‘You know how the signs at the zoo say Don’t feed the bears?’ Nina held up her bulkily bandaged hand. 'There’s a good reason for that.'
'Wow.' Steve was practically stunned speechless. 'I’ve never met anyone injured by a bear before.'
Nina caught herself before she could reply you still haven’t. This was too much fun to spoil.
Having seen dozens of different doctors, nurses, surgeons and specialists about her injuries, she was bored of repeating the same story. When Steve asked about her hand, Nina got creative.
Nina had a cheeky streak broader than the red-purple dye in her scruffy blonde hair. Growing up, she was frequently criticised for her overactive imagination.
She’d visited Perth Zoo’s sculpted lawns and leafy paths countless times and loved feeding the greedy giraffes. She knew they hadn’t any signs about bears. No self-respecting zoo had enclosures so unsafe someone could get mauled feeding ham sandwiches to a grizzly.
Nina had been sitting in the hospital coffee shop, enjoying her first latte in three days after being discharged when Steve had walked in. His black suit was too shiny to be exceptionally expensive and too stylish to be cheap and when he invited himself to sit at Nina’s table, she saw him take an interest in her bandages.
He wanted to project successful lawyer, not lawyer with wheelbarrows of money. If he looked too rich, his clients wouldn’t trust him.
Steve’s business card said personal injury lawyer, but for Nina, it might as well have read professional ambulance chaser.
Having been burnt by past abusive relationships, she could smell when someone wasn’t on the level. Steve had asked her what she was reading, but Nina knew he surely made a habit of striking up conversations in the coffee shop. She figured she’d string Steve along for a little while. What could go wrong? Nina asked herself; it wasn’t like she was lying.
Maybe it had been a tiny oversight to mention bears, but Nina reassured herself it wouldn’t go to court and if she got another coffee out of it, where was the harm?
This definitely isn’t a date, she told herself – admittedly, the guy was kind of cute, but had a date organised with someone else.
Nina met Charlie the week before, on a humid evening stuck outside a secure car park. The shutters down, their cars were imprisoned inside.
'Doesn’t this place close at midnight?' Charlie asked.
'I thought so,' Nina agreed but was distracted by Charlie’s twilight-coloured eyes.
'Wait. It’s bloody Thursday!' Charlie exclaimed, startling Nina. 'They shut at 11.'
'I’m uncool; I’m never out on weeknights,' Nina admitted, worrying how she sounded to this magnetic stranger. 'Now what?'
'I’ll scale this lamppost, climb in, and rescue our cars!'
Suddenly, Nina thought Charlie might try.
Charlie looked athletic, as if she enjoyed things like bouldering, but Nina wondered what kind of traction her scuffed Converse could have.
'I’m kidding!' Charlie insisted. Nina was further concerned Charlie might have noticed her looking worried. Was she messing this up? She compromised by calling the car park’s help number.
After they paid to release their cars, Nina took a chance asking Charlie for her number. Charlie readily accepted though she struggled to read Nina’s cracked phone screen.
When an incident with her cat left her bitten and bleeding like she’d badly lost an argument with a woodchipper, Nina took a rain check on their first date. Charlie was only concerned about why Nina needed to go to the hospital.
Now Nina was letting this ambulance-chaser buy her a second coffee because of a story about bears. It’s nothing, she told herself.
'What do you think?' Steve asked, surprising Nina.
Nina wasn’t listening. She’d been daydreaming, endlessly swirling her mocha with a plastic spoon and thinking about Charlie instead of stringing Steve along.
'My marshmallows aren’t melting properly?'
Steve laughed; Nina was unsure if he was laughing at her.
'Look, dude, I gotta go,' she said.
Despite moving to Australia from Munich 10 years before, Nina felt awkward calling people mate. Dude wasn’t much better.
Steve found Nina’s faint accent and oddly dyed hair charming but knew he shouldn’t date clients, even if she wasn’t a client quite yet.
'I’ll call you Monday to discuss your zoo letter. Unless you want to meet sooner?'
Nina arrived at Charlie’s waterfront apartments complex 25 minutes early. Frequently late from misjudging how long she needed to do everything, tonight Nina over-compensated.
