Chapter 5: Newcomers.
Two days tumble past and Wednesday arrives.
Cece paces frantically before her made bed. A suitcase worth of cloths dunked on top of it in piles, scattered across the spread. Multiple synapses fire in her brain, mix-matching outfits, pairing some and switching others. The result is the same.
The door swings open and Litha breezes through, closing it behind him. Hair glittering with water droplets, he strolls inside with a rolled-up towel resting on his shoulders, dressed in an oversized plain white shirt and fitted black jeans. He throws up his hand at her.
“You still don’t know what to wear?”
She shakes her head.
Litha’s eyes stifles through her cloths, a rainbow vomit of materials.
“Why don’t you wear that white summer dress?”
She wavers in her pacing and stops to consider his counsel. Her eyes meet with his.
“The one you wore at aunt Cheryl’s engagement party last year.” He walks past her to sit on his bed and he extends his torso to reach for his white sneakers. “It was kinda pretty. Nice, but still not trying too hard.”
A smile flourishes on her face and she spins around. She rummages through the piles and moments later. Cece draws it out from the masses. A milk white, guipure, flounce hem dress with an open back. She holds it to her body and looks down.
“Man, I’m glad I packed it.”
“Your welcome,” Litha says with a distinct note of resentment in his tone. Tying up his shoes, his gaze aimed low.
She points at him, arm fully stretched. “Thanks for doing this, you’re the best, bro. And I mean it.”
Litha looks up, rising slightly to place his forearm on his knee. “I wouldn’t thank me just yet. You owe me after the stunt you pulled. Now gran believes Meeko is some kind of mutual friend. He isn’t. So best believe when the time is right. I’m going to cash in on that favour.”
He snaps to his feet. “You got five minutes. Its nearly ten,” he says with an ominous smirk. He exits the room with a grin like a poker player who bluffed his way to victory.
Twenty minutes later. With an urgent spring to her steps, Cece vacates their room. The strap of her small, russet brown satchel sits secured across her torso, its colour matching her thick medium-heeled ankle boots.
Gramps does his due diligence and transports them to Carley’s café. A hometown favourite.
Outside the café, settled on the corner of Cypress street. Meeko waits patiently outside whereas his friends comfortably await them all inside. Meeko stands before the café attired in a Barocco motif polo shirt, jeans neatly rolled up at the ankles, paired with Ilus sneakers.
Meeko watches the roads, eyes darting to every infrequent car that travels by. The scintillating sun warming with euphoria, with every minute struck. Shortly he notices a glossy black Camaro rolling down the street, slowing its speed, it moves smoothly to park in front of him. On the other side, the passenger door opens and Cece sprouts into view. She rounds the hood and makes her way to him.
Meeko beholds her. The delicate white dress compliments her radiant skin, her braids bound in a high pointy tail with only a few faux locs left free to brush against either temple.
“There she is.” He goes in confidently, enveloping her in a strong embrace. “Glad you came.”
They part reluctantly.
“Glad you texted.”
Litha steps out of the car and gramps fixes the seat behind him.
“Aw, don’t I get a hug?” A wry line chiselled on his face as he makes his way to them.
Meeko dazzles with his megawatt smile and jabs out a fist.
Litha smirks and tosses a glance to the side. “We’re not there yet, homeboy.”
He draws his arm back to his side. “Yet," he emphasis and wags his eyebrows.
“You two,” gramps calls to their back. Litha and Cece swivel.
“I’ll fetch you in two hours and don’t eat anything too big. You know your grandma and cooking. I think she said she’s making roasted chicken.”
The two nod.
“Actually, sir. It would be no trouble to drop them off,” Meeko offers.
Gramps folds his arms as if challenged, his eyes interrogating him. “And what time will that be, young man?”
“In two hours,” he says truthfully. But no way of knowing.
A smile splits gramp’s face. Looking at the siblings, he points to Meeko. “I like him.”
Litha pushes out a heavy breath from his nostrils. Gramps waves goodbye and disappears into the car.
“Well, since everyone’s already inside,” Meeko says, “lets go.”
He navigates them to the front door of the café. His frame only halfway through the entrance before the bell above his head chimes a greeting. Passing the chalkboard with the daily specials written in a swirly font. Meeko enters and moves to hold the door open for them. The siblings walk in, one after the other, stepping unto the cream terracotta tiled floor.
