The stiffness in my legs made me wince as I stood, the train having been stopped for a good few minutes. I’d let most of the passengers file out before me, not wanting to get caught in the hustle and bustle of their frantic escape from the stuffy car. Only an old couple remained across the aisle from me as I reached for my luggage. I set the suitcase down at my feet before nodding a hello at the elderly pair, then proceeded to roll my belongings behind me.
As I exited the car and stepped onto the platform, I caught a great mouthful of train exhaust carried by the wind. Coughing and eyes watering, I shuffled around in search of my brother. People milled around me, carrying conversations I only retained bits and pieces of; politics, celebrities, the weather over the past couple of weeks. My eyes traveled up to the gloomy sky and I subconsciously tightened my coat around my body. September held many rains, and today was no exception. The precipitation had only provided a small reprieve about ten minutes before I arrived in Bradford.
I spun my head, looking for the deep voice that called my name. My eyes found a lanky boy about thirty feet away, waving a hand over his head. A smile spread across my face as I recognized the brilliant blue eyes and sandy blond curls of my brother, whom I hadn’t seen in almost a year. My feet carried me over to him and I threw myself into his arms.
“Eli,” I mumbled into his shoulder, letting an uncontrollable grin take hold of my face. “Good to see you.”
He held me at arms length, inspecting my appearance. “Your hair is so long, I almost didn’t recognize you. You could pass for Rapunzel — minus the color, of course.”
I shook my head at him. “Damn Mum for passing along the brunette gene,” I joked, tossing a lock of it over my shoulder.
Eli gave me a soft smile. “How is she, by the way?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’ve only just gotten here and you already want to talk about that woman?” I punched him playfully. “If I’d have known you’d tire of me that quickly, I would’ve hopped on a train headed for Aunt Tally’s.”
“Nonsense,” he answered. “Just wanted to know if her and our step-father gave you any grief when you left.”
I shrugged, brushing away another piece of hair that’d been blown in my face. “I was given nothing more than a goodbye from the both of them before having to walk a mile to the station.” I paused before saying, “And he’s no father of mine — he’s nothing to me, not anymore.”
Eli gave a short smile before a raindrop fell onto his face. His eyes went wide. “We should get going,” he said quickly, taking my suitcase from my hand. I protested but he shook me off, so I settled for pacing alongside him to the cover of the main building.
In the time it took us to make our way through the complex, a steady rain had settled over the city. Eli and I were both soaked head to toe when we reached his car, and I sloshed into the passenger seat while he quickly stowed my luggage in the boot. I shucked off my coat and tossed it in the back seat and my brother slid into the driver’s seat a second later. The car shuddered to life and he threw it into first before pulling away from the curb.
A short while later Eli parked in front of a row of adjoined brick townhouses, clad with peeling off-white doors and muddy-red shutters. We got out of the car and I collected my coat from the back seat while my brother took my suitcase again. He lead me to the small porch of a two-story marked with a fading “41”, fumbled with the keys before shoving open the creaking door, then reached over my head to press the ‘lock’ button for his car. It responded with a hoot and Eli was satisfied, making more room for me to step into the warm residence.
“Where is she?” I said automatically.
Just by the smell and tidiness of the place, I knew a female lived here as well as Eli. He hadn’t told me of any girlfriend because he knew I would’ve drilled him with questions the second I found out. This was like Eli, not telling me things until the moment they’re absolutely necessary because talking was much easier than typing.
“Who?” he asked, looking startled.
“The girl! What’s her name?”
I hung my dripping coat in the closet next to the door, then turned to the living room. The entry opened right up into it, a tan carpet expanse holding black leather sofas and a glass coffee table. Blankets sat neatly folded on a rack in the corner and held up several pillows as well. The walls were a green that almost looked brown at a glance, and held a few pieces of abstract artwork. Past the living room I saw a kitchen just as tidy, the rooms divided only by a counter that ran half the span of the area.
“How did you—“
“You didn’t honestly think that for one second I could believe you had a taste in art,” I teased, gesturing to the fun-looking canvases. “Or an affinity for it,” I added, noticing the detail in them.
“That would be Micah,” he replied, a light pink dusting his face as he put up his coat. “Everything right in this place can be attributed to her.”
I turned and pinched his cheeks. “How adorable! How old is she? What does she do? Does she live here? Well, obviously she does. What’s she like? Is she here?”
Eli pinched the brim of his nose, trying to act annoyed, but I saw a sliver of a smile. “I’ll tell you eventually, Nat. Can we just get you settled first?”
I nodded, taking my suitcase from his hand. “Where’s my room?”
