Hal counted down the seconds until 6:00 PM in her head.
15… 14… 13…
While it didn’t really matter if Hal closed a few seconds early or late, she enjoyed the slow countdown to 6:00 PM, giving her some finality to the day.
10… 9… 8…
The only bad thing about counting down to 6:00 PM was that it amplified Hal’s annoyance at customers who straggled into the cafe within the last sixty seconds of closing. As she had made the countdown the end marker of her day, Hal was already out of work mode by the time she counted down five seconds.
5… 4… 3…
Hal checked the front windows. Not even a single passerby on the sidewalk.
2… 1… 0.
Hal walked out from behind the counter to shut off the lights to make sure the cafe looked closed. She went to the back room to put away her apron and pick up her things, stretching when she arrived. But before Hal could call it a night for good, she heard the soft chime of the front door opening, saw the dim flash of the cafe lights turning back on, and sighed. As Hal made her way out of the back room to quickly shoo away whoever opened the door, she could already feel the fatigue of work setting in.
“I’m sorry, but we just closed. If you could just-”
“Oh hey, Hal! I forgot it was your turn this week!”
Hal looked up at her addresser. And then she looked down. It was Lilac.
“Oh, sorry boss. I didn’t see you there for a second.”
“Don’t say it like that! It makes it sound like you couldn’t see me because I was too short!”
“Ah, right. I was, uh, working so hard at your cafe that everything’s a blur right now, which is why I didn’t see you. How’s that?”
“Now it sounds like I’m overworking you!”
“Not a problem in that. By the way, what’s with the suit?”
Lilac was indeed wearing a black suit and red tie, though they both looked more roughed up than they should for how expensive they seemed to be. It also looked like there was an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to straighten out Lilac’s messy locks of hair and in Lilac’s arms, she carried a large brown cardboard box.
Lilac looked down at her clothes, as if she forgot what she had been wearing.
“Right, I managed to gain more funding for the cafe. You won’t need to worry about the cafe going out of business for at least another five years!”
Lilac shifted her arms around to give Hal a hearty thumbs up. Hal could only stand there amazed.
“Oh, I just made a few deals with a few mutual friends in a few other businesses I own. It was a lot of boring talk, honestly. More importantly, look at this!”
Lilac plopped down the cardboard box onto the nearest table and Hal came closer to get a better look at what was in the box. As Hal got closer, she could hear the soft mewing of a kitten. Surely enough, there was an extremely thin kitten with filthy grey fur lying in the cardboard box.
“I found him lying on the side of the road in this cardboard box on my way home and just couldn’t leave him there! Could you get him some milk?”
Hal looked again at how thin and miserable the kitten appeared before turning away to get some milk.
Hal went behind the counter and pulled out a saucer from the cupboard, along with milk from the fridge. She poured the milk into the saucer and placed it gently into the cardboard box. The kitten drew near it with caution at first, then began lapping up the milk with ferocity. Lilac took a seat at the table, carefully observing the feasting kitten. Once the kitten had drunk their fill and laid back down to digest, Hal took the saucer and quickly washed it. Hal then joined Lilac, sitting down and watching the resting kitten in silence. It was Lilac who broke the silence first.
“So, do you want him?”
“I was just gonna drop them off at an animal shelter, but since you’re here…”
“Uh, well I mean, it’s just-”
“Oh, does your apartment not allow pets? Cause if that’s the case-”
“No, it’s not that. It’s just that this is all so sudden!”
“Calm down. It’s not like I’m proposing to you. Besides, didn’t you used to have a dog?”
“Two, actually. But my little sister did most of the caring once I entered high school. I just didn’t have the time.”
“Hm. Well I guess I won’t force him onto you.”
“Why aren’t you taking him, boss?”
“Eh. Too much work.”
Hal made a frustrated expression, but Lilac grinned it off and began softly petting the sleeping kitten in between his ears. The sound of the kitten purring in its sleep calmed Hal down enough to slip back into her usual low-energy self.
“So how’s the cafe been?”
“Well the morning started great. I showed up here at 7:00 because of Valent.”
“Oh, the watermelon-coffee thing? Val’s so bad at mixing drinks! Hahaha!”
“Valent told you?”
“Well he messaged me at 12:00 last night that there was a situation at the cafe.”
“And you didn’t rush over right away?”
“Well I figured I should ask him what the situation was first. No sense in rushing right in with no information.”
Hal looked off to the side and let out a nervous chuckle.
“Besides, it’s not like this was the first time something like this had happened.”