Cece’s gaze starts high, from the slow-turning fans of the low-ceilinged café. Behind the counter a barista serves an elderly couple and the other expertly works a Wega Pegaso espresso machine and beside it, a fully automatic Siemens coffee machine. Next to the machinery is a triple-tiered shelf, decked with imported Legado packed coffee beans, different breeds from Costa Rica Danilo Salazar to organic Red De Mujeres.
Alongside the cash register stands an expansive transparent glass cabinet, accommodating a wide variety of delectable baked goods. An enticing assortment, each to suit every preference: sugar-coated cakes, bloated loafs and mega-size muffins.
Meeko then weaves them through the café’s primary focus, bordered by high-toned beige walls. Small, rosy carnation flowers decorate each square-shaped table. A few customers already fill the scene, mostly in the centre, only two waiters circling around.
Cece breathes in the air that is enriched with the powerful aroma of crushed coffee beans.
In the short distance, a row of booths streak across the floor to ceiling windows that display the open road outside. Noticeably a booth away from the middle, there's a squad of young adults, late teens or early twenties. Two guys and two girls. And Meeko leads them in their direction.
“Here I thought the brit’s punctuality would have rubbed off on you, mate,” the one guy says, a white supreme top beneath his open denim jacket. He slips out of the buttery yellow booth.
“And I thought Lakeshore’s decorum would have affected you by now,” Meeko retorts. “Guess we all can’t get what we want.”
He marches straight up to him at a threatening fast pace. His expression, deadpan. “Well around you, I tend to lose all my good manners.”
They collide, engulfing each other, clapping hard on each other’s backs. Then they withdraw with toothy smiles.
Meeko steps to the side and gestures to the newcomers. “These are the siblings that I was telling you about. That’s Litha.”
The guy nods at him and they clasp hands, drawing each other in to do a quick bro hug.
Meeko sets his gaze on Cece like his eyes are on his home. “And this is his lovely sister, Cece.”
He gives Cece a full body scan and nods with approval, lips pulled down. “Lovely indeed.” He steps in for a side hug. He addresses them both, saying, “Nice to meet you both, I’m Aries,” he says with raw, cadent energy. “Lakeshore is lucky to have you two, welcome.”
Aries turns and makes his way back to the booth with the rest of the gang. Squeezing together, everyone around shifts to one side, closer to the window to make space for the newcomers. Aries slides in, then Cece and Meeko. Litha fits himself opposite them.
“Hey guys,” says the girl next to Litha. “I’m Aria.” She flicks her light platinum purple tresses off her shoulder.
The last girl on the end with soft amber hair, intros herself, “Elaine.” She places her iPhone face down on the table and pulls an elastic smile.
The guy opposite her pops out to peer over at them. “Zachariah. Zach for short.” The only one that breaks the standard of semi casual. Everyone else dressed up effortlessly to impress. Whereas Zack rocks a large dark flannel shirt with a black tee underneath, a silver piercing punctured at the end of his one eyebrow.
“Cece,” she says and smiles uneasily.
“Litha,” he says coolly, trading nods.
“Now that the formalities are out of the way. I think it’s time to order,” Aria suggests.
Everyone mumbles in agreement.
Aria cranes her neck to look into the café. Eyes on the hunt, she seizes the gaze of a male waiter and summons him over with a flutter of her manicured fingers.
He obeys, walking to their booth briskly. He does a quick welcome speech, ready to take their orders with his arms folded behind his back.
Aria gives her order first and he makes his round, mentally noting each request. Until he reaches Litha.
“Since it’s like a hundred degrees out. I’ll have anything that isn’t a hot beverage.”
The waiter nods thoughtfully. “May I suggest our fruit-fusion iced tea?”
Litha bops his head. “As long as it’s cold.”
The waiter grins and scurries off.
Once he leaves, the perception of comfort absconds with him. An interim of fraught silence stretches out like a living, breathing force, painfully unavoidable.
Promptly, a familiar generic ringtone wails for Meeko’s attention. He lifts himself up to hover above the seat, sliding out his phone. An unrecognisable look flits across his face, nostrils flaring. He swipes to decline to the call.
“So….” Aries’s voice cracks through the ice. He leans forward to stare over at Meeko dramatically. “I only came here to see what's good with our golden boy. What’s it like being in an IV league university?” He conjures up a loud and vexing British accent. “Attending Nottingham.”
Meeko chuckles. “It’s truly nothing that special.” His arm pressed against Cece’s flank. The baritone of his voice reverberating through her bones.
“Your infuriating humility has been dearly missed,” Zach says, emulating the accent.
“Agreed,” Elaine chirps. She tucks a sheet of amber hair behind her ear. “Now, spill the tea.”