My brother pushed past me and I followed him to a set of stairs at the back of the main level. They were steep enough to throw off my balance, requiring me to grab the handrail on the climb up. When we reached the top he took me down a long hall stretching to the front of the townhouse. The last door opened to the left, revealing a small space with enough room to fit a double bed, a beside table, and a small desk with a stool. Eli dropped my suitcase on the bed and turned to me.
“There’s a closet back there,” he pointed to a door next to the bed. “Everything should fit, even though it’s a little cramped. I see you didn’t bring much.”
He was referencing my medium-sized suitcase. I hadn’t packed much, though I was planning on permanently moving into my brother’s home. Mum thought I’d only be staying a couple weeks, but Eli and I had privately agreed on my visit being indefinite. Even though I had turned eighteen, she and her new husband seemed to think they still had power over me. As much as I hated it, they wouldn’t have let me leave if they’d known it was for good. Thus, the small luggage bag.
“I guess I’ll just have to wash them often,” I told him with a shrug.
“Which reminds me,” he said, snapping his fingers. “There’s a bathroom up here with a washing machine and dryer, but they’re broken and I don’t have the will to fix them with a cheap launderette up the road.”
I chuckled, shaking my head at my brother. He was just as I remembered him back in Dundee. He, too, had escaped at eighteen when he saw how serious things with Mum and her husband were getting. They weren’t married then, but Eli didn’t want to stick around to see how much worse it would get when they did. I was sixteen when he left, a legal adult where we lived, but I couldn’t go with my brother until I turned eighteen — the age of a legal adult where he was going.
“Only one bathroom?” I asked him, beginning to dig in my bag for a dry set of clothes.
“Only one with a shower,” he replied. “That’s the second-level one. The bathroom on the main floor is the one we — well, Micah — tries to keep nice. It was a right mess before she moved in, and now it shines.”
He was beaming. Clearly, this Micah girl meant a lot to him. I couldn’t keep the grin from my face at the thought of my brother finding happiness away from home. My hope was to do the same, free from my mum.
“What are you smiling about?” Eli teased, nudging my shoulder.
“Oh, just you,” I replied with a giggle.
He shared my laugh before gesturing at the clothes I’d pulled from my suitcase. “Why don’t you get dressed, and I’ll give Micah a call to see where she is. I can make something to eat, if you want anything?”
I rose my eyebrows at him. “Or we could go out to eat?” I suggested, remembering just how bad of a cook Eli was.
“Good idea,” Eli called over his shoulder as he walked out the door.
• • •
After I’d gotten dressed, draped my wet clothes over the stool, and completely unpacked, I felt free to slip downstairs. I hadn’t set one foot in the kitchen before a body was thrown at me, arms wrapping around my shoulders and nearly knocking me to the floor.
“Oh, it’s so great to finally meet you!” a distinctly feminine voice squealed at me. I caught a face full of black, untamed curls that smelled like lavender. “Eli has told me so much about you and I was so excited to hear you’re staying with us now!”
“You must be Micah,” I chuckled, reciprocating the vice-like hug.
“That’s me,” she nearly cheered, stepping back to grin from ear to ear.
She was one of the prettiest girls I’d ever seen, and didn’t look a day over nineteen. Her skin was a calm honey bronze that made her eyes stand out. They were hazel with more green showing through than anything, and her cheek bones were to die for. A once-over from me showed that she was wearing dark jeans and a flowing blouse — if I had to guess, I’d say size four.
“I’m Natalie,” I told her, though I could guess she already knew my name. “My brother calls me Nat.”
“Please, come sit down,” she gestured to the counter, where four stools I hadn’t noticed sat waiting. Eli occupied one, and the one next to his was pulled out, most likely for Micah.
I took up the stool to Eli’s right and Micah pushed a glass of fizzing liquid toward me. One sip told me it was a coke, and I accepted it with a smile. Micah remained across the counter, leaning on her elbows and looking at me expectantly.
“You have to tell us about the trip down,” she said. “I’ve heard the landscape is just beautiful when you travel between here and Scotland, but I’ve never been.”
“I wasn’t paying much attention to the landscape,” I confessed, taking another sip. “I found an abandoned book on the train and couldn’t resist picking it up. I don’t remember what it was called, but it wasn’t a bad read.”
Micah nodded, taking a drink from her own glass. “Well, I can’t say Bradford will be a nice change from Dundee, but I bet you’ll enjoy being with your brother again.”
“It’ll be nice,” I agreed. “That is, of course, until he fights me for the bathroom in the morning.”
We all chuckled a bit. “Even though there’s just one shower, at least there are two mirrors,” Micah offered. “We won’t be butting heads over space to do our makeup and hair for the most part.”
“This is a good thing,” I admitted, raising my hands slightly.
“Great,” Eli groaned. “Now I’ll have to tell two women they look good in whatever they wear — on their bodies and their faces.”
