Lightning Bay (Love's Battlefield): Episode 3
"Hey, sis!" Dillon throws a soggy fruit loop at me, pulling my attention away from my newest e-book.
I put my e-reader down and glare at him across the table as though I'm annoyed that he's disturbing my peace, but I doubt I'm very convincing. It's impossible to feel any anger towards my sixteen-year-old brother. I've missed him too freaking much. His teasing and stirring this past fortnight is about the only thing that has felt normal since I returned home.
It's been two weeks since my plane touched down. Two weeks since I knelt on the beach and threw up everything I'd eaten that day – the confrontation with Cam and Brooklyn quite literally being too much for me to stomach. Two weeks since I nearly packed my suitcase and begged my mum to forgive me for leaving Lightning Bay all over again.
Only three things stopped me that night. The first was Jo reminding me that P.C. University wouldn't keep my place for another year. Usually, they only allow a person to defer for one year. Still, they accepted my application for two years because of 'extenuating circumstances'. I doubt I can push them for the third year, and even if I could, I don't want to. Falling further behind my peers is entirely undesirable.
The second thing that stopped me from leaving is that I promised myself I wouldn't be a coward any longer; I'm supposed to be done running. And the third thing is the fact I really don't have the money to leave. Mum paid for my ticket from London to Melbourne. Not that I didn't try to talk her out of paying my way, but she insisted I save the money I'd worked for to put towards a car.
It's a good idea, considering my last car was written off, and I only had third-party insurance. But things are tight at home, and I suspect the money she shelled out for my ticket was the mortgage payment for that month. Thus, I'm desperately looking for a job. Maybe then she'll let me pay her back. Or at least, I'll be able to contribute something to the rent.
"You know where you should apply for a job?" Dillon asks randomly.
"Where, oh, wise one?"
"The new cinema on Norman Street. Have you seen it?"
I shake my head. I've barely left the house these past couple of weeks, despite the fact Jo and Evan have called every day asking me to go out with them. One of the few times I did go out, I was just walking to the shops to buy milk, and I had the misfortune of crossing at a traffic light where Cam and Brooklyn had just pulled up to a stop. The way he looked at me through his windscreen sent me scurrying home like a scared little girl.
So much for being done being a coward.
I don't want to stay locked inside the house, afraid to leave, but I'm terrified of bumping into Cam again. He asked me to stay away from him, and I want to oblige. I also need to get used to the fact we aren't friends anymore. Something much easier to manage when locked in my room, enjoying a fictional world, and falling in love with fictional characters.
"What's the new cinema like?" I ask my brother.
"It's unreal. Everything is so new and clean." He scrunches his face up. "Not like the one in P.C. where your feet get stuck to the floor."
"How long has it been open?"
"A month. It'd be an awesome place to work. Air conditioning and free movies, who wouldn't be tempted? Plus, it would get you to stop reading. You've been reading that book for days."
I don't tell him I've been reading a different book every time he's seen me with my e-reader. Every alternate reality I get sucked into feels far more palatable than my current one. Plus, visiting places outside of the Bay through reading is more affordable and practical than actually leaving.
A long time ago, I painted the places I wanted to visit and escape to – landscapes and scenery. A couple of days ago, I picked up one of my old paintbrushes and a spare canvas lying around. I quickly put the brush down again, however, when I grew disgusted with my lame attempt.
Every time I think about the fact that I'm supposed to be studying Art at uni, I cringe at my rusty skills.
"Do you get a commission, bro?"
"Why, do you think I'd make a good salesman?
I grin. "Maybe. I mean, it's a good idea, Dillon, but I'm sure they've got enough staff already. They would have been advertising for months leading up to the opening."
"Ah, but that was for the general opening. They want new people for the Diamond section that's opening in a couple of weeks. You could actually use the hospitality experience you racked up in the U.K."
"Well, aren't you full of pertinent information this morning?" I say, feeling optimistic for the first time since I came home.
"Make that every morning. I'm thinking about starting a website, ask-Dillon-dot-com. I could give out some of my more excellent solutions. At a cost, of course."
I have to admit, Dillon is doing a pretty good job of selling me on the idea. I've been applying for every job online within a sixty-kilometre radius. So far, I've only had a couple of responses, and both of them were rejections. Now, I'm starting to feel desperate. The job agencies I've contacted are telling me there isn't much work at the moment. I'm trying not to despair, but sitting at home, day in and day out, feeling purposeless and cowardly is getting tired fast. If there's a new section opening in the cinema and they want people with hospitality experience, I might have a chance. With all the pubs and hotels I worked for overseas, it's not out of the realm of possibility that they'll consider me.
