Home > Birthday Girl

Birthday Girl
Author: Penelope Douglas

Jordan

He’s not answering. This the second time I’ve called in fifteen minutes, and I’ve been texting without any luck, too. Was he planning on still remembering to be here at two?

I end the call and glance up at the clock above the bar, seeing it’s nearly midnight now. Still two hours before my boyfriend thinks I’m off work and need to be picked up.

And here I thought we got a lucky surprise tonight, me getting off early.

Shit.

I need to get my car running. I can’t keep relying on him for rides.

The music fills the air around me, customers laughing to my right and one of the other bartenders filling the cooler with ice to my left.

Unease pricks at the back of my neck. If he’s not answering, then he’s either asleep or out. Both could mean he’ll remember me after it’s too late. He’s not always unreliable, but this wouldn’t be the first time, either.

That’s the problem with making your friend your boyfriend, I guess. He still thinks he can get away with murder.

I grab my shirt and school bag out of the cabinet underneath the taps and slide my phone into my pocket. I pull on a flannel over my tank top, button it up, and tuck the front of the hem into my jeans, covering myself. I’ll dress a little sexy for tips, but I’m not about to walk out of here like this.

“Where are you going?” Shel asks, peering at me as she draws a beer.

I glance over at my boss, her black hair with blonde chunks piled on top of her head and a string of tiny hearts tattooed around her upper arm.

“There’s a midnight showing of Evil Dead at The Grand Theater,” I tell her as I close the cabinet and slide the strap of my leather satchel over my head. “I’ll go kill time and wait for Cole there.”

She finishes pouring her beer and looks at me like there are a million things she wants to say but doesn’t even know where to start.

Yeah, yeah, I know.

I wish she’d stop looking at me like that. There’s a good possibility Cole won’t be here at two a.m. considering he’s not answering the phone right now. I know that. He could be three sheets to the wind at some friend’s house.

Or he could be at home sleeping with the alarm set to come get me at two and his phone left in another room. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. He’s got two hours. I’ll give him two hours.

Besides, my sister is at work, and no one here can leave to drive me home. Work is slow tonight, and I got cut early because I’m the only one without a child to support.

Even though I desperately need the money just the same.

I grip the strap of the bag over my chest, feeling like I should be older than eighteen.

Well, nineteen now, almost forgetting what today is.

I take a deep breath, pushing the worry away for tonight. A lot of people my age struggle for money, can’t pay bills, and have to bum rides. I know it’s too much to expect that I’d have everything figured out by now, but it’s still embarrassing. I hate looking helpless.

And I can’t blame Cole, either. It was my decision to use what was left of my student loan money to help him fix his car. He’s been there for me, too. At one time, we were all the other one had.

Turning around, Shel sets the beer on the bar in front of Grady—one of the regulars—and takes his cash, shooting me another look as she enters the sale into the register. “You don’t have a functioning vehicle,” she states. “And it’s dark outside. You can’t walk to the theater. Sex slavers are just looking for hot, teenage girls with blonde hair and shit.”

I snort. “You need to stop watching Lifetime Movies.”

We might be an easy distance to some larger towns, and Chicago is only a few hours away, but we’re still in the middle of nowhere.

I lift up the partition and walk out from behind the bar. “The theater is right around the block,” I tell her. “I’ll make it in ten seconds if I run like I’m being graded.”

I pat Grady on the back as I leave, the gray hair of his ponytail swaying as he turns to wink at me. “Bye, kiddo,” he says.

“’Night.”

“Jordan, wait,” Shel shouts over the jukebox, and I turn my head to look at her.

I watch as she pulls a box out of the cooler along with a single serving box of wine and pushes them both across the bar at me.

“Happy Birthday,” she says, smirking at me like she knows I probably think she forgot.

I break into a smile and lift the small Krispy Kreme box open and see half a dozen donuts.

“It was all I could pick up in a hurry,” she explains.

Hey, it’s cake. Kind of. I’m not complaining.

I close the box and lift up the flap of my leather bag, hiding my loot inside, wine and all. I didn’t expect anyone to get me anything, of course, but it’s still nice to be remembered. Cam, my sister, will no doubt surprise me with a pretty shirt or a sexy pair of earrings tomorrow when I see her, and my dad will probably call me sometime this week.

Shel knows how to make me laugh, though. I’m old enough to work in a bar but not old enough to drink. Sneaking me some wine I can enjoy off the premises will be my little adventure tonight.

