By: Erin Noelle

“Thank you for agreeing to come. You deserve to celebrate after your first week of work.”

Nodding my head in acknowledgement, I lean back against the seat as we pull out of the parking lot. She turns the radio up to fill the moderately awkward silence, and as if fate is the acting DJ, the first song that blares through the speakers is Sara Bareilles’ latest hit, Brave. Jae sneaks a peek over at me with a knowing smirk before belting out the lyrics at the top of her lungs, implicitly advocating she just wants to see me be brave. I can only hope that one day I can do as the song suggests and let some light into this cage where I live.

A short car ride later—thankfully without any more life-applicable songs—we pull up to a cozy-looking place that has the words “NOW POURING” and an arrow above a window that indicates we’re at Tony’s. Once again, following her lead, we exit the car and make our way inside what appears to be a relaxed neighborhood bar and grill. Immediately, I scan the room, looking for anyone that appears to be out of place—not that they’d send someone I’d recognize anyway. A few people look up at us, but quickly return their focus to their own conversations and drinks. A bar lines the right side of the long, rectangular space, while tables and chairs are spread out along the left side. Everything’s made out of wood—the furniture, the cabinetry, and even the walls—and it instantly reminds me of the extensive woodwork in my mom’s house, inviting and welcoming. A lump forms in the back of my throat as the memory of her and my brother sweeps into my mind. Suddenly, Jae hooks her arm in my mine, dragging me towards the bar and out of my grief-stricken thoughts, and I’m silently thankful. Breaking out in tears in the first two minutes of being here would quickly ruin my attempt at being brave.

Finding two barstools together proves to be a challenge. Judging from the people in business attire and near-empty pint glasses scattered around the room, it appears many others are out celebrating the end of another workweek as well. A dark-haired guy sitting in-between two empty chairs notices our predicament and offers to scoot over to the right so we can sit together. Thanking him, we both hop onto the neighboring stools and peruse the beer menu. I’ve never been much of a drinker, except for when I was forced to drink wine with dinner, and considering I’m only twenty-two and have been able to legally purchase alcohol for a little over a year, I have no idea what I may like.

“What should I order?” I whisper to her, a bit embarrassed.

“Do you like beer?” she replies nonchalantly.

“I’m not sure. I have only tried it a couple times, and that was quite some time ago.”

“I usually get the ACE Perry cider; it’s light and refreshing, kinda fruity. Let’s start with that.”

I nod as the bartender comes by, and Jae places our order. While we wait for our drinks, I gaze around the bar again, still searching for anyone who looks suspicious or puts me on alert. I lock eyes with a few people, but they all just give me a friendly smile and return to what they were doing.

“First time here, eh?” a masculine voice whispers in my ear, startling me to the point of a near heart attack.

I twist slightly in my chair to see who’s speaking, still not believing someone is actually addressing me. An attractive guy that I’d guess is in his mid-to-late-twenties is standing between me and the lady seated to my left, grinning widely at me.

“That obvious, is it?” I reply shyly, really unsure what to say.

“You look a little uncomfortable, so I thought I’d come over to say hi. I guess you could say I’m a regular here, especially on Friday evenings, and I’m positive I’ve never seen those eyes in here before,” he explains, the friendly expression never leaving his face. “I’m Greg, by the way.”

He offers his hand in a welcoming gesture, and I cautiously yet hastily shake it, not wanting to be rude, but extremely uncomfortable with touching a stranger. “My name is Blake, and this is my friend and co-worker, Jae,” I explain, leaning back slightly so the two of them can shake hands as well.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you both. Would you two ladies be interested in joining me and some friends over there?” He pauses to point to an area where several tables have been pushed together, and five or six males and females are sitting with drinks in front of them. “We’d love to buy you both a round or two.”