What Happened Next

The antique brass bell above the door gave its familiar clank as Abby walked into the café, shutting out the heavy, humid day and trading it for the slightly cooler interior. The broad, arched windows still let in an abundance of the syrupy morning light but it took a moment for her eyes to adjust as she made her way to the bar, passing the scarred tabletops and the artfully battered chairs. Everything about the place shrieked of bohemian authenticity, the overstuffed leather chairs in the alcoves arranged around mismatched and much moisture ringed coffee tables, the walls decorated with advertisements for vermouth and absinthe that would have looked just at home on the walls of an establishment along the Seine. That was the thing though, Abby knew, it was artifice. She’d found out after she started that the place had only been a café for about seven years before she’d been hired so what she’d thought of as a cool neighborhood place that had slowly accreted furniture and patina of time was just an illusion. The owners had spent a ridiculous amount of money making their brand new establishment look just the right kind of art shabby. The bell above the door was a reclaimed piece some pickers had probably sold them for far more than they’d bought it for from some couple emptying out their parents’ attic or barn, clearing out the last bits of whatever it had been from before, a bookshop or the family hardware store. The bar was brought all the way from Italy, she knew that, Jacob was always going one about it, from an actual old café. It was beautiful, certainly, made from cherry with a creamy marble inlaid countertop and a brass rail all around, but it was still fake in its own way, a bit of history wedged into a space it didn’t belong to lend some kind of pedigree that hadn’t been earned. Abby often thought there was some kind of life metaphor in that somewhere, but it was going to take someone much deeper than her to figure it out.

“Hey Samuel, here for my check”

“Abigirl, here bright and early as always, when it’s payday” Samuel turned from the end of the bar near the espresso machine, giving her his big smile. It was like getting hugged, that smile, wide, warm, bright. Sam’s eyes danced with it too and no matter how shitty a day you could be having it would wash over you and take you in. “How’s life treating you girl, haven’t seen you in a bit now?” He worked mostly days and her mostly nights, so it was kind of rare that they’d see each other much, which Abby felt kind of sucked really. She needed more smiles like that.

“Like a redheaded stepchild” she gave Sam her customary smirk, giving her ginger curls a bit of a tousle, “ so, you know, the usual”

Sam walked down the bar to the register, grabbing up the stack of envelopes tucked into the nook beside it, flicking through them. “Well, can’t be that bad now, bit of money in your pocket, at least for right now” he smiled as he talked, his teeth gleaming out from dark lips hedged round with a neatly cropped beard streaked here and there with grey standing out from the black.

“Yeah, ‘right now’ is the operative there, I think the most I’ll see of my check will be from here to the bank” he found the right envelope with her name and address peeping out through the little plastic window, held it out for her.

“I know how it goes, from one hand to the other, quick as quick, been working man all my life, so it goes” he chuckled a bit, shook his head “no use cryin’ over it though, just life right.”

“That’s what they keep telling me” she took her check from him, folded it and jammed it into her jeans pocket, leaving half poking out. “Speaking of one hand to the other, how about a coffee?”

“Comin’ right up Miss Abigirl, fresh pot just dropped” Sam grinned again, turning to fill a mug. Normally, Abby would give a thousand yard death stare to anyone who called her ‘Abigirl’ but Samuel got a pass, just because when he said it it sounded right. You make concessions for your friends. He turned back, handed the steaming mug off, took her bills, made change.

“You working tonight?”

“Nope, whole day off, wonder of wonders, I have a few things I need to get done but I wanted to refuel”

“Have a good one then Abigirl, enjoy yourself” another brilliant smile washed over her, but the tide turned itself as more people started coming in. “Got to hop, don’t let yourself be a stranger now girl.”

Abby turned, walked past the suits and skirts, the morning business crowd filing in for their lattes and americanos. She snagged a seat in one of the overstuffed armchairs by the front windows, tucking her camera bag in between it and the little side table. She let her eyes and mind wander as she sat, legs tucked up under her, mug cradled in both hands, sipping at the steaming, rich, black coffee, rolling the bitterness around her mouth before swallowing. The café was filling up slowly but surely yet most of the tables were empty, a lot of to go orders flitting up to the counter then back out. Thoughts of odd bird behavior were already fading to the back of her mind, joining the forgotten dream of eyes, normalcy settling down to the usual humdrum of background chattering and the smells of espresso and steamed milk.