“Thank you,” I say and hop up on the bar, planting a kiss on her cheek.

“Be safe,” she tells me.

I nod once and spin around, heading out the wooden door and stepping out onto the sidewalk.

The door shuts behind me, the music inside now a dull thrumming, and my chest caves, releasing the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding.

I love her, but I wish she wouldn’t worry about me. She looks at me like she’s my mom and wants to fix everything.

I guess I should’ve been so lucky as to have a mom like her.

The welcome fresh air washes over me, the late-night chill sending goosebumps up my arms, and the fragrant scent of May flowers wafts through my nostrils. I tip my head back, close my eyes, and breathe in a lungful as my long bangs tickle my cheek in the light breeze.

Hot summer nights are coming.

I open my eyes and look left and then right, seeing the sidewalks are empty, but cars still line both sides of the street. The VFA parking lot is also full. Their Bingo night usually turns into a bar scene this late, and it looks like the old timers are still going strong.

Turning left, I pull the rubber band out of my hair, letting the loose curls fall down, and slip the band around my wrist as I start walking.

The night feels good, even though it is still a little crisp out. There’s too much liquor in every crevice in there, seeping up into my nose all night.

Too much noise and too many eyes, as well.

I pick up the pace, excited to disappear into the dark theater for a while. Normally, I don’t go alone, but when they’re showing an older 80’s flick like Evil Dead, I have to. Cole is all about special effects and doesn’t trust films made before 1995.

I smile, thinking about his quirks. He doesn’t know what he’s missing. The 80s were fantastic. It’s a whole decade of just good fun. Not everything had to have a meaning or be deep.

It’s a welcome escape, especially tonight.

Rounding the corner and making my way up to the ticket booth, I see I’m a few minutes early, which is great. I hate missing the trailers at the beginning.

“One, please,” I tell the cashier.

I fish out the wad of tips from my pocket that I made tonight and dole out the seven-fifty for the ticket. Not that I have money to spare with rent coming due and a small pile of bills on Cole’s and my desk back at our apartment that we can’t pay yet, but it’s not like seven bucks will make or break me.

And it’s my birthday, so…

Walking inside, I bypass the concession stand and head for the next set of double doors. There’s only one theater, and surprisingly, this place has survived for sixty years even in the wake of the bigger twelve-theater cinema centers built in the surrounding towns. The Grand had to get creative with midnight showings of classic movies like tonight, but also dress-up events and private parties, too. I don’t get down here much with my school and work schedule, but it’s a nice, dark place when you want to get lost for a while. Private and quiet.

Stepping through the doors, I check my phone one more time to see that Cole hasn’t called or texted yet. I turn my ringer off and slide it back into my pocket.

Some ads loop on the screen, but the house lights are still on, and I quickly scan the room, seeing a few loners spread out. There’s also a couple sitting in the back row to my right, and a small group of guys are in the middle—young by the sound of their inconsiderately loud laughter. Out of about three hundred seats, two hundred eighty-five are still available, and I pretty much have my pick.

I walk down five or six rows, finding an empty one and slide in, taking a seat midway in. I set down my bag and quietly pull out the purple box of wine, reading the label in the dim light.

Merlot. I was hoping it was white wine, but I’m sure Shel needs to get rid of this stuff. We only serve it when there’s an outdoor event and don’t want glass outside.

Unscrewing the cap, I sniff the pungent scent, not sensing any of the fancy aromas in the least that sommeliers seem to grasp from wine. No hint of oak with a “bold aroma of sweet cherries” or anything like that. Sliding my tray in front of me, I take advantage of the empty row ahead and bend up my knees, fitting my Chucks in between the empty seats on the arm rest.

Setting the box down, I slip my phone out of my back pocket, just in case Cole calls, and plop it on the tray next to the wine.

But instead, it spills off the tray. It falls down between my legs and onto the floor, and I jerk up my knees to try to catch it, but they bump the tray and send the open box of wine spilling to the floor.

My mouth falls open, and I gasp. “Shit!” I blurt out in a whisper.

What the hell?

Planting my feet on the floor again, I push the tray off to the side and dive down to the floor, feeling around for my phone. My fingers dip in the spilled wine, and I flinch at the mess. Glancing up over the seats, I see the group of three guys a few rows down, dead ahead of me and right in line of the oncoming winefall.

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