"I could really use a cigarette right now."
Hannah Ayers glanced up from where she was crouched on the floor, texting under the cash register that she was supposed to be tending. Her coworker, Ryder Manning, used a napkin to wipe the sweat from his dark brow in the overheated pizza parlor, his raised arm exposing the cryptic tattooed words on his right forearm.
"Damn." He sighed heavily and lifted his aqua eyes to the clock on the wall; the diamond earring in his left ear sparkled under the fluorescent light. "Three hours till closing time. It's like it never ends."
"I know," Hannah agreed. She tucked her cell phone back into the hideous maroon apron she had to wear and stood back to her feet. "But just think about it. After this shift, we are home free. And tomorrow, it's all about the beach."
Ryder snorted. "For you. I got stuck on the schedule this weekend, even though I requested off six months ago." He folded his arms over his broad chest. "This place has got it out for me."
"Yeah, yeah." Hannah rolled her blue eyes in agitation; the entire world was out to get Ryder, if you asked him. "You're coming down, what, Sunday?"
"Yeah, and then-"
"Hello! Ryder, what the hell?" Model-like Mallory Jennings stormed toward the register, her long pale blonde ponytail whipping behind her. "I can't wait these tables by myself, you know. Stop talking and get busy!"
Hannah grinned. "You're slacking," she informed Ryder delightedly.
"Of course he is," Mallory snapped. "That's all Ryder ever does."
His eyes narrowed. "Are you kidding me? I just spent the last twenty minutes sucking up to those moron guys in the booth. They weren't satisfied with anything! And you know how much they tipped me? Seventy-six cents. Seventy-six cents, Mallory!"
"Really?" Mallory's blue eyes had lit up as a cheeky grin appeared on her face. "The blond one gave me five bucks. He said he felt sorry that I had to work with you."
Hannah laughed. "The red head gave me five too, for the same reason."
"I hate my job." Ryder untied his apron and slammed it against the cash register counter. "I'm going out to smoke. If I don't come back, it's because I quit."
"You wouldn't dare," Mallory challenged, her blue eyes flashing.
Ryder studied her momentarily, while his face hinted at all the nasty insults he was thinking in his head. Finally, he turned to Hannah. "I'll be back in five."
Hannah shrugged. "Fine."
The girls watched in silence as Ryder stomped to the back and managed to control their giggles until they heard the back door slam. It was classic Ryder, always the victim with nothing ever being satisfactory enough for him.
"Oh God, I don't want to be here either," Mallory groaned. She fidgeted with a stray strand of silky hair that had fallen out of her ponytail. "This is not how I pictured working here would be."
"Me either." Hannah was sympathetic to her waiter and waitress friends. Her employment at Casanova Pizza had begun six months ago when her never-ending visits had prompted her to petition a frequent eaters' card. The manager had been so impressed by her fierce argument that he had offered her a position, which would guarantee free pizza while she worked and a fifty percent discount when she wasn't; it was better than a frequent eaters' card. Waitressing, however, had not been Hannah's calling. Her temperament had really rattled the nerves of even the most loyal customers. Thus began her cashiering, which proved to settle the environment substantially.
Mallory rubbed at the side of her neck. "What time is it? The chess club should be getting here soon, right?"
Like clockwork, every Thursday night, the chess club demanded their vegetarian pizzas. "Yeah, within the next ten minutes," Hannah confirmed with a glance at the clock. She grinned, asking, "Are you going to make Ryder take their tables?"
Mallory wrinkled her nose. "Hell, no. Those guys actually have manners and tip to the correct percentage every time." She leaned in closer to Hannah, lowering her voice. "Besides, my mother's book club is coming tonight too, and Mrs. Fitzgerald has a huge crush on Ryder." Leaning away, Mallory's signature saucy grin appeared. "I think that's a fair trade for Ryder's slacking."
Confused, Hannah tipped her head. "Won't she be a good customer then?"
"Psh." Mallory waved her hand. "She's the most needy woman I've ever met."
Hannah laughed as Mallory walked away to check on one of her tables. The only reason she had really kept the job at Casanova was because of the fiery personalities of her coworkers; their drama was a great distraction from the school work that she hated and the boredom that loomed if she didn't do her homework. Before Hannah could start to dwell on how much she actually hated everything else about her job, her apron vibrated, announcing the arrival of a new text message.
