Lilith looked around the pub, checking every wall before she entered. The plush, beer-soaked carpets, dated panelled walls and general dinginess of this place were outweighed by the two things it had in its favour. Or rather, didn’t have. No CCTV and not a single foil-headed freak to be seen.
Not a single other patron, actually.
The jukebox was on, playing old rock songs and Lilith could tell as she approached the bar that the bartender was one of those simple types; few words and even fewer thoughts.
It was much further than staggering distance from home, but Lilith was not going back to that empty shell until she’d had a good few absinthes. She seated herself upon a bar stool.
“Absinthe, please,” she requested.
The bartender tilted his head to look at her. “Don’t got that, duck.”
No absinthe and he’d called her duck. She shook her head, politely. “Fine, give me your strongest spirit, double, no mixer, duck.”
The bartender was still staring at her. “Gonna need to see your ID, duck.”
Lilith groaned and reached into her purse, handing the bartender a very convincing, but completely fake, driving licence. He studied it for a while, before he spoke. “Is this fake?”
Lilith tried to keep her face neutral, wondering which bit he was calling out. Probably the photo. She had created it using e-fit software, based on how she looked when she saw herself in Caleb’s memories. “No—” she began.
“Right, ’cause it says you’re thirty-seven and you don’t look thirty-seven.”
Lilith dropped her shoulders in relief. “I’ve had loads of plastic surgery,” she replied. “Loads.”
The bartender narrowed his eyes at her suspiciously, before handing her back the card and reaching for a bottle. “Vodka OK, Lilith Vatore aged thirty-seven?” he asked. “Think that’s the strongest thing I got, unless you want turpentine.” He laughed at his own joke.
“Fine.” Lilith shrugged. It really did not matter what he gave her; it would still taste the same.
He settled the glass on the bar, adding an unnecessary slice of lemon and a strawberry to the rim. “Two simoleons,” he said. “The fruit is free.”
Bloody hell, that’s cheap. “Can I set up a tab?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said, taking the credit card she offered. “Planning a good session I see?”
Lilith nodded, not really wishing to engage this man in conversation. He smiled. “One of those secretive types, hey? No big deal. Enjoy your drink. Lemme know when you want another – oh,” he said looking at her empty glass.
“Same again? Or shall I whip you up something more interesting? Perhaps a mojito. Actually, no, you look more like a cosmopolitan woman.”
“Do I?” Lilith replied, amused. Maybe this could be her new thing. Maybe she could be a cosmopolitan woman. “Sure.” She grinned. “Why not?”
During her twenty-seven year tenure at Willow Creek Academy, rising from a teaching assistant to deputy headmistress, Barbara Bucket had gained many friends among staff, parents and students. Every morning, when she walked into her office, she’d be greeted by an apple on her desk, a crayon drawing of a dragon in her in-tray or sometimes a little face who just wanted to say hello.
She could speak six languages, fluently, allowing her to communicate easily with all of the children and their parents in their mother tongues. She could find a way to talk to anybody, to break down any barrier and find common ground.
She could reconcile with anyone, she reminded herself as she rapped her knuckles on the door, dislodging some of the flaking paint as she did so.
Babs had already pressed the bell twice. Which was twice more than she’d managed every other time she’d been stood on Adina’s doorstep in the last ten years. She had lost count of how many times she’d stood on this porch over that time, gift in hand, watching her former friend through the glass pane of the door and trying to get up the courage to announce her presence. And, ashamedly, this time may not have been any different if Chuck hadn’t been so insistent.
Babs had managed to delay the visit an hour by baking cookies, so Chuck had had to go to work rather than join her for the visit, which made the whole thing marginally less awkward.
Babs fiddled nervously with her bag of home-made cookies. Almond, but she had given them a special twist. She watched through the glass as a tiny figure in hand-me-down clothing padded towards the door, the little girl’s curiosity piqued as she saw who it was.
“Mrs. Bucket?” Joy asked, stepping outside. “Oh poo. Is this about the dye in the swimming pool? Because that was Max Villareal, not me.”