The bell gave a clonk and Abby glanced over to the door as a lean figure entered. A suit, but different, the cut better, the fabric a light grey, almost like a morning dove. Abby tended to notice the details, her mind framing the shot as if she was looking out from behind her camera. Short, jet black hair, neat, maybe graying at the temples a bit, swept back and gleaming; round, dark eyes that were framed with fine lines. She couldn’t for the life of her say why, but as the man walked past there was something, something just off in a way her brain couldn’t define. He placed his order with Sam then sat at one of the tables, pulling out a paper as he sat, one leg over the other. Abby checked herself, knew she was staring so turned her gaze to the dark mirror surface in her mug. The day’s sense of weirdness started tugging at the edges of her mind a bit, but she shrugged it off.

“Hey babe!” Out of nowhere arms grabbed Abby’s shoulders in a brief hug, followed by a flurry of short, bright blue hair past her eyes as Maggie sat down in the chair opposite hers. “Just can’t get enough of the place huh?” The big chair seemed to swallow Maggie whole, her rail thin frame scooting back into the deep seat.

“You know me Mags, glutton for punishment”

“Closet masochist, that’s what you are” Maggie settled into the chair, legs out, spread, taking up space. For someone about five foot nothing and ninety pounds soaking wet, Maggie just seemed to fill up everywhere she was. “It’s your fucking day off, what’re you doing here?”

“Paycheck, and a pit stop, needed to get gas” Abby held up her coffee as proof.

“Yeah, same here, was just stopping in for mine too when I saw you, thought I’d say hi” she leaned forward, fidgeted a bit, let her tongue wiggle the two rings through the corner of her lip. She was never still, just this tiny body of energy thrumming along at top speed. “Got plans? Nasrah and I were thinking of heading down to Market Square, doing a bit of grocery shopping, wanna come?”

“Got stuff to do Mags, run to the bank, get a few loads of laundry in, you know, fun day off type stuff.”

“You sounds like my mom”

“What’s wrong with that, I like your mom?”

“She’s fucking sixty, that’s what, Christ, I’m older than you and I’ve got more of a life.”

“I just like to have things done, I have a life every once in a while”

“Yeah, once in every too fucking long” Maggie sat back again, running her fingers through the blue wave of her hair. “It’s not like all that shit won’t be there tomorrow, so where’s the rush? Being all responsible is cool, but damn, have a bit of fun, go out, see stuff, get laid, something!”

“That’s the problem, it will be there tomorrow only more of it” Abby let Maggie’s rant roll over her, she’d heard it before and she knew Mags meant well. There was some truth to what she said too, but Abby ignored that bit as well. So she liked to get things done, it wasn’t like she was getting the early bird special and shuffling down to bingo. “Maybe I’d have more of a life if I wasn’t always the third wheel?” As Abby finished, Nasrah sat down beside Maggie, handing off one of the cups she’d carried over from the counter.

“The fuck’s that supposed to mean?” Maggie gave a lopsided grin at the dig, her eyes lighting up the way they always did whenever Nas was anywhere within twenty feet.

“I think Abby means she gets tired of us being all lovey dovey” Nasrah leaned forward, putting a delicate hand on Abby’s knee briefly, smiling her perfect smile. It was not hard at all to see why Maggie looked at her the way she did, she was beautiful to the point of it being offensive, long dark hair, big, deep, dark eyes, tall and sleek and perfect. Top that off with being sweet, genuine, and kind and it was no wonder at all.

“She’s just jealous is all” Maggie draped her arm over Nas’ shoulders as she sat back, leaning over to kiss her neck, knowing the pda would make Abby squirm, always teasing. If Abby was jealous of anything at all though it was that, the way they both could display such obvious affection so effortlessly. It was something Abby had never got the hang of.

“Maybe love, but I’ve been there and it can get old” Nasrah turned, gave Maggie a peck on the lips then turned back to Abby. “Did Mags invite you to go with us to the Market?”

“Yeah, but I was telling her I’ve got a lot to get done today, I really would come otherwise.” She meant it too, Maggie was her best friend and Nas was a very close second and she felt like it would be a good day to be around people. Maybe she could skip out on the chores a bit.

The scent of cherry lifesavers made Abby’s nostrils flare. “Sullivan, I need you to work tonight, four till close.” Jacob’s voice had Abby’s hands clenched around her mug, the heat of it burning her fingers. He loomed into view, chinos and polo shirt, the standard uniform. He stood in the space between the armchairs, arms crossed, glowering. “Had two people call in sick and there’s no one else.”

“Seriously Jacob, it’s my day off, you can’t find one other person?” Abby could feel herself shaking, the tears stinging the corners of her eyes more anger than anything else, but still maintaining control. “I bust my ass around here, pick up as many shifts as I can but I don’t want to live here, I’ve got stuff I need to do.”

