Five to eight.
Amber rubs her eyes and checks the clock again. Five to eight. Wasn't it five to eight last time she looked, ten minutes ago? Maybe the thing's not working right in the morning chill. She can empathise.
"Tess, did you fix up the display clock yesterday?" A little shadow appears out from behind the pastry display, and she nods, pointing (apologetically? It's hard to tell) to where the card reader displays 07:56. Damn.
It's the worst part of the morning shift, that time when it's too early for the morning-class rush and too late for all but the most unhurried of the joggers and dog walkers. A faint chill hangs in the air outside; inside, the cafe is still and quiet. Amber presses her fingers against the warm metal casing of the espresso machine and watches as a shivering clerk props open the doors of the bookstore across the way.
The shop bell dings and Amber looks up. It's a faintly ethereal-looking young girl, sporting a sarong skirt that's far too thin for the eight-degree weather and clutching a pair of battered textbooks. She looks sort of lost. As she advances towards the counter Amber chokes on her how can I help you; she's pretty. It takes a moment for her brain to catch up before she realises the girl is speaking.
"Hi - I'd like a coffee?" Oddly hesitant.
Amber blinks. "What kind?"
She trails off, pouting up at the menu. Amber glances up at it and back down to her.
"I've never really had much coffee before. Too bitter!" She pulls a face, and Amber must be matching it.
"Never?" In her life? Who is this chick and why is she standing in Amber's coffee shop?
"Nope!" She grins and bobs happily on the spot. "But I have morning classes this semester that I really don't wanna be late for, only I'm a total zombie before ten am. Like, asleep. It's really bad. So my brother said I should start drinking coffee!" She draws a deep breath and smiles brilliantly, right at Amber. "Only I've got no idea what to order."
Amber attempts to process this barrage of information. "..Right."
She looks the girl up and down assessingly. Pretty hair, clear-coated nails, wearing a frilly halter top in Albuquerque in January. She seems like a cream-and-three-sugars kind of person.
"What's your name?" She looks a little taken aback, and Amber feels a blush building up on her neck. "F-for the cup." What a nightmare customer.
"Oh!" The girl smiles and claps her hands together. "I'm Marina! But everyone just calls me Mare."
"...Marina. Right." Amber scribbles the name hastily on the side of the cup and resolves to get this interaction over with as fast as humanly possible. "It'll be a couple minutes."
Marina nods, apparently placated, and wanders over to gaze at the pastry display; Amber sets about dumping enough cream and sugar into a mocha to make Gramps posthumously disown her. It's for the greater good, she tells him silently.
Tess pokes her head in to blu-tac a row of cocktail flags to the inside of the display and Amber watches as Marina sees her and her eyes light up. She crouches down right there on the floor, tucking her skirt daintily under her knees as she goes, and waves at Tess from eye-level. Tess secures the bunting with mechanical precision before she waves back.
"And what's your name?" Marina chimes as Tess extricates herself from the cabinet. Her eyes are wide and shiny with adoration. A kid person, huh. That figures.
"Those are cute flags, Tess!" She sounds like she genuinely believes it, too. Tess quirks her head up at Marina with focused interest.
"...I put them together myself."
"That's so cool! You must be very good at arts and crafts."
Tess nods, eyes wide. Amber hates to break up a good conversation, but she slides the lidded cup out onto the counter and waits. Marina pounces on it.
"Thankyou! This smells so good, ahh-" She wraps both hands around it, reddened from cold, and puffs out her cheeks.
"That's a cafe mocha, extra sugar. Ask for that next time if you like it." Amber squints at the oddball at the counter as she scrounges for her wallet. She's smiling down happily at the cup, shoulders and ears worried pink. The temperature difference inside the cafe makes her flush prettily. Wonder if she'll be by again.
The card reader beeps and Marina grins. "Take care -" her eyes fall to Amber's apron, where her nametag is pinned - "...Amber!" And she turns on her heel and bustles out.
"Have a good day," Amber calls halfheartedly over the shop bell.
What a strange girl.
Amber's just signed in on the timesheet when Mariah huffs into the back of the store, Tess close on her heels. She bunches up her apron and throws it at Amber.
"Oops, I missed."
Amber sighs and deposits the apron into the washing machine, open on the opposite counter. "You always did have shitty aim."
Mariah flips her off and pushes her out of the way to sign off.
"It's a hellhole out there," she says, dead-eyed. "It's not gonna stop raining and the campus Coffee Club is closed for painting. We're shortstaffed until Joe gets back from sick leave." She underlines her signature with an aggressive flourish and spins on her heel. "Enjoy."
