Quincey abruptly reached for her pocket. “Uh. Sorry.” She fished out a slim cell phone out of her pocket, glanced at the caller ID on the screen, and then looked up apologetically at the others. “Fuck,” she muttered. “Talk about the devil – you guys must have invoked them, talking about them earlier. It’s my kids. Excuse me, Ellen, I’ll go take this out in the hall…”
Ellen slipped out of the booth to allow Quincey to exit; Quincey had the phone at her ear as she eeled out, nodding her thanks, her attention already elsewhere.
“Chuck? That you? I told you not to call me tonight unless your sister was on fire. What’s the matter? Where’s Sam?”
“She went out,” Chuck said helpfully. “And I can’t find my favourite mug anywhere. And Jessi wants to know if she’s allowed to watch the late movie…”
“What do you mean, Sam went out? Went out where?”
“She went to the store, Mom, don’t freak out,” another voice chimed in – Jessi, Chuck’s twin. “I’m not on fire, Chuck is being a baby, and Sam went out to get a quart of milk because we were out and Chuck whined that he wanted hot chocolate with milk, waaah. Sam should be back in five minutes and really, Mom, we can survive alone for that long. And… about the movie… Sam just said that she wasn’t sure that I should…”
Quincey made a sharp noise much like a hissing cat, and Jessi’s voice abruptly cut off.
“If Sam isn’t sure, then the answer is probably no. And if that mug isn’t buried under the tons of crap I told you to clean out of your room last week, I don’t know what happened to it – and I can certainly not unearth it for you from here. Here being one of the rare, the very rare, evenings I’ve had with, you know, grown-up company since before you two were born. When Sam gets back, enjoy your hot chocolate…and then start thinking about bed. Yes, both of you. If the movie is on that late it probably isn’t aimed at you, Jessi. You’ll live. One day you’ll be all grown up and you’ll be able to figure these things out for yourself. Right now… Sam is your authority. She’s me. You’d better believe it. If you don’t do exactly as she tells you, she’s to call me to lay down the law… and if you do that I will be very unhappy and the law will not be pleasant.”
“I thought you said we shouldn’t call you,” Jessi said.
“You shouldn’t, unless it’s a dire emergency. But from now on Sam decides what the real emergencies are – you two obviously you think a missing mug is one. I’ll be home tomorrow morning. Suck it up.”
“Okay,” Jessi said faintly. And then added, her voice hopeful, “Love you, Mom.”
Quincey grimaced. “Love you too,” she said, her voice softening a little but managing to retain the edge of sternness in her tone. “Now go away.”
The phone went dead, and Quincey toggled hers off with a sigh, shaking her head.
She looked up, startled, and met the sympathetic smiling eyes of Ariel behind the glass counter. He nodded at the phone, his mouth curved in a slight and very understanding grin.
“I gather it’s kids,” he said. “On their own?”
“They’re ten,” Quincey said. “I left Sam in charge – she’s their oldest sister – half-sister – she’s nineteen and she can usually be trusted. It’s only for overnight, really – I left home this morning, and I should be back there tomorrow, and really, they’re pretty good ten-year-olds as far as that goes. But sometimes I think that Chuck will never get to be older than five, always yanking at my sleeve with ‘Mooooommy’ – I know that he’s the youngest, but he’s Jessi’s twin and she manages to act Sam’s age sometimes. Boys.”
“Sounds like he may feel outnumbered,” Ariel said, laughing out loud now. “Mom, one older sister, one bossy twin sister. He can either become thoroughly obnoxious, just to keep his place in the pecking order, or he can go juvenile and hope that everyone will just take pity on him…”
Quincy stared at him, but one corner of her own mouth had curved up in a smile. “Thanks for the analysis,” she said, “I’ll keep it in mind. Speaking from experience?”
“I have lots of siblings,” he said. “We tend to get left to fend for ourselves unless we screw up really badly and need help from someone higher up on the responsibility scale.”
