I find parking along the houses on 45th Avenue, around the block from the coffee shop. The rain is still falling, pattering like pebbles against the roof of my car. I have Arthur’s umbrella in the seat next to me, but I am not rushing to go out into the storm. Are these second thoughts that I am having about meeting him inside the shop? Possibly. Also likely is that I am having regrets about everything that’s happened which led up to me being on the beach where Arthur saw me this afternoon. Regrets about Christopher. Regrets about coming to this city in the first place.
No take-backs around here.
My dress is wet from the rain, and there is nothing to be done about that, but I remember that there is a black hoodie in the backseat of the car that Rivi left the last time we were out. I reach around the rear of my seat and blindly drag my hand through the things lost back there until I feel the fabric of the hoodie between my fingers. I pull it up front with me and put it on. At least I won’t freeze to death, which may or may not be a good thing.
There is a flash from the sky, and an enormous peal of thunder shakes my car. It’s hard not to take it as an ill omen.
I get out of my car and hurry down the sidewalk, the umbrella held high over my head. Trouble Coffee is in the middle of the block, and Arthur is standing out front beneath their awning, near a driftwood log which has been placed on the sidewalk as a sort of bench for the store, though because of the rain, there is no one sitting on it. Arthur is waiting for me, his umbrella closed and held low by his side. He raises a hand to me as he sees me, and now it is too late for me to not make an appearance.
“I’m glad you came,” he says as I step beneath the awning. “I wasn’t sure if you were going to.”
I close the umbrella I’m using, the one he has loaned me, and shake it off. “I had to. I had to return your umbrella.”
He lifts his and says, “I’ve got one. You keep it.” Another flash of lightning brightens the sky, and Arthur reaches to touch me on the arm. “Let’s go inside.”
“Before it’s time to board the Ark,” I say.
He smiles and opens the door for me. The shop is small and crowded with people, sitting on the few stools lined around the counter and in front of the window, standing closely together along the walls. A child’s hobby horse hangs from the ceiling, a peculiar bit of decor, and the atmosphere is pleasantly social and low-key. In spite of myself, I feel my mood threatening to lighten just a bit. I snuff that out quickly, not wanting to get too comfortable. This situation is still weird, and I don’t want to take that edge off.
“Afternoon,” the woman behind the counter says to us as we squeeze up to the register. A green tattoo of ivy climbs up from beneath the collar of her shirt and disappears into the line of her
blonde hair. “What can I get you?”
There is a menu on a clipboard hanging from a nail on the counter, but I find that I don’t really have a preference. “I’ll have what he’s having,” I say, nodding at Arthur.
Arthur doesn’t look at the menu. “Two Depth Charges, please. And toast.” He pays for us both, and while we wait for the woman to finish preparing our order, I see a small group of people beginning to leave their stools at the front of the store. I touch Arthur on the arm and indicate that I’m going to go get us seats. A few minutes later he comes to meet me, two paper cups of coffee in his hands, a strip of sandwich paper holding two thick slices of cinnamon toast balanced on top. I take the toast and one of the coffees and put them on the counter, and he sits next to me.
“I don’t think I’ve ever eaten toast at a coffee shop,” I say. The bread is easily two inches thick, coated with a generous layer of butter and cinnamon, and smells like my grandmother’s kitchen.
“It’s a thing now,” he says. “All the kids are doing it. Besides, it tastes good.”
I don’t want to talk about toast. “Show me the picture again,” I say. He takes it from his bag and hands it to me, and there we are still: Arthur standing on a cobbled street at dusk, me standing next to him, a row of houses on either side of us, stretching off into the dark. When Arthur had shown me the photo earlier on the beach, I had no idea where or when it was taken, and I still have no idea now. I have no memory of the street, and no memory of ever meeting Arthur other than this afternoon.
“It’s New Zealand,” he says. “A month ago.”
I turn the picture over and look at the back, looking for what, I don’t know. “Photoshop?” I ask, looking at the front again.
He raises his coffee to his lips and takes a sip, then puts the cup down again. “Nope.”
“Well, I don’t know what the game is here, but I’ve never been to New Zealand.”
“It’s no game,” he says. “And you were in New Zealand last month, with me.”
“I was here last month,” I say. I hold the picture up and turn it toward him. “I’ve never been here, and I don’t remember ever meeting you before today.” I drop the picture on the counter in front of him and stand up. “It was a mistake to come here with you. I should have just gone home.”
“Wait,” he says. He puts his hand on my arm, but I shake it off. “Just listen to what I have to say, Oli.”
“Don’t call me that,” I say, unsettled by the tone of familiarity I hear in his voice. “You don’t get to call me that.”
“I’ve been calling you that for the last three years.”
“I’ve never met you before. I don’t know who you are or what you want from me.”
“I want to talk to you,” he says. “Explain this all to you.”
I shake my head. People in the coffee shop are staring at us, but I don’t care. “There’s nothing to explain. Whatever you’re doing, stop. If I see you again, I’ll call the cops.”
“Wait,” Arthur says, but I don’t. I push my way through the crowded shop and out into the rain, leaving the umbrella behind. I don’t care about getting wet. I don’t want to touch anything of his anymore. Of course he follows me. Of course he does.
“I’m calling the police!” I shout, but I remember I didn’t even bring my phone with me, that it’s on the kitchen counter at home, where I left it after running away from Christopher this morning.
Arthur is tall and his stride is long, and even almost running as I am, he catches up to me in seconds. He puts his hand on my shoulder and I spin around. My hands are in fists, and I swing at him without thinking, catching him against his shoulder. “Get away from me!” I yell.
“Just take this,” he says quietly. He has something in his hand, and I am terrified that it is a knife or a gun, but I see that it’s nothing like that. It’s an envelope, held clenched in his fist.
“Take it and I’ll go.”
“You’re a psycho,” I say.
“Take it,” he repeats. He holds it out for me.
I snatch it from him. “Don’t follow me,” I say. I turn and walk quickly away, glancing at him as I turn the corner of the street my car is parked on. He stands where he stopped, neither following me nor walking away, watching me go.
My head is aching as I get into my car. I lock the doors and let the shakes I’ve been holding in come, not trying to put the key into the ignition yet, nowhere near ready to think about driving away. I look into the mirror, expecting to see Arthur coming up the sidewalk, but the sidewalk is empty. I watch for a full minute, but he doesn’t appear, and I begin to get myself slowly back under control. The pressure in my head eases.
I realize I am still holding the envelope I took from Arthur. I don’t want it. It feels like snakeskin in my hand. I unlock my door and open it, intending to throw the envelope out into the street, but I stop myself when I see something written on the front of it.
I shut the car door, slide my finger under the envelope’s flap, and tear it open.