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“We’re still friends, though. Right?”
“Right.” I sound as confused as she looks. I want to push her for more details about her life, have her spill her soul to me, but this is hardly the fucking place to do that. “Let’s go inside and get this over with. Then we can talk some more when we get back to the room. How does that sound?”
Without responding, she steps back so I can open the door. Grabbing her hand, we enter the club. Her fingers constrict as the hazy atmosphere swallows us. Classic rock plays from the stereo and vibrates the floor littered with cigarette butts. The smoky air smells like severely bad body odor mixed with cheap beer and a hint of dirty sex. The room is filled mostly with men, but a few women are hanging out by the tables and dancing around a stained pole onstage.
“I feel like I need to take a shower just from walking in here!” she hollers over the music.
“Agreed!” I nod toward the bar area. “Let’s make this quick!”
We push our way through the crowd and up to the counter where it’s a little bit quieter. I lift my hand to flag the bartender down. When he turns around, I recognize the middle-aged, stocky guy. I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed about that fact.
“Since when do you work here?” I ask Joe, my old little league coach. I haven’t seen him since I tried out for sports in an attempt to get away from the house more. Turns out, though, I sucked at athletic stuff.
A shocked grin spreads across his face when he realizes who I am. “Holy shit, Jax Hensley. I haven’t seen you since…”
“Since baseball season when I was eleven,” I finish for him, feeling a little more at ease.
“How the hell have you been? It’s been forever.” He glances at Clara who’s practically clutching my side.
“Good. I’m living in North Carolina now and go to college.” I nod my head in Clara’s direction. “This is Clara, one of my friends from there.”
Clara nervously waves at him. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“The pleasure’s all mine.” His attention lands back on me, and he shakes his head in awe. “Wow, I can’t believe you got out of here and made it to college. That’s fucking fantastic, Jax. Seriously. Really great.”
“Thanks.” The music shifts to an upbeat pop song and the lights on the stage wildly flash. “So, do you work here now?”
Joe sighs as he places two shot glasses on the counter. “Unfortunately, yes.”
Clara inches closer to me when an older guy shoots her a toothless grin from across the bar. “Jax, please hurry up,” she whispers softly enough only I can hear. “I’m freaking out. I think the guy over there might be plotting a herpes attack on me.”
I choke on a cough then clear my throat. “How’d that happened?” I ask Joe as I slip my arm around Clara’s back and draw her closer. “The last time I saw you, you were working at the sporting goods store.”
He selects a bottle of tequila from the shelf behind him and untwists the cap. “Yeah, this is what happens when you’re stupid enough to have an affair with your boss. Divorce is ugly, my friend. And so is getting fired.” He fills up the shot glass with the golden liquid and returns the bottle back to the shelf. “First shots are on me.”
“Thanks.” I glance at Clara. “You want a drink? It might help you relax.”
She looks like she could use ten drinks. She promptly snatches up the shot, throws her head back, and devours the liquid. “Thanks,” she says to Joe as she places the glass on the counter.
“Anytime.” He collects the shot glasses and sets then with the rest of the dirty glasses.
A guy walks up to the counter and orders two beers, and Joe heads to the tap.
“So, I actually came here for a reason,” I say to Joe while Clara grabs my shot and downs it too. “I’m looking for my mom. Have you seen her?”
He aligns a tall glass under the beer tap and begins filling it up. “I saw her hanging around the backstage area about a week ago, but she was only here for about five minutes.”
“Does she work here?” I glance over my shoulder at the stage. A woman who is twirling around upside down on the bar looks close to my mother’s age, so the possibility seems plausible.
He shakes his head as he puts two beers down on counter in front of the guy who ordered them. “No, she just hangs around sometimes.” He collects the cash from the guy and stuffs the tip into a jar. “But Larry, the owner finally threw her out last week because she was harassing the clients.”
“What exactly do you mean by harassing?”
He opens the register and stuffs the dollar bills inside. “She was asking people for money and kept yammering about how, if they didn’t help her, she was going to be a dead woman.”
Clara’s arms tighten around my waist, and she presses against my side. She starts tracing circles on my back, like she’s trying to soothe me.
As I think of the message my mother left me five days ago, it feels like the wind is knocked out of me. “You haven’t seen her since she got kicked out?”