“What do you mean you couldn’t get the interview? Jefferson, your article is due tomorrow. No, we can’t push it back, the issue goes to press Wednesday. You had one job. One…” Oliver glanced up from the glass he was cleaning to see the girl in the corner of his bar press her hand to her forehead and sigh. “No, I get it. No, it’s fine. I’ll figure it out. Yeah, really.”
The sound of her phone clattering against the counter spoke of her frustration. She reached for the glass of beer she had ordered on draft, but her hands shook. He saw it coming before it even happened. Her hand slipped, bumping the glass instead of grabbing it, drowning her dress beneath a wash of a light ale.
“Fabulous,” she muttered. Her gray eyes stared at the ceiling, and Oliver swore he could see the tears reflecting under the electric buzz of their Michelob sign.
“Let me help you with that,” he walked over and set the glass aside so he could mop up the mess. From his back pocket, he pulled a clean rag which he handed to her with his free hand.
She couldn’t have been beyond his twenty-seven years, yet there was a heaviness beneath that wave of black hair. Not the weight of a stressful day, but the kind you saw in a person who had been walking too long with too much baggage. “I’m Oliver, by the way,” he smiled.
“And I’m a mess,” she stopped dabbing her black dress, her shoulders slumping in defeat.
“Going through a rough patch?” He angled a dark brown brow, inviting her to speak up.
“More like a battlefield, darlin’,” she dropped the stained rag on the counter and delicately wiped the damp mascara from beneath her eyes. Turning to her purse, she dropped a ten on the counter. “You can keep the change.” Then she walked away.
Oliver frowned as she walked toward the door. She held the saunter of a strong woman. Someone who never asked help from anyone, even if the world itself was raining into ruin. “Hey Mac,” he called over his shoulder.
“Yo?” A young bartender with hipster frames and a plaid shirt trotted over.
“Cover me for a bit,” he handed him the ten.
Mac eyed the bill in his hand. “Where you goin’, man?”
“I’ll tell you later.” Oliver backed out of the half-door that divided the counter from the floor and jogged after the girl in the stained dress. He pushed through the glass doors of the Irish pub and scanned the parking lot only to find her struggling to fit her keys in the door.
“Hey, wait up—whoa,” a car horn blared as a Honda civic nearly took his feet out from under him. The driver shouted and flicked him a crude message through the windshield. Oliver waved an apology before running out to catch the woman before she made it inside her car. “Miss?”
A long inhale followed those slate colored eyes over the driver’s side door. “Look, it was one drink. A ten should cover the tab and then some. Just keep the rest as a tip,” she started, already on the defensive.
Oliver shook his head, his long ponytail bobbing behind his neck. “No, it’s not that. I just…” He hung his arm over the door as she sat down, clearly upset. “Are you okay?”
Her brows scrunched over her almond eyes, confused by his kindness. “It was one drink, buddy. I think I’ll be fine to drive home.”
“No, I mean, you looked pretty upset in there.”
She gave a cynical laugh. “Look, Dr. Phil, I appreciate the concern—”
He shrugged and held out his hand. “My name is Oliver.”
The woman stared at his hand as if it was a viper, but as he stood there casually, his head cocked slightly to the side in concern, she did something she rarely did. She took a chance. “I’m Elli.”
Oliver gave her hand a firm shake and turned so his back rested against the side of her car. “So Elli, what happened in there?”
She shook her head, thrown by his questions. “Not to sound rude but… why do you care?”
The bartender shrugged. “Call it instinct. If there’s one thing I’ve learned working here, it’s that sometimes people just need to unload on a stranger. Someone completely disconnected to their life and what’s going on.”
“And you just up and decided to volunteer?”
“Well, yeah,” he laughed. “Makes me feel like I’m doing something good, at least.” He held out his hands beside his waist. “It’s your choice. I can go back in there and continue dealing drinks, or I can stand here, and you can let it all go. I won’t get mad, I won’t tell a soul… and you never have to see me again when you’re done. What do you say?”
She laughed in spite of her day. “I say this is the strangest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
Oliver shared her humor. “Hang around this joint too long and you’ll hear stranger things than this.”
“How do I know you’re not going to cuff me over the head and drag me away like some psycho?”
He considered that thought as if it never crossed his mind. All of this was totally out there, yet Elli wanted nothing more than to take him up on his offer. “Never thought of it that way. I guess this is a little creepy, huh?” He patted the hood of her car and started to walk away. “Tell you what, if you change your mind, I’ll be inside.”
