Bewildering Stories

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Party of One

by K. C. Stapleton

Christina’s bones ached with cold, and she felt like a fool. No one else had even attempted to come to work this morning. Snow was a huge event in Mottville, where the climate more often climbed to three numbers instead of hovering at a low two.

She looked out the picture window that ran the length of the Café’s street side wall. Usually the road would be full of people bustling by on errands, gawking at the customers’ tables to ascertain what was on the menu, and in general making her feel as if she were acting on a stage rather than waiting tables.

Today was different. Not only was it freezing, but also the sun, like everyone else with any sense, was taking the day off. Here it was at nine-fifteen in the morning and she could barely see the corner stop light as it red, greened, and yellowed away despite there being no traffic to direct.

“I hate Texas,” she muttered to herself as she tried to rub some feeling back into her numb fingers. A place should figure out its weather and stick to that instead of messing around.

When she’d called Carl to let him know she’d opened this morning he’d sounded both aggravated and relieved at the same time. He was glad to know she’d turned up the heater and had a faucet running water, but he didn’t want to take responsibility for her being there. He’d never experienced the “white stuff” even sticking to the ground before today, and he’d sure never seen it clump up to a good three inches.

Grudgingly he’d told her to go home if no one showed up in an hour or so. He didn’t think it was worth the cost of her being there. Tact and caring wasn’t Mott’s Café’ owner’s style. She’d be doing the all the cooking and table waiting. She also knew there’d be only grumbling for her trouble.

“Now I would’ve been there and stayed all day myself,” he told her petulantly, “if the arthritis in my legs wasn’t paining me considerably.”

Of course, Christina’s legs and feet hurt too at the moment, and a painful weariness was cramping the muscles in her back. Walking a few blocks in the cold wasn’t new, but walking through the substance outside was a different ballgame entirely. She’d never really even seen snow before, much less tried to navigate through it, and while on TV they always made it look like so much fun, she’d almost landed on her ass a few times. The thick heavy mounds were hard on her calves, and the icy slushy patches were death traps. She’d almost dropped Dancer twice.

She hadn’t mentioned to Carl that she’d brought her little terrier with her. He would’ve been unhappy and made dire warnings and wailings about the health inspector coming by, but that was unlikely today. Leaving her pup behind would have been heartless considering such possibilities as the electricity going out in the mobile home she rented, or the sidewalk getting worse and Christina not being able to get back before he was a Dogsicle. It was warmer in the Café anyway. Watching the black and tan bit of fluffy sniff and explore his new surroundings, she felt she’d done the humane thing.

She sat on the tall stool behind the counter, her head in her hands looking out at the silent gray landscape before her. Even her hair still felt cold to the touch. She examined a long thin, auburn strand bemused at the effects of static electricity.

A blur of movement out of the corner of her eye distracted her. A black shape was slinking down the street. The glass surface of the door reflected the overhead lights on cloudy days, so at first she couldn’t make it out. Then she thought it was possibly a large dog, but it walked more like a cat. When it grew closer, she could see its head and being a native identified it immediately.

“Look out there Dancer,” she said breathlessly, “I’ve never seen a bobcat this close up before!”

Indeed the animal was just outside. He seemed to be sniffing the frigid air, his tufted ears twitching nervously.

“Be glad he can’t get in boy. He could eat you in one gulp,” she told her pet, “and I bet he’s hungry.” She was sure the animals that survived on nature rather than a tin can and a human to open it must be just as surprised to find themselves in a deep freeze as everyone else. They would not be used to these conditions poor things. As she considered tossing scraps out the back door for the wild life, Dancer made a run at the door.

Reaching him just before he had a chance to push the door open she grabbed his twisting, yelping body and held him aloft. Dancer’s abbreviated little legs continued churning in the air, and she just couldn’t be angry with him when he looked so much like a cute wind-up toy.

“Okay, you’re staying in the dry foods closet, little fella.”

While Christina shut the door on the sulking terrier, the bell above the door jingled signaling the arrival of a customer. She expected a diehard regular, but instead a dark-haired stranger was standing just inside, glancing around.

The man looked to be in his early twenties, clean-shaven, and casually dressed in a black work shirt and blue jeans. Christina saw no reason to be apprehensive, but a funny trickle of nervous energy wove through her stomach. Telling herself it was just a strange day she scooted behind the counter and gave the customer her best smile.

“What can I get for you? How about a hot cup of coffee?” She looked him over as she asked. Tall, razor thin, a handsome face, but he seemed twitchy. Her voice had actually startled him.

He moved gracefully to the stool closest to her, but looked ungainly trying to seat himself. The cold must be the problem. She reminded herself how clumsy she’d been before warming up. She motioned to him with the coffeepot expecting a grateful nod.

“A glass of warm milk, please,” he asked in a quiet rumble.

Christina’s eyes wandered up to the menu printed out big as day on a white-board over the grill. No listing for a glass of milk, but really this was kind of an emergency and if Carl didn’t like it, he could come in next time. Going off the menu was easy in this case. All she had to do was use the microwave.

“Weird, this weather, isn’t it?” she said as they waited for the milk to heat.

He looked at her without comprehension.