Pressured, he caves and lets out a reflective sigh. “I really don’t know what to tell you. Other than that, I’m doing a course in biochemistry and molecular medicine.” He shrugs, eyes wandering. “I do love it there and I can see myself furthering my studies there, too.”
Aria fakes a yawn. She looks at him with a deep, analysing stare. “Now to the interesting part. Have you dipped your crumpet in any lady’s tea?”
Zach cringes. A laugh jolts Aries forward and he suppresses it with a fist over his mouth.
“I don’t know what that means, and if you mean to ask me if I’m seeing anyone. No,” Meeko says with a no-nonsense face. Not even to amuse, he stalely says, “I’m only there to study.”
Zach arcs a sly brow. “Maybe you're figuring out the right things to… study.”
Aries’s laugh bursts out and without looking, he and Zach clasp hands and it smoothly transitions into a fist bump.
Over his obnoxious guffaw, he says, “Can we talk about, literally, anything else? For example, our new acquaintances,” he diverts, and shoots a look at either sibling.
Elaine tilts forward to rest her elbow on the table, chin perched on the heel of her palm. “Of course.” Her ocean green eyes cross to Cece and it lands on Litha...lingering. “So where are ya’ll from?”
“Not here," Litha says indifferently.
To vaguely expound, Cece says, “Well, we came here a lot when we were young. Our grandparents live here. Ten years later, we’re back.”
Aries lets out an exaggerated sigh. "Ten years? My grandparents would hunt me down, and kidnap me if I went just a month without seeing them."
Aria steals a look at Meeko who casts frequent and impulsive glances at her, intensively and with such a paradoxical look. A warmth in his eyes like he has known her for many moons. But with a profound intensity like he still wants to know more about her.
“So where do you study?”
Cece stiffens at the question. “I guess, I’m taking a gap year. Well, time-off really, to find out what I want to do. What makes me happy, I want to do something that I'm passionate about, and what matters to me. For now, I’m still searching for what that is.”
Aries frowns with a smile. “Please don’t sing. You sound like you’re going to break into some kind of Disney, Greatest Showman kind of song about following your heart.”
Litha snorts at the comment but remains silent.
“Never mind, Zach. He can be an idiot most—all the time.” Aria dismisses him with a foul look. She pampers on a show-stealing smile by the time her eyes snake back to Cece.
“Well, give us the deets. How long are you staying for?” She asks with a pent-up verve that appears contrived. “I’m sure your boyfriend must be missing you.”
Unable to defeat his own curiousness. Meeko rotates his head to look back at her questioningly.
Cece forces out a quick laugh. “Yeah. No. I don’t have one.”
Aria flaps a hand as if to slap away her denial. “A gorgeous girl like yourself? You must have left a trail of broken hearts in your wake.”
Cece stares into her eyes, probing. Her eyes sparkle with malice.
She smirks and shrugs. “Probably.”
“Ooh.” Aries grins and looks over at her. “You can gladly have my heart; you look worth the pain.”
The whole table lets out of a series of ‘ugs’ unable to handle the level of cringe.
Thankfully, their waiter returns to deliver their beverages, all served in white porcelain mugs with matching saucers. All except for Litha. A tall cylindrical glass stands in front of him, brimming with twelve ounces of refreshing, blackberry iced tea, plum-hued with slices of oranges and bright mint leaves in between. The waiter deposits teaspoons and a straw before he leaves to fetch a tub of sugar.
Cece dips a teaspoon into her Grande beverage, gently stirring her café mocha. The rich expresso and mocha bonded drink, blended with steamed milk and whirling whipped cream.
The waiter does a walk by and drops off the sugar. Zach calls for it and adds almost three tablespoons worth of it into his black coffee.
Silence pays another unwanted visit. Everyone taking their time to nurse their drinks.
Elaine scrolls through her phone in her one hand, sipping on her cinnamon dolce latte. Suddenly she moans urgently, licking the foam off her upper lip. She places her drink back down.
“Looks like they're back at it again,” she comments, browsing through an article.
Desperate for any kind of entertainment. “Who?” Aries asks.
Both hands holding her almond milk cascara latte to her lips, Aria peeks over at her screen, expertly doing a skim.
“LS Media reported its first boating accident of the summer,” she informs.
Zach creates more space for himself, slanting his torso against the sill of the window, stretching his arm out on the head of the booth. “Let me guess. It happened around Oakhill?”
“Ding-ding,” Elain says, eyes still surfing through the article.
