I daydreamed about a quaint cafe in Spain as I wiped down the silver handle of the espresso machine. In only an hour, I’d be done for the week and finally get to see someone under 55. I loved working at the cafe, but it was seriously an oasis for the elderly. One thing about old people in a small town is that they will find a common place to gather and chat for hours.
Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoyed it. How else would I know all the drama with the new pastor at the Lutheran church? But, it would also be a breath of fresh air to see someone my own age. That’s why I was so excited about tonight. My friends and I were all spending the weekend at camp, which we hadn’t been able to do in two years. I was the only one who still came home for summers. Everyone else was off doing impressive internships or studying abroad in Italy. But I wasn’t bitter. Not at all.
My family owned the Broken Oar Cafe and I’d been working there since I was 14. At 20, I was growing tired of the same routine, but my parents needed the help. The bell jingled as a customer walked through the door. It must have been Dale, one of my most loyal regulars. He always came in right around four.
“Hey Dale, how was your –” I began as I looked up from my cleaning.
Only it wasn’t Dale. Nor was it any of my other regulars. This was not an old person at all, but a young man with light brown skin and shoulder-length locs. His expression was strained as he picked at a hangnail on his thumb. My interest was piqued. In a town of 1,000, I don’t remember the last time I saw someone my age in the shop who I didn’t recognize.
“Sorry about that, I thought you were someone else,” I laughed, slightly embarrassed. He didn’t so much as crack a smile at that.
“What can I get started for you?” I pushed past the awkwardness.
“Iced latte with oat milk.”
“Right… my main demographic here is usually retired farmers and the after-church crowd, so the best I can do for you is whole or skim,” I said.
“That’s great. I guess skim is fine.” It didn’t sound too great at all when he said it like that.
Alright then. “That’ll be four dollars,” I said. He swiped his card without another word.
I tried not to notice how he shifted impatiently while I pulled the espresso shot and poured it over the ice. I topped it all off with milk and stuck a pink straw through the lid. “Iced latte,” I said as I set the plastic cup on the counter. He silently grabbed it and walked to a table by the window.
As soon he sat down, his shoulders sagged. He looked dejected and, frankly, kind of pathetic. I tried to ignore his presence as I set to work on my side tasks so I could get the hell out of there when the clock hit five. However, I couldn’t help but glance at him every so often to see him shrinking further into his seat as he stared at his laptop hopelessly. Sure, he had been kind of a dick but now I just felt sorry for him.
Fuck it, I thought. I paused my sweeping to reach into the glass display case and pulled out a banana muffin and set it on a small orange plate. Dessert in hand, I made my way toward the corner where he sat. He looked up as I arrived, eyes widening and mouth slightly parting as I set the plate on his table. I walked away silently and went back to my sweeping behind the counter.
10 or so minutes passed and I was now wrapping up leftover pastries to take to my friends after work. I heard footsteps approaching and looked up to see the boy standing there. His eyes looked significantly gentler this time around.
“Thank you.” I waited for him to go on.
“And I’m sorry” I looked at him a little longer.
“I’ve just had a really rough day, and I totally took it out on you. I’m normally not like this. ”
“Thanks for apologizing, we all have those days. I hope the muffin helped at least.”
With that, he finally cracked a smile. “It definitely did,” he said, “It’s been the only bright spot in this otherwise shitty day.”
“What happened?” As a self-proclaimed nosy person and problem-solver, this was piquing my interest. “If you don’t mind my asking, of course, ” I was quick to add.
“My camper van broke down. I’m traveling and it’s where I sleep, so now I’m basically homeless until I can get it from the shop.”
Shit that was unfortunate. That explained why he was here, the only body shop was just catty-corner from the Broken Oar. “So, what’s your plan?” I probed.
He shook his head and blew out a breath. “I don’t know. That’s why I came here – to use the wifi and look up somewhere to stay tonight,” he explained. “But I have no car, and there are no hotels in this town, so I may be sleeping under the stars tonight.”
I thought for a second. I’m gonna regret saying this.
“I can drive you to Bluemont,” I finally said, “That’s the closest town with a hotel. It’s 30 minutes away, but it’s on the way to where I’m heading.” I thought about how life’s number one rule was not to get into a car with a strange man, and now here I was inviting one into mine.
He looked surprised. “No, I couldn’t make you do that.”
“Really, it’s no trouble. I’m off in 20 minutes and then I can take you.” It was a little bit of trouble, but I couldn’t help but be a fixer. I should at least learn the guy’s name, I figured. “I’m Lark, by the way. What’s your name?”
He laughed, a surprised intake of breath. “You’re kidding. My name’s Wren. And thank you.”
I raised my eyebrows at that. “Well, birds of a feather, I guess. Go sit down while I finish closing, and then we can go.”