Dont be any later than 9 or I will have to kill u.
Ethan Sharpe's text made Hannah laugh. If she hadn't had to work tonight, she would already be home at her parents' house, probably sleeping in preparation for the twelve hour drive to Panama City Beach, Florida. It had been deemed the Spring Break Destination this year, and everybody who was anybody was going to be there. She was really looking forward to a week spent laying around on the beach, trying not to get a sunburn, and sleeping the days away. Since she had been scheduled to work, she was driving the hour home from college in the morning to meet her friends for the trip.
"Hey, Han, will you take this order to table twenty-five?" Richard, the cook, ringed the bell twice, probably just to be obnoxious. "It's Ryder's table."
"Sure." Hannah turned and grabbed the enormous pizza off the rack, hoping that she wouldn't drop it like she normally did. Balancing it between both hands, Hannah waltzed across the pizza parlor and settled it on the table, between two guys and two girls; she vaguely recognized one of the guys to be in her Philosophy class and wished she had spilled it to teach his constant questions a lesson for annoying her. "Here you go," she said dryly.
By the time she was back to the register, Ryder was back, retying his apron.
"Have a nice break?" Hannah asked him.
Ryder shrugged. "I guess." He glanced around, as though checking to make sure that Mallory wasn't nearby to yell at him for just hanging out behind the counter. "So which hotel are you staying at?"
"I'm not." Hannah kneeled beneath the register and texted Ethan back a whole list of curse words, their typical conversations these days. "My friend's boyfriend's family has a condo, so a bunch of us are staying there because it's huge."
"Gotcha." Ryder leaned against the counter, his elbows holding his weight. "Well, I better see you down there."
Hannah offered him a smile. "Of course. You owe me suntan lotion, remember?" Ryder's face clouded, proving that he had no recollection. "The bottle I had in my car? That you sat on and it leaked everywhere?"
"That wasn't my fault," Ryder protested, pulling a face. "The cap was open. It was bound to happen sooner or later."
Shrugging, Hannah gave him a sweet smile. "Yeah, but it happened to be from your ass, so I'm forced to hold you accountable."
"Fine. As long as I get to rub it into your back."
"Eww." Hannah wrinkled her nose. "Why would I let you do that?"
Ryder raised his eyebrows. "Come on, I'm trying to take responsibility for my actions here. This is probably the first time I've ever offered to in my life, so you should take advantage of it."
"So you can take advantage of her?" Mallory smirked, appearing out of nowhere like usual. "Hannah's too smart for your games, Ryder."
Hannah laughed when Ryder raised his middle finger to Mallory. "Are you going to Panama too, Mal?" she asked. "Or is your boyfriend making good on his promise to take you to Cancun?"
Mallory scoffed. "He isn't, and I think I am." She flipped her blonde ponytail over her shoulder. "David canceled the cruise at the last minute, so I told him we're taking a break - indefinitely. I think I'm going down with some of my girl friends."
"Farewell to the peaceful beaches," Ryder muttered. "There's no rest for the weary if you're within a sixty-mile radius."
"You're weary?" she asked. "You don't do anything to get weary." Mallory picked up a readied pizza before Richard could ring the bell. "I think you're just miserable on account of being a miserable person."
Ryder glared at Mallory's retreating back, as Hannah laughed lightly. "Don't listen to her," he advised. "She's just pissed because her boyfriend is gay."
Hannah raised her eyebrows. "That's a claim I've heard from multiple sources."
"So it must be true," Ryder replied lightly.
"Or you must have spread that around to several people."
Ryder smiled. "Though the girl does infuriate me every single second that I'm near her, I'd never do that. It's just true that David prefers guys."
"If you say so." Hannah's phone vibrated again, but since she assumed it was just Ethan's vulgar response, she decided to ignore it for the moment. "Who'd you say you were spring breaking with?" she asked.
"Just a couple of my good friends," Ryder replied. His eyebrows knitted together, suddenly concerned. "Wait, so you're leaving tomorrow? When?"
"Evidently, by nine," Hannah answered, rolling her eyes at the mental image of Ethan's anger coming to life if she were late. "I'm headed home in the morning to meet my friends. We're creating a caravan and busting it all the way there."