“So get it done before four, I don’t know what to tell you, show up, or be looking for work tomorrow, got it.” His eyes were squinted, little icy chips in a stony face. “We all have shit to do, I’ve got ordering that needs getting out five minutes ago but you don’t hear me bitching. Just because you haven’t got your shit together doesn’t make it my problem.”

“Fine, just…fine, I’ll be here” Abby kept her voice even, her breathing controlled, gave a forced smile.

“Good.” With that, Jacob stormed off back to his office, leaving Abby with the strong urge to leap out of her seat, onto his back so she could gouge out his eyes. The impotent anger rolled through her like thunder, echoing around in her head.

“What a fucking prick!!!” Maggie went off into a tirade, but Abby was only half listening. She sat and seethed, her eyes wandering back over to the table with the grey suited man. He hadn’t moved much, just had his paper out in front of him, sipping a single espresso. Why did she always do that, why did she always just take it with a smile, fuck!!! As much as she may hate Jacob and his hands, his condescension, his vile, piggish attitude, she hated her cowardice so much more.

“Why do you take his shit?!?” Maggie wasn’t really looking for an answer and her expletive laden rant continued on unabated by Abby’s silence. As her mind turned over the encounter again and again, she still couldn’t help blankly staring. There was just something not right. He was just another business man, suit, tie, maybe a bit sharper than most. She looked at his face, his hands, trying to decide if his skin was more olive or light brown. This is not what you should be focused on she reprimanded herself, he’s just some guy, sitting there having coffee, reading the paper. Yet…at the edges of her mind it nagged, something fluttering, raising up the hairs on the back of her neck, like the feeling you get that there’s someone behind you when you enter a dark room even though there can’t possibly be…it was there, she just couldn’t put her finger on it, it kept squirming beneath her mind’s grasp. It was like, like, the shape wasn’t right, like there was a man shape but that wasn’t what was really there, almost like a double exposure but not…

“…he shouldn’t take it out on you, that’s just bullshit!” Abby snapped back to Maggie, words half heard rattling into place.

“Take what out on me?” She turned her eyes back to Maggie’s face, watching the outrage on her behalf change into something else. Maggie bit her lip, eyes flickering a bit nervously.

“I’m just saying, I mean, if he’s having a bad day or something.”

“That is so not what you meant.” Abby’s voice was cool “you know more than you’re saying Mags, so spill.”

Maggie glanced over to Nas, then back, looked down, clasp per her hands, rocked forward and back. “Look, I knew you weren’t going to say anything, so I gave Charlie a call.”

“What did you tell him?” Abby felt the anger shooting back up through her, shook with it, felt it burning in her throat.

“Just, you know, with Jake, always with the hands, giving you shit, I thought he should know. You don’t deserve any of the crap he gives you babe and I figured…”

“You figured I couldn’t take care of myself, that it?!?” The words snapped out from Abby’s lips. “So what, you thought Charlie would give him an ass chewing and it wouldn’t come back on me, like he wouldn’t figure I’d been the one to go running to Charlie?”

“I didn’t think…”

“No, you clearly fucking didn’t Mags, you just saw that I needed sticking up for, that I can’t deal, that I haven’t dealt with this shit all my life so you did what you do and mother henned me into a closer because that fucker has to spread his misery around.”

“She didn’t mean to do anything wrong Abby” Nas’ attempt to sooth, to calm, just made it worse, Abby knew, she knew she was taking it out on Maggie but it was too much, she felt hurt, betrayed, resented everyone always thinking they knew what was good for her. It was just too much. Abby stood up suddenly, sweeping up her camera bag.

“She never does, but it seems to just work out this way.” Both girls half rose, Maggie looking devastated, hands out to keep Abby from walking out. Abby slung her bag over one shoulder, held her hand palm down and out. “I’ve got to get going, I’ve got shit I need to do and it’s got to be done before four, talk to you later.” She stormed past Maggie and Nas’ protests, hit the door at stride and banged it open, making the bell above clang sharply. The traffic noises swallowed her up, but they couldn’t drown out the voices in her head as she fled.

Behind, in the café, a few moments later the man in the dove grey suit quietly folded his paper neatly, tucked it up under his arm, stood, brought his cup to the counter and walked with purpose to the door. He passed two young ladies, one consoling the other and walked out onto the street. He glanced about in either direction, his gaze sharp, questing, seeming to look through the jostling bodies swirling around him until it settled on a hint of red already a few blocks down. Turning, the man followed, melting into the stream of pedestrians. Very faintly, mixed in with the sounds of cars and the babble of voices, one could almost hear the beating of wings.


2 Responses to “What Happened Next”

  1. Interested to learn more about this mystery guy in the grey suit…

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