You Know I’d Never
Kara Lowndes © 2021
All Rights Reserved
“What’s wrong with you?”
I heard Bess’s voice cut cheerily through the quiet of the store, in that specifically slightly-rude-yet-somehow-polite way only women aged fifty or above could get away with. I looked up from the inventory I had been taking and found her beaming at me from the doorway.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “What do you think? Do I need a new haircut? Eyebrows done? Lose twenty pounds?”
“I was thinking more than you could use a good night’s sleep,” she replied briskly, striding over to the desk to loop her forest-green apron over her head. A swirl of the dusty morning air had flooded in behind her, and the tiny store suddenly smelled of the outside—car fumes and coffee and everything else that made up Clitheroe, Massachusetts.
“Okay, well, when you can convince Arnold to stop giving me the morning shifts, maybe I can squeeze one in,” I told her.
“Or you could do this thing that I’ve been hearing so much about,” she suggested. “Going to bed early? Ground-breaking, I know, but still…”
“I’ll look into it,” I promised her. “But it doesn’t sound like it’s for me.”
“Inventory?” she asked, pointing to the battered clipboard I held. I nodded.
“If you can keep from being overtaken by the thrill, I could use a little help,” I replied, and she came over to give me a hand.
Bess was nearly sixty, and after her husband had passed away, she had decided to get out to work for the first time. She had spent most of her life as a stay-at-home mom while her late husband worked to support them and their two kids, Annette and Ben, and she brought an eternally maternal vibe to everything she did. Including working with me at Robson’s Local, the grocery store that served our tiny town. She had only been there for a year, but I had already grown used to seeing her bleached-blonde coif coming through the door every morning, her crisp shirts (of which she seemed to have an unlimited supply) so sharp they could have taken out the eye of an unsuspecting customer. Not that she couldn’t have done that with one lash of her tongue just fine.
I had dealt with enough comings and goings in this store over the years to know a permanent fixture when I saw one—most summers, I had to deal with training up some hopeful high schooler, determined to prove that they were responsible enough for a driving licence by getting a job, most of whom crapped out by the time school came around again and they could show off their new wheels to all their friends.
I didn’t get that luxury, annoyingly enough. I mean, I could show off my car to my friends if I wanted to, but given that most of us were in our twenties by now, I doubted that it would have much of the same impact. Besides, it wasn’t like I ran into a lot of them around town anymore, not since most of them had left for college or careers or other real-life crap across the state. Most of the time, I could fool myself into pretending this had all been my choice, my decision, but in truth, I had been hiding out here for way too long to think about starting anew now.
Twenty-three. Twenty-three, and I was still too nervous to get out of this town. How pathetic was that? Only five years ago, I had been scrambling to figure out how I would fulfil all of my plans, putting degrees on top of international road trips next to careers in everything I had ever even had a passing interest in. If the version of me then had seen the version of me now, she wouldn’t have been impressed. And she would have told me to cut my hair short again, because it looked way better cropped than the long, brown, slightly tangled mess it was at the moment.
“I don’t think you’re going to have much luck getting any sleep around these parts for the next couple of weeks,” Bess sighed, as she helped me stock the shelves with tins of soup and pick an explosion of chips left there by an errant schoolboy the day before off the floor.
“Why do you say that?” I asked. And honestly, I had no clue what the hell was going to come out of her mouth next. If I had, maybe I could actually have prepared for it. I know there’s these moments in movies where the heroine hears some huge news and the whole world comes to a halt for a moment. I had always believed it was a little movie magic to make everything seem more exciting, more romantic, more thrilling and significant. Or maybe it was just that this news really was all that to me.
“That musical group are coming into town soon,” she explained, frowning slightly as she checked the price of the soup against the note on her clipboard. “Here, I think these are meant to be on offer…”
“What band?” I asked with some interest as I grabbed the clipboard on her to check.
“Something about fists, I think?” she replied, shaking her head. “I swear, my memory isn’t what it used to be these days…”
My vision blurred slightly. The words on the page before me seemed to crawl together like bugs.
“Clenched Fists?” I asked, and she nodded, snapping her fingers.
“Oh, yes, that was it!” she agreed. “Did you see the poster too?”
“No,” I replied, shaking my head. I blinked and tried to wipe some of the fuzz from the corners of my eyes. “I just…I’ve heard of them before, that’s all.”
