Excerpt – Smells Like Teen Spirit

© 2015 Rebecca Grace Allen

One hand gripping the rag, Rory turned to watch James sing. Thick forearms flexed as his hands roamed across the frets and strings. He seemed so serene, the music flowing effortlessly from him, one foot tapping a beat against the floor as he sang and played. And good lord, that voice. He’d sounded sexy when he’d merely said a few words, but hearing him sing was a whole new fucking ball game. Whisper-soft in the verses. Powerful in the choruses. Rory stood there, transfixed, until the song ended in a crescendo of louder notes as he jammed through the last few chords.

James Griffith was no open mic newbie. This guy was a full-fledged musician. The stage seemed smaller with him taking residence on it too, like he was already a star bound for bigger places than Hammond Falls, New York.

He smiled at the applause the tiny crowd gave him, and Rory was suddenly flustered by his grin. It was childlike, big and honest. It woke up a sleeping part of her that wanted to see if she could catch his attention again. But he was definitely younger than her—someone who could smile like that obviously hadn’t been kicked in the teeth by life yet—and Rory didn’t do Pearce kids.

Not anymore, anyway.

Focusing back on getting ready for closing, Rory moved through the cafe, lifting the wooden chairs, placing them upside down on each table in a way that made it clear closing time was soon.

Last call, kids. Everybody out of the pool.

Blondie led her crew toward the front door, pausing to give Rory a not-so-covert once-over.

“How long did it take you to do your hair like that?” she asked.

Rory fingered one of the bleached blond tendrils hanging down from her haphazard up-do. It was a rare moment of self-consciousness, and irritation boiled in her gut. Her lip curled up in the beginnings of a snarl, but Rory quickly stopped herself. This was work. She needed to behave.

“Probably as long as it took you to get so good at singing that song.”

Her tone was bright and bubbly enough that Blondie missed her sarcasm. James, however did not. Standing a few paces behind them with his guitar case, he snorted and covered his mouth.

A grin eased out of her. A real one. One that reminded her of the old Rory. It felt…weird.

The girls exited, and James took an uncertain step toward her.

“I’m really sorry to ask this, since I can tell you’re closing and all, but could I trouble you for a glass of water?”

Could I trouble you? What was this guy, a grandpa disguised as a guitar-playing college student? She stood there dumbly for a moment, half expecting him to pull a Scooby-Doo-esque mask off his face. The hot guy you’re staring at is actually an alien!

“Uh, sure. Yeah. No problem.” Rory went behind the counter. “You want tap or bottled?”

“Tap would be fine,” he said, voice raspy. She glanced over her shoulder in time to catch his wince. He was obviously in pain. And that voice was too beautiful to let suffer.

“I can make you some tea,” she said. “If you want.”

She wasn’t saying it so he’d stay here a little longer. She was being a Good Samaritan. Helping out the needy. Although if he was a Pearce kid like she suspected, she knew which one of them would take the lead in a ‘who-was-needier-than-who’ competition.

“That would be amazing. Thank you.” The relief on his face was palpable. James reached for his wallet, but Rory shook her head.

“You put on a good show. It was a nice change of pace compared with the crap I’m usually forced to endure. Consider it on the house.”

He tipped his head in a move that said Yeah? Rory gave him a shrug in reply. It was half a nice gesture and half not wanting to have to balance the till again. She nodded toward one of the chairs she hadn’t turned over yet.

“You can sit, if you want.”

His smile was too bright, lighting up the room again. She turned away to fill a ceramic mug with hot water. Retrieving the box that housed the cafe’s different types of teas, she hesitated before stepping out from behind the counter, then kicked her apprehension to the curb. She still remembered how to have a conversation, despite how much time she’d spent cloistered away over the last few years.

She strode toward the table, and placed the box and mug on top of it. “Drink up.”

“Oh, wow. This is great.” James opened a package of Peachberry Jasmine and submerged it in water. “Thank you again.”

“No biggie. I loved your Nirvana cover, by the way.”

The sudden honesty was a surprise. Rory blamed the song. Grunge had always moved her in a way no other music did, the sound so raw and intense, with lyrics about loneliness, isolation and yearning.

She had to stifle a laugh. Liking that music must’ve been fate. A cruel foreshadowing of what her life was going to be like.

“Thanks. I’ve been working on it for a while,” James said. “Nevermind was the album that made me want to learn how to play guitar.”

A performer who shared her taste in music. It plucked at her heartstrings. Or gut-strings. Or a-few-inches-lower-than-that strings.

He stretched his hand across the table. “I’m James, by the way. It’s nice to meet you.”

Rory’s brows skyrocketed. Again with the manners? The guy must’ve grown up in a functional household something.

“Dude, I know your name. I introduced you, remember?”

He laughed and retracted his hand. “Duh. Of course. I forgot.”

“You forgot?”

He nodded, and his cheeks went even redder. His blush made her want to say twisted and depraved things to him. To unearth the old Rory and see how deep she could get that crimson to go.

She reached her hand out toward him, a peace offering. “I’m Rory.”