I'm about to tell my brother that I'll go down and give my resume to the manager when I remember that Jo said something about Cam working in a cinema. She said the cinema in P.C., though. It's closer to the university, so I guess that's why he's not working in Lightning Bay. Thank God. There's no way I'm applying for a job at the place he works.
My brother, Riley, mumbles something that sounds like good morning as he sits down at the breakfast table with Dillon and me. It's the weekend, so we're all up a little later than usual. Mum hasn't even surfaced yet. Gone are the days when she'd be up before us all, telling us the day was wasting away.
"Morning, Riles. How did you sleep?"
His only response is a grunt.
When I left two years ago, Riley was sweet, charming and just as talkative as Dillon. Now he's eighteen – legally an adult – and he's sullen, moody, and hardly what I'd call a conversationalist.
"That good, huh?" I ask.
He glares at me. "Why do you look so happy this morning?"
I feign shock. "Don't I always look this happy?"
Riley shoots me a blank look. After a moment, he shakes his head. "Oh, you're actually serious. Do you really believe I don't hear you crying yourself to sleep every night? You're adorable."
Next, he's going to reach across the table and pat me on the head. I need to add sarcastic and patronising to my list of Riley's new qualities. Since I came home, it's like he's trying to win the National Sarcasm Award.
"I haven't been crying every night," I say.
"At least every second night then, thanks to that dick, Cam."
"Don't say that. He's not a dick."
Riley's hazel eyes darken with anger. "How can you defend him? The guy has had it out for you ever since the accident. And his sister is worse than he is."
It's second nature to defend Cam. I'm still not used to the idea we'll never be friends again. So I ignore the comment about him and focus on his sister instead. "How is Addie?"
Riley and Adelaide Anderson are the same age and have just graduated from high school together. Unlike Cam and I, who were best friends right up until the accident, Riley and Addie have never gotten along well. When our families started vacationing together a few years back, Cam and I tried to keep them from being in the same room together. It was either keep them apart or watch World War III break out. They hate each other.
"She's still a bitch," Riley says.
It sounds terrible, but if I'm honest, I've never liked Addie that much myself. She can be a complete cow when she wants to be. Which is far too often. She always thought she was too good to talk to Riley. She's called him a geek on more than one occasion, but he's never been one.
He especially doesn't look like a geek now. With his hazel eyes no longer hidden behind glasses, his light brown hair dyed jet black, and the piercings on his eyebrow and lip – both of which Mum hates – he looks the part of the rock band he's in. And with the heavy lifting and hard labour he's been doing at Gary's Auto, he's looking a lot more muscular these days.
"What?" Riley demands. "All she's done since you came back to town is spout off about how much she hates you and how she wishes it was you who died that night instead of her mum and sister."
I try to swallow the golf ball of emotion suddenly blocking my throat. That's pretty much what Cam said to me before I left the Bay. I hate knowing both of them wish me dead. Moreover, I hate that Riley is suffering because I'm back. It's not like he hasn't suffered enough.
"Well, maybe I'm chirpy because I just had some good news this morning. About a job," I say, wanting to give Riley something to be happy about.
"You heard back about one of your applications?"
"No." I motion to Dillon with my spoon. "But your brother here thinks I might be able to apply for a position in the new Diamond section of the Lightning Bay Cinema."
Riley looks at me then back at Dillon. "You didn't tell her, did you?"
"Tell me what?" I ask.
"It's nothing," Dillon says quickly, shooting a look at Riley.
"One of you spill, please. Now."
Dillon winces. "Well, Brooklyn Bishop may also be working at that cinema."
I spit out the spoonful of cereal I've just put in my mouth.
"Gross," Riley mutters.
"Brooklyn Bishop works there, and you weren't going to tell me?" I glare at Dillon. And this time, I'm pretty sure he can tell I'm legitimately pissed. "If I was a paying customer of ask-Dillon-dot-com, I'd be asking for my money back right about now."
"Hey, I gave you the information for free."
"I can't work there. Not with Brooklyn. No way."
Not only is Brooklyn my worst enemy, but she's also dating Cam. Her presence will undoubtedly attract his.
"She works downstairs, not in the Diamond section. You wouldn't be working together. Completely different levels."
