Plausible Deniability

not-stalking

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Aila rolls onto her back, staring at the ceiling. Her head is pounding, but not because of the drinks she had last night. She had nightmares of being engaged to Colton again. Of walking in to find him and Aubrey tangled together in the sheets, and still staying with him, clearing out of the flat whenever Aubrey came over. Of giving permission for his affairs. Of saying their vows with her ex-friend hanging off his arm the entire time.

Aila wonders why she can’t just get over this. Betrayal hurts, but it’s something she should be used to. Sighing, she reaches for her phone to check the time. 07:27.

Unknown Number (01:37)
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Hope you made it home safely
Unknown Number (07:10)
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How are you feeling today?

From: Aila (07:28)
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I’m okay. My head hurts a bit but I’m perfectly peachy.
From: Aila (07:28)
<
Is this “James”?

She climbs out of bed, frowning when she sees Paisley’s is already made. Paisley rarely wakes before Aila. She shakes off the thoughts and follows the scent of coffee to the kitchen. Cheyenne hands her a mug as soon as Aila steps into the room, and Aila ignores how it scalds her tongue as she drinks it quickly. She has fifteen minutes to leave the house for a morning shift at the Northend.

Stepping into the restaurant is like stepping into a war-zone. It seems like everyone in East Primden has decided to come out for breakfast. Aila ties her apron on even as she heads to the hostess stand to find out which section she is scheduled for.

Time slips by once Aila slips into the routine of taking orders, serving food and drinks, and cashing out. It’s a well-learnt dance from her years here, one in which she never loses her step. She grins brightly and suggests dishes. She laughs when the jokes aren’t funny and ignores the disgusting comments from men.

She sets fresh drinks on a table and turns to greet the next one only to stumble to a stop. ‘James’ sits in the corner booth with his back to the wall. The man who’d given her a lift home sits at his side. Neither notice her, too busy reading the menus in their hands. Aila smooths down the front of her black button-down.

As startling as it is to see them here, she has a job to do. And who’s to say they don’t always come here in the morning? The bar is only two blocks away, and she doesn’t know the breakfast diners since she works nights.

“Hi, welcome to the Northend. How are you today?”

‘James’ looks up, lips twitching into a smile before smoothing out. “Hi. We’re good. You?”

“I’m doing well this morning, sir. What can I get for you two?”

His eyes don’t stray from hers even as he orders. His friend doesn’t bother looking at her. She doesn’t mind. Her skin is prickling under the scrutiny, the subtle thrill of someone as beautiful as ‘James’ being interested enough to stare at her like this.

She manages to walk to the kitchen window, out of sight of the diners, before slumping against the wall. Colton had never been that interested.

‘James’ doesn’t look at her again as she places their breakfasts onto the table, as she refills their coffee mugs. His face is a mask of serious intensity while he listens to whatever his friend is saying, and he keeps his voice lowered when he replies. Aila can’t hear what he says even when she’s next to the booth.

It isn’t until she’s set the bill on another table that she realises why ‘James’ looks so familiar. The image of a license photo comes to mind, and Aila shudders at the memory of his frozen eyes. They’re bright now, almost warm whenever he looks at her.

She questions how a man could switch so quickly between two extremes. Tightening her ponytail, Aila decides not to think further on it. Mysteries aren’t what she needs. She needs to get over Colton and move past the failed attempt of a lifelong relationship.

‘James’—or rather, Niall—and his friend are gone by the time Aila makes it around the dining room once more. She hadn’t even given him the bill yet. Growling low in her throat at his dine-and-dashing, she heads to the front to count her tips so far for the morning. Penny-pinchers, stiffing me on tips. She will be taking home next to nothing once she splits the money between the other servers. Her blood boils, her hands shake.

“You missed something, Aila.”

She looks up to see Tony nearing the till. He holds out a bill, telling her to be more careful with her money, then disappears into the back. The dishes rattle in the bucket tucked under his arm. She checks to see whether the cash will cover the tab. Her eyes widen.

Niall has given her a fifty-three percent tip. For serving him food. Aila knows it’s most likely a mistake; he’ll be coming back any moment to get his change and leave her a couple dollars.

But as the hours pass, he never shows up. She goes on break with the thirty-five dollars tucked into her apron, wrapped in a rubber band so she can find it easily when he comes by. Getting off her feet is a relief, and Aila sighs blissfully as feeling surges back into her toes.

From: James (11:41)
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Sorry if you felt I was stalking you by showing up at the Northend . I wasn’t. I was just as surprised to see you there.

She changes his name in her phone before replying.

From: Aila (13:59)
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No worries. I figured it was just a matter of coincidence, considering how little distance there is between the bar and the restaurant. But yeah I usually work evenings but one of my coworkers is out sick today.

