You get back to Charleston and salvage this for us.
How long do I have here in St. Augustine before the situation with Elijah becomes…unsalvageable? Birdie’s pageant isn’t for six weeks. With her inexperience, she’s going to need every single one of those days leading up to the competition. But I’m guessing my mother will begin expecting me much sooner than that. Like tomorrow. That expectation sits on my head like a boulder as two young men with goatees in leather aprons guide the medium-sized group out of the waiting room and into a warehouse filled with seven-foot-tall metal tanks. The large distillery room reminds me of a greenhouse with sloping skylights that take up almost the entire roof. It’s the sunlight, rumble of machinery and low drone of the guide’s speech that calm my fussed phone call nerves.
I’m here now. I’m nowhere else. I’m here because I want to be.
I repeat the impromptu mantra until I’m actually able to pay attention to the mishmash of a history lesson and brewing tutorial.
A third member of the guide crew joins us with a tray of mini-pints, handing them out one by one to the sunburned tourists, including me. I’m meeting Birdie later for a training session, so my plan is to only have a few sips—but I’m pleasantly surprised when the cool liquid kicks up hints of chocolate. Chocolate beer. Who knew such a thing existed? Before I know it, the little glass has vanished and I’m staring down at nothing but droplets.
Another tray is brought out, and this time, I’m definitely going to pass. Until a woman to my right gives me a light elbow in the ribs. “You have to try this one. It’s infused with wine.”
“Wine? They saw me coming a mile away,” I murmur, plucking a glass off the tray and giving the guide a disapproving head tilt when he winks at me. “This is definitely my last one, though.”
It’s not my last one.
I have two more throughout the tour—one with a black licorice undertone and another, nuttier ale. I can’t help it, though. It’s too heady a temptation to bask in the sunlight with my new friend, an elbow-happy enabler from Tuscaloosa. It’s too easy to let my blood warm, my mind drift further and further from the wreckage I left behind in Charleston. Elijah and Addison. If my mother is right and they hit it off…how do I feel about that?
I decide to have another beer and really dig deep for an answer.
The sting of my mother’s phone call eases with every sip of the beverage I always thought I’d hate. What is Jason doing drinking Budweiser when caramel beer exists—
Oh shoot. I picked up a sixth mini-pint, didn’t I?
Letting the crisp liquid sit on my tongue as I’ve been instructed, I can no longer keep thoughts of my employer at bay. It riddles me with guilt even letting him creep into my head, but I know it’s only mild curiosity since I’ve never met anyone like him. Men like Jason have only ever existed for me in action movies. I better have a nap and some coffee before my appointment with Birdie later, because he’d take the utmost pleasure in firing me. When the gigantic fellow hired me, he looked like he was spitting nails. No, Jason doesn’t strike me as a forgiving man.
Not like Elijah.
As the son of Charleston’s longest sitting mayor, Elijah was occasionally approached in the street by those who opposed his father’s politics. They weren’t always friendly, either. No, they could be downright insulting toward Elijah. But he never lost his temper and always took the time to patiently address their concerns. One such occasion took place while we were on a dinner date. A volunteer at a local community pool had been applying for funding to reopen for several years and continued to be rejected. Meanwhile a new community center was being built in a more affluent neighborhood.
A month later, I was watching the news and a segment came on, proclaiming the closed community center was once again opening its doors, thanks to intervention from the mayor. Elijah never once took credit, but I knew he’d run interference.
Most women wouldn’t have a chance in hell of gaining a man’s forgiveness for leaving them at the altar, but my fiancé is…was? A very compassionate person who puts very little stock in public perception.
My mother is right. It is possible to make what I did right. I’m just not ready yet. I’ve embarked on exactly one expedition of self-discovery and it has only led to me feeling wobbly on my stool. I’m capable of surviving one day on my own. Whoopeedoo.
“Naomi, isn’t it?” The main tour guide—Keith, I believe—brings my head up, as I’ve been staring into my empty glass once again. “Why don’t you come on up here and stir the barley.”