"Why don't you head out early then?" Ryder offered. "You've probably still got some packing to do. No use hanging around here when you've got such a busy day tomorrow."
That surprised Hannah. "It's okay. I'm mostly packed."
"No, I insist." Ryder reached over and untied Hannah's apron. "I can cover the register and my tables. We're not too busy."
That wasn't an offer that Hannah was going to turn down twice, that was for sure. "Okay!" she chirped. She slid her apron off and paused, suddenly suspicious. "What's the catch?"
Ryder feigned innocence. "There isn't one. I'm just trying to be a nice guy." Hannah's look of disbelief must have been more fierce than she thought. "I mean, really, how many people have you rang out in the last hour?"
"Like, two," Hannah admitted.
"My point exactly." Ryder offered out his hand to accept Hannah's apron. "Go ahead."
"Only because you insist," Hannah said slowly; then she broke into a smile. "Thanks, Ryder."
He returned her smile with a lopsided grin. "Anytime."
Hannah parked her white Jeep at the apartment complex where she had lived since the previous August. Though she hadn't hated living in the dorms her freshmen year, she had decided that being a sophomore meant that it was time to move forward in her big girl life. Thus, she and one of her best friends, Libby Heatherly, who had been her roommate freshmen year, had moved into a two-bedroom apartment at one of the popular college complexes, not too far from campus.
Exiting her car, Hannah thought about how grateful she was to leave work early. While she still didn't necessarily trust Ryder's sweet actions, she couldn't think of a motive, so grateful was the emotion that she had decided to feel. Under the circumstances, she probably would have offered the same proposition to him - or at least she would have if he weren't a server, because she absolutely despised waiting on people.
She climbed the three flights of stairs to the top floor apartment, 1531. Hannah reached her key out, prepared to unlock the red door, when it opened before her.
"Oh shit!" Chris Garrison jumped in surprise at seeing Hannah, which automatically made her smile. He was Libby's boyfriend, and he was the sweetest, wealthiest person she'd ever met in her entire life; it was his family's condo that they were staying at in Panama City. "H-hey, Hannah."
She smiled. "Hi, Chris. Leaving?"
"Yeah." His blush was instant. "Busy day tomorrow. I've gotta head home and finish getting ready. And get some sleep, of course."
"All right." Hannah's smile widened as he grew more uncomfortable; she couldn't be around him for more than a minute without laughing, especially given Libby's blunt personality. They were total opposites, but they'd been somehow making it work for the past seven months-a new record to Libby. "Have a good night!"
"Y-you too." He brushed past her, mumbling, "I'll see you tomorrow, Hannah."
Laughing lightly to herself over his odd sheepishness, Hannah pushed the door open to find Libby laying across the couch, her dark hair fanned around her and an empty wine bottle on the coffee table. "Hey, Lib. Have a good night?"
Libby's grin could only be described as drunken and maybe even post-sex. "Yeah. You're home early."
"Ryder told me to go home and finish packing." Hannah shrugged and settled into the chair beside the couch. "I'm already finished, but so what?"
"Oh, Ryder…" Libby giggled. "He wants in your pants, Han. You know that, right?"
"No, he doesn't," Hannah answered, offended. "He's just nice. Sometimes. On occasion." Her brow furrowed. "Well, he can be, when he's not busy doing nothing." She shifted uncomfortably. "Anyway, what are you doing here? I thought you were going home tonight."
"I was going to…" Libby sat up, tucking her legs beneath her. "But, I guess, well, Chris's parents offered to fly us out tomorrow instead." She had the decency to look sheepish. "So we're not leaving until tomorrow afternoon."
Hannah stared at her friend blankly. "Really?"
"Yeah, but don't worry," Libby said quickly. "Everyone else is still driving, so there are plenty of spaces to carpool in."
Since Hannah had been going to ride with Libby and Chris, as well as Tisha and her boyfriend, Brent Riggs, there was reason for some concern. She sure didn't want to drive twelve hours by herself, after all. "Who am I riding with then?"
"Tisha and Brent, of course." Libby used her left hand to tuck her hair behind her ear. "I know we were going to take Chris's car, but Brent said he could drive."