From: Niall (14:09)
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Glad you didn’t think it was weird.
From: Niall (14:09)
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So since you introduced me last night as James to those girls , I feel I should tell you my that’s not actually my name
From: Niall (14:11)
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It’s Niall . Although James is in my name, so you weren’t far off

From: Aila (14:11)
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Well, I’m Aila, and it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mister Niall James, but I kinda already knew that. I found your wallet about a week or so ago. Had to open it to get your address.

From: Niall (14:11)
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Oh . Thanks for returning it. It’s kinda important to have

From: Aila (14:13)
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It was empty when I found it, by the way
From: Aila (14:13)
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I didn’t steal from you.
From: Aila (14:14)
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I better get back to work. Talk later?

She doesn’t give him chance to reply. Instead, she locks her phone and stands, stretching out the kinks in her back. Marian is a stickler for the rules, but she also knows when to ease up. Especially during a busy shift like this.

It’s two hours past the end of her shift, and Aila loathes that she was kept so long. Manisha had tried to take over the bulk of Aila’s workload. It hadn’t helped much. Arguing with Ian about whether she got the tips had exhausted her. They may have been the tips he earned, but he should have showed up on time. She even told him as much before leaving.

Thankfully, Marian took her side.

Aila showers off the smell of the restaurant then falls face-first onto her bed. She’s tired and her body aches. The tension slowly bleeds from her muscles the longer she lies there. She blinks once, twice, then she’s asleep.

“Hey, the girls are back.”

Aila twitches violently, scowling at the abrupt arrival of Angel in the doorway. “Five minutes.”

Angel dances away to the living room, leaving Aila to force herself fully awake. The nap hadn’t done much to alleviate her exhaustion. Instead, it’s left her head heavier than before, fatigue seeping into her bones. But it’s Junk Night.

She can’t disappoint her friends.

She shuffles into the living room a few minutes later, stomach rumbling at the sight of dozens of takeaway boxes spread across the coffee-table. She hasn’t eaten since last night, and now she is paying the cost. She sits on the lumpy floral-printed couch beside Cheyenne and reaches for the nearest box. The Thai restaurant a few doors down from La Serene has been a staple in their Junk Nights since the tradition started.

They all know this is a luxury, something they can’t afford every day. But every Sunday, they pool the money they’ve set aside after paying the rent and utilities and buying groceries. One night of no responsibilities as they eat their weight in various foods and mock the films they watch.

Angel brought horror into the house, Cheyenne and Willow an extensive collection of romantic classics, and Paisley forces action on them all. Aila only had one film—something she hasn’t touched since her failed engagement with Colton.

It felt so much like the life she thought she was living. Now it feels too much like a mockery.

Willow presses play on the machine and settles back against Paisley’s legs. Of course. A black-and-white ‘classic’ in which the woman falls head over heels within three seconds of meeting the man, and he changes her entire life, saves her from whatever distress she’s in. He’s the hero, and she is the damsel who loves him. It’s a foolish notion, but Aila wants to believe that kind of love is real.

The only conversation that happens as the movie plays is the occasional demand of a new dish. Aila grabs two fried mozzarella sticks before passing the tray along. She is sure none of this should taste as good as it does when combined with the others. Weirdly enough, she has no complaints while filling her belly with a myriad of Thai, Chinese, Italian, pizza, and burgers with fries.

One film turns into two, this time a gruesome thriller that has her hiding her face against Cheyenne’s shoulder. Aila hates that her friends enjoy these kinds of flicks. She doesn’t protest, though. These hours together are worth a bit of discomfort. And so much fear.

Aila goes to bed hours later with the annoying feeling that she’s forgotten something. Something important. Before she can figure it out, she falls asleep to Paisley’s humming as she scrolls through her social media, the heating system kicking on, and the wind that knocks against the window.

It hits her in the split second of sleep and awake: Aila was supposed to text Niall. She bolts upright and scrabbles for her phone. It may be too early, but she has to apologise to him. She hates when people don’t contact her when they promise to. She hates being that type of person.

Her mother always said Aila made herself too available: “Give people something to miss, if they can find something about you they like.” Aila, on the other hand, thinks it’s only common courtesy to follow through and maintain connections.

From: Aila (07:03)
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Oh god. Sorry!!! I I came home and took a nap and completely forgot that last night was a Junk Night. I can’t stand when people don’t actually text when they say they will, so I don’t like being that kind of person. So… Sorry!

Aila wanders down the hall and drops to sit on the couch. A spring pokes into her ass, unrelenting its stabby presence. Maybe they should put Junk Night on hold until they can buy a new sofa. The monstrosity she sits on has been in the living room since before she moved in.

Evidently, it belonged to Angel’s grandmother.

