The halls were in an uproar. I gripped my bag closely to me as I edged closer to the row of lockers, trying not to touch anyone as I walked the complete opposite direction as everyone else. With everyone heading down to the cafeteria for lunch, and me going up to Mrs. Ichikawa’s room, I felt like a fish swimming upstream. The noise became muffled as I entered the room, just at the far side of the hall. Mrs. Ichikawa was in the middle of rearranging numerous piles of paper stacked on her desk.
She didn’t bother to look up as I greeted her, settling my bag onto one of the desks at the front of the classroom and perching myself up next to it. “Hello, Darcy,” she said, breezily. “I remembered to get some forks for you. They’re in the storage closet somewhere – probably on one of the bottom shelves?”
“Oh!” I jumped back down and headed for the closet. Sure enough, a pack of forks were placed on top of some bins filled with markers and colored pencils. “Thank you so much. If you hadn’t, I totally would have forgot to drop by the cafeteria to get one.”
“Not a problem.” With a final shut of her desk drawer, she let out a huff of air and looked around. “Okay, I think I got everything I need. I need to quickly drive home to get Buddy’s giraffe and drop that off at daycare. He’s having the biggest fit that he doesn’t have it, and Dom can’t pick him up until later today. I’d rather he not throw a tantrum for the rest of the time he’s there.”
I laughed. “Go, go!” I shooed with a gesture of my hands. “His little world is breaking without it.”
Mrs. Ichikawa made a face as I said that, but we both knew that Buddy’s world was truly crumbling without his stuffed giraffe to protect him from the big, scary world. Especially without mommy and daddy there as first defense.
When she left, I sat down and pulled out my container of last night’s dinner. The pasta was cold, but good nonetheless. At 11:35, on the dot, I pulled out my phone to call Ben. He said he’d have a quick break at this time and that he’d be able to keep me company for a bit. Sure enough, he answered on the second ring.
“Hey.” My mouth was full of noodles. “I’m on lunch break. How’s business?”
“I just got on mine, but probably not for too long,” he said. It was so loud in the café that it was almost hard to hear him. “It’s one of those days, Darce. I can feel it. I think Ronnie’s head is going to pop off if one more thing goes wrong in the kitchen. I’m gonna have to cut my break short to jump in and save the day.”
I perked. It was unfortunate that things were going rough at the café today, but that meant… “You’ll need backup, then? I can come in right after school is done.”
He didn’t have to say anything for me to know how he felt about that. His silence was an answer in itself. Papa was beginning to get on my case about how much time I was spending at the café. I know if I show up after school, he’ll ask me if I’ve looked into any clubs or organizations to join yet, or if I’ve made any new friends. The answer was always no. By this time in the school year, everyone already has their established friend groups. I can’t just slot myself in anywhere after being transferred to this school, especially when I’m entering as a junior! That’s why I hide out in Mrs. Ichikawa’s classroom for lunch, having the occasional brief call with Ben or London, our neighbor from across the hall.
Papa can get on my case all he wants about “coming too much,” but he knows how much that place ties us both down. I couldn’t be more happy that we were able to take over the Brewing Café after we returned back to New York. Before we moved to California, Papa worked there. That’s where we met, where he asked if he could adopt me, and where I spent a lot of my childhood days. Now that we’ve inherited the place from Mr. Oxford – who moved to Miami with his wife to retire – we’re there almost every day. Again, it’s not like I minded, because I loved working at the café. I really, really did. Not only did I love the atmosphere of it all, with people of all ages coming in simply for some good food and good times with whoever they came with, but the Brewing Café was my safe haven. It felt like home. A big part of that is because of the people there. It’s not a family owned business, but the small-knit staff might as well be called family because that’s how I consider them.
I was content with how I’m handling things now, so why did Papa have to be like this? I sighed – loud, long, and dramatic. To that, Ben replied, “You know you can come in, Darce. We’re not gonna bar the doors or anything. You’ll just have to answer your Papa Rich’s questioning, again.”
“Fine. I’ll deal with that,” I said, rebellion evident in my tone. I stabbed my fork mindlessly into my pasta. “You get it, don’t you, Ben? I can’t just make friends halfway into the semester! Why does he have to drill me about it?”
“Because he wants you to branch out,” Ben responded, soft to combat with my roughness. “He already feels bad he moved you out to California, then had you move back again. He wants you to settle in with some good friends at a good school. You know, make New York feel like home again.”