Pacing outside the gates, her jeans were still damp from the wash – she’d naively expected them to dry in time. She was a good judge of character, but other things were less well-considered.
Nina couldn’t buzz Charlie’s flat now; it was much too early and she’d look desperate. Instead, she could only kill time.
As an old Italian lady entered the complex, she noticed Nina’s pacing and deliberately pulled the gate closed behind her with a suspicious glance.
'I wasn’t going to steal your bag, mate!' Nina called out, trying to sound more local.
'I’m glad to hear it,' said a familiar voice. Nina turned around, praying she was wrong about this.
Steve would have recognised the short shaggy hair and bandaged hand on anyone.
'Were you threatening Mrs Giuseppe?' he asked.
'No!' Nina insisted, 'She acted like I was breaking in.'
'What are you doing? Are you here to see me? I don’t know how you found me, but this is inappropriate. You should have called.'
Steve wasn’t sure he did mind that Nina had tracked down where he lived, and he was confident that what she wanted wasn’t his legal advice.
Nina knew how she looked, loitering and yelling at old ladies.
'I’m not here for you,' Nina said, embarrassed. 'I’m visiting a...kind of date.'
Steve raised one obnoxious eyebrow.
'A kind of date? Where does this sort of date live?'
Suddenly Nina wanted to slap the designer stubble off his smug face.
'They live in unit 1.'
'They? Are they a split personality?' Steve’s smile was getting annoying.
'Thanks, technically correct man. She lives in unit 1.'
'Follow me,' Steve sighed. 'I’ll show you the way and make sure you don’t mug anyone’s Nonna.'
Nina hesitated. Charlie was probably waiting, and this was easier.
Steve didn’t wait for her reply. Unlocking the gate, he walked without a backwards glance. He didn’t close the gate but also didn’t hold it, and Nina hurried to keep it from slamming shut.
Steve was unnaturally quiet. Glad of the silence, Nina looked around as she walked, noting a swimming pool and manicured garden beds. She was right that Steve had money.
Steve stopped in front of a building and turned to Nina.
'Here you go!' That smug look again, but Nina was determined to be polite.
'Thanks,' she said coolly. 'I’ve got this.'
'No problem,' Steve insisted. Instead of walking away, he rapped loudly on the door. Nina was appalled, but before she objected, he unlocked the door.
Nina realised her position when she saw Charlie in the hallway.
'Oh, it’s you,' Charlie said.
Nina’s heart sank at her unexpectedly lacklustre welcome. Then she realised Charlie was talking to Steve.
'Charlie, I met your date outside,' Steve said dryly. 'Nina, meet my little sister Charlie.'
Charlie seemingly noticed Nina for the first time. Looking to Steve, then to Nina, then back to Steve, her face twisted in confusion and revulsion.
'What’s wrong?' Nina was perplexed.
'You know each other?' Charlie countered.
'No!' Nina replied quickly, her heart was audibly thumping.
Steve jumped in: 'Nina and I had coffee earlier today; I think she’d just got out of bed. Either way, I’m taking her case about a bear attack, and now I’ve found her lurking outside. She said she has kind of a date, but I think she was looking for me.'
Growing up with her obnoxious brother, Charlie knew when he was lying to wind her up, and when he knew the truth would annoy her more.
'You always do this, Stevie; quit messing with my dates!'
With the argument intensifying like a cyclone, Nina felt like there was some history and sibling rivalry she had stumbled into unknowingly. More to the point, her night was going badly wrong.
'I don’t know what game you two are playing,' Nina shouted into the din, 'but I’m leaving!'
Charlie apparently agreed; shutting the door in Nina’s face.
Nina knew she’d look crazy if she stood outside the apartment door all night. Instead, she wandered about for a while until she found the pool, then sat under a light nearby. What could she say to fix this?
She hadn’t admitted it to herself until now, but she sort of, kind of, maybe, just a tiny bit liked them both. Or had liked them both, past tense. Nina had achieved a certain unexpected clarity on that front now.
It’s not what you think 🙁 Nina texted.
Don’t care. Go away 😡 Charlie’s reply was immediate.
Don’t want your idiot ambulance-chaser brother! I like you!
Don’t use that word 🤬
No, dumbass: ambulance chaser. It’s offensive
It’s what he does?