“Hey, idiot, you’re gonna be late.”

“No, I won’t.” Aila checks the time. “Or maybe I will.”

Cheyenne swats at Aila’s head as she passes. Aila rushes through a shower and dressing in the uniform the hotel forces her to wear. Navy blue with gold trim, the slacks and blouse are hideous. Yellow thread over the left breast pocket states her name and position in the company. Housekeeping. It’s a dirty job, but a job nonetheless.

Russ assigns her to the top floor. Aila barely manages to refrain from groaning. The top floor holds all the ‘important’ guests, the ones who throw their money around to get their way. They tend to be the messiest, leaving Aila with at least an hour’s work to clear the bedroom of bedsheets that smell like body odour and sex. Half-filled liquor bottles and used condoms. Cigarette butts even though the hotel is non-smoking.

Her phone vibrates in her pocket as she finishes the first room. Some bigwig at the corporation that owns North Primden’s factories left behind an expensive watch and a pair of fuzzy handcuffs. Her nose wrinkles, and she hurriedly tosses them into the basket on her cart. She douses her hands in sanitiser before reaching for her phone.

From: Niall (11:41)
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It’s okay . Didn’t exactly expect riveting conversation. I get busy, too.

From: Aila (11:46)
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I still feel bad and nothing you say will change that.

From: Niall (11:46)
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Not even if I say I forgive you ?

She wonders if he is smiling like she is. Dopey and happy. Bright. Real.

From: Aila (11:47)
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Not even then.

From: Niall (11:53)
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You are certainly something else, Aila

She grins and drops her phone into her pocket. As amazing as Russ is as a friend, he’s a terror as a manager. She really doesn’t want to be scolded. Again. So she hurries on to the next room.

Days pass in a routine: Work at La Serene, work at the Northend, home to sleep off the day—after texting Niall for a while. He doesn’t tell her much about his life; all she learns is he’s following his father’s footsteps in the family business. But he won’t say what that ‘business’ is. Instead of being irritated that he isn’t being forthcoming, Aila finds it intriguing. A mystery she doesn’t need, but a mystery she wants to solve.

She tells him, in return, of the family she left behind in Tarris. She studiously avoids speaking of the strained relationship with her parents, but nothing stops her from talking about YaYa, the one person Aila has never doubted her. Her grandmother has been her biggest supporter since Aila was a baby.

It’s a week after their first meeting that Niall asks about her ex. Aila almost wonders how he knows about Colton but remembers—Niall bought her a drink to make Colton jealous. Niall stayed outside with her until Paisley showed up. He kept her safe from any dangers even though he doesn’t know her.

She doesn’t tell him the truth about Colton. About how she’d nearly married him but was made a fool in front of their families and friends. About finding out he’d cheated for the last eleven months of their ten-year relationship.

All Aila says is Colton is an ex and that’s all he will ever be again. Thankfully, Niall seems to understand. He doesn’t ask about Colton again.

Wednesday finds her in the homeless shelter between La Serene and Northend. It isn’t much, only two hours of scooping food onto trays, but it allows Aila to feel as if she’s doing more for the city that welcomed her. The city that feels more like home than Tarris ever did.

Aila stares at the people scattered around the room: Children and women and men, all desperate for hot meals and warm beds. There are dozens of shelters in East Primden. There are hundred of vacant homes. There is far too much food waste from restaurants. No one should be starving or without a roof over their head. Unfortunately, a majority of the citizens don’t agree.

There is never enough freely given to help these people as much as they need.

“Hey, Anson, I’ve gotta jet.” Aila unties her apron and sets it in the basket for washing. “I’ll bring by leftovers from the restaurant in the morning.”

“Thanks, Aila. Try to get more gluten-free options.”

Aila nods then bolts out of the shelter. Marian is going to kill her for showing up thirty minutes later without warning. Aila doesn’t bother waiting for the train or a taxi—she just sprints down the streets, rounding corners and darting between cars. People honk and shout at her, but she ignores them. She has more important things to worry about.

Namely, whether she’s going to get fired for breaking the promise she made: She wouldn’t let her volunteering duties and her other job interfere with her employment at Northend.

Marian is red-faced and shouting in the kitchen by the time Aila tiptoes past. Michel winks quickly as he ducks his head under the admonishment. It’s a fake display of remorse, but it’s what helps Aila sneak past her manager without being caught.

“When did you get here?”

Aila looks up from the till five minutes later and plasters on a bright smile. “I’ve been here since two.”

Marian’s frown grows. “Haven’t seen you.”

“Well, you were busy with the kitchen.” Aila grabs up three menus as a group walks in the door. “Hi, welcome to the Northend. Booth or table?”

“We’re not done here, Aila.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Aila hopes Marian forgets about the conversation.