“It’s not like it’s his fault he got sick,” I muttered. “I would follow him anywhere and be just fine. I’m perfectly fine.”
“You’re perfectly fine isolating yourself by eating lunch in your English teacher’s classroom, then coming straight to the café to work? Where’s your social interaction?”
“With you. And Ronnie. And Papa, Evan, Nina, and the others.”
This time, it was his turn to sigh loud, long, and dramatic. “Fine. I gotta go, but I guess I’ll be seeing you later?”
“Yes, you most definitely will,” I said, adding “whether Papa likes it or not,” before hanging up the phone.
It wasn’t long before Mrs. Ichikawa returned and lunch break ended. I stared out the classroom window, watching the people flow by as everyone made their way to their next class. People filed into my classroom. The crowds outside slowly thinned. And then, there, just like after every lunch period, stopped a couple by the classroom across the hall. Although I didn’t know the girl with the thick, curly hair and contagiously loud laugh, I knew the blonde-haired boy the second I saw him on my first day.
I can’t help but smile sometimes at the it’s-a-small-world moment. Of course he’d be going to this high school.
I’ve run into him so many times and yet, for some reason, I couldn’t walk up and talk to him. It’s been so long since I’ve seen or talked to him, especially since we moved to California and lost contact with practically everyone. But by the looks of it, he’s doing just fine.
Still, now that I know we’re in the same school, it’s as if my eyes automatically search for him in whatever room I’m in. He’ll be hanging around with his friends in the morning, or be with his girlfriend at his locker on the second floor. I always see him, even when I don’t mean to look for him. And everytime I see him, I can’t help but wonder if Chris has seen me, too.
There was an impressive line at the cash register, and a lot of the booths and tables on the left side of the building were filled, but the café certainly was not on the nightmare level Ben made it out to be when I arrived later that afternoon.
Ben didn’t notice my arrival until I reached the front of the line and said, masking my normal voice with a faux pitched accent, “May I have a word with the owner, please?”
He chuckled and shook his head. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder to the door that led to the kitchen. “He’s in the back with Ronnie and the rest of the kitchen crew.”
“Thanks,” I said and tried not to pay attention to the curious eyes who watched me hop over the counter.
When I pushed open the door, immediately someone exclaimed, “Uh oh, Richard. Daughter alert!” Ronnie, who stood frosting a batch of sugar cookies, smiled teasingly at me, and I stuck my tongue back at her. My Pa sat on a stool right next to her, and unlike Ronnie and the rest of the staff’s warm greetings, his mouth set into a firm line.
“Woah, woah! No ‘how was school, honey?’ Straight to the full name, are we?” I wrapped an arm around his shoulders, squeezing and rocking back and forth. Despite his initial sternness, he wrapped both his arms around my waist in response.
Now, if anyone were to see me and him right now, they probably would’ve assumed that the man with gray hair and laugh lines was my grandpa. But nope, Richard Howard was the man who adopted a little six year old girl when he was just sixty years old. We always get mixed reactions when someone finds out – the majority of them being surprise and then saying some variation of “oh, that’s wonderful!” Anything other than that – even just a hint of judgement or question – and I’ll get pretty defensive. His being quite old was never something I minded, not when he obtained the qualities of a great parent that my biological parents clearly lacked.
He’s the best Papa I could ever ask for. Even when he can be the overbearing, overly concerned parent. But before he could begin to rattle on the the same speech I’ve heard over and over, I whispered to him, “Papa, please. You can’t give me this lecture everytime I come in. I’ll make friends and get involved when I’m ready. Right now, in the middle of the semester, I feel like I can’t do that. Let me go at my own pace.”
The firm set of his mouth softened, but only to a frown. “I just want you to feel at home again in the city.”
“And I do. Here, with you. And the others.” I gestured a hand at the others working in the kitchen. “I can trust any one of them to keep my deepest secrets, would come to them if I ever needed help. I’ll make other friends outside the café when it happens, okay? In the meantime, I’m perfectly okay.”
Even my deepest sincereness didn’t seem to move him. He hesitated, then said, “But… Ben tells me you eat in your teacher’s classroom, Darcy.”
My eyes snapped towards the door. Damn it, Ben.
Before I could offer any rebuttal, the kitchen doors burst open. Evan, one of our employees, looked wide eye at all of us. “Guys, guess what!”
“You finally flushed your dead goldfish down the toilet?” Ronnie’s instant guess achieved a laugh from everyone in the kitchen and a flat look from the man who was constantly teased for waiting longer than usual to flush his dead pet down the toilet.
