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This Time

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Molly almost dropped her coffee when she walked past the bar and saw the name chalked on the board. It was a name she found in her thoughts frequently.

Ben Carter.

Ben Carter was playing a gig there, that night. But was it her Ben Carter? The one whose world she had turned upside down those five years past? It was a fairly common name, but knowing that Ben had played music made her feel pretty confident it was him.

Realising there was a much simpler way to answer her question, she sat down on a nearby bench and got out her phone. Typing ‘Ben Carter musician’ into Google, she held her breath waiting for the results to appear.

Sure enough, pictures of the Ben she’d known popped up. The majority of the images were of him playing drums in his former band, but there were some more recent shadowy ones of him performing in various bars; only one of the newer images was clear enough to really make out his face and seeing him again made her smile.

Molly felt so stupid for not looking him up like this earlier. A few months earlier she’d been having trouble sleeping and her mind invariably drifted by to him. She had sat up in bed and grabbed her laptop, taking a few seconds to gather her courage over what she might find before opening the computer and searching for his name via Facebook. But alas, her search had been fruitless. There were so many Ben Carters and narrowing it down by the school he’d taught at, along with his birthdate, had proved useless. No results showing, she’d shut her laptop and tried to sleep, putting the idea out of her mind.

Chewing on her bottom lip, Molly mulled over the question that weighed heavy on her: should she go there that night? Five years was a long time after all: he could be married with kids (shamefully she found herself checking the images for a wedding ring and felt selfishly relieved when she didn’t see one, which while not proof he’d spent the time since she’d seen him pining over her, gave her some glimmer hope). Still, she thought, he probably saw her as some dumb schoolgirl who was now a long distant memory.

But she had to try though, right? She knew if she didn’t go and at least watch him perform, she’d face a future of eternal regret on those nights that she couldn’t sleep.

For the rest of the day, her stomach was tied in knots at the thought of seeing him again. She had photos to develop, but her mind was too scattered to keep on the job in hand. When she decided to take a shower and get ready for the evening ahead, all hell broke loose courtesy of a burst pipe.

The bust pipe had set her plans back and she’d had to wait for an emergency plumber to arrive, so she later found herself dashing down the busy street on the way to Ben’s gig. Flustered, Molly gave hurried words of “Excuse me” and “I’m sorry” as she pushed through the groups of people lining the sidewalk.

Finally arriving at the bar, Molly rushed in only to find Ben had already begun his set. Slipping in near the back of the standing audience, she did her best to go unnoticed. Looking at the stage, her heart began to race in a way it hadn’t in the years since she’d seen him.

He cut a striking figure on stage. He looked essentially the same as Molly remembered, although his hair was cropped a couple of inches shorter. From the way he was singing, she could tell this was something he’d been doing at least somewhat regularly since she last saw him; there was a practised ease and confidence now to his stage presence, but every so often Molly saw brief glimpses - undetectable by the rest of the crowd - of the under-confident solo performer he once been.

“Thank you,” Ben said as the crowd’s applause died down post-song and he gave himself a second to drink his beer. “I’ve got one more for you tonight.” A crowd member jokingly booed. “I know, I know, you’re devastated,” he dead-panned. “So yeah, thank you for coming out.” He began to fiddle with the tuning on his guitar before hastily adding: “I’ve got a few CDs for sale, remember those?” The crowd laughed. “So erm, come and hit me up at the merch table after this if you’d like one.”

Watching Ben play his final song, Molly tried to convince herself she wasn’t being foolish for coming here and seeing him. There was a huge doubt in her mind as to whether their short-lived and tentative relationship had meant anything near as much to him as it had to her. Yes, she reasoned, he had once told her he risked everything for her, but that was said in anger and voiced as a regret, a regret feared he might still hold.

Knowing he was finishing soon, Molly couldn’t resist the opportunity to snap a few convert pictures of him on stage. After all, if this was a terrible idea and he never wanted to see her again, at least she got a couple of nice pictures out of it. While live concert photography wasn’t exactly her forte, with such a photogenic subject it was hard to go wrong.

Song finished, Ben graciously accepted the applause from the audience before he left the stage, placed his guitar back in it’s case and went to stand behind the small table holding his CDs. Molly decided it was best that she hung back and waited for the few people who were chatting to Ben and purchasing CDs to disperse. Once they had gone, it was a case of now or never.