"Okay." Hannah propped her feet up on the coffee table, the weight causing the wine bottle to rattle. She snapped her head in Libby's direction. "Was Chris drunk too?"
Libby scoffed. "No." She pulled a face of dramatics and said, "He's saving himself for spring break." Rolling her blue eyes, Libby threw her hands up. "I don't know what his problem is. It's just wine."
"So you drank the whole bottle by yourself?"
Grinning, Libby shrugged and pulled her dark hair off her neck and fastened it into a sloppy bun. "You know how I love my moscato."
"I do know." Hannah looked up at the ceiling in thought. "I'm thinking that I should drive home tonight, since I've already packed everything. Then, even if I oversleep, Tisha can wake me up, so we aren't late leaving."
Libby's eyes widened, making her already drunk-eyes look slightly demented. "Han...you haven't slept there since… Well, since."
Hannah frowned but felt herself growing defensive. "And how many times did I sleep there before? It's not a big deal."
"If it wasn't a big deal, then you would have slept there since."
The brutal honesty of that sentence made Hannah flinch. The last night that she had slept at her parents' house was the night that Jake Allen had informed her that he was leaving to study abroad for a year. The very next day, after she had cried herself to sleep, she had gone to visit her grandma in Sandusky, Ohio, and spent every holiday since with her. It was much better for her mental and emotional stability than staying in a house where she had shared so many memories with her one true love, Jake.
"Why don't you just wait until the morning?" Libby suggested hopefully. "I can even wake you up, if you want."
Hannah raised an eyebrow at her friend. "Really?"
Second-guessing herself, Libby said, "Okay, well, I'm probably not the most reliable one to be your second alarm clock." She reached for her cell phone. "I can ask Chris to wake me up and then I can wake you up. Perfect!"
"Or I can just drive home tonight and involve a lot less people."
Libby still looked worried, but the concern made Hannah more determined to drive home. It was just nine o'clock, which gave her plenty of time to get home. Besides, staying at her parents' house would help give her some closure.
"No, Mom, it's not a robber - it's just Hannah!"
Hannah glared at her brother, Isaac, who had just yelled up the stairs in the most obnoxious way possible. Ignoring him, she turned to shut and lock the front door. All of the lights had been out, except for the living room television, when Hannah had pulled into the driveway; her mother was probably upstairs in bed.
"But thanks for your concern of your only son being murdered!"
"Shut the hell up screaming," Hannah hissed at her brother, reaching out and smacking his mouth lightly. Isaac scowled at her and led the way back into the living room, where he had apparently been watching CSI: New York. "There's no reason to torment her, you know. Let the poor woman rest."
"Her?" Isaac asked, sounding disgusted. He fell onto the couch and pulled his knees toward his chest. "What about me? I just about passed out in terror hearing your car out there. You're not supposed to be back till tomorrow."
Hannah crossed her arms. "Change of plans. I'm here now."
"Well, sit down already and tell me about your life." Isaac patted the familiar couch, and Hannah sunk into its cushions beside him. "But more importantly, what are you going to bring me back from the beach?"
Hannah studied her younger brother. Now finishing up his junior year in high school, he was taller than she was, with blonder hair and a more filled-out face. His clothes still didn't match, of course, and Hannah resisted the urge to tell him that his black basketball shorts looked ridiculous with his navy and cobalt striped shirt.
"What are you looking at?" Isaac fidgeted uncomfortably.
"Nothing." Hannah smiled and shook her head gently. She kicked her shoes off and sat cross-legged on the couch. "What do you want me to bring you back from the beach?"
"Why don't you just take me and then bring me back?"
Rolling her eyes, Hannah gave him a playful shove. "You have school."
"So?" Isaac puffed his chest out and appeared to look more challenging. "I guarantee you that I've already learned more in three years of high school than you did in four. That should earn me a vacation. I haven't even gotten sick this year, so I'm due."
Hannah laughed. "You can come if Mom will approve it."
Mouth dropping open, Isaac replied, "But you know she never will. That's why I haven't been sick this year. She won't let me!"
"Mom's powers have gotten out of control," Isaac explained seriously. "She's gone crazy. If she says I'm not sick, I'm not. If she says I'm going to sleep, I do. If she tells me that I'm not allowed to touch the brownies before dinner, I can't even stomach the thought of sugar until after dinner. The woman does magic or something."