“Oh yeah. Val used to mix drinks like this all the time when I was still working full-time at the cafe.”
Lilac pointed to an item on the chalkboard menu above them.
“See the Breakfast Cereal Blend? Val made that one when he was bored before the cafe opened. It was disgusting, but I liked the concept.”
“Figures he made that one. I never see anyone order it.”
“Hey! I was the one who made the official version for Abri!”
Lilac’s brash diction was broken up by a soft meowing and Hal and Lilac looked down at the newly awoken kitten, both instantly quieting down. Hal heard Lilac quietly apologize to the kitten and briefly wondered if she should do the same.
“Anyway, did anything else happen today?”
Hal thought about her day for a moment.
“Not really. Slow day as always. The regulars came in the morning, a few stragglers had coffee with their lunch… Oh! There was actually one girl who came in. She was a bit weird. Reminded me of myself when I was in high school.”
“She was sad and lonely?”
“Yeesh, you don’t have to say it like that. But yeah. I guess.”
“Have a nice chat with her?”
“Yeah… Wish I could’ve said more though. I just don’t want her going through high school the way I did.”
“You shouldn’t worry too much about it. She’ll learn. Just like you did.”
“I know, it’s just…”
Hal tried to formulate her words just right, but couldn’t. She tried a different approach instead.
“Do you ever have regrets?”
“Sure do. I regret giving that dog my bagel.”
Hal chuckled, then sighed. She’d have to remember to ask later or else settle with never getting an answer to Lilac’s odd response.
“Well, that girl feels like the answer to my regrets. Like, if I can help her, it’s almost like I’m helping a past version of me get through it all.
Lilac smiled gently but spoke firmly.
“The girl’s not you, Hal. She’ll find her own way, whether you help her or not.”
“I know, it’s just…”
Hal let her face drop down flat onto the table’s surface. Her arms hung freely from under the table and when she spoke, her words were muffled by the table.
“I now see how pointless this talk was. I’m just going in circles with myself.”
Lilac laughed, to the dismay of Hal. She heard Lilac get up from her chair, then suddenly felt a weight on the top of her head. Hal looked up to see Lilac patting her on the head over the table.
“That’s not true! You’re going in circles with both of us!”
This remark made Hal smile enough to prop herself up again and continue the conversation.
“Hey boss, do you ever regret leaving the cafe? Full-time, I mean.”
Lilac answered near immediately.
“Not really. I like it here, but I can’t stay in one place for too long without getting restless.”
“Aww… Are you missing the days when we worked together?”
“M-maybe. I miss having company while I work.”
“Well I could always have you work with Val!”
“Valent doesn’t count as company. He’s an extra job in himself.”
Lilac grumbled, frustrated.
“I wish you would just get along with Val! I wouldn’t have to worry about the cafe half as much if you did!”
“Well, I was bound to run into someone in life that I don’t like on a personal level. It’s a shame he had to be my coworker.”
“And it’s always so awkward when I throw parties for the cafe!”
“Oh yeah. I remember the first Christmas party you threw for us. Didn’t it end with me and Valent sitting in opposite corners of the cafe for most of the night?”
“Yes!! And I was the only other person there! What was I supposed to do?!”
Lilac and Hal looked down at the kitten at the sound of meowing again. The kitten was moving around and clawing at the sides of the box. Lilac smiled and put her finger in the box, getting the kitten to try to reach up and grab it. After playing with the kitten for a bit, she suddenly looked up at Hal again, frowning.
“You know, Val tries his best to be friendly with you. I don’t think he even minds how mean you are to him that much. It’d be nice if you could also try to return the favour.”
“If his idea of friendly is leaving watermelon coffee for me to clean up, I’d be glad to return the favour.”
Lilac sighed, but the sigh quickly turned into a groan, then to another frustrated grumble. Hal felt a little bad, but this was most likely going to turn into another elaborate Christmas party scheme, where Lilac would force Hal and Valent to do some team-building exercise together. Like the time Lilac gave them a scavenger hunt. Or the time she made them defuse a bomb.
“Well, I should probably drop this kitten off before it gets too late. I’ll see you later Hal!”
“Oh, let me go grab my stuff and we can leave together!”
Lilac went outside to wait while Hal scrambled to the back room to pick up her things. When Hal exited the building, she found Lilac smooshing her face against the kitten’s and had to tap Lilac on the shoulder to get her attention. As the two walked away from Abri, the final thing they did together before parting ways for the night was jaywalk across the intersection.
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