Babs had to try very hard not to smile. Of all the children at the school, Joy Splodge was surely one of the naughtier ones. The class clown, the prankster. Very bright but disinterested in schoolwork and always found in possession of contraband. Just like her sister had been.
And her mother.
“You’re not in trouble, Joy,” Babs reassured her. “I’m here to see your mum.”
Joy sighed as if she was the one dealing with a defiant child. She closed the door, placed her hands on her hips and looked up at Babs. “Why?”
“I’m her friend,” Babs said.
“Liar. Mummy doesn’t have any friends,” Joy insisted.
Babs adopted what Melinda had dubbed her teacher tone, “Can you please let her know that I’m here, Joy?”
Joy had heard that voice many times. She huffed. “OK. Wait here.”
Babs pretended to salute but it was lost on the child who wandered into the house, returning a few minutes later, hand-in-hand with her mother.
“It’s Mrs. Bucket, from school,” Joy stated. “But I’m not in trouble!”
“I know who it is,” Adina murmured. “I would recognise that cheap perfume anywhere.”
Babs took in the dishevelled appearance of Adina. She had always been one to glam up to the nines even if she had nowhere to go. Babs used to tease her for her vain quirks, such as putting fresh makeup on before bed, which she did ‘in case there was a fire and the firefighters were attractive’. She looked into the house, with its bare walls and minimal furnishings.
This was not how she remembered it at all.
“I baked cookies,” Babs said in a small voice, feeling at once both guilty and foolish.
“Cookies,” Adina said incredulously.
“Cookies?” Joy repeated, her eyes lighting up.
Adina laughed, dryly. “What are you, Barbara; a girl scout? I don’t want your pity parcel. What do you want? If you’re here to see Karl, you’re a few years too late. But if you hang around long enough, maybe you can catch him when he drops by at random to take Joy for a burger.”
At the mention of his name, Babs balked. She glanced down at Joy who was looking between the adults with curiosity. “Mrs. Bucket knows Daddy?”
“Intimately,” Adina scoffed.
Joy repeated this new word to herself. “Intidibately. What does that mean? Is it swearing?”
“Oh,” Joy replied, clearly not interested in the new word anymore.
“Dee,” Babs said, dusting off a nickname not used for years. “Can we talk? Privately.”
Adina scowled. Her face softened as she tilted her head down towards her daughter. “Go back inside, Joy.”
“Only if I can have the cookies,” Joy bargained, deviously.
“But Muuuuum!” Joy wailed.
Adina glared in Babs’s direction as Joy continued to whine beside her. “Fine! You can have the cookies.”
Joy did a happy little dance, before grabbing the bag Babs offered and running towards the back room.
“I’m sorry,” Babs whispered.
“You should be; she’ll be bouncing off the walls until sunrise.”
“No, I mean… I’m sorry.”
Adina looked surprised for a second, before she huffed. “Better late than never.” Her tone implied that the apology was not accepted.
Babs’s renowned communication skills were failing her. She glanced over at Joy, who was hungrily tucking into the cookies, seemingly oblivious.
“She’s thin, Dee. So are you—“
Adina rounded on Babs, her features alight with rage. “How dare you wander into my house after a decade of silence and say that!”
“I’m sorry, Dee. I’m just concerned, with Faith missing and… shoot, this is really difficult, I—“
“You think it’s difficult?” Adina scoffed. “Look, I know why you’re here, Barbara and no, I haven’t heard from Faith or Melinda. And more to the point, I don’t care—“
“You don’t mean that—“
“—She’s just another one who left when things got tough,” Adina hissed. “Good riddance.”
Babs was silent for a while. She waited until her former friend had calmed down, until her breath returned to normal, until the tears began to roll down her face.
“You don’t mean that,” Babs repeated, softly.
“Don’t tell me what I mean!” Adina’s words became broken as she tried to compose herself. “I have had the month from hell. I lost my job at the post office, you know; the new manager said I was a liability—“
“They can’t do that!”