By the time Molly reached him, he had bent down to look in his bag.

Sensing the presence of someone without looking up, he spoke: “I’m sorry, but amazingly I just sold the last CD I had with me.”

“That’s OK, I kind of came just to see you.” Molly held her breath wondering if he’d recognise her voice. The pause in his actions and surprise on his face as he stood to look at her told her he did.

“Hi,” she uttered shyly.

“Hi,” he replied utterly stunned that she was standing in front of him. He took a sip of his beer, his mouth suddenly feeling incredibly dry.

A quiet fell between them. Ben opened his mouth to say something before thinking the better of it. As they locked each others gazes, the hum of the bar throbbed as a soundtrack.

Close up, she confirmed to herself he was dashingly handsome as ever in an open button down shirt with a t-shirt and jeans, so much so she found herself wondering why he didn’t have a line of women waiting to chat to him post-performance.

“That was a great set,” Molly finally ventured.

Ben frowned and shook his head. “I’m sorry I can’t hear you in here, can we…?” he gestured to the exit and Molly nodded. Ben leading, the pair walked through the crowd and out into the crisp night air. “That’s better,” he smiled. “It was so loud in there.”

Molly gave him an awkwardly tight smile, and once again they found themselves locked in a heavy silence. As she looked at Ben, Molly felt every bit the same as she’d felt when she was a sixteen-year-old girl taking a forbidden ferry ride with her teacher.

Taking a deep breath, Ben decided it was time to speak. “So, how have you been?”

“Good,” Molly nodded, nervously pushing a stray piece of hair behind her ear. “I went to university, and...I got a degree in Photography.” She phrased it less as a statement and more as a question.

“Wow, OK, that’s amazing,” he said seemingly genuinely pleased for her.

“All thanks to you I guess.” After saying it, her cheeks flushed as memories of their time together flooded her thoughts; in the dim light she was sure she saw Ben’s cheeks flush too.

Taking in Molly’s appearance, Ben saw that she still looked distinctly her, but there were changes to be seen. Where once she had drowned in layers of oversized clothing and baggy jeans, now her appearance was altogether more streamlined; the jeans she had on fitting like a second skin. Her ever present green Converse had been replaced by a pair of flat black scuffed up ankle boots.

More than just her clothing had changed too: her hair was still long, but now fell just a couple of inches past her shoulders instead of trailing down her back. The years had thinned her face a little so that she now looked more young woman than teenager. Along with her expected Chapstick and mascara, she’d taken to regularly wearing eyeliner of late and she liked the extra boost of confidence it gave her.

“So do you have a job now or…?” Ben asking trying his hardest to sound relaxed and unaffected by her presence but feeling anything but.

“I’ve taken some live shots for my dad with his bands, but I kind of want to move more into portrait stuff I think.”

Ben nodded and took a suck of his beer from the bottle. “I’d love to see your work.”

Molly smiled, hoping he meant it and wasn’t just trying to be polite. “How about you, doing the music thing full time?”

“Oh no,” he chuckled. “I mean, I’d love to but the music gods have yet to give me a million dollar record contract.”

“So teaching still?” As much as she tried to sound peppy, Molly found herself foolishly hoping the answer was no; that her impact had been so great that the idea of even innocently mentoring other students was impossible to him.

Casting his gaze away from hers briefly, he answered, “No, not teaching.” He paused and met her eyes in a way that told her hope was more than just that. “I’ve been writing actually. I’ve had a few pieces of poetry published, which helps, but I’m working on a book.”

“Oh, that’s great. I had no idea you wanted to write.”

“Lyrics are poetry remember Molly Maxwell,” he chided with a laugh. “Some of my songs became poems, but the book is...I don’t know, something that crept up on me.”

“I’d love to read some of your work,” Molly said, and Ben felt the same hope that she meant those words as she’d felt when he’d said the same to her.

“I’d like to show it to you. I...” He stopped. “Hang on,” he grabbed his phone from his pocket and tapped the screen before handing it to her. “If you want to give me your number, we could sort something out?”

Molly beamed and quickly added her digits into his contacts. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

“Me too,” Ben replied unable to hide his joy, his smile reaching all the way to his eyes.