Micah and I beamed and slapped a high-five. The three of us sat at the counter and talked for a long while. The clock on the stove flashed to ten before Eli set his glass in the sink.
“I almost forgot,” he said. “You only turned eighteen just last week. Have you been to a bar recently?”
I shook my head. “Mum wouldn’t let me out of her sight from my birthday until I left for the train. I was lucky to slip away and get my license.” I pulled the card out of my pocket and flashed it proudly.
“Perfect!” Eli said, pushing his stool under the counter. “I think your arrival calls for celebration. It’s been quite a while since Micah and I have been to The Telly. I’ll even buy you your first legal drink.”
I grimaced, thinking of how my hair looked after all the rain. “Give me ten minutes to do something with this mop on my head and touch up my face.”
“He’ll have to,” Micah piped up. “I’ve got to get ready as well. I still have my work clothes on.”
Eli rolled his eyes. “I’ll give you twenty, because that’s how long it usually is when you say ten.”
Micah and I both kissed his cheek as we walked past, then giggled up the stairs to our rooms.
Eli had been right about needing twenty minutes. My hair was tangled from the wind and getting rained on, waving tremendously compared to the straight I’d made it that morning. On a good day it took me several minutes to run a brush through it, and today definitely wasn’t a good day for my hair. I’d decided after getting most of the knots out that I could settle for a tying it high on my head, then cleaned up the makeup smudged from rain under my eyes.
Micah — now dressed in skinny jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, looking much like me — met Eli and I downstairs at exactly twenty minutes, then we pulled on our coats and ducked out into the rainy night. It was only light now, but the night was cold and the streets were still filled with running water. After piling into Eli’s car, he drove us down the road a few minutes to a run-down bar with the words, “The Telly” in red over the top of the double doors. I could hear the steady thrum of bass from the car. Judging by the steady flow of people moving inside the doors, it was a popular spot and a busy one.
The three of us made a dash for the doors, crowding in with a few other people closer to Eli’s age. We found stools up by the bar and sat waiting for the barman to ask us what we wanted. Music blasted around the bar, and a mass of bodies was gathered in the center of the floor dancing to the sporadic beat of a cheap remix.
“This seems more like a club than a pub,” I shouted above the noise at Eli.
“Believe it or not, this is one of the tamest bars around Bradford,” he replied. “The clubs are more in the heart of Bradford, too far of a distance to walk home if Micah and I both have something to drink. Which reminds me,” he said, turning to Micah. “Is it your turn or mine to drive home?”
She said something to him, but I couldn’t hear it over the loud music. The pair shared a short kiss before Eli turned back to me.
“Looks like we’ll be getting drunk together on your first outing,” he laughed.
The barman stopped in front of us with a smile on his face. “Haven’t seen you here in about a month,” he directed at Eli. His voice was a loud baritone, not having to try to be heard over the noise of the bar. “I missed having you and your girl around to talk to when things were slow.”
“We’ve been taking a break from public outings for a while,” Eli told him. “My sister just came in today, and I thought the best way to get her settled in was to introduce her to the best mixer in Bradford.”
“Pleased to meet you,” the barman nodded at me. He reached out his hand and I took it. “I’m Jeremy.”
“Natalie,” I said.
“You both are from Dundee?” Jeremy continued, more of a statement than a question. Eli must’ve told him, and after receiving a nod from both of us, he laughed. “Shall we see how much alcohol you Scotts can handle?”
I glanced hurriedly at Eli, wondering how much he’d been able to consume in the past. Hoping Jeremy was only kidding, I turned back and laughed along with the two. Jeremy’s head suddenly flicked to his right, ear catching the angry shout of another person interested in a drink.
“Say it again and you’ll be at the back of the queue!” Jeremy’s angry voice returned. He rolled his eyes significant enough for the man to see, who then gave Jeremy an obscene gesture. Without noticing, the barman turned back to my brother and I. “What’ll you have? I suggest a difficult one, just to piss off the impatient bastard over there.”
“The usual for me,” Eli said, then looked to me. “Pick any drink, but make it a good one. We want your opinion of drinking high.”
I smiled. “Whatever’s good. Get me your favorite.”
My brother rubbed his hands together, a mischievous look on his face. “Alright then.” He gave a long name of a drink I’d never remember, then Micah ordered and Jeremy began mixing different liquids. Not thirty seconds later I had a fruity looking drink slid in front of me.
“Won’t even make you pay for it,” Jeremy said to me. “Since it’s your first and I’m feeling nice, all three of you are free of charge. Just for the first one, though,” he clarified, pointing at Eli, who held up his hands.