“I flushed Eddie down the toilet a long time ago. I swear, your amount of sarcasm increases by the day,” Evan retorted, then shook his head as his excitement returned. “My wife’s in labor. I’m going to be a dad!”
A gasp escaped my smiling lips. “No way!”
“Aw, hell, that’s way better than what I guessed,” Ronnie admitted with a grin of her own. Papa beamed proudly at the new father-to-be.
Evan has been working for the Brewing Café ever since it was under old management. He had decided to stick around when Papa took over. The first time he and his wife acknowledged each other’s existence was back in the day when his wife was a regular customer. Evan was pretty much always on shift when she came around, and he finally decided to make a move on her after several times of seeing her here. They found out after marriage that there were some complications with getting pregnant, but they found a way. I’ve never seen him happier than right now. I knew that kid was going to have great parents.
“What the hell are you still doing here, then?” my pa asked and waved him away. “Go on, get out of here! Tell us all about your baby boy when you’ve got the time.”
Evan looked wholefully relieved that he was free to go and was ready to bolt on out of here if it weren’t for a sudden realization. “I need someone to cover my shift.”
“Boy, don’t you worry about that right now. We got you covered.” A heavy hand landed on my shoulder. I grinned wider. “Now, go.”
Evan nodded his head vigorously, then sprinted out the door. From outside, we heard Ben shout, “Yes! Evan’s gonna be a dad!” We chuckled as a few customers clapped in congratulations.
“Well then.” I patted the hand Papa laid on my shoulder. “Looks like you’ll really be needing me now.”
My services were most definitely needed. Evan and his wife welcomed into this world a beautiful, healthy baby boy. Yours truly was able to come over straight after school to cover for his shifts while he stayed at home and tended to his wife and new little blessing. I liked to think I was becoming quite the rockstar behind the counter – and maybe even a little celebrity. And by celebrity, I mean that many of our regular customers and I were on a first name basis. It became easier and easier to recall the names of people’s kids or school struggles. Ben, of course, was a natural waiter. I’d expect nothing less from a charismatic twenty year old. Together, we were the ultimate team. Well, the whole staff together made for an even more incredible team. I was pleased when Papa would leave me to hold down the fort with Ben and everyone else.
When it was almost time to close, most of the staff had already headed out. Ben and I were beginning to clean down the tables when he walked over with a look in his eyes.
“Hey,” he whispered, leaning across the counter as if he had a secret to tell. “Be discreet with this, okay? But just grab me that rag behind you and glance at the booth near the far corner. You should see some blonde guy just sitting there, leaning against the wall and staring at a salt shaker.”
I blinked and tugged at my braid. “Okay...” Following his directions, I turned and retrieved the rag, casting a fleeting glance towards the back of the café. It wasn’t hard to identify who he was talking about. There was only one person left sitting around and he was looking, well, depressed. He had an oversized hoodie draped low over his head, almost as if he was shielding himself from the rest of the world.
“Poor dude. How long has he been here?” I asked Ben.
His eyes flickered back to the moping figure hunched over in the booth. “A while. Like, a long while. We gotta close up, so I think you should –”
“What? I’m not doing it,” I hissed, throwing the rag at his face. He flinched and gagged, swiping at the dirty cloth. “You kick the poor guy out! I don’t think I have the heart to do it.”
“I’m telling you, Darce. That’s the look of pure heartbreak right there. I bet Evan’s dead goldfish that a girl just stomped on his heart,” he informed me in a whisper. I shook my head in disagreement. There were a lot of things that could crush a guy’s mood. But even if he wasn’t hung up over a girl, he did look pretty bummed out. My own heart broke for the poor guy.
After a short back and forth between Ben and I about who was going to tell him to hit the road, I groaned in defeat. “All right, fine. You know what, I’ll send him out,” I muttered, glancing back at him again.
Ben perked up and smiled. “Really? Great, I’ll be over there pretending to do something.”
Scoffing, I picked up the rag to throw at him again, but he snatched it from my fingers and went to wipe down another booth. Hopping up and over the counter, I tugged at my braid and mentally braced myself for this interaction. But one look at the sulking figure and my resolve crumpled again. A sudden whim brought me back over the counter. Ben paused in his act to look at me confusedly as I began to prepare a hot chocolate. Scavenging a marker with fading ink, I took the piping cup and wrote one simple word.