Hannah's forehead wrinkled in thought. Sure, Isaac had been telling her similar stories for the past year, and, granted, whenever Patricia Ayers came to visit her daughter, she seemed kind of like a control freak, but this was ridiculous. "You're not asleep right now, are you?" Hannah pointed out. "It's almost eleven on a school night. Mom should've told you to be asleep by now."
"You'd think that," Isaac smirked, "but I told her that I had a history paper to finish because it's due tomorrow. You know what she said? She said I better stay up all night making it an A-worthy paper."
"And I can't sleep," Isaac snapped. "It's like she knows I only half-assed it because my average is already above a one hundred. What the hell do I need an A-worthy paper for?" He sighed heavily. "And that's why I can't sleep. Because it's only a B-worthy paper, at best, and you know what? I don't care."
"I think you're the crazy one," Hannah laughed. She pulled the woven blanket down from the couch's back and wrapped herself up in it; it smelled like her mother's favorite candle. "You're just letting her get to you."
Hannah stole the television's remote and flipped through the channels aimlessly; anything was better than some crime show. "How are your other classes going? Other than history, since it sounds like you've got that one down."
Isaac popped the couch's recliner open and stretched out his legs. "They're fine. I'll probably be valedictorian." His tone was bored, rather than arrogant. "They should just let me graduate early. Like tomorrow, so then I can go on your trip."
"You wouldn't want to go." Hannah stopped changing channels when she found The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. "It's just going to be a bunch of college kids, laying around on the beach, getting drunk and getting sunburned. You know how you hate the sun." Actually, Hannah kind of did too, she realized. Both of their pale skin and blondish hair always caused them to get the worst sunburns. "You'd just want to lay around the condo and watch TV."
"At least it'd be a new environment," Isaac argued. "And I got great sunscreen when I went to the water park with Avalon last summer. I didn't burn at all."
Hannah felt her lips turning upward into a smile without her control. "How is little Miss Avalon?"
"We broke up."
Surprised, Hannah's head jerked in her brother's direction. "What are you talking about? You didn't tell me that."
Isaac shrugged. "It happened two weeks ago." He shifted his weight, clearly not pleased to be having this conversation. "It was mutual, and we're both very happy for each other's separate happiness. We will still be friends, and we wish the best for each other. And if our paths cross in the future, we are above ignoring each other, and we are capable of a nice wave and a gracious 'hello.'"
When Isaac had finally finished his outpour of words, Hannah burst out laughing. "Is that what she said, or did you invest more time in planning that speech than you did in writing your history paper?"
"She cheated on me with Drew Jensen," Isaac replied flatly. "They made out at some party, and apparently, she decided that she'd rather be with him."
"Drew Jensen, as in Mercedes Jensen's younger brother?" Hannah asked, feeling acidic hatred boil in her stomach. She would always loathe Mercedes Jensen and anything associated with her.
Isaac nodded. "The one and only."
"That family came straight from the pits of hell," Hannah snapped furiously. "And Avalon can go right there with them. She's a stupid little bitch if she'd ever even consider picking a Jensen over you."
"I know," Isaac answered lightly, a sad smile on his face. "I tell myself that every day. But I still miss her."
Hannah's face fell; she couldn't remember a time when she'd felt this protective over her little brother. How dare anybody hurt him or his feelings? She had half the mind to go over to the Jensen house right then and there to kick Drew's ass. Then she'd kick Mercedes's ass too, just because she could. And then she'd go hunt Avalon down and kill her.
"Does it get easier, Han?" Isaac asked quietly. He risked a quick glance at his sister, making it evident that he was fearful of her response. "You know, after breaking up with somebody like that?"
That caught Hannah off-guard, causing her to freeze in momentary stupor. No. She still missed Jake every single day, and she constantly thought about how different things could be. But she couldn't say that. "Of course it does," she replied, sounding more hopeful than she'd even imagined she could sound. "It takes time, but hearts heal."
Author's Note: Thank you again to everyone who reviewed "The Metamorphosis;" your support really means so much to me! Because of that, I've added a poll to my profile that concerns "The Genesis," and I'd love to hear your feedback! :)