“I mean we never have snow here. It’s just odd isn’t it?” she kept trying. “In fact that’s an old saying around here. That it’ll be a freeze on the ground in Mottsville before such and such a thing happens,” she grinned to bring him in on the joke, but his concentration was over her shoulder riding the microwave’s carousel.

“So... I guess something must have happened,” Christina was beginning to dry up. Regulars had always said she could have a conversation with a brick wall or a barn door, but they were apparently wrong. There was no talking or flirting with what would no doubt be her one and only customer of the day. He probably wasn’t a tipper either.

Grateful for the ding indicating the milk had heated, she sat the glass mug in front of him and busied herself with unnecessary cleaning up. The stranger gave a mighty sneeze after the first sip and then noisily drained the mug clean.

“You want to try some breakfast now,” she asked brightly. Maybe warmed up he was more cordial.

“Would you kiss me?” the young man asked her.

“Would I what?” she said in a high-pitched yelp. She didn’t know whether to be outraged, flattered, or scared. Suddenly she realized just how alone she was. Glancing outside she saw no traffic on the street, not even the usual pedestrians walking down to the courthouse. Of course, there wouldn’t be, since everything had shut down at the falling of the first icy flake.

“I just need to kiss someone. It’s part of the plan,” he told her in a matter of fact tone. “But I won’t make you. That doesn’t seem fair. It’s a tough life.”

Casting a baleful look, he slid off the stool and unmindful of the cold walked back out into the bone-chilling environment. Christina watched him carefully until he turned the corner past the closed-up appliance store.

“All the cute ones are either nuts or married,” she muttered to herself.

A scratching sound reminded her that Dancer was still in the closet. Sighing she put the mug in the dishwasher on her way to the back. The jerk hadn’t even paid her, but being nice to someone so seldom produced results that she wasn’t surprised.

“I’ll let you outside for a few minutes to do your thing boy,” she called to Dancer, “but you aren’t going to like being out there one bit.”

The little dog bolted out between her feet as soon as she opened the door. At that exact second, the bell chimed again. Someone else had entered. Hoping it was neither the strange man again, or, as Carl would’ve predicted, the Health Inspector, Christina glanced to the front cautiously.

A young woman stood by the counter, her arms held out to catch up Dancer as he raced toward her. Christina rubbed her hands on her apron and wondered if she should start with a greeting or apology for the dog first, but the woman reached eagerly down and brought the terrier up to a stool.

“Hey,” the waitress motioned desperately trying to stop the newcomer. “He’ll fall off.”

The other woman didn’t spare her a glance. She was another stranger whose sandy hair was held at the top of her head by a red ribbon. It struck Christina as a bizarre look for an otherwise conservatively dressed young woman.

Then she watched in amazement as the odd woman leaned over and kissed Dancer on the top of his furry little head.

“Don’t...“ Christina started to say, but as she blinked, she found she was addressing two people.

The young woman was gazing fondly at a curly haired man who sat on the stool. A beatific smile played on his mouth. Dressed in tan slacks and a dark blazer, he didn’t look like any regular customer to the Café either.

“Where’d my dog go?” Christina twirled inelegantly around in a complete circle, but she didn’t see Dancer anywhere. He was quick, but never that fast. She would’ve heard his nails on the tile floor anyway, so how did that happen?

The female newcomer studied her for a second then whispered conspiratorially into the man’s ear. He shook his head, and sadly studied the floor.

“Go ahead give her a kiss,” she urged, giving Christina a wicked look. “She has it coming, they all do.”

Something about the woman’s eyes and manner teased at Christina’s memory. A completely impossible thought ran through her mind. The older woman who lived next door had a poodle and she tied up the silky fleece at the top of the dog’s head just like that. Tied it with a big red ribbon.

She considered the pair through squinted eyes. “Pepper?” she squeaked tentatively. That was the poodle’s name.

“You’ve been very bad,” the woman told her in a childish singsong voice. “All of you have. It’s our turn.”

The woman took the man by his hand and led him to the door. He turned and grinned ruefully at the waitress.

“Don’t be a dog if you can help it,” he told her helpfully. “It’s really not much fun.”

The door’s bells jingled again as they walked outside leaving Christina standing by a table running a dust rag through her hands. She frowned as she tried to process the events of the morning. It didn’t strike her as fair. She’d always tried her best and the woman/Pepper had implied they’d been found lacking somehow. Her frowned deepened as she wondered who it was who’d decided humans in general were such a failure. She figured she honestly didn’t want to know.

She walked to the door and turned the lock. She was going to call Carl and let him know she was closing up. As she reached her hand overhead to grab the “Sorry, we’re closed” sign, she spotted movement again across the street.

A brown tree squirrel was staring at the Café door. The quick darting movements of its head made it seem to be searching for something. As she watched, the tiny animal spotted her and began to bound across the glittering snowy street its russet bushy tail high in the cold morning air.

With a flick of her wrist, she hung the pasteboard sign on the door and headed for the back. Christina decided she’d call her boss from home and tell him she didn’t plan to be back until the world returned to normal. If he was still there, he could interpret that any way he wished.

Copyright © 2005 by K. C. Stapleton

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