That was putting it pretty fucking lightly. Like I hadn’t been following them for five years straight. Like I hadn’t spent every day trying not to think about the woman who played guitar, the way her fingers looked wrapped around the neck of her instrument, and how they felt wrapped around my…
“Really? I can’t say I’ve ever heard about them,” Bess replied, shaking her head. “Goodness, you know how out-of-date I feel? Maybe they should keep me in the back with the rest of the produce that’s reached its sell-by date…”
She continued chattering away to herself, and I knew I should have been listening, but her words faded out to a blurry buzz in the back of my head as I tried to take in what she had told me. Clenched Fists. Here. In Clitheroe. Elise with them. My brain dredged up a memory of her with her feet planted on the low coffee table of her parents’ house, her big, beat-up boots beside her, and I found myself wondering if she still had them, for some fucking reason.
Probably not. Because, unlike some people I could mention, she had actually been able to let go of the past.
“Are you all right?” Bess asked, waving her hand in front of my face to draw my attention back to the real world. I blinked, nodded.
“Fine,” I replied. “Just tired, that’s all.”
“A good night’s sleep, that’s what you need,” she told me again, but she kept her eyes pinned to me for a moment longer, like she was trying to figure something out. I offered her a quick smile, hoping it would be enough to deflect her attentions for now. Because the last thing I wanted was to have to come clean about what was really going on in my head at that moment.
I made it through the rest of the shift in a haze; I felt like my head was going to straight-up explode with the weight of the news that I’d had to take in. I told myself that I must have misheard or gotten something wrong, and I had just about convinced myself of that until I managed to sneak out to connect to the WiFi of the store across the street so I could check up online. And yeah, there it was—Clenched Fists. Hometown return.
A series of gigs over a couple of weeks, for charity, to raise cash for LGBT youth in the area. I looked at the band photo—the four of them, against that black backdrop, dressed in loose muscle shirts and tight jeans, their instruments slung over their backs and looped over their shoulders like they had hardly noticed they were there. I flicked my eyes over them one at a time—the singer, Melinda, who’d gone to the school one town over; the bassist, Elena, who’d been a friend of a friend in college when the band had started; the drummer who seemed to change out every time I checked in with them…
And then her.
This had been a test for me. A test to see if I had it in me to deflect the rush of blood to the head that came whenever I laid eyes on Elise. She had cut all her hair off not long before she had left Clitheroe, and I had always thought she had looked badass with it short. She had big brown eyes, a big nose, and a strong jaw, and the short hair just drew attention to her powerful features. Her gaze seemed to burn through the camera and straight toward me, the way it always had when we had been kids. Not kids—teenagers. Lovers. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
I clicked away from the page and stuffed my phone back in my pocket. Maybe I could just get a ticket somewhere and go out of town for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t like anyone other than Bess was going to miss me, right? I could have pretended that I didn’t even know they were coming in. Clenched Fists? Never heard of them. No, I just don’t listen to music; it’s not my thing…
By the time my shift finished, I had managed to think myself into a total corner about all of this. I could feel the walls closing in around me, mad at myself for letting it get this far. She was just an ex. Plenty of people had exes, and if I was going to insist on staying in my hometown, there was a solid chance that I was going to run into her. What was I so upset about? She was in my past; I was in hers.
But she wasn’t just an ex. She was the ex. I didn’t much go for cliché where I could avoid it, but if ever there was a time for it…she was the one who’d gotten away. Or, actually, I supposed, I was the one who had gotten away from her. Even though I would have done anything, anything at all, if I could have crafted it to turn out any other way.
I made it back to the studio flat I had that overlooked the one bar in town, just as it was getting dark outside. I would normally have to fight myself about getting takeout from the burger place across the street, but today, I was distracted. Even though my stomach was growling, I hardly noticed it. There was only one thing I hungered for, and that—
More cliché, apparently. I sighed as I closed the door behind me and leaned up against the wood, my head thumping. Not with pain, but with her. With the memories of everything we had done together. Though that was a kind of pain all its own. It had always been painful, even when it had been good—the pain and the pleasure had come wound up in each other until the lines between the two blurred uselessly into one.
Food. And maybe a beer. Yeah, that would make me feel better. I could drink and eat my problems away for tonight, and by the time tomorrow came around, I would be one day closer to putting her behind me again. In the past, where she belonged.
And one day closer to having her back in Clitheroe after all these years.