Image of Short Story
The first time, it’d taken almost 45 minutes and a full bundle of rags to get the grease off the mirror, the twine from the bundle wrapped loosely around his wrist, hand working in ever-widening circles as the grease smeared and smudged, turning the once-clear glass into a chaos of ragged reds and bright scars of pink, his mind wandering as his arm tired, the bathroom seeming to shrink as he toiled away.
The second time, he thought maybe someone was playing a prank on him.
He asked the girl he was working with if it was a joke, maybe some sort of hazing or mess around-with-the-new-guy kind of thing, but it turned out she was even newer than he was, didn’t know anything other than that they were already out of ice and the morning rush looked like it was about to kick in and her audition the day before hadn’t gone the way she hoped but the casting director was a friend of a friend from college, well more like a friend of a friend of a friend, but still it was pretty much a shoo-in, a gimme, at least that’s what it was supposed to be, and her boyfriend hadn’t been calling quite so often since she’d moved to the city and what did he think that meant?, did it mean something bad?, maybe something serious?, and really, she had a lot on her mind, a lot a lot, too much probably to think about some stupid mirror or some stupid mess so could he maybe worry about that later, ya know, when they weren’t about to get slammed and the casting director called back and Jared had finally taken time out of his busy schedule of waking up late and getting high with his friends to call or text or send a god damn email?
The third time, he considered asking if anyone had ever been murdered in the basement or the backroom, if maybe the café were haunted by some kind of ill-tempered ghost or spirit, a former employee who worked themselves to death or a homeless person who just wanted to shoot up but got a lethal dose instead, maybe an unsatisfied customer who decided to off themselves in the bathroom as one last fuck you for the less-than-satisfactory customer service.
But it turned out he was too terrified of the answer to go through with the asking.
“That’s her.”
Heather motions with her eyes, tossing them toward the line of customers, something about it a reminder of the new girl, the not-new girl, the old new girl, the new girl that was no longer a new girl because she wasn’t new or, more importantly, an employee, anymore.
I wonder if she ever got that gig.
Leaning back to peer along the file of fitful faces, he’s surprised to find she’s prettier than he would have thought. Not that he expected her to be ugly—it’s just that there was a certain kind of look when it came to stuff like this, wasn’t there?
He says as much.
Heather steps back from the counter, laughing so loudly the girl stops rummaging in her bag, maybe peering over the perfectly proportioned shoulder of the suit ahead of her in line.
Maybe not.
“That’s silly. Strange comes in all shapes and sizes.”
Heather checks the time and sighs, cutting a quick and entirely insincere curtsy before angling toward the basement and the morning tip-out.
“She’s late today.”
The suit orders—a green tea with lemon—and as he fills a double-stacked paper cup from the hot water dispenser, he risks another peek beyond the perfectly proportioned and probably padded shoulder at the girl and her oversized bag and sunglasses. She’s not too tall, not too short, and with the glasses and her puffy, downy coat, it’s difficult to make out much about her body or face. He slides the cup across the counter, realizing that he can’t really tell much about her appearance at all; she just seemed pretty the way she was dressed.
For all I know, there really is a ghost huddled under all those layers.
Watching out of the corner of his eye now as she sips her macchiato and nibbles at her muffin, he can’t quite shake the feeling like he’d missed something. Like something important had passed between them as she’d ordered and dug through her bag again, producing a leather wallet run through with cracks at the spine and a heavy black AmEx, the kind only the Wall Street types seemed to carry, the same card the suit had used, the kind seemingly made out of slate or steel or the souls of the damned.
He’d rung her up with a sly smile, thinking I know, I know, I know who you are, feeling some kind of satisfied by the whole thing, but if she’d noticed it, noticed him, she didn’t give any indication. And when he’d called her name – Lucinda – she’d slid off the stool and swiped her drink off the counter without a word.
He watches her nibble, wondering when she’ll make her move.
Lucinda with the lipstick. How strange. How very, very strange.
And later, when Heather reappears to press money into his hand and he checks the bathroom, his final duty before leaving, he doesn’t wipe the message away, thinking how, how, how in the world, thinking he’d only looked away for a second, just one second, thinking maybe there was more than he could see, maybe not ghosts or ghouls but gifts, thinking maybe it meant more after all, more than he could see or feel or even understand, thinking sometimes words aren’t just words and a mirror isn’t just a mirror, thinking life is for the living and knowledge is for the sharing and maybe, just maybe, some other poor soul might need the wisdom as much as he did.
Strange comes in all shapes and sizes.