Quincey glanced down, weighing the phone in her hand, shaking her head a little. “Telling them not to call me, it’s more than a little self-preservation. I hear their voices, I start missing them. It’s that simple. God, I could use a cigarette.”
“Filthy habit,” Ariel said.
“Can’t disagree,” Quincey said. “Which is why I quit. Still doesn’t mean I can’t think about wanting one every so often.” She glanced around, at the now busy and very loud café. “Good God, when did it get this full? Feels like New Year’s Eve came early…”
“Well, maybe it did, in theory – but in either event it’s the New World’s Eve, and the real New Year’s Eve might not even come. I guess they’re celebrating early.”
Quincey shook her head. “Hogwash,” she said. “They’re all going to get a rather nasty surprise when they discover that the new world in the morning starts with the mother of all hangovers.” She glanced towards the back, where the restrooms were. There was, somewhat miraculously, no queue there. It suddenly seemed like a good idea to take advantage of the situation.
Ariel’s voice followed her as she turned away towards the restroom on the left.
“That one’s occupied – and you dropped something.”
Quincey nodded her thanks as she bent over to retrieve a folded piece of paper from the floor next to her foot – it must have fallen out as she stuffed her phone back in her pocket, but she didn’t recognise it, didn’t remember putting it in there. She unfolded the paper, glanced at the contents, frowned slightly.
“What is this…?” she murmured.
“Instructions. For the other one.”
She looked up to see Ariel indicating the other restroom with a toss of his head.
“But the sign…”
“Hence the instructions. You can go into that one, if you are careful to follow the instructions.”
“What, go into a broken-down restroom and find a new life…? That’s… funny. If there’s anything worse than a hangover in the morning, it’s actual crap right now.”
Ariel’s smile did not slip. “The sign… is only really there to make sure that only the right people go in there tonight,” he said.
Both Quincey’s eyebrows rose all the way into her hairline. “You’re a restroom usher?”
“Well, when you put it that way,” Ariel said. “I know, doesn’t sound very glamorous. But we use what’s given to us. Today, here… it’s an ‘Out of Order’ sign on what seems to be a perfectly ordinary restroom door. But that new world in the morning that you spoke of…? That can start right here. Right now.” He nodded at the paper in her hand. “Instructions. If you choose to follow them. Excuse me, I’m wanted in the back.”
He gave her a small bow, putting down his cloth on the shelf behind the glass counter, and slipped away into the crowded room without a backward glance.
Quincey stared after him, her expression puzzled – but now she was in earnest about stopping by the facilities before she went back to the others at the table. She tried the left-hand side door first, but Ariel had been right – it was locked, and a muffled voice from within shouted something unintelligible which only served to prove that there was indeed someone still using the place.
She glanced once again at the sheet of paper in her hand, and finally reached out to try the other door, turning the knob which had the ‘Out of Order sign hanging on it; she looked over her shoulder once to see if anyone was behind her about to ask her snidely if she could read – but she seemed to be completely on her own, unnoticed by the throng inside the café proper. She might as well have been invisible, or a passing ghost.
She could see nothing but darkness as the door began to swing open, and a caress of cool air coming out of that darkness gently touched her cheek, stirred her hair.
There was a moment in which she hesitated, frozen, one foot stopped mid-motion as she began a step forward and then stopped – but then she was swept with a strange certainty that if she did not complete that one step the rest of her life would be spent regretting that choice, wondering what might have happened.
So she squared her jaw, the fingers of the hand holding the piece of paper allowing the page to fall back into the lines along which it had been folded before and reaching to stuff it back into her pocket even as she completed that first step into the unknown and let go of the door, allowing it to close gently behind her as she passed through.
Behind her, the trio of girl singers had begun another song. The lyrics drifted in behind Quincey, increasingly muffled by the slowly closing door… something about the circle never ending, and about all the roads leading home.
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