The discomforting sensation I had earlier is back, considerably more painful this time.

It’s never even happened twice in the same day before. I’m beginning to think that whatever this is, it’s probably more than just a stress-response.

From the corner of my eye, I see a bunch of girls behind me just standing there and giving me strange looks through the mirror, and I notice Julianne is among them.

She has her arms crossed over her fake chest, eyeing me suspiciously as she gives me a once over, followed by a snarky scoff just before she goes back to talking with her better half.

Or worse half, I guess. I’m not sure.

I can’t help but roll my eyes. I can’t be bothered by their darting glares and pettiness. However, even though I’m putting on a brave face, I cannot continue to pretend that this stomach-hitching thing-a-ma-jig doesn’t bother me, either. I think I need to get this checked out.

I look at my watch again, noticing that my arm is slightly trembling. It’s almost seven. More people are streaming in through both front and back doors, scurrying to get settled in before Madame Vito, the head vocal instructor, gets here.

I’m actually surprised she isn’t here already. It’s not like her to be late.

I take off my earphones with a shaky hand as the music is still playing and head to my usual seat. Just as soon as I do, I notice Trixie waltzing in nonchalantly like she owns the joint, completely unbothered by the prospect of arriving later than Vito unlike everyone else.

 I have to smile.

I absolutely love her cavalier, ‘I-have-no-fucks-to-give’ attitude. I find it extremely refreshing and down-to-earth, especially after being immersed head-first in such a competitive environment like this one.

She grins as she spots me looking her way, offering a cool, enthusiastic wave as she approaches. I can’t help but think about how well she’d fit in if she ever moved to New York City, even with her prominent Milwaukee accent.

“Hey, you. Miss me? You look like shit, by the way,” she says as she takes her seat next to me. She’s always very blunt and honest.

Brutally honest.

And honestly, even after a year of being friends with her, I think I’m still getting used to that aspect of her.

 “Gee, thanks,” I say with a smile. I know she means no harm, and we tease each other all the time, but I’d be lying if I say looking worn out with bags under my eyes all the time doesn’t bother me at all. I change the subject, deterring the conversation away from my not-so-stellar appearance.

“How was your weekend? Did your parents enjoy their getaway?”

She stretches her arms over her head, leaning back in the chair in a carefree motion. “Ugh, it was great for the parentals. Bloody exhausting for me.”

I love how she emphasizes the word ‘bloody’. She’s been using it ever since she met me, and I guess that’s not the only word I’ve rubbed off on her. I sometimes catch her saying ‘crisps’ instead of ‘French fries’ and ‘trousers’ instead of ‘pants’. I sometimes slip up and do the same.

“The twins kept bugging me to bake them cookies and apple pie and whole bunch of other shit. I mean, look at me,” she gestures to herself in a humorous way with her fingers. “When have I ever attempted to bake anything? Do I look like Mary fucking Poppins to you? I’m Italian and I can barely even boil spaghetti right without nearly burning the whole neighborhood down. I swear, ever since you made those oatmeal cookies for them, they’ve been going berserk for more. You spoiled them rotten. I totally blame you for this,” she laughs.

I giggle along with her, trying to picture a punk-rocker chick like her trading her black leather and multiple piercings for an apron and oven mitts.

 Yeah. Not happening.

“Wasn’t Drake there to help out with babysitting?” I ask, hoping I don’t sound as eager as I feel saying her brother’s name.

She rolls her whiskey eyes as she runs her hands through her dark, choppy pixie cut.

“Pshhh. He was there, alright. But the only thing the idiot helped out with was leading their cookie-demanding crusade. He even got them Cookie Monster hats to wear!”

I picture Drake rallying the two identical six-year-olds to drive Trixie crazy. I can’t stop laughing, and I admire how she talks about her relationship with her brothers. I can only imagine how interesting being the only girl among three boys must be. I’d be lying if I say I’m not a little envious of her in that regard.

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have a brother—one who doesn’t despise my very existence, anyway. I think I’d love having one. Or even a sister. Ideally, I’d have both.

I guess I’ll never know.

“So,” she crosses her feet as she faces me again, “how was your weekend? Much better than mine, I’m sure.”

I shrug. “Meh. Pretty standard. Work. Study. Work some more.” I sigh and close my eyes dramatically. “All that work and somehow, I’m still broke.”

She laughs and shakes her head. “You and me both,

Roni. You and me, both.”

I laugh, even though I know our situations aren’t even remotely close to being the same. Trixie may not have money to go around splurging on retail therapy, but she certainly isn’t scraping for cash every day, either. I try not to think about my financial situation, and it works…for about seven seconds. Her next question only manages to fuel my worrisome thoughts.

“Oh yeah, how’s your Nana? You grandfather’s memorial is coming up, isn’t it?”

I nod. “Yeah, it’s in a few days. She’s holding up okay as far as I can tell, but I know thinking about it is affecting her more than she shows. She just won’t ever say anything to me because I know she doesn’t want me to worry about her.”

“Right. As if that’s possible,” Trixie says.

I shrug. “It’s not like I can help it, Trix. She’s all by herself over there. She shouldn’t even be working at her age but she can’t afford not to after everything that’s happened.”

“Yeah, I know,” she nods solemnly. She pauses for a bit, as if she’s in deep thought, then asks, “Did you ask Larry for a raise?”

I sigh as I adjust myself in my chair. “No. It’s only been a couple of months since he gave me my last one. I’d asked him for an advance last week but he can’t give me one right now. I really need the money but I don’t want to feel like I’m backing him into a corner, you know. It’s too soon to ask again.”

She looks at me incredulously, and the warm glow of her eyes settle on mine. Drake has the exact same whiskey-toned eyes, and looking at hers really freaks me out sometimes because it feels like I’m looking into his.

 “Oh, please, don’t give me that hogwash,” she says. “You know you’re the reason that grizzly bear has been getting as much business as he has this past year. Most people on campus had never even heard of the Mushroom before you started singing there. And with a name like that, I can’t imagine why. I mean, Jesus, was he trying to get his bar to fail? He owes you big time. That’s all I’m saying.”

I laugh at her nickname for my boss, Larry Fitzgerald. I swear, Trixie has nicknames for everyone. I agree with everything she’s saying, including Larry’s bizarre choice of a name for his business. I’d suggested something a little less sexually innuendo-ed, like ‘Larry’s Tavern’ or even the ‘Drunken Mushroom’, but for whatever reason, he’s been pretty adamant about sticking to the ‘Wooden Mushroom’. Everyone just calls it ‘The Mushroom’ for short now.

Larry’s a really nice guy, and something of a father figure to me, but he is a bit off. I guess everyone is to some extent. Trixie can’t seem to cut the guy a break, though. She’s insisted I quit and get a better paying job if Larry can’t pay me more, and she doesn’t understand my loyalty to him.

I’ve been working for him for three years now and I know how grateful he is to me, but it’s not like I’m his only employee. He’s got kids of his own and other obligations and responsibilities outside the bar, too. I can’t expect him to bend over backward for me, even if I’m walking the fine line of desperation. It’s not like I’m the first person in the world to ever get caught in a financial rut.

Although I have to admit, some days, it sure does feel like it.


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