He paused his typing long enough to take a long draw off his drink, a venti white mocha with three pumps of hazelnut, a drink he’d affectionately named a Firefly, after the most cruelly and unjustly canceled show in the history of entertainment. For Arden, a Firefly was like a bit of brewed caffeinated nerdy awesome, not to mention the perfect beverage for stimulating his braincells to produce work that would help him pass U.S. History with a “C” or better.
Just and Arden set himself to return to his paper, someone came over to his table. The guy couldn’t have been even three feet tall. Arden gave him a once over, then a second over, and for good measure, a third over. He was, in fact, that short, and he wasn’t a kid. Brownish-read hair covered his face and stuck out from the black beret. He wore a leather jacket, woodland camouflage pants, and tan work boots. His eyes were bloodshot, and glanced at the Starbucks’s two doors, one on either end of the store, before he ducked under Arden’s table. The next moment, the guy came out from under the table with a smart phone and a charger that Arden hadn’t known were there. Which meant the guy had plugged them sometime during the first thirty minutes of the store being open. Arden always caught a ride with his mom on her way to work. She dropped him off at six thirty AM, and he spent an hour and a half educating himself and drinking coffee.
“Thanks for keeping an eye on it,” the short man said.
Arden blinked a couple of times. “Yeah. Uh. Sure. No problem.”
The guy shoved his phone into his pocket, gave Arden a slight nod, turned around, and walked away.
Arden shrugged. Strange, but not overly strange. Lots of people used Starbucks as their own personal charging station. Not all of them ignored personal space like that little guy, but whatever. No harm. It was a little odd, but nothing that Arden wouldn’t forget by the time he caught the bus for school. Until, that was, he spared the guy one last glance, and then the weirdness factor of this situation went into Cohen Brothers levels of strange.
The guy had a back pack on. Sticking out of the top of the backpack, Arden saw a wakazashi — the shorter of a samurai’s two swords — and the grip of a flare gun. He recognized the sword because of an obsession with various military philosophies to help him be better at strategy games. He recognized the flare gun because of the times he went boