Image of Long Story Short Award - Fall 2020
Image of Short Fiction
A warm breeze blew past the two women sitting at the metal table, and Alice tilted her head back, closing her eyes against the sun and smiling. “Have you been here before?” she asked Emma, raising her head and opening her eyes.

“Never, but I looked at the menu online,” Emma answered, opening the menu for a moment and pointing to an item halfway down. “I like to be prepared.” Her eyes wandered to the empty street behind Alice. It was midday, but the café Alice had chosen was out of the way – a local treasure, small and family owned.

“Trust me, their coffee is to die for,” Alice insisted. Emma shook her head, laughing at Alice. Chiming bells filled the air and both women turned their attention to the door behind them and the waitress that walked to their table.

She had on a black apron and a bright smile, but no name tag. “What can I get you ladies?”

Emma looked toward Alice, pausing for a moment before answering the waitress herself. “I’ll have the eggs benedict.” The waitress scribbled down the order on the small notebook in her hand before she picked up Emma’s menu and turned her attention to Alice.

“A vegetable omelet, please, no onions,” Alice said, handing her still unopened menu to the waitress as soon as she had written the order.

“And we’ll both have the coffee,” Emma finished their orders with a smile, and Alice nodded her agreement. The waitress scribbled some more before walking away, the jingling bells reminding the women they were alone.

For a time, neither spoke, content to sit in silence on the sunny day. Emma tucked her hair behind her ear. “When did you meet him?” Alice asked.

“Five years ago now?” Emma said softly. She paused, breathing in the fresh spring air before continuing. “I was a freshman in college. He was a senior.”

“Where did you meet?” Alice prompted Emma to continue as the bells rang away and the same waitress returned to their table, leaving a coffee cup in front of each woman and a jug of milk between them. A dish filled with sugar had already been on the table.

“A frat party,” Emma answered. She poured milk into her coffee, watching as the white swirled in with the brown and diluted the color. An intricate blue pattern traced across the white mug, not quite matching the one on Alice’s, but not quite different. The white stood out against the black metal table they sat at, but the design seemed like it belonged with it. “He was an Alpha Sig. I was a Kappa.”

Alice added sugar to her own coffee, mixing until the crystals had dissolved and left the color unchanged. “How did you meet?”

“It was my first big college party.” Emma took a sip of coffee, watching as a bird landed on the fence between the women and the street. It ruffled its feathers and whistled a tune before taking off again. “Parties had never really been my thing, but Sadie – oh, Sadie and I rushed together; we’re still close.” A smile crossed her face and she took another sip of her coffee. Alice mimicked her actions, drinking from her own cup. She kept it in her hands after. “Anyway, Sadie had been begging me all day and I knew she wanted to go, so I went to make sure she got home safe.”

“I was sitting on the couch watching her when he brought me a drink.” Emma stared passed Alice, but her eyes didn’t really seem to focus on anything. “Damn...” She laughed quietly, her eyes dropping to her hands on her lap. Her nails matched her dress – both the pale shades of yellow that were found in gardens all over the city during the spring. “He was so handsome back then, a real smooth talker too.” She took a sudden breath, straightening her back and refocusing her eyes on Alice. “He, uhm, he was wearing this old letterman jacket with a varsity patch for wrestling on the right side.” Emma shook her head, tucking her hair back behind her ear. “It’s strange what you remember, isn’t it?”

“Memories are funny like that.,” Alice agreed, setting her cup on the table. “How did it happ—” The bells interrupted her question and both women turned their attention to the door. An unfamiliar man carried a dark green tray, two plates balanced precariously on it.

“Who had the eggs benedict?” he asked. Alice unrolled her knife and fork, laying the cloth napkin that held them across her lap.

Emma held up a finger. “Me, thank you.” He set the plate in front of her and adjusted his hold on the tray.

“That would make the vegetable omelet yours.” Alice nodded, but the man had already set the plate in front of her and turned away, tucking the tray under his arm as he left to the sound of bells.

Emma cut into one of her eggs, watching as the yolk ran out and mixed with the Hollandaise that pooled around the eggs. “Where was I?” she asked. The bird landed on the fence again.

Alice cut her omelet into neat squares before she answered. “His letterman jacket.” The sound of metal on metal as she set her knife on the table startled the bird away.

“Oh.” Emma’s smile twitched and fell, as if the quiet oh had stolen it away. “He,” she stopped. She swirled her egg in the sauce before finally tasting it. “He let me wear it when he took me outside, said I seemed cold and it would look better on me anyway.”

“How did it happen?”

“The details are blurry.” Emma rested her fork on her plate. “The music started to hurt my ears, and I knew I felt too drunk.” Her eyes fell back to her lap. “He said his room was quiet.” She played with the edge of the cloth napkin. “I should have known better—I shouldn’t have followed him.”

Alice reached across the table and took Emma’s hand in her own. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“I know,” Emma said, her lips pressing together. “It was his. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?”

“That’s why we’re here. This is the photograph you sent?” Alice set a picture of a man on a suit on the table.

“Yes,” Emma nodded. “Half today, half when it’s done. That’s how this works, isn’t it? All in the mail, untraceable. I never met you, you never met me.”

“Normally, but with a guy like him, I see this as a privilege.” Alice shook her head. “You don’t owe me anything.”

“Thank you. For everything.”

“Consider it done.”

“Thank you.”

The bird returned to the fence, whistling a tune and hopping down toward the corner. Another whistle answered it and a second bird landed beside the first. Neither woman spoke as they listened to the song. A warm breeze blew past the two women and the clouds shifted away from the sun, draping them in its warmth. Bells filled the air and the waitress from before filled the two near empty white mugs again before leaving without a word. Emma poured milk into her coffee, watching as the color lightened. “This coffee really is amazing,” she said, breaking the silence.

Alice smiled. “I told you it’s to die for.” Both women laughed, and the bird flew off into the empty street.