By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: Cam sighed with relief and exhaustion as the band finished its set at the late-night coffee shop. She stretched then continued to pack up her guitar and mic. When she yawned, her bandmates pushed her to get some coffee or tea and go home. After a moment of deliberation she did, getting in line at the counter and pulling out her wallet.
Cam fought another yawn as she waited in line behind three other people. Julie, the cashier, punched something into the machine then pumped her fist in frustration. She glanced up, causing Cam to turn around on instinct to survey the line behind her.
Wow, where did all these people come from? she thought. There were, like, half as many in here thirty minutes ago.
“You all did a great job tonight,” the woman behind Cam said, her face lighting up.
“Thanks,” Cam replied, “I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome. You know, I kind of wish your band was still up there. Then it wouldn’t be such torture to wait in line.”
Cam watched as Julie listened to the person’s order yet again and nodded and punched buttons. The young woman, normally cheerful, fluttered between the register and the case that held the baked goods still available for purchase. She used tongs to grab an éclair and place it on a plate. When she went back for a second one, the tongs fumbled and she dropped the pastry.
“Oh, man,” she said with a moan.
“I guess it’s going to be one of those nights,” the woman behind Cam said.
Cam slipped out of line. Ignoring her aching calves from three straight hours on her feet, she went around the case and the end of the counter. Julie crouched on the floor with plastic gloves. Cam came forward two steps and stopped as Julie grabbed the éclair and dumped it in the trash.
“Where’s Troy?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Julie said, her voice wavering. She turned toward the customer. “Um, okay, so that’s two eclairs and two lattes, right?”
“No, I said two cappuccinos,” the man waiting his turn said. He rolled his eyes in exasperation. “How many times am I going to have to repeat myself?”
For a second, Cam wavered. She’d packed her stuff in the car. All she had to do was get in it and drive. She really didn’t need a cup of coffee anyway. No sense in adding to Julie’s workload.
“I’m really sorry, sir,” Julie said, standing. “Two eclairs and two cappuccinos, coming right up.”
She rang up the man’s order then turned to the coffee machine. With her back to the customers, she closed her eyes and swallowed hard. Then she opened them again and began measuring out coffee grounds.
Three more customers joined the end of the line.
“Hey, um, Julie,” Cam said, wondering if she would regret the next words out of her mouth, “do you need some help?”
The coffee machine hissed as steamed milk sputtered from a narrow nozzle. Julie managed to get the mug under the nozzle in time to catch most of it. She wiped it in a practiced maneuver and measured out grounds again.
“I don’t know, Cam. Customers aren’t really supposed to be back here handling the food and stuff.”
As another woman entered the coffee shop, Cam suppressed a sigh and joined Julie behind the counter.
“I won’t handle any of the food,” she said, “I’ll just take orders. Come on, things couldn’t have changed that much since I worked here a few years ago.”
Julie shook her head. “No, not that much. Okay, if you don’t mind.”
Cam stepped up to the register. “Are you supposed to be here by yourself? Normally Jack wouldn’t leave an employee to handle the Friday rush alone.”
“Troy was supposed to be here,” Julie said as she placed the cappuccino mugs on saucers. She handed them to the man who had growled about his order. “Troy and Ben. I don’t know where the two idiots could have gone. Probably out getting stoned somewhere.”
“Well, I’m here now,” Cam said. “Next in line, please!”
She waited on the next customer and the third. Julie listened to the orders and worked the coffee machine. With each order, her tension began to ease. When the woman who was originally behind her stepped to the counter for her turn, she smiled even though her eyebrows remained in a frown. The woman glanced at Julie and then looked back to Cam.
“A multi-talented person, I see,” she said. “You sing lead for a band and make coffee.”
“Actually, Julie’s the one who makes the coffee,” Cam said with a vague gesture in the girl’s direction. “I just saw how swamped she was and decided to help out.”
The woman gave her a thoughtful nod. “That makes a lot of sense. Can I help?”
Cam and Julie exchanged a look before Julie put a hand on her hip. “What would you do?”
The customer scanned the coffee shop and nodded at a few of the tables on the far side. “I could clean up for you. You know, carry dishes to the back; maybe wash them.”
Cam opened her mouth to refuse the woman’s offer, but Julie’s face brightened.
“Oh my gosh, that would be amazing! Thank you so much. I’m Julie.”
She thrust her hand forward, and the woman took it. “Brenda. Do you have any aprons?”
Julie directed her to the kitchen. Cam watched as Brenda zipped through the swinging door. She turned back to her coworker for the evening.
“You don’t even know her,” she chided. “What if she was a terrorist who went back there to plant a bomb or something?”
“What’s the bomb made of, her coat?” Julie asked with the first smile Cam had seen on her that evening. “She wasn’t carrying a bag. Besides, Cam, she’s volunteering to do dishes. Are you actually going to turn that down?”
“Excuse me, are you, like, going to take my order?” a young woman asked.
Cam sighed and turned back to the register. “Yes. How can I help you?”
For the next two hours, she continued to punch register buttons. Julie’s coffee-making increased in speed, and Brenda had the dishes washed even before either of them could ask for clean mugs. By the time the last customer left, Cam could barely feel her legs.
Julie ran a rag over the countertop in a half-hearted motion. She yawned, which made Cam yawn. Brenda tried to stifle her yawn with her fist, but she couldn’t. That made Cam yawn again, and all three of them laughed.
“Wait, Cam,” Julie said. “Weren’t you in line? Did you want me to make you some coffee? To go?”
Cam’s back muscles begged for a bed. Still, the evening hadn’t been bad. She’d helped a friend and played a great set.
Pressing another yawn back into her mouth, she shook her head.
“I think I’m good, but thanks for asking.”
“So, same time tomorrow?” Brenda joked.
All three laughed again, and Cam waved her goodbye to them over her shoulder as she headed out to the car.