With that, Jeremy gave another hearty laugh and stalked off to the impatient line of people waiting for drinks. I stared down at my beverage, a deep orange with a hint of blue at the bottom. Turning to face my brother, I rose an eyebrow.
“This is the best you could think of?” I asked. “I’m new, not a baby. This frilly thing looks elementary.”
“You say that now,” he chortled, taking a swig from his own glass and wincing as the liquid washed down his throat. “That thing’s got a hell of a kick to it.”
I turned back to it and my hand slid around the glass, drawing it slowly to my lips. The bite was felt against my mouth before I even swallowed, taking me by surprise. I coughed as it burned my throat the whole way down and set my glass down on the bar. It hadn’t hit my stomach before I was already raising the glass again, craving the tingling sensation already stemming in my body.
“…doesn’t even phase her,” I heard Eli say to Micah as the ending song faded into a new one.
I winked at him. “I guess I’m just a natural.”
Little did he know I’d taken my first sip when I was fifteen, and wasn’t new to the concept of drinking. A fair amount of my time in school had been spent partying, despite what Mum wanted for me.
I felt someone’s presence slide into the seat next to mine before I saw him.
My head turned to catch a male in my peripheral. He looked a year or two over twenty with a facial structure almost as enviable as Micah’s. Hair the color of asphalt was slicked into a quiff and unreadable brown eyes glanced from place to place throughout the room. He was wearing dark jeans and a t-shirt that looked a size too big, the sleeves rolled to reveal a sleeve of ink staining his skin in the form of tattoos.
The boy moved with precision, like even the tap of his foot was planned out in advance. It made him look unnatural, but incredibly fluent at the same time. My fingers drummed against my glass as he pulled a wallet out of his back pocket and set it in front of him on the bar. The way my heart sped up when I watched his face told me there was something off about him — dangerous, even. My eyes glanced down the row of stools lined against the bar. Most were empty, meaning he could’ve chosen any seat; he’d deliberately picked the one to my left.
“Would you like a picture?” I heard him speak, his voice smooth and calm. He glanced over at me. “It’ll last you longer.”
Up until that point, I didn’t know I’d been blatantly staring at the boy. My face burned as his eyes flashed to mine. His stare was so hard I felt like I was looking at a brick wall, impassible no matter what angle you were looking at it.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” I replied coyly, taking a sip from my drink. “You’re the one who sat next to me.”
“Yet you’re not complaining,” he smirked.
I rolled my eyes and turned my body to face forward. A long moment of silence passed between us before he spoke up again.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
I glanced at him, body turned completely in my direction. “What’s it to you?”
A small smile glanced his features. “I’d like to know the name of the woman I’m about to buy a drink for.”
My eyes studied his face, shadowed by a bit of scruff along his jaw. I held up the orange and blue drink previously sat in front of me. “I’ve got one.”
“I’ll buy you another,” he said immediately, as if expecting my response.
I rose an eyebrow at him. “What’s your name?” I asked, repeating his previous question.
“What’s it to you?” I could tell he was mocking me, though playfully.
“I’d like to know the name of the man about to buy me a drink.” I felt a grin spread across my face as he laughed. After the few seconds I’d spent talking to him, “dangerous” didn’t even cross my mind anymore. He was fairly open, as far as I could tell.
“Fine, then,” he said. “I’m Zayn.”
I nodded. “Natalie.”
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find my brother, Micah in tow. “We’re going to dance,” he told me. His eyes flashed past me, then to mine again. Something in them had changed from lighthearted to serious. “Don’t stray to far, okay?”
I gave him a reassuring smile, then turned back to Zayn. He was watching me intently, the amusement in his eyes gone as well. What had passed between him and my brother? Did they know each other?
“Who was that?” Zayn questioned, nodding toward Eli.
“My brother,” I said. “Do you know him?”
He took a moment to consider, as if he were choosing his answer carefully. “No,” he finally said. Zayn’s gaze fell back on me, and I could almost feel the change in atmosphere around him. He stood abruptly. “I have to leave.”
I gave him a confused look. “You just sat down,” I protested. “You didn’t even order a drink.”
The small smile from before fell back onto his face. “I’ll buy us both a drink some other time,” he said.
With that, he brushed past my stool, leaving behind only the scent of his cologne. Almost involuntarily, I took a deep breath of it and sighed. What had gone on between Eli and Zayn that one look from my brother could chase him away? I turned to watch Zayn go, but I couldn’t find him. My head swiveled to each direction, finding most paths moderately open, wondering how he’d disappeared in the span of three seconds. Dangerous flashed through my mind once again, picturing how easy he would be able to slip from a scene unnoticed.
Shaking my head, I took one last sip of my drink before sliding from my stool and walking toward the pulsating crowd of people, intent on finding Eli and Micah.