"Sure," says Amber neutrally, trying to spare Mariah the satisfaction of hearing the dread slip into her tone. She's almost successful.
On her way out the door Mariah pauses and pokes her head back in.
"Some weird chick asked where 'the cute brunette girl' was this morning." She wrinkles her nose in distaste. "I told her there aren't any working here."
Amber blanches, then blushes. There's a snicker as the door slams shut.
"Oh, you're here this morning!"
Amber looks up from her mountain of dirty crockery and registers a flash of blonde heading rapidly towards the counter. Thank you, god. A customer. (Even this one). She fishes her hands out of the rank dishwater with officious relief.
“I’m here every day,” she tells Marina. “Or at least it seems like it.” That part's in an undertone.
Marina pouts. “You should have more fun with your work,” she chastises.
Amber waits for the slow chug of the coffee machine heating up before she answers. “You ever worked from six-thirty in the morning to three in the afternoon?”
Marina tilts her head and frowns. “Well, no...,” she springs forwards and claps her hands, “but I’m looking for another job! Wanna hire me?”
Amber turns and yells towards the back of the shop. “Joe, you want a new waitress?”
Joe pokes his head out front, eyebrows raised. “I think we’re good for now.”
Amber turns back to Marina. “Sorry.”
“Who says I’d be a waitress?” She puts her hands on her hips. “I’ll have you know I’d make a great barista.”
Amber smirks. “What’s an espresso?”
Marina looks deep in thought for a moment, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth; Amber momentarily loses her concentration. When Marina snaps suddenly out of the act and pouts at her, she jumps. “You’re no fun.”
"Ah, well." Amber looks away, playing it off. A hiss of steam from the machine fills the silence for a moment. "But, Marina, you have a job already?" It shouldn't be surprising for a college student, but imagining someone like Marina standing at a register somewhere, staring dead-eyed at the clock - it's a difficult picture to paint.
Marina doesn't register her surprise, or at least she doesn't mention it. "Yup! I work part-time at a florist a little ways off campus."
Oh. That certainly suits her better. Amber tells her as much and she smiles, small and warm.
"I think being a barista suits you, Amber!" She says it with all the sincerity in the world; like it's a good thing. Amber slides her mocha over, the tips of her ears warm, and they exchange - coffee, card, machine. Marina takes a little sip and sighs happily. "Suits me just fine, too."
Amber coughs and whirls to face the register, head ducked to hide the growing blush on her cheeks.
It must be the one sunny day in all of January, and the cafe is uncharacteristically empty. At least, until Mariah arrives, and then without the usual, steady trickle of customers there's nothing to stop her from doing all the talking - read, yelling - for the empty tables, Tess, and Marina, too, while she's at it.
"Why is this garbage so goddamn loud?!"
"If the radio gives you such a headache, maybe you shouldn't come to work hungover!" Amber is slowly losing her already-tenuous grip on sanity.
"Maybe you should get a life and go out once, ever, instead of talking down to us people who aren't shut-ins!" Mariah pauses to wince at the sound of her own voice, proving that she is, indeed, hungover.
"I think your metrics for being a shut-in are a little screwed up, Mariah. It's Wednesday."
"As if you'd know it from any other day of the fuckin' week-" Mariah's comeback is interrupted by the ping of the shop bell. She blows a loud raspberry, like an actual five-year-old, and retreats to the other end of the shop, leaving Amber to serve.
Lucky for her it's Marina.
"Please tell me you're here to stay," Amber says, voice low with put-on desperation. In the background there's a clunk - suspiciously similar to the sound of a fist slamming down on a beat-up radio - and the music shuts off. Marina looks a little taken aback. "I am begging you."
She bites her thumb and shoots a funny look from Amber to - presumably Mariah, Amber doesn't look with her, on principle - and back again. "Lucky for you I was going to fit some study in anyway."
Amber heaves an exaggerated but heartfelt sigh of relief, and sets about making her the foamiest, chocolatey-est, most perfect mocha to grace the face of the earth thus far. Down the counter, Tess eyes the (broken?) radio, set just above her reach, with hunger on her face. In the corner of Amber's eye Mariah turns, sighs, hands the thing down to Tess and then stalks off into the back.
Mariah settles down at the same table where Tess is spreading out a bundle of screwdrivers and pliers she appears to have apparated from thin air. Honestly, the kid is still a mystery to Amber after about a year of working here. It doesn't appear to phase Marina in the slightest. By the time she brings out the coffee, the surface is a harmonious clutter, Marina's dog-eared textbooks pinned at the edges by coils of wire and the power lead for a soldering iron.
"Careful with that," Amber tells Tess, nodding at the iron and its alarming proximity to a whole bunch of flammable stuff.