"There's no guarantee she won't work in the Diamond section, and even if she didn't, our paths would still cross." Like every time we work a shift together. "I can't. I need to avoid her and both Andersons."
Riley shakes his head. "So you're going to stay inside for the rest of your life? Definitely doable. Not restricting at all. Forget a job and forget uni. While you're at it, why not go ahead and forget living your life, just stay in your bedroom and keep out of their way."
My mouth hangs open as I take in the anger burning brightly in Riley's eyes. Never before have I seen him so mad, and never before have I been on the receiving end of his wrath. He might have stirred me over the years, but we've always been close. Dillon, Riley and I are tight, for siblings. And Riley has always respected me and had my back. Ever since I've come home, however…Well, this isn't the first time he's inferred I'm…hiding.
"Riley, you don't get it," I say.
"No, I do." He pushes his chair back and stands up. "You say you're mad at Dad, but you're just like him. You're selfish, and you don't think about anyone else. Yeah, Cam turned on you, and it sucked that your best friend started to hate you, but you weren't the only one who suffered the aftermath of the accident."
I grew up with Dad telling me I was just like him. It's why I always cut him so much slack. We share the same birthday, and we both fancy ourselves artists. At least I did once upon a time. Hearing that I'm just like him, however, yanks the lid off the box I've been shutting that part of myself into. We're both escapists and dreamers. Dad also likes to drink far too much and struggles with living in the present. He hasn't been able to change in all these years. Am I just as incapable of change? I don't want to be like my father.
"I know I'm not the only one who suffered, Riley."
Riley leans on the table and glares at me. "Do you? We all lost something that day. Life wasn't the same for any of us after the accident - after Mum found out about the affair. Our whole fucking family fell apart, Kia. Our name was dragged through the dirt by Adelaide. But you just upped and left, leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces and deal with the fallout without a thought for anyone else."
"That's not true," I protest. "I thought about you. Of course, I did. Mum told me you were doing well. You told me you were fine."
Now that I'm home, however, I'm beginning to see how easily I deluded myself by taking them at their word. Riley has changed. And he isn't the only one. Mum is different, too. She seems to sleep poorly most of the time, and she's stressed to the max about money. Again, guilt sharpens in my gut as I think about the fact she paid for my ticket home when she probably shouldn't have.
Riley has been helping out by working down at the local mechanic's. He even put off going to university this year to work fulltime. Something I had no idea about until I came home and asked Riley why we wouldn't be joining me at university in March.
So, it's no wonder Riley is pissed at me. He's had to pick up the slack with Dad out of the picture, and now I'm telling him I won't take a job because I might see Cam and Addie. I'm so focused on my own pain, I don't seem to see anyone else's.
"I said that because Mum told me to," Riley informs me. "But it's bullshit. We've been here, facing the music and dealing with the situation. I thought that now you were back you were ready to deal with life again, but I guess not."
With that, Riley straightens and walks away, leaving his breakfast mostly uneaten.
I want to call him back and explain things to him, but what can I possibly say to make things right in his eyes? He's right about everything.
"Riley is always angry these days," Dillon sighs after a moment.
I push my bowl away from me. "He's right to be mad at me. I deserve his anger and hatred."
"He doesn't hate you. It's just… it's really sucked without you here."
I look at Dillon, concerned I've missed some significant signs with him, too. The sorrow and misery all over his face break my heart. I swallow, feeling another mountain of guilt added to the one already crushing me. All this time, my family needed me, and where was I? Overseas, escaping it all. I look down at my e-reader. Heck, I'm still hellbent on escaping reality.
For the past two years, I've let Cam's rejection of me and my friendship hi-jack my life. I've been running from the pain and guilt I feel instead of standing here and fighting side by side with my family. I want to escape Cam and Adelaide, most of this town, and everything else that doesn't feel right after that accident. I thought I'd stopped running, but staying here in the Bay is only the beginning.
I have been selfish and a coward. I am my father's daughter.
And if I don't start working a little harder, I'm always going to be like him.
I don't want to be one more mouth to feed, and I don't want to live at home any longer than I have to. Mum won't take any money from me until I'm working. I have to apply for that job. The idea of working anywhere near Brooklyn and seeing Cam again scares the hell out of me, but I'm not going to let that fear stop me. Not anymore.
"I think I'm going to drop my resume off at the cinema today," I tell Dillon.
