Friday, February 14, 2020

A Valentine's Day One-shot

Happy Valentine's day, everyone! I spent a large chunk of last night collaborating with Ben to get this little story written. I hope you all enjoy these little glimpses into the lives of the Fort Thomas crew. I hope these stories let you get to know them as I know them through their everyday lives both good and bad. As for this story in particular... well... it's not your typical Valentine's story, but I think that makes it all the better. I hope you enjoy it.

Of Love and Lattes
A Fort Thomas Short
By: A.J. Bass

          It’s Tuesday, which in my world is latte day. I normally don’t do the whole eating and drinking thing but Fer got me drinking coffee just before I left for the CZ and, well, it kind of stuck. Granted, according to him I don’t drink ‘real’ coffee-- which is to say, a cup of sludge so black and strong you can stand a spoon in it. No, I prefer to have my coffee in a slightly more refined manner.
          I enter the Thanks-a-Latte coffee shop at the corner of 3rd and Jordan and place my usual order-- a double latte to go. It’s nothing fancy, but still elegant in its simplicity. As I wait I look at the art hanging on the walls. It’s all stuff from the university art students and it’s pretty good. But, all the paintings are done in the same style. I know there are at least three different artists being featured on these walls but all their stuff looks the same. It’s like the school only teaches one way to paint. It’s bland. It’s boring.
          “Nick.” The barista calls and looks my way.
          “It’s Nix,” I correct...again and I pick up my drink. I head toward the door and stop to pop the lid off my cup. I know what I’m going to see, or rather, what I’m not going to see. I stare down at the plain, white topping of milk foam and sigh. It’s the one and only time I miss the CZ.


One year earlier - St. Paul Minnesota

          I push the door open to Impresso Espresso and I know instantly today is going to be different. I’ve been coming to this shop every Tuesday and Thursday for the entire six months I’ve been stationed in Saint Paul. There aren’t many small shops still open, what with the fighting as bad as it is. A lot of businesses have been either looted or destroyed… sometimes both. The Western US is really trying to get a foothold here and it’s causing all kinds of civil unrest. But Patrick is still hanging in there. I’m glad. He makes this whole tour bearable. More than bearable. He makes it enjoyable. He also makes a mean latte. But, if I’m honest, I stopped coming here for the coffee a while ago.
          I look around the shop and it’s empty, which even in these circumstances is unusual. The bell on the door jingles as it closes behind me and it makes me smile. It’s so simple and elegant. Like Patrick-- elegant in his simplicity. The walls around me are covered in paintings-- all his work. His style is different than mine. His work is all about mood and emotion whereas I like technical things like light and shadow and depth of feel. But it speaks to me. I could spend hours staring at these paintings. I even bought one a few months ago. Patrick was so thrilled to have actually sold one I didn’t think he’d ever stop smiling. Once I get home I’ll hang it in my office so I can remember that moment all the clearer.
          I approach the counter and see Patrick is already tamping down ground espresso beans for me. He looks up and his usual, welcoming grin is tinged with an overwhelming sadness.
          “Hey, Major Blue-eyes,” he says and coaxes the portafilter into place on the machine.
          “Good morning, Patrick. How’s my favorite barista today?” I ask and get comfortable against the counter, or at least I try. Today’s different. Today I’m not comfortable. My chest feels like I have a brick lodged inside it and it’s hard to look at him… but, I can’t help myself.
          “I hope I’m your only barista,” He replies with a raised eyebrow. “You been drinking around on me?”
           I snap out of my gloom for a moment and laugh, “I’d never dream of it. And just because you’re my only barista doesn’t lessen the fact that you’re my favorite.” I look around again trying to be casual, but I'm probably failing. “Where are all your regulars? It’s not like the shop to be this empty.”
          “Yeah, I know,” he sighs and pours some milk into the frother. “But the thing is, I put the word out that yesterday was my last day.”
          The statement registers but it’s lost to the sound of the steamer as it screams to life. We don’t speak as he steams the milk. Mostly because it’s loud but also because I don’t know what to say. I stand at the counter and fidget with one of the wooden stir-sticks from the plastic dispenser. I knew this day was coming. I’d been preparing for it. It’s just that knowing something is going to happen is different than it actually happening. And here it is. Happening.
          The steamer calms to a soft hiss then fizzles out. Patrick gets to work pouring the milk over the espresso. I watch him twist and turn the frother letting just the right amount of foam or milk pour as he needs it. He is an artist in every sense. “The only reason I’m open today is so I can... you know,” he takes a long, slow breath. A difficult breath. The kind you take when you’re trying to keep your emotions from getting the better of you. “I wanted to make your coffee and say goodbye.”
          Goodbye. The word hits me hard and I grimace at the sound of it. I don’t want to hear this word. I don’t want to say it. But this is the bed I’ve made. I’d rather lose him here for a little while than have him stay and be in constant danger of being lost forever.
          He puts the plastic lid on the cup and hands it to me. As I take it, my fingers touch his and we stay like that for a moment. Then, the moment passes and, as I always do, I pop open the lid and look at the work of art crafted in the foam. Today it’s a rose. “Happy Valentine’s day,” he says to me. “Sorry it’s not a real one.”
          “I like this one better,” I reply. We both smile at each other and I take a seat at my usual table. After a minute or two Patrick joins me with his own coffee.
           After my first month of coming here, Patrick and I hit it off making small talk at the counter. At first I think he was just interested in the novelty of someone like me coming into his shop. We Janes are a rare sight in places like the CZ so I couldn’t fault his curiosity. Eventually, the novelty wore off and it evolved to something a little more personal. After he finished fixing my latte, he’d take his fifteen minute break and join me at my table where we'd talk about art, his family, and mine… such as it is. I mean, I'd hardly call Fer my brother, but he's the closest thing I've got so, yeah.
          It wasn’t long after that I noticed he was stretching his breaks out and extra minute or two and I found myself making up excuses to stay longer. I know, I know, it’s terrible of me to shirk my duties as an officer in the EUS military, but I don’t care. Sometimes I’d catch him looking at me from across the shop and I knew he wasn’t just gawking at the ‘Mechanical Man’ like everyone else.
         “So, what next?” I ask and sip my drink. I try and keep my tone hopeful and upbeat, but it’s hard.
         “Well,” Patrick sighs and looks around, “After I close up here, I’ll load up my stuff, grab Mom, Sasha, Grandpa, and Grandma and head for New York. The papers all cleared yesterday. This time next week we’ll be relocated out of this hell hole. Sasha can grow up in safety and the rest of us can sleep easy not worrying about whether a bomb's going to go off outside the apartment or shop. It’ll be good to get Sasha back in school again, too.”