“And that is?” Cece asks.
“Basically, where all the stupid, rich dicks live.”
“Zach,” Meeko scolds.
“My bad. Rich assholes,” he corrects. “And I’m not talking about poor rich. I’m talking about like their kids’ grandkids will never have to work a day in their lives. Type of rich.”
Litha frowns at him. “Still trying to connect the dots between rich assholes and boating accidents.”
Aria places her drink on the table. “To sum it up. Every summer a bunch of entitled rich kids, brandish their wealth by taking out their jet skis, cruising on their yachts, flexing on insta or tiktok. And at least one of them crashes or something.”
“How do you crash a yacht?”
Aria grins. “Oakhill kids will show you how.”
“Alright,” Aries says in an announcing voice. “I think it’s time for me to make a toast.” He lifts up his caramel macchiato by its handle.
Zach glares at the side of his face. “Why are you like this?”
Unfazed, he continues blithely. “A toast to our resident wanker. That he finally came back home.”
Meeko’s plump lips stretch into a terse line.
“And a toast to making new friends.” His drink sways to Litha’s direction and he glances at Cece beside him. “May our next hangout be less awkward.”
His rewarded with a shy smile and she looks down.
Meeko lifts up his cappuccino with vanilla crème. “To making new friends.”
One by one, they all raise their drinks in salute, all hovering near the centre. All except Litha.
They all send him an expectant look.
“Seriously?" He asks with furrowed brows.
Cece implores him with a look. Thwarting a rebuff. He grabs his half-empty drink and his glass completes the circle.
“One for all and all for one,” Aries cheers and they all grudgingly clink their drinks together.
Litha immediately retracts his arm, scanning the café to make sure no-one saw. “Okay, I’m ready to go home now.”
Wavering chuckles roll through the table.
"....It wasn't a joke."
From there on, silent moments are less, and the rigidity between them eases. The siblings find themselves marginally more comfortable with them, and them with the siblings. All unaware that something ageless blossoms between them all.
Where the five slowly become seven.
Again, only one ringtone resounds among them.
Everyone tosses Meeko hybrid looks, half irritated, half curious. Meeko lifts up his screen to glimpse the caller ID, his facial expression transforms from stark disdain, withering into a staid look. He silences his phone and places it face-down on the table.
“Dude, you're such a psychopath,” Zach jokes to lighten the mood. “Who doesn’t customize their ringtone?”
“Adults,” Aries answers. “Matured people who have a life, and don’t fret on meaningless things like a child would.”
Zach cuts him with a sharp look. “Ironic, coming from the overgrown toddler.”
Whilst stories are exchanged, laughs shared, their drinks diminish, draining with every swallow. Conversations spun two ways, three ways and at time. A whole table discussion.
From where it seems like time will never end. The two-hour interval nearly completes it's rotation.
Meeko checks the time on his phone. “I hate to be a killjoy, but we better start heading out,” he says and delivers a pointed look at Cece. Her smile wanes and she forces a nod.
“What,” Aries whines. “But we’re just starting to enjoy ourselves.”
Litha scoffs wryly. “We?”
Aries responds with a bored look. “Don’t act, you know you enjoyed hanging with the cool kids.”
Litha’s lips explode into a mocking grin. “People who refer to themselves as cool. Usually ain’t.”
Elaine snickers, nodding to agree with him.
“Well, you would know all about that.”
“About being cool?” Litha leans back to outstretch his arm, indirectly resting it behind Aria. “It’s about the walk, not the talk. And you talk too much.”
Aria slices down a hand before Aries can retort. “Okay,” she says with a raised voice. At a neutral volume, she says, “I think I’ve been around enough testosterone for one day. And don’t worry ya’ll, I’ll fit the bill.”
Her statement draws a wave of objections around the table.
Her hand shoots up in finality. The swell ceases. “Out of common courtesy. I called for the meet as soon as I heard Meeko was back in town. I have no problem paying.” She twists her torso and plucks out a designer purse that is squeezed between her and Elaine.
Zach grumbles something under his breath. Louder, he says, “If I had known it was going to be free, I would’ve ordered brunch. I love Carley’s chilli con carne.”
Elaine shakes her head at him in sheer disgust. “Cheap bastard, no wonder you don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Judgemental princess, it’s such a mystery why you're still single.”
Elaine gapes at him, mouth rounded. “Aria,” she says to her, but her eyes drill holes into Zach. “Please move out, so I can leave. Or else they’ll only be six of us leaving this café alive.”