He grins, getting up and dancing around the table in something resembling a victory dance. "Yes!"
"Let's do this," Jo says, opening the door to the cinema for me. "Hopefully it's Bishop's day off today."
"Hopefully," I mutter, thinking that if it is, she and Cam are probably off somewhere enjoying the summer day.
Jealousy, hot and white, fizzes through my bloodstream, making me feel too hot and cold at the same time. Cam hates my guts, but the memory of him kissing Brooklyn is a punch in the heart that steals my ability to breathe.
Trying desperately to fill my lungs with air, I walk into the cinema. Frigid air-conditioning and the smell of new carpet and buttered popcorn hit me as soon as the door closes behind us. Muted lights reveal poster after poster of movies old and new and A-list actors and actresses from years past and present. Straight ahead sits the ticket counter, while to my left side sits one of the longest candy and snack bars I've ever seen. The cinemas are on my right side, indicating cinemas 1-3 are on the bottom floor and cinemas 4-6 are upstairs. Fortunately, I can't see Brooklyn anywhere.
"Come on," Jo said, tugging on the sleeve of my blazer. "Over there."
Moving in the candy bar's direction, I focus on putting one foot in front of the other, nearly tripping when I see one of Brooklyn's lackeys behind the candy bar. She's wearing a cute grey and white shirt with the cinema name on it, and a gold bandana keeps the dark curls off her face. She looks harried but smiles when she sees Jo. A smile which quickly dims with she sees me standing beside Jo.
"Hi, Emily," I force out.
"Kia." Emily's smile looked as forced as my greeting felt. "How are you?"
"Great," I lie.
Emily Watts was a classmate at Lightning Bay High School. Since she and Brooklyn were such good friends, Emily and I were never more than acquaintances during high school. And after the accident, she turned her back on me like everyone else.
"You guys are busy this afternoon," Jo remarks.
"When aren't we? I'm feeling it today, though. God. Stubby got me drunk last night, and I didn't stop throwing up till three in the morning. I didn't see you there. At the party." Her gaze flicks to me and then back to Jo. "How come you didn't make it?"
"I had to work late last night. Didn't get off until ten, and by then I was too tired to do anything."
Before I went away, Jo and Emily never talked much. Yet now Jo and Emily party together? It's just one more example of how everything is different.
Well, everything except me. I'm trying to change, though. No, I'm not trying. I am changing.
At least, that's the goal.
"So, are after here to see a movie?" Emily asks.
"Actually, I'm here to talk to someone about jobs in the Diamond section," I tell her.
"Do you know who she can hand her resume to?" Jo asks.
Emily's eyes drop to the resume in my hands, and her lips thin as if she's just been told she needs to suck on a lemon. Clearly, the idea of me working here is one that doesn't please her. It's not like I'm dying to work with her either.
"You need to speak with Jeremy," Emily says stiltedly.
I'm not sure she would have told me that had Jo not been standing beside me.
She nods towards the escalators. "His office is on the second floor, but he's already interviewing candidates. He's even in the middle of interviewing someone right now, so he probably won't be able to talk to you."
"We'll wait till he's finished," Jo explains, pulling me along behind her as she starts walking towards the escalators.
"Wait!" Emily calls out.
"Thanks, Em," Jo calls over her shoulder, ignoring her friend's request to stop.
"If he's already interviewing, I'm too late," I moan as we take the escalators up to the second floor.
"Like she'd tell us if there were any jobs still available. Don't give up hope yet."
It doesn't take us long to find the office door with 'Jeremy Rawson' on it.
Taking a seat next to Jo on the grey leather couch outside his office, I try to think positively. I do my best to imagine myself walking out of here, celebrating my new job. Still, I can't get past the fact there is someone behind Mr Rawson's door, interviewing for the job – a job that I might want.
Finding it impossible not to fidget and worry, I stand up and start pacing.
Jo shoots me an irritated look. "Will you quit that?"
"Sorry." My body is hotwired by nerves. "I'm just so nervous."
I continue pacing back and forth in front of the door, waiting for the manager to finish so I can give him my resume. The moment I hear the door handle turn, I stand still and wait to come face to face with the manager. However, when Cam walks out of the room, I realise I've got more significant problems than convincing the manager to hire me.
Dressed in a sharp black suit and shirt, looking equal parts intimidating and gorgeous, my heart flutters in my throat as his cold glare pins me to the spot. Is there any chance Cam wasn't here for an interview?