."
"We're gonna have to fix that."
Was there a time when the girl actually sounded cheerful? "Is there another point to this call apart from the landline?"
"We desperately need Carol at the clothes store. Overflow of people."
"Er...wait two seconds. I can hear her attending to some customers right now - hold on." He went downstairs to the antique store and sure enough, Carol was attending to an old couple who was asking her questions about shipment of bought furniture to their home. And from what he could see, two other customers were looking around the store and might need assistance.
He went back to the studio, "Kim, you there?"
"That wasn't two seconds."
"Carol's busy. You'll need to give her at least 30 minutes."
"Don't have that long."
Jayden looked at the prints he was working on on his computer, "Kim, I'm sort of busy at the moment and I have some place I have to be in 45 minutes."
"I wasn't asking you." She was irritated.
He sighed and shut his eyes, "I'm coming."
"No, we'll manage. You obviously have stuff you're doing."
"Kim, I said I'm coming."
He hung up, informed Carol where he was going and made it to the clothes store 5 minutes later.
There was considerably more people than there should be at lunchtime on a Thursday.
Gina stood at the changing rooms giving advice to a young woman who had tried on an evening gown. Kim was showing two ladies some tops at the thrift section. A number of people were going through the racks. A woman with a child appeared impatient, as she stood near Kim a couple of clothes in her hand, obviously trying to get her attention. Another woman stood at the cash register waiting for someone to attend to her.
Jayden went straight to the till, smiled at the woman and cashed in her clothes. He joked around with her and made sure she left smiling.
Gina caught his eye from where she stood and grinned, exaggerating a look of relief.
Next, Jayden attended to the woman with the child while playing with the woman's little boy. When he was done, he approached Gina near the changing rooms. Gina smiled at him, but something about her smile was off.
"You Ok, Sis?"
She nodded but failed to meet his eyes. Instead, she passed a hand through her kinky hair which she wore in its usual stylish afro puff. Gina, a good friend of Eric’s, was in her late twenties. She was one of those people with a constant genuine smile on her face, come rain or shine. Which was why looking at her now, Jayden could tell her smile was forced.
Before he got a chance to enquire some more, the customer came out of the changing room with a different 60s styled evening gown. Its stunning red complimented her hair color.
"Wow. Miss, that looks great. I would definitely buy that for my girlfriend. If I had one." Jayden grinned at the young woman who blushed, pleased. She pulled the curtain to change after affirming she would buy the dress.
Gina turned to him and slapped him on the arm, "How did you do that? She hasn't been able to make up her mind for the past 30 minutes, no matter what I said," she whispered.
"Ahh, nothing to it. Just a little bit of the old Jayden charm."
Gina chuckled, "The inexistant Jayden charm."
"Yet here you are, unable stay away. I think it’s working.” He shook his head at her.
Gina’s laugh wasn’t very convincing. Her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. Jayden followed her to the till.
"Everything OK? Is it Tyler?"
Gina looked down at the cash desk and cleared her throat. "Tyler's good. Really tried to come in earlier today after dropping him off at school this morning but you know what traffic is like at that time..." She sighed and finally met Jayden's eyes, "Don't worry about me. I'm exhausted, that’s all. Tyler's at that age where he's asking a lot of questions and I feel like I can't..." Gina's voice broke.
Jayden took her hand from across the desk, "Hey, you're doing great. You hear me?"
She shook her head from side to side. "No, I'm not, Jayden. I might lose my job and then where would we be?"
Jayden's brows furrowed. Gina immediately looked like she regretted her own words. Her eyes drifted past him and Jayden followed her gaze to where Kim stood, seemingly helping a client choose between two different wide rimmed hats.
"I need to get back to work, Jayden." Gina walked off.
The door to the store rang as more people stepped in. Jayden looked at his watch. He was definitely not making it to bible study today.
Kim’s eyes fixed Jayden as he answered to the only customer left in the store. Gina had left minutes ago on her lunch break and it was just the two of them as staff. He certainly had people skills. She’ll give him that. She hadn’t missed how he’d played with two customer’s children, making the little ones laugh and their parents smile. She hadn’t missed how he’d given different customers all of his attention. She certainly hadn’t missed how he seemed to get on superbly with Gina, even holding her hand at the cash register. And now, he’d gotten into a discussion with the young customer, making her laugh so much that one would think they were old friends. She’d started doing that hair flipping, eyelash fluttering thing Kim had gotten down to a science. The customer had to be around the same age as them. And she sure was pretty, with her slender build and long blond curls. Kim rolled her eyes.
“Jay, could you come help me rearrange the display?” She put on the sweetest voice she knew how.
Jayden turned to her, “I’ll just finish answering Laura here…” He motioned to the girl who grinned.
Laura? Seriously? They were on a first name basis?
“No, I need you to do it now. I’ll answer the client.” She put on her most appealing smile and tactfully twirled the end of her ponytail. Yup, she had it down to a science.