You didn’t ask me what I do
Nina knew then that she’d messed up.
Earlier in the day, Nina considered making Charlie a first date playlist but rejected it for being cheesy. Now she had a better idea.
Opening Spotify on her phone, Nina created Playlist for C and started adding tracks.
- Hey girl
It was a strong opener, Nina thought.
Getting to the point quickly, so far so good.
- Hear me out
- I’m a fool
Nina paused. This was turning out to be harder than expected.
- I didn’t mean to hurt you
- Please forgive me
- Nothing happened
- Don’t let me be misunderstood
- You’re the one that I want
- Waiting on you
Nina pasted the playlist link into a reply and hit send. The night was warm and starry, and if she left now, she’d be home in time for watching Netflix with her overfed tabby cat.
The following day, Nina tried to put Charlie out of mind. She’d messed up there, but life goes on. She was moving on, Nina told herself. Finding a free sofa at her favourite café, she’d barely started into her book when her phone pinged.
Can I see you? Her heart leapt.
Grabbing up the phone, Nina saw a message from Steve. She then realised it didn’t say can I but instead I can.
Nina looked up; Steve was leaning on the counter, waiting for his coffee. She knew this coffee shop was popular, and maybe she’d hoped its proximity to Charlie’s apartment might afford a coincidental meeting, but she hadn’t considered what might happen if the wrong sibling showed up.
Steve waved, and Nina conspicuously ignored him, putting her phone down and picking up her book. Before she could find her place on the page, Steve wandered over.
'Get lost,' she muttered angrily, half to herself. If it hadn’t been for Charlie, and Steve acting like a jerk, she could like him.
When Nina didn’t acknowledge him, Steve sat conspicuously nearby with a newspaper.
Her phone buzzed again. Before she could throw it at Steve, Nina noticed the sender: Charlie.
Nice playlist doofus 😊
Nina smiled. Forgive me?
It’s weird 😝 Doesn’t flow *at all*
Right OK 🙁
I like it. Made me smile, like you
Nina was mid-reply when she pressed something wrong, and her phone started calling Charlie.
'No! Stop it!'
Steve looked up from his newspaper.
'Are you seriously calling me?' Charlie’s voice was smiling, and Nina knew she liked this feisty girl.
'My phone does weird things, and I couldn’t make it stop.'
'That sounds awkward,' Charlie laughed.
'Do I get another chance to see you?'
'Maybe. You’re lucky you’re cute.'
'Charlie, let me take you to a gig tonight. At the zoo.'
'I wondered what you were going to say there, for a second.'
Nina’s face flushed pink, blushing harder knowing Steve could see her.
'Meet me there, 7:30? It’s a special event, I’ll get us tickets.'
'Alright, doofus. I’ll see you there.'
'Hi, Charlie!' Steve Called out. Nina froze.
'Is that my brother?' Charlie asked, hanging up before she could wait for an answer.
Nina threw her phone down in frustration. 'Goddamn it, Steve,' she cried, 'You ruin everything.'
'You sound exactly like Charlie,' Steve replied.
Suddenly his phone started ringing. 'That’s Charlie,' he sounded concerned.
'I don’t believe you,' Nina replied flatly.
'Hey,' Steve answered before being interrupted by his sister. 'She wants to talk to you,' he said, handing the phone to Nina.
'Are you having coffee with Steve? Again?' Charlie asked.
'No!' Nina insisted. 'I’m here alone with my book, I didn’t know he’d show up, nothing is going on, and-'
Charlie stood in the doorway, still on her phone and a wry smile on her face. Nina kept talking into the phone, though Charlie could hear her without it.
'I swear, I only met him yesterday because of my stupid cat bites.'
Whether it was Nina’s passion or seeing her, face-to-face, across the crowded café, Charlie visibly softened.
'I believe you. Tell me more about it tonight, and whatever this is about your cat.'
Nina smiled. 'This is yours,' she said distractedly, handing Steve his phone and walking over to Charlie.
Steve looked from his phone to Charlie, then to Nina. The customers who’d been listening intently now pretended to be engrossed in their coffees.
Not needing anyone’s permission, Nina enthusiastically kissed Charlie.
'Wait. What’s this about cat bites?' Steve asked.