The original prompt by Lex Chase.
I stripped off the hoodie I was wearing over my apron. It smelled like old cheese. This place was home, but tonight, I felt stretched thin. It was closing time on a Tuesday, the slowest night of the week. I’d sent Mia away half an hour ago. There were only three tables left to be wiped clean, I’d already taken care of the ovens, and I was craving fresh air, a lazy walk home, and the longest, steamiest of showers. My back hurt and my feet burned after running around in the heat of the kitchen all day. Not the best day. Not the best week. Hell, I was having a shitty summer.
Then the phone rang.
“Manny’s. How can I help you?” I asked into the receiver, trying to unknot the apron with my left hand. No dice. I switched hands, holding the phone to my left ear. The voice in the phone crackled.
“…and I need sixteen large pizzas. Eight with pepperoni, eight with extra cheese.”
Fucking jokers. The knot gave away, and I chucked the apron into the hamper behind the counter.
“Dude, it’s ten minutes to closing time. I’m not making sixteen pizzas. Unless you are feeding a busload of refugee kids, I can’t help you.”
My forehead was itchy. It always is when I work the ovens. I get sweaty and wipe my face until I rub it raw. I turned on the water in the bar sink and splashed some on my face.“How about a cupcake?” the voice asked, suddenly sounding close and clear.
I swiveled on my heels sending water in a spiral around me. The door to my pizzeria was open.
“Corbin?” I stammered.
Corbin pocketed his phone and grinned unapologetically.
My mouth opened and closed a couple of times. He took three steps inside, and the glass door clicked shut behind him. He looked around leisurely.
“Hi, Manny,” he said, still smiling. All confident, cocky even, he stood in the middle of the room. Like he owned the place. The thought smacked me back to life. I owned this place. He was an intruder.
“It wasn’t funny the first time you did it,” I said and turned to switch off the water. I took a towel and started wiping the fresh droplets on the counter.
I heard more steps behind me, a rustle of his jacket. I felt his eyes on my neck. I could see him in my mind, leaning on the tall table, one eyebrow raised, nimble fingers tapping on the wooden surface. Corbin was always moving. He didn’t walk. He danced. I’ve never met a person who moved like he did. Like a cartoon character coming to live.
“Are you free tonight?” he asked. I knew him. Nobody else would hear the nervous tremor in his voice. I did.
“I’m fully booked. I’m having a private meeting with my shower and my couch.” The glasses needed straightening, apparently. Corbin sighed behind my back.
“Two months too late.”
“I tried to call you the first week.”
“It was you who said we needed a clean break.” I gave up pretending to work. So many sleepless nights. My drunken almost-dialing. I’d had to delete his number. Not before I’d asked Mia to save it on her phone so that maybe one day I could…I didn’t know what. I hated myself for my longing. It was just a vacation fling for fuck’s sakes!
“I left the city. I moved,” Corbin said.
I shook my head.
“Did you get a good offer?” I knew I sounded bitter. I didn’t care anymore. He hurt me. Let him know that.
“There’s no offer.”
I turned around.
Corbin never looks vulnerable. The gauges in his ears, the tentacles of tattoos climbing up his neck, his brutally chopped ginger hair, his dark red eyebrows above the ominously crooked nose, searching eyes and ever-present sarcastic grin – he couldn’t pull vulnerable if you shot him in his stomach.
“I want to try freelancing,” he mumbled, assessing me like a stranger’s dog.
My exhaustion landed on my shoulders, a mass of cold mud. My whole body slumped. I had to deal with this.
I stepped around the counter. There was nothing but three feet of air between us.
“What are you doing here, Corbin?”
He took a deep breath. I saw his jaw tick. I waited.
“Like you said. It’s been two months. I’ve had time to…fix stuff. I gave my notice at the agency, started my own company, set up a home page and everything, I found an apartment and moved my shit.” He paused, scratching the dark stubble on his chin. “Here.”
“Wh-“ I cleared my throat. “Where?”
“Three bus stops away. By the Hill Park.”
“When did you move?”
The questions just fell from my mouth; my brain was disconnected.
He laughed. An abrupt, harsh sound.
I blinked. It didn’t help. The burning in my eyes was insistent. I folded into myself, holding myself together. I didn’t want him to see.
“I moved two thousand miles for you, Manny. Please.” Corbin’s voice faded into a whisper.
I felt his cool hand on my forearm.