“Well, they did. And she’s right; they couldn’t make the typeface on that screen any bigger for me and I was already sitting with my nose on the screen—“
“That’s discrimination! You’ve worked there for years, there must have been something they could do. Wait, so if you haven’t been working, how have you—“
“Survived? Faith had to pick up loads of extra shifts at the cinema,” Adina admitted. “I know that she hated it. She would go out after work most nights, get back late, drunk.” Adina shook her head, swiping at her face angrily to clear the tears. “After she left, Joy was snooping through Faith’s things and she found… she found…” Adina gulped, lowering her voice. “She found three wallets belonging to random men and about a dozen condoms. Strawberry flavour,” Adina said, wiping her wet hand on her pyjama bottoms. “Try explaining that to a seven year old. Then this morning, I was talking to the landlord—“
“—And he says that the rent we owed had been paid and what’s more, it had also been paid in advance for the next twelve months.”
Babs blinked. She wasn’t expecting to hear that.
Adina clutched at her chest, turning her face slightly to listen for Joy, to ensure she was still out of earshot. “That’s over ten thousand simoleons. Where did she get the money from? What on earth did I push her to do?!”
Babs stared at Adina, truly lost for words. She wanted to reassure her, tell her she hadn’t done anything, but Babs didn’t seem to know which way was up anymore. This theory was horrible, but was it any worse than the others that had been swimming around Babs’s head?
She reached for Adina’s hand, but her old friend yanked it from her grasp and snarled. “I haven’t forgiven you, Barbara.”
“Chuck has,” Babs offered, quietly.
“He always was too kind for his own good.”
“Dee, it was a mistake. I was in a bad place—“
“Like I am now? Is that the solution? I’ll just go bed Chuck then, shall I, and we can call it quits?”
“We didn’t… go that far. What Faith saw… that’s all there was. Karl was—“
“A rat? A coward?” Adina finished. She laughed. “Bedding Chuck. As if. It would be like sleeping with a giant teddy bear. And like Chuck would ever do that to you. Like I would,” she finished, softly.
The two women stood in uncomfortable silence, listening to Joy who was picking green bits out of the cookie she was eating and making over the top gagging noises.
“I’m really sorry,” Babs said again. “I don’t know what else to say.”
Adina sighed heavily, she reached for the door handle, grabbing it on the second try and opening the door, inviting Babs to leave.
“Dee, our babies are missing,” Babs whispered, her voice breaking as she crossed the threshold. “Please. Can we not put this aside?”
Adina unceremoniously slammed the door in Babs’s face. She turned her back on it and made her way to the table where Joy was adding another green bit to the pile.
“These cookies are weird, Mummy.”
Adina tried to take the anger out of her voice, but it lingered in the undertones. “How so, my lovely girl?”
“They’re full of yucky green bits. I think they’re vegetables,” Joy emphasised the last word with disgust as she grimaced and placed a cookie into her mother’s hand. “Here.”
Adina nearly ground the cookie to crumbs. The last thing she wanted was to accept anything from that homewrecking trollop. No, the last thing I want is to drive away anyone else, she thought, looking at Joy’s very blurry, cheeky little face.
She gingerly brought the cookie to her lips, taking a tiny nibble.
“No, Mummy. Take a proper bite or you won’t get any green bits.”
Oh sweet Watcher. Adina obliged. The odd flavour combination on her tongue, somehow pleasant and disgusting at the same time, rocked her to her core.
‘Um… what are these, Babs?’
Adina had lost count of how many times over the years she’d politely eaten her friend’s horrific culinary offerings. A laugh bubbled up from inside her as she picked a green strand from her teeth to add to the pile Joy had made.
“Is Mrs. Bucket still on the porch, sweetheart?” she asked.
Joy looked over and then turned back. “Yes, Mummy.” The girl paused, poking at the green gunk on the plate. “What are the green bits?”
“Sugar snap peas,” Adina replied, the smile curling the corner her mouth. “It’s a type of bean.”
“Gross! Why would you put those in cookies?” Joy gasped, outraged.
“Because it’s a peas offering,” Adina said, roaring with laughter.
It wasn’t even funny. It probably wasn’t even intentional.
It was so very Babs.