          “I wish I could’ve met her,” I say. Sasha being Patrick’s eight-year-old daughter.
          “Me too. And you will once this is all over.” He falters for a second. “I mean, if you still want to.”
          I nod and smile, “Of course I’ll still want to.” I’m already imagining our reunion. “You know, it’s funny,” I say, somewhat changing the subject. “I’m actually from New York.”
          “You are?” He replies surprised. “You never told me.”
          “Well, I don’t remember it. I don’t remember anything before Section. I just know Alpha told me he found me in New York.”
          “Well, maybe you can visit sometime when this is over. Maybe jog your memory.” He takes a long sip from his cup and wipes the foam mustache off his upper lip with a napkin. He sits the cup down, reaches across the table and takes my hand. He squeezes it and runs his thumb against my knuckles. It’s the first time he’s actually ever touched me beyond a simple brushing of fingers or touch on the arm. As he holds my hand I wait for the inevitable recoil because my skyn isn’t like his skin, but it never comes. “You’re warmer than I thought you’d be,” he says.
          “I… thank you?” 
          “I know, it’s tacky to point out, but I grew up only hearing about Janes and seeing you guys on TV. To us out here a Jane is like a Jedi. You hear all about them and you know they exist somewhere, but the chances of actually seeing one in real life are slim to none.” I only know he’s referencing Star Wars because Paige schooled me in it a while back during one of her, ‘how-the-hell-do-you-not-know-this’ tirades. I smile, and place my other hand over his giving him leave to continue. “Next thing you know I’ve got one visiting my shop twice a week… I never knew you were...” he pauses a moment and smiles at me. “I just never knew.”
          All too soon both our cups are empty. We sit there in silence unsure what to do, both knowing but resisting the inevitability of our parting. Finally, Patrick gets up. He picks up both our cups and heads back behind the counter. “Let me make you one more for the road.” And I let him. How could I not? He finishes the latte and this time wraps a napkin around it before he hands it to me.
          “Hey, Patrick,” I say. “I want you to do something for me.”
          “Anything,” he says and I know he’s sincere.
          “Paint something for me. Not...not, like now… th- that would be stupid. But, you know…” I’m falling all over my words and I can’t stop it. “When you get settled. Looking at your work has been like looking at pieces of home.” I see his face redden. He always blushes when people compliment his art. “You’re an amazing artist. This war has taken so much from you, don’t let it take that too.” I force my lips to smile and I see Patrick do the same.
          “I will.” he nods in a way that’s too fast to be casual. “And when I do, I’ll think of you-- the man with the glowing, blue eyes who made my Tuesdays and Thursdays worth opening up for.” As he hands me the cup he leans across the counter and plants a kiss on my lips. I’m caught off guard but only for a second. I try to lean into him, but it’s too late. He’s already pulled away and I’m left at the counter holding my latte like an idiot. I feel like I’m dying inside and at the same time I feel more alive than ever. I look at Patrick and there are tears in his eyes and, I realize, in mine too.
          “Be safe out there,” he tells me. “Get those Westies out of my city. I’d like to come home someday.”
          I nod, “I will. You will.” I start to back away from the counter. “I…”
          “Uh-uh,” Patrick says smiling through tears, “Don’t.” We stare at each other for a long moment. “Because if you say it, then it’s out there and it’s a real thing, and then I’ll have to lock that door and take you East with me and we both know that can’t happen.”
          I nod and chance a grin. “I wouldn’t mind that.”
          “I know. But kidnapping is a crime and jail is real and I’m not going back,” He manages a laugh.
          I laugh too and then finally say the words I’ve been dreading, “Goodbye, Patrick. Thanks for… everything.” I turn and make my way out the door as fast as I possibly can. I don’t glance back, as much as I want to, because if I do, I’ll turn around and go right back. And I can’t. So I keep walking, willing one foot in front of the other.
          As I walk, I pop the lid off my latte and look at the simple foam heart. Then I realize the napkin beneath my hand is stiffer than it should be. I unwrap it from the cup and see a folded piece of paper beneath it. I open it and read the words in Patrick’s sharp, angular handwriting.


          I’m not going to beat around the bush, I know you were the one who got our relocation papers cleared and approved. I don’t know how I know, but I do. Thank you. Giving me and my family a new life is a gift I’ll never be able to repay.
          Promise me when this is over...when this war is over and you’re home and safe, you’ll still be the same, quiet, thoughtful, man who came into my shop six months ago. I love that man, and hope to see him again.



          I wipe the tears from my eyes and tuck the letter into my pocket. As I continue walking back to my station, I hear gunshots nearby. Despite my breaking heart, if I may co-opt the term, I know this is what’s best. I know this will keep him safe.


          “Hey, can you move?” I flinch and look at the young lady standing behind me. I am once again in the coffee shop at 3rd and Jordan... and no longer with him. The woman standing there is impatient and holding some kind of iced monstrosity with way too much whipped cream on it. “Are you glitching out or something?” she asks again.
          “No, sorry.” I step aside and let her pass. I likewise exit the coffee shop and head toward my car. As I do, I take a sip of my latte then throw it in the trash.
          I think I’m done with coffee.


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