Tess stares up at her, unblinking. "Of course." Of course.
Marina, not uncharacteristically, grins and clasps her hands together at the perfect mocha Amber sets in front of her. It's predictable, but still a little cathartic. There's even a little heart design set in the froth, although it's hard to see under the heap of chocolate powder dusted on top.
"It's beautiful..." Amber can almost see her eyes sparkle.
"At your service." Amber does a terrible curtsy and turns back to the counter - a hand shoots out and grabs her wrist. She jerks a little at the sudden contact.
"Aaaamber, before you go..." Marina grins hopefully at her. "Do you guys have donuts today?"
They're not in the display yet, but it's hard to say no to that face. "Lemme see."
A few more customers trickle in as Mariah and Tess set to work on the freshly-acquired donuts. Amber's glad to have something to do with her hands. After a little while, the concerning electrical hum from their corner of the cafe shuts off, and a few minutes later, music starts to play again. Amber hears Mariah groan faintly from the back of the store.
"Good kid," she tells Tess. Tess, now affixing a tiny American flag to the radio's aerial, nods solemnly back at her.
The customers slow after a while, leaving Amber with nothing much to do except the dishes, occasionally sneaking glances at the odd pair in the corner. They seem to get along well, which is a surprise knowing Tess, but not, knowing Marina. They're probably the same mental age or something. For the most part, they don't seem to talk, but now and again Marina asks about something in the weird pile of gadgetry accumulated on Tess' side of the table, and Tess, with unprecedented interest, points out something in Marina's notes.
When there's nobody in the store Amber calls out across the room. "What're you studying?"
Marina looks up and blinks, apparently deeply invested in whatever she was reading. "Colonial history, for now."
Amber rounds the counter on pretense of retrieving her cup. "You're an arts major?"
"Yup! But I haven't actually decided on what I want to major in, yet." Marina kinda grimaces to accompany the statement. "So I just took whatever the student counsellor recommended, and whatever else sounded interesting." Her voice lilts up on interesting, like it's something fun, but overall she doesn't seem too happy about the concept. Amber feels a little sorry for bringing it up. She can empathise.
"Loads of people don't know what they wanna do in their first year of college. Heck, even some of the sophomores who come in here aren't sure."
Marina brightens a smidge. "Really?"
"It's all I get to hear about all day." Amber fishes for a smile, and finds she doesn't have to force it, Marina looking expectantly up at her. "Don't worry about it; you'll be fine."
Marina stares at Amber as she pauses to think about what to say.
"The important thing is you have fun along the way." Perhaps she sounds a little too sincere. It's hard to keep the weight of experience out of it, but she does her best either way.
Marina smiles softly at the bottom of her empty cup. "Thanks, Amber."
Across the table Tess nudges the newly-fixed radio towards Marina, pushing aside her notes. "Here."
"Oh, thank you! Can I choose the station?" Marina perks up, for real this time. Tess nods, and she sets about tuning it; the news, some talk show, static, static, grainy jazz - Marina makes considering faces for each channel and Tess nods or shakes her head appraisingly. Instantly, she's sucked in again, caught in the moment as though picking out white noise were the most important task on earth.
Amber takes their plates and leaves them be.
It's a bright, grey day; the kind of overcast that promises thunder but no rain and nothing so much as cold fingers. Marina wears a scarf patterned with tiny foxes, stretching and trotting and curling up around her neck. Cute. Amber doesn't tell her; the words might come out wrong.
"What kind of coffee do you like?" Marina asks, blowing on her mug. She's arrived early to study, apparently; Amber half-admires her fortitude, and is almost certain she just accidentally woke up too early.
"It's not that I don't like the sweet crap you put in yours," Amber says, and then pauses as she and Marina both wince at the obvious lie. "Okay, okay. I hate it." Marina breathes out a little laugh.
"But you do like coffee, don't you?" Marina cocks her head curiously. "I mean, you're a barista."
"Not how that works, Mare." Something tells her that Marina already knows this. "But I take mine black."
Marina mock-gasps. "With no cream or anything?"
Amber nods solemnly.
"How do you drink that? It's so bitter and, and - gross!" Her face scrunches in distaste like a little kid's, yuck, and it's Amber's turn to laugh.
"It's the purest form of coffee."
"You say that like it's a good thing."
"Sacrilege, get out of my coffee shop. Go on. Shoo." Amber makes ushering motions with her hands. Marina giggles and she can't help but join in, too. But coffee is serious business; she grabs her own still-warm takeaway cup and rounds the counter.
"Here," Amber motions, proffering the cup to Marina. "Take a sip."
She straddles the chair opposite Marina, who takes the offering hesitantly in both hands, like it's radioactive. She hesitates; Amber raises her eyebrows at her. "Go on."
Marina blows away a thin thread of steam from the lip of the cup, falteringly raises it to her lips.
"Hot," she mumbles. Amber waits as she takes another sip. Then -
"Bitter!" Her face twists in revulsion and Amber bursts out laughing. "Eugh, ugh, nope." She thrusts the coffee cup back across the table, brandishing it at Amber - take it away, take it away. "How can something that smells so good taste so bad?"
"You'll get used to it." Amber takes the cup back gratefully, warming it between both hands.
"Will I, though?" Marina looks doubtful for a split second, then levels her fiercest glare at Amber. "I forbid you to make me one of those, ever."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Amber says, wondering how much of an extra shot she can sneak into Marina's ninety-percent-milk mocha next time without her noticing. It must show pretty clearly on her face, too, because the glare doesn't let up.
The shop bell rings and a gaggle of college students thread their way in, rubbing their fingers together and pulling at scarves. Amber abandons the table and Marina, bustling back towards the counter. As she takes orders, more frostbitten people wander in, and for a while she's caught in the motions of jotting names and prepping drinks.
Marina edges in after a little bit, her books tucked neatly back into her satchel.
"Gotta run." She places her mug and saucer back on the counter by the machine, somehow the perfect customer despite not even liking coffee, Amber could use a thousand more Marinas - and slides Amber's forgotten espresso up next to them. "Take your gross coffee of death back."
The shop bell tinkles and she's gone.
There's two little drops of brown on the lid, and Amber stares and must freeze because the next customer has to say excuse me - excuse me! twice before she snaps back to reality, red, blustering, and takes down the order in a whirl because she's not five anymore and she can't stop thinking about childish shit like indirect kisses.
The shop begins to crowd earlier as the term kicks into full swing, dark-eyed students filling the tables and books and papers sprawling across the bar. Amber's day starts earlier still, which she doesn't mind, per se, save for how the weather in what's supposed to be the hottest corner of the States stubbornly refuses to heat up heading into February. She finds herself staring at her drizzle-specked window at five-fifteen in the morning, shivering under her covers and heartily wishing she weren't alive. Not for another half-hour, at least.
It's still dark out and her Nokia brick, when she flips it on, is the sole source of light in the room. She dazes at the glare for a moment before, squinting, flipping through her applets to today's weather. It's two degrees. Fuck.
The RV doesn't start in the chill of the parking lot and she arrives for work fifteen minutes late, panting and numb.
Joe doesn't comment as she heads into the back, just nods. When she reemerges, washed up and a little embarrassed, he glances over.
"You should really get a new car."
He's right, and a good boss. Amber huffs. "I know." She won't.
Joe sighs and rubs at the back of his neck. "At least get Tess to look at it." Amber shoots him a look, trying to express you-want-me-to-let-the-ten-year-old-look-at-my-gramps'-baby-car without so many syllables. She gets the feeling she just ends up glaring. Regardless, Joe seems to get it.
"I know, but you know she's good with these things." He drops his hand and turns to unlock the register. "Plus," he says, over his shoulder, "I don't mind you coming in a little late, but when you're at it too often Mariah starts to get ideas."
Amber chuckles. "Anything to stop Mariah from getting ideas."
She sets about retrieving the milk jugs and Joe strides over to raise the roller door. The radiators tick on and the shopfront glass begins to fog with heat as they set up to open together. The air fills with the little noises of busywork; save for the scrape of chair legs and the clink of machine parts, it's quiet, and mostly peaceful. It's warmer here, too, than Amber's unheated apartment.
Residual specks of rain fleck the glass. Amber sets out chairs under the flowerboxes in the windows. It's too ridiculous an hour for anyone on this street except for them; the road outside is still. Fingers of sunlight begin to creep across the floor, and she stops and watches as the orange stain rolls slowly down the weathered floorboards to lap at her toes. As she looks up, with perfect timing, the clouds break and the sun rolls out and for a moment everything is coloured-in gold.
As the seven o'clock rush hits the clouds roll over again and rain spatters the windows and the gormless cross-fitters outside. The shop fills fast, and when Mariah arrives at eight, Tess in tow, it's not in so much of a lull as a brief break in the buzz. Time passes in a blur.
Marina doesn't come by. By the time Amber's shift ends at two-thirty the sky has turned a dark, angry grey; though she waits around 'till three, pretending to loiter while the RV warms up, there's no sign of her. She drives home with the radio off, an odd sense of loss weighing on her chest.
She doesn't show up the next day, or the one after, either. It stretches into a long week of monotony and cold, punctuated by those moments of expectant half-recognition when someone small and blonde walks by the door and then, resolving themselves to not be Marina, moves on.
A week becomes a week and a half.
Amber doesn't miss her, per se; she wonders where she's gone. If she's alright. If Amber's come in too early for her, or too late, on her weirder shift times, before reminding herself that at this point even a ditz like Marina should know roughly when Amber works.
Perhaps a new shop's opened across town and she's started going there instead, one where the staff are less patronising and the chick at the machine doesn't dote on her a little too much. Amber shakes her head minutely in frustration, pulls on her apron strings and reminds herself she's not in eighth grade anymore.
Mostly things are normal; only it's a little quieter on those days when it's just Joe and Mariah and Tess and her.
One dark, early Thursday, maybe day eight or nine of the return of monotony to Amber's life, she stares out the window at four am and watches drizzle gather on the chilly glass. The drops come down leisurely, plat, plat, one drip joining another and racing it to the bottom where they muddle and spill. Plat, plat, plat. Amber can't sleep. She's not getting out of bed. Five rolls around, and then five thirty, and at the thought of the five-minute run from the carpark to the back of the store, the one part of her commute where there's no cover, she drags her Nokia from the bedside table and texts Joe.
> Cant make it to work today. Sick. Sorry.
He'll understand. He's a good boss, after all. Amber stays in bed like that for a long, long time. The day doesn't get much brighter.
At some point, the appeal of sleeping in long lost out to boredom and stiffness, she drags herself out of bed and makes cocoa. She ends up huddled in a blanket on the couch, thumbing her-half empty mug and watching Sleepless in Seattle even though she hates cheesy romance movies. Outside, the sky hurls itself against Amber's window; on the TV screen Meg Ryan stares out at the Empire State Building, all lit up for Valentine's. The premise is ridiculous.
Amber drums her fingers against her mug and wonders.
The RV's not dead. It just won't start. It's the cold that's doing it in, this stupid icy February that refuses to thaw. Amber bangs her head against the wheel, just once - it hurts enough the first time - and is still for a long time.
> Gonna be late.
> Do you need a lift?
> I'll catch the bus. Don't wait up.
Amber stays in the RV, still, though, long enough to shoot any chances of catching the closest one and screw them pretty bad for getting the next. She looks through the window at the empty parking lot and sees the drum of rain on the window, the endless grey chill from the open-close of the door, only another six, five, five and a half hours to go before she can sign out at four and leave. Grey scarves, grey coats, grey hands in grey mittens.
Amber breathes in and out. She gets up and locks the RV and walks to the bus stop with her hood up, although it's not raining yet.
Apparently there's a snowstorm brewing and all the public transport guys are getting pretty nervous. Her bus comes late, with chains on the tires, and traffic is a crawl all the way to work. It's busy when she arrives. Mariah's there before her, for once in her life. She doesn't even say anything particularly nasty this time, just tosses her the teatowel and surrenders the coffee machine to Amber's expert hand.
The door dings and dings and dings and Amber passes out drinks to legions of freezing students, dark circles under their eyes. At some point Joe must have mercy because Mariah pushes past her to the coffee machine, makes grabby hands at the cup she's holding - gimme - and leaves her to load the dishwasher and stock the display. The busywork stretches on for long enough.
The hum of a busy day fills the air, the radio churns out overplayed pop hits. Mariah yells something familiar-sounding in her huffy, low register. Joe brings a stack of dishes to the sink and tells Amber to go on break. There's a vase of flowers on the counter, she notices, turning to go. They look new.
It must be all of five degrees out but it's a madhouse in the cafe and still noisy in the warmth of the back. Amber sits on the stoop in the loading bay, hunched on the roughed-up brick, her serene view of the back of the Chinese shop across the road and the endless roiling grey beyond cut off by a low awning. She rubs the pads of her fingers together and wills the heavens to open.
The door swings open behind her and she turns to yell at Mariah that's it's not even been ten minutes yet, she can't be that desperate - the words die in her throat. There's a flash of gold.
Marina sits down next to her.
Amber gawps at her helplessly, her mouth hanging open. She probably looks ridiculous.
Marina just turns to her, a tiny, pleasant turn to her mouth, and hands her a coffee from the tray she's carrying. Amber sniffs it on instinct. Black. She should probably drink but she's still caught on the oddity of the girl next to her, out in the grime and the cold, sharing the stoop of Amber's coffee shop. She tears her eyes away.
"And where have you been," Amber says, gruff.
Marina doesn't smile, exactly, but as ever her voice sounds like windchimes. "I got a new job, and then assignments happened, and - it's just been a little bit of a mess."
Ah. Figures it was something tiny and inconsequential like that. God, Amber's ridiculous.
Thunder rumbles low, off in the distance.
"I was gonna start a new bus route." Marina's voice picks up again, lower and softer than before. "There's a way that's quicker between my jobs and my flat, and cause I don't have a car I figured I really had to take it."
Amber nods and takes a sip of her coffee, unsure where this is going.
"Anyway, that worked out for a little bit before it got kind of lonely, you know," Marina stops to bury her face in her own for a long moment, "and I figured, well. I don't have many friends in town yet. I'm actually from Carlsbad, did I tell you?"
She has. Amber nods.
"And I thought," her voice picks up, words tumbling out in a rush, "you don't get coffee at the same place from the same girl every day for like two months and then just leave without a word or anything. So I came back." It's punctuated with a laugh, a little unsteady. Amber joins in, soft. The both of them know how silly the situation is.
This could be it, she thinks, but the coffee warms her numbed fingers and fills her up inside and it's a little warmer on the stoop now, here next to Marina.
"So is this... the end?" Amber gestures dramatically with one arm, hand on her heart. She tries to fold a little old-movie-star bravado into her voice.
Marina huffs out a laugh, a proper one this time, and shoves her.
"Hey!" Amber shoves back, and Marina grabs her on her way down, and they end up a huddled a little closer on the bricks together. They're laughing.
"This is me changing bus routes back, you goofball."
Relief courses through Amber, warm and slow. It feels good to have that little assurance. She can feel her week-long funk, the weight of the monotony and sleep debt and anxiety and the RV, unwinding from around her fingers.
"Good," she says, and sips her coffee with a smile on her face.
Somewhere between that wide, warm feeling and the glance they exchange, smiling softly, the heavens open and rain begins to pour.
The street soaks, the gutters begin to pulse, droplets spatter Amber's sensible runners and Marina's impractical flats, and the awning echoes loud with the weight of the downpour.
"Aahhhh, I love it when it rains." Marina's not even a hair's breadth away anymore, her weight tipped ever-so-casually on Amber's shoulder.
"..I can live with it."
It rains all week, heavier and heavier every day. Amber puts her head down on the wheel and smiles where nobody can see her when the RV starts up again in the marginally-warmer garage. Thanks, Gramps.
It rains all week, and Amber makes a new mocha every day. Sometimes they've got pumps of caramel in them, or lattices of hazelnut syrup. It's disgusting, no coffee should have to suffer it, and Marina makes a new wondrous face every time she takes that little premeditory sip and it's a different kind of sweet. Amber kind of loves it.
Marina works as a waitress now, as well, and sometimes she comes in at three o'clock with her hair still prettily braided, her smile slower and gait a little stiffer.
"You shouldn't overwork yourself," Amber says, tucked away in the back of the shop. Across the table Marina pops her wrists and grins.
"It's only a few hours a week, and it means I can really, actually afford a flat on my own." She looks pretty pleased with herself. "I think I'd die if I had to share a living space with one more person after what it was like back home."
"I absolutely cannot relate," says Amber, frank. Her flat is just a little too big for one person, as tiny as it is, and sometimes she feels like a lone bean rattling around in a jar. "Maybe I should get roommates."
"Maybe you should, and then you could afford to take a day off once in a while." Marina smiles prettily at her. "You're actually here every single day, I swear."
"Look who's talking, Mrs-Two-Day-Jobs-And-College." There's not a lot of heat behind it, teasing or otherwise. Marina's pulling off something that makes Amber's bones ache just thinking about. It's kind of hard not to respect that. Not that she'll say it.
"Amber, what about you?" The tone of the conversation gets a little heavier, Amber can feel it. Marina gazes earnestly at her.
"What about me?"
"You know," Marina twists her lips, you know exactly what I'm talking about, "about college, and work, and stuff."
"Ah." It's not like it's a secret or anything, but it makes Amber a little self-conscious talking about it. She checks around the mostly-empty shop.
"I'm kind of on an extended gap year." The query in Marina's eyes makes her push on without waiting for the obvious question-and-response. "I lived with my gramps until, uh, sometime around about year before last. We used to travel around together a lot." The click of a cassette tape fills Amber's head and she smiles despite herself. "After he died, I wandered for a bit. Saw some sights. I figured I should enrol in college, he left me money for that so I know it's what he'd want, but-" she smiles self-deprecatingly. "Couldn't figure out what I wanted to study."
Marina gazes mutely at her, nodding occasionally. Amber can see the gears ticking behind her eyes.
"I couldn't hack it. Or I didn't want to, after a while. So I decided to take a break, put it on hold." Make coffee, decide what I want to do with my life. "That was about a year and a half ago."
"So you're going to back to UNM eventually?" Marina, clear-faced, seems.. Amber doesn't know. Hopeful at the prospect?
"I guess, yeah. I've gotta start sometime."
"That's right." It's weird seeing a serious Marina, but.. kind of refreshing. If she had a bias about it Amber knows it'd show, but it doesn't. No judgement.
"When I start I'm gonna be a freshman to you, though, Mare."
Marina grins, lightning-struck. "You will! Oh, I'll have to show you around campus and teach you where to study." She giggles, and Amber joins in. "I know the best coffee place."
The corner is comfy and warm and Marina-filled, but Amber is still gainfully employed, for some reason, so she has to go back to her job eventually. She shines glasses at the empty counter and sneaks glances at Marina, who's stuck around for more cake. The rain pounds harder and harder, until Amber can see muddy torrents streaming down the pavement outside. Joe sets out an extra mat for the few sodden figures who find their way inside, puddles splashing under their boots as they hurry to get out of the rain.
Amber turns the radio up higher. It's tuned to jazz hits for today. Eventually closing rolls around, faster than usual under the blare of saxophones and the clatter of rain on the roof. When she goes to hang up her apron, though, Marina's still slouched in the corner.
"I'm heading out, Mare. Where are you off to?"
Marina looks up, startled. Her thumb is red, the nail ragged. "Oh, uh, home, same as you. I'm just.." she trails off, glancing down at her phone. "My bus is cancelled."
Amber glances at the downpour outside. The bus stop down the street is uncovered. "When's the next one?"
"Actually I think they're all cancelled." Marina looks a little embarrassed. "Um, if you drove, would you mind...?"
"Oh! Right, of course." Amber's brain slows at the thought of Marina in the front seat of the RV, misplaced amongst the clutter of ageing cassette tapes and stacks of pamphlets. A mismatch of old and new.
It's barely a change, hardly a step forward at all, but Amber's mouth is dry. "Yeah, sure." She forces herself to look at Marina. "Did you bring an umbrella?"
They make the run out to the parking lot in a rush, pressed together with Marina's puffy parka jacket suspended over their heads. Amber's hair soaks as she fumbles with the keys for the RV. They dash inside, laughing and panting.
"Sorry, there'd usually be towels or something in here." Amber hangs the jacket on a hook, too preoccupied being wet and gross to be self-conscious about the space. Marina pokes about the back with intrigue written clear on her face.
"This place is huge! You really could live in here."
Amber propels her towards the passenger seat, propping her bag by the sofa. She straps herself in.
"I did, for a bit."
Marina's eyes go wide on the promise of that statement. Amber pulls the RV out of park, checking extraneously over her shoulder to hide her embarrassment. Who'd be impressed by a camper van?
"It's like the ultimate car."
"Yeah, right? Who needs a Ferrari?" Marina giggles.
They settle into a comfortable silence, Marina breaking in every so often to give directions. Outside the rain-streaked windshield the winter sky darkens early, just a faint hum of dying sunlight beneath the roiling clouds. Streetlights flicker on all around them. All the takeout shops and theatres and all-night salons buzz indistinctly, flickering neon signs a faded wash of reds and yellows. It's no Las Vegas, but it's pretty.
"I'm just along here," Marina finally says.
Amber turns to look at her as they turn onto the empty street, and for an instant all the dim gold of the streetlights refracted in the rain catches on her silhouette, and Amber's breath catches in her throat. She trains her eyes back on the road but the image doesn't fade from her mind, the niggling awareness of Marina in the other seat pulling at her subconscious. There's a long, slow burn in her stomach, a catch in her throat. She's gonna crash if she doesn't pull off the road.
"On this side okay?" It's a struggle to keep her voice even. Marina hums her assent.
The engine cuts off, and though Amber pulls the keys from the ignition it doesn't wake her from her trance. "I'll walk you to your door."
"Why thank you, kind sir." Marina grins as she gets out, and Amber offers her a watery smile in return.
It's a short walk. Maybe fourty steps. The concrete is wet, and their shadows reflect on the pavers, merging and pulling apart as their feet slap across them.
Marina pauses by the stairs. A single, dim bulb hangs over her head, flickering threads of gold in her hair dark and bright and dark again. Like a halo.
Amber's a sap, a ridiculous idiot with no self-control, and she offers up a little wave and a breathy "-well, see ya," before Marina's hand catches on her wrist. No, we don't have any donuts in today. Amber shivers.
"Amber-" Marina says, and then she pulls her closer and Amber goes, Marina on the top step in the light and Amber one step down with the rain on her back and the gold hair falls around her in a swathe as Marina pulls her in and kisses her.
Her lips are soft, rain-dotted but inexorably, inescapably warm. Amber breathes her in.
Marina lets go, then, too soon. Her one hand trembles on Amber's wrist. Her eyes swim.
Amber stares up at her, smiling like an idiot, and she grabs Marina's other hand in her own and pulls her down to kiss her again. She's shaking a little, she can't help it, her cheeks are hopelessly soaked in a blush that may never come out, and she holds on and doesn't let go. Marina tastes sugary-sweet, and a little like coffee.
Finally they break apart. Marina stares at her for a second that drags on for eternity, her parted, reddened lips slowly gathering into a smile that gets wider and brighter every moment it goes on. She jumps on the spot, hands clapped to her mouth. Above an expanse of blush her eyes grow wide, wide, wider still.
Amber doesn't quite know what to do with herself. Really, it should be awkward; her shirt is soaked - both their shirts are soaked - they're standing out on an empty street after dark, cramped against each other, Marina's hands in hers. Amber just can't stop smiling.
"I- you-" Marina's voice is high and breathless. "Aah!"
Cute, Amber thinks, not for the first time, and this time she doesn't clamp down on it before it can reach the sensible part of her brain. She rolls the word around on her tongue, testing it out.
"You're cute," she tells Marina conversationally. Marina blushes wider and brighter still, and descends the step to hit her. Ow.
"Stop it, you-" she can't make it through whatever she was going to say, breaking down into giggles. She seizes Amber's wrist again, one more point of warmth where her skin meets Amber's, still slick with rain. Amber's pulled up the steps, one, two, and under the tiny awning where Marina waits.
Amber considers the RV, parked haphazardly at a slant to the curb; work tomorrow; her empty apartment; the pouring, pounding rain. Marina, drenched and red-faced, grinning like she couldn't stop for all the world, not even if she tried.
The hand on her wrist squeezes, once, and there's a brief, awkward shuffle as Marina extricates her keys from her sodden schoolbag. The latch clicks and as they both move towards the warmth inside Marina pauses in the doorway.
"I was waiting for you to do that."
It's gonna be wettest March in years. The weatherman on the radio says it like it's a joke and chuckles, the roll and crackle softening his too-bright timbre. Well, this stormfront'll clear out soon enough, and then we'll finally start to see some warm weather. The news jingle plays out across the shop at the same time as the ding of the doorbell.
"Good morning, Amber."
Marina's coat is dotted with rain. She blows on her hands. It's seven am, and she's early; while Amber bangs around searching for a new stack of takeaway cups she defrosts by the radiator. When Amber passes over her drink she grabs it and rolls it between her reddened fingers, making noises of relief.
"You're early, Mare."
"Well, maybe I just wanted to spend more time with my favourite barista." Amber blushes, even though she should really be used to this by now, and Marina grins, just like she knew Amber would. "And also I have to talk to my professor who's a crotchety old man and wouldn't schedule me in after eight o'clock."
She grimaces, and checks the time on her phone reflexively. Does a little double-take.
"Don't worry, it's only seven. Don't tell me you haven't taken your phone off daylight savings yet?"
Marina puffs up her cheeks indignantly (yeah, she hasn't) and stuffs the phone away again. "Hush, you." She advances on the counter, and Amber's too slow to avoid her pinch. Mariah, somewhere over at the other end, laughs vindictively.
"And a punch!" It's really more of a tap, though. Amber looks at her questioningly. "For the first of the month!"
Marina sticks her tongue out at Amber, and makes a big X with her arms across her chest."Deadlocked!"
"C'mere, you-" Amber lunges at her over the counter and Marina giggles and skitters away. It's too late, though: Amber's got her caught. Marina's eyes go wide as she realises. There's no escape now.
"And a kick-"
"-and a flick, for being so quick." Amber relents, and taps her on the forehead. "Smartypants."
Marina grabs at the offending forefinger and thumb and reels Amber in. She plants a quick kiss on Amber's cheek, and dances out of reach before Amber can retaliate. Warm. Down the other end, Mariah makes exaggerated gagging noises.
"I really do have to go now, though. I'll see you this afternoon!"
The shop bell dings and she's gone. Amber watches, amused, as she hurries off down the street, trying to balance her umbrella between the coffee and a thick stack of books.
Tess' head pops up from out the back. "Sis is pretending to throw up in the trash. Was Marina here just now?"
"Yeah, sorry, you just missed her." Tess' face falls a little (but still looks mostly blank). "Don't worry, kiddo, she's back this afternoon as well."
Apparently gratified, the kid disappears back into the depths of the store. Amber glances at the time.
Seven am. Only a few hours till then, really.