I’d given up on waiting for a chance to go home, settling instead for a life in this version of Leeds. I found a job in a coffee shop, where my lack of provable experience wouldn’t stand in my way. The work was monotonous, but I’d already lost the life where my passions lay, and anything would seem like a pale imitation by comparison. This way I could embrace my new station.
That changed one morning in September. The early rush was over and we had a few lone customers reading papers or using our wifi. Behind the counter, I was emptying mugs from the dishwasher.
“Hey, Holly.” Seamus spoke quietly. “Check out the dude in the armchair.”
There were only two seats in the place grand enough to count as armchairs, battered old constructions of padded leather. They faced each other across a low table by a window. A guy was sitting in one of them, staring blankly out into the street. His clothes were loose and crumpled, his beard unkempt, and his sunken eyes stared fixedly into the distance.
“What about him?” I whispered.
“He hasn’t moved in half an hour. Not even his face. Don’t you think that’s creepy?”
I shrugged, content to let Seamus take my gesture as agreement. But now he had my attention, I started noticing other things about the stranger. The faint swirling scars on his forearm, as if he’d been caught in a half-collapsed dimensional portal. The telltale callous on his little finger, like the one where my portal control ring had sat.
He was a Traveller, just like I’d been.
Milk poured across the floor as I crushed a plastic bottle.
“You alright, Holly?” Seamus asked.
“Gonna get a mop,” I said, making an excuse to get out from behind the counter. I skirted the edge of the room, staying as far from the Traveller as I could, and took shelter in a cramped closet. I didn’t even switch the light on, just stood in the darkness, catching my breath.
Who was this guy? A local figure of authority hunting down outsiders? A flunky of the people who stranded me here, sent with the mission of finishing me off?
Maybe he hadn’t noticed me or seen the connection between us. Maybe if I kept my head down I could keep things that way.
If I was ever to get home, I needed to take any chance I could.
And I did want to get home.
I emerged from the cupboard, mop in hand, and cleared the milk from behind the counter.
“Might as well do the floors while I’ve got the mop out,” I said to Seamus.
“Whatever.” The coffee machine hissed as he made drinks for a customer.
I mopped my way systematically over to the chairs by the window, then leaned in close to the Traveller.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” I whispered.
He turned to look at me. Eyes widened as he caught a glimpse of my calloused finger.
“There’s a ghost of a portal,” he said, pointing out of the window. “Just a remnant, but if I can get it open, I can get home.”
His voice, too loud for the coffee shop, drew brief, uncomfortable stares from the other customers. I cringed as Seamus looked over, one eyebrow raised, but I persisted in my conversation, lowering my voice further in hopes the Traveller would take the hint.
“Do you know how to open it?”
“I need more data first. That’s why I’m watching.” He tapped the side of his head. “My memory is special.”
I didn’t doubt it for a moment. People with eidetic memory were great for gathering intelligence off-world. It explained how someone this awkward had got recruited to a portal team.
“Everything OK?” Seamus called out.
“Fine,” I said, waving a hand. “Just talking TV.”
“No,” the Traveller began, “we were-”
“Never mind.” I snatched up my mop and walking away.
I had a life here now. The ghost of a life maybe, but better than nothing. If this guy made that difficult, or worse yet got me fired, then I would have nothing.
“Don’t you want to go home?” the Traveller called out. “To see the golden seas again? To spend time with your family?”
A thousand images flashed through my mind. Births, weddings, parties, funerals, wild nights on the town and quiet afternoons in the country. My heart thudded in my chest.
Seamus was picking up the phone. It wouldn’t be the first time we’d called social services to help with an emotionally damaged customer. I doubted that half those customers got the care they needed, but at least they stopped being our problem.
I reached out to stop Seamus.
“Guy just needs some company,” I said quietly. “Let me take my break. I’ll calm him down, see how it goes from there.”
“You sure?” Seamus asked. “Dude doesn’t seem right.”
He tapped the side of his head.
I set the mop aside, took off my apron, and made myself a cappuccino. Then I pulled the other armchair around next to the Traveller and sat with him, staring out of the window.
“What are we looking for?” I asked.
* * *
Given how much time I spend in coffee shops, it’s a wonder I don’t set all my stories there. If you enjoyed this one then please share it with your friends. And if you’d like more like it, please sign up to my mailing list to get a free story straight to your inbox every Friday.