Elli watched him walk away, and inside, she started to panic. Her heart rate elevated. The one thing she needed had been offered to her by a stranger, and she was about to turn it down. Logic wrestled against her soul, boiling like water in a tea kettle until Elli shot up from her seat and shouted, “Hold on a sec!”
Oliver paused and looked over his shoulder.
She sighed and shut the door of her Camry. She clicked the lock, waiting for the double beep before taking a deep breath and walking toward him. He was tall, around 6’3, with a disarming yet confident smile. “You swear you’re not a killer?”
Oliver laughed, his bright blue eyes assuring her he was far from the sort. “Just a guy who’s probably been where you are.”
Elli shook her head, fighting a smile rising unbidden to her lips. “Don’t be so sure about that.”
The bartender slid into one of the tables outside the bar with the grace of someone who had long mastered navigating a long, lean frame. The scruff on his face was close cropped, telling Elli he maintained his low key image. This was a man who wielded a confidence that didn’t need anyone’s approval to maintain. “Try me.”
“Okay…” Elli slid into the chair across from him, unsure where to even begin. She stared at him for a few moments before dropping her face in her hands and shaking her head. “Yeah, this is weird. Where do I even start?”
Oliver hooked his arms behind the metal back of his chair and shrugged. “Wherever you want.”
Folding her hands beneath her chin, Elli stared at the ketchup bottle standing guard in the middle of the table. “Have you ever found yourself in a position where it seems like everyone is looking to you for answers; like you’re the cure-all, the fixer, and that all they need to do is turn to you because they know you’ll make things better?”
Oliver laughed, and Elli started to stand up. “No, wait,” he patted the air, urging her to sit back down. “C’mon. I’m only laughing because I know exactly what you mean.”
The young woman looked up at the blinking sign for The Shamrock Pub, then back to Oliver, unconvinced. “Really?”
He jabbed a thumb toward the bar. “You think I made a career out of this?” He shook his head. “This is me running from responsibility.”
“What kind of responsibility?”
He clicked his tongue, his head shaking in a scolding that made Elli grin. “This isn’t about me, remember?”
She leaned back in her chair and folded her arms. “Okay, Wise Guy.” She flicked her black bangs aside and continued. “It’s not just work, although a lot of times I feel like I’m the only one who gives a damn about my job. But it’s life in general. Every time someone drops the ball, I have to pick up the pieces, and strangely enough, that’d be okay if… well, if I didn’t feel alone through it all.”
The mirth in Oliver’s grin faded, his pale blue eyes lowering in concern. “Let me guess, you’re the one all your friends go to when life is falling apart. The free therapist, except unlike me, you never volunteered.”
“Well yeah, which is fine. I’m not complaining. I don’t mind being there for people.”
Oliver swung his arms forward, crossing them on the table. Leaning forward, he cocked his head to the side. “Then why’s it bothering you now, Elli?”
“Because this time I’m the one falling apart, and no one really seems to get it.” She threw her hands in the air. “I took a vacation last week, except it wasn’t a vacation. My phone rang every hour because someone forgot to fact check an article, or they couldn’t remember how many spaces sat between a… a frickin’ byline and the copy. I want to scream for them to just Google an answer, but I can’t. I have a role to play and I can’t break just because I’m under stress. I try to talk to friends, but I don’t even know where to start. When I do, I don’t know… maybe I’m just too subtle, or the words come out wrong,” she rolled her eyes, “Call it irony. I can write anything, but when I talk, nothing ever comes out right. Anyway, they smile, or say it’ll get better, then dust it off and change the subject, when I’ve barely spoken one or two sentences. Then they continue on with their problems, and I patiently listen and talk them through it, but honestly, I just feel… I just feel like I’m losing control, and no one’s even noticing.”
Elli gripped her hair, clearly frustrated, and Oliver felt his hand cross over the salt and pepper sentries to meet hers. They met gazes, and he saw the tears return. “It’s selfish, isn’t it?” She said. “Thinking that your problems should take precedence over theirs.”
Oliver squeezed her hand. “You’re just as important as they are, Elli. The thing with people is that no matter how good they might be, they won’t always see what’s right in front of them. If you’re going through something, you can’t be quiet. You have to express how you feel somehow, to someone.”
She snorted. “Even if that someone is a bartender at Shamrocks?”
Oliver pulled a cigarette pack from his pocket, slid one out, and lit it. Turning to the side in his chair, he took a draw and blew the smoke over his shoulder. With a wink, he replied, “Whoever will listen.”