This time, cup in hand, I walked assuredly towards him. He was probably so lost in his own head that the sudden movement of the cup being placed in front of him made him jump. I opened my mouth to apologize, but his name almost tumbled out instead.
Hiding under the hood, I couldn’t have suspected it was him. But now, face to face, I could see the dark circles under his puffy eyes. His blonde hair was flat against his forehead, as if he’s been hiding under the hood all day. I don’t recall seeing him in either of the lines to buy anything since I’ve been on shift. Has he been here this whole time?
The realization that I’ve been staring at him for too long hit me as he looked down at the cup of hot chocolate. My cheeks burned as I blurted, “It’s on the house. We’re closing, so I’m going to have to ask you to head out.”
With that, I turned on my heels and quickly escaped into the kitchen, all while ignoring Ben. He came in a few moments later, all bundled up and ready to go home, and found me pressing two slices of wrapped up cheese against my warm cheeks.
“Shut up,” I said to Ben before he uttered a word. His lip quirked up into a half smile as he handed me a balled up napkin. I raised a brow and took it with caution.
“Special delivery to ‘that girl with the braid,’” he replied, smile widening. His gaze weighed down on me as I slowly uncrumpled the napkin. Taking up the entire napkin was a wobbly drawn smiley face. Ben cooed. “How cute of you two” He reached over to pinch my cheeks, and I slapped his hands away, returning the cheese slices to my warm skin.
Just a smiley face. Nothing else…
When Papa and I returned to New York two months ago, we inherited Brewing Café almost immediately. This place wasn’t just significant to me, but it was to Chris, too. We’ve had many sweet treats in this place as kids.
The night I met him was nothing short of crazy. I was a kid living in an orphanage when I met Chris. We met under the scariest of circumstances – a whirlwind of a night when I was out with the eldest girl residing in my orphanage. Jessica was old enough to leave the orphanage at that time, but she decided to stay in order to help fulfill our caretaker’s death wish. For a long while, Jessica was harassed by these three guys, one of whom us girls at the orphanage got to know and trust before he turned and drove a knife in our backs. Dean was a traitor. He played us all so that he could report dirt back to his buddies and they could formulate new ways to ruin Jessica’s life. Dean and his friends went so far as to try and scare us just to get to her, but often targeted Jessica alone.
Fear always struck hard when Jessica never came home in time for dinner. It was always hard for us to eat with her seat at the table empty. Sometimes she’d show up late that night, rattled or hurt, and sometimes she didn’t return until morning when her best friend escorted her back.
That’s where Reece came in, a guy she met during her senior year. His situation was similar to mine; we both had abusive parents, but his mom died at a young age. Chris’s family was close with her, and they’d taken him in after Reece’s dad messed up big time and ended up in the slammer. He grew up a part of their family even though they never legally adopted him.
When we met Reece, we all thought he was another Dean. On second thought, when I say we, I meant they. He earned my complete trust the night he brought Jessica home safe and sound from another harassment, but he definitely cracked something in my walls when he decided to play a silly game with me. I kept to myself when I arrived at the orphanage, never felt comfortable enough to play with the other girls or talk during meals. One day, when all the other girls were having a blast out back, Reece came up and – willingly, believe it or not – dressed naked barbie dolls blindfolded with me. He drove a pickaxe into my protective shell and I began to break out from then on.
Reece was the one that found me after I was led away from Jessica that night. Dean was able to nail one on him, so we headed back to his place where, thankfully, Jessica met us unharmed. Chris was assigned the role of distractor. As Jessica went off to clean Reece’s wounds, I made a new friend that night.
Our friendship sprouted from playing toy beyblades on the floor and Disney movies in the background.
That was a long time ago. Papa got sick, we moved away, and eventually we lost touch with everyone. I strained back to remember how he looked back at me. Was there any recognition in his face when he saw me? Or has he already seen me around school but hasn’t said anything, just like me? Surely it was something, since we’ve made so many memories in this place together… right?
Whatever it was, that wasn’t the most concerning part. Ben’s words echoed in my head.
That’s the look of pure heartbreak right there.
As Ben and I stood outside, locking up the shop, my eyes drew back to the booth where Chris sat. “Ben?” I asked softly, tugging at my braid again. “Do you really think that guy got broken up with?”
Sympathy flashed in his eyes. “Trust me, Darce. Pure. Heartbreak.”
And now, when I remember how he looked at me, that’s what I saw in his eyes. Pure heartbreak.