Jayden hesitated and appeared slightly uncomfortable. He nodded and proceeded.
Kim smirked at Laura as she worked the till. Laura snatched her parceled purchase from Kim and seemed to hurry out of the store.
“You know what, Jay? I think the display’s fine just the way it is,” Kim said.
Jayden turned around to look at her before stepping down from the display window.
He wore a flannel shirt like the one he’d worn on the day they’d crossed paths in the forest. Only this one was black with a tinge of green. He’d rolled up the sleeves, displaying muscular arms. He shoved his hands in the back pockets of his beige pants and approached her. He came up pretty close.
“Hey,” He spoke.
“Hey,” She smiled.
He mirrored her smile, “Didn’t get a chance to talk to you with so many people in here.”
“Talk to me?”
He nodded and came up closer to her. “Yeah. Good thing it’s just us, right? It’s nice to have a little privacy once in a while.” His eyes captured hers and refused to let go.
She made herself breathe, “Yeah…”
He smiled but his eyes were different. Dishonest.
He took her gently by the arm, “Come with me,” and led her to the door leading to the staff quarters. He inserted the code and led her to the office.
“A lot more private.” His eyes fixed her and she couldn’t look away as he closed the distance between them. He brushed the hair off her face, that same cunning smile in place.
“I knew you were vain, now I know you’re also jealous and unkind.” His smile faded.
He moved back and sat on the table. “Don’t do that again, please,” His voice, low.
“The flirty smile and eyes with the hair twirling just because you were jealous. I’m not your pawn.”
His words destabilized her. She shifted from one heel to the other, “I wasn’t jealous.”
Jayden shrugged, “I don’t really care. I’d just appreciate it if you didn’t do that.”
She bit hard into her lower lip. What was it with this guy? One second he was sweet. The next he was calling her names.
She folded her arms across her chest, “In case you missed it, you were all flirty two seconds ago before you called me vain, jealous and unkind.” She shook her head at him, “You’re a jerk”.
“You’re right, that was wrong of me.” Jayden said softly, yet his eyes remained hard.
“Where do you get off calling me names? Vain? Unkind? You don’t know anything about me!” She’d slightly raised her voice. Now, if only it hadn’t shook.
She put her hand to her face, her emotions getting the better of her. Since her meeting with her father yesterday, keeping it together was a lot harder than she could’ve thought. She’d been unable to sleep last night when she heard Mum watching television downstairs. Her mother seemed, just like her, to also have trouble sleeping lately. She’d gone down to the living room to cuddle with Mum, only to realize that her mother was watching old family tapes. She was watching the tape of Kim and Raelynn’s seventh birthday party. Back when their lives were perfect – or at least close. Kim had been unable to stop herself. She’d burst into tears and cried herself to sleep in Mum’s arms, while Mum tried to calm her.
Jayden stared at her and his eyes slowly softened.
“You have got to be one of the most judgmental people I have ever met!”
He said nothing for a second. “You threatened to fire Gina, if that isn’t unkind…”
“That is business!” Her voice went up another notch. “I need someone who can come in by 8am sharp. She told me it should be fine but then she came in late thrice.”
Jayden sighed, “Gina’s practically family. You don’t just threaten to fire her, you talk to Mum about it. If Mum had a problem with her coming in at –”
“I’m sorry, tell me, am I working for you or for your mother? Because this –” She waved her hand in the air. “This is not working. You coming in here, calling me names and telling me what to do is not going to work.”
Jayden stared, then finally nodded, “You’re right, I’m so –”
“No you’re not. You still think I’m vain, jealous and unkind. I have apologized for the way I treated you in middle school. But for crying out loud, I was a kid! Get over it!”
Jayden passed his hand through his hair, “Kim, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Kim scoffed, “Of course not. You just insult me and expect me to take it with a smile?”
“I just – I heard about what you said to Gina –”
“And you immediately made an opinion.”
“It looks bad from where I’m standing, Kim.”
“Just leave me alone, Jayden.” Kim bit hard into her bottom lip to stop it from trembling.
“Just go, Jay. Please.” Her voice came out softly, but she felt her shoulders shake with rage.
Jayden stared at her then nodded, stood from the table and made for the door.
He turned around, a sadness in his eyes.
She looked away to face the wall. “You know two weeks ago when you showed up in the forest? In my hopelessness –” She paused and took a deep breath, “In my hopelessness, you came out of nowhere. And you didn’t seem to care who I was or who I’d been. You thought I was worth you just sitting there with me. You shared your Oreos and put your coat around me. You made me laugh. And I thought to myself, I want to be that person. That person who didn’t judge me based on how horrible I’d been to them. That person who treated me as if I’d never made a single mistake in my life”. She met his eyes, “But I guess that’s all fiction, isn’t it? Because that’s not really you.”
Jayden swallowed. Her words seemed to have seared his conscience. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out.
Kim turned away.
She heard the door shut behind him.
That was one more person out of her life. Not like he had really been in it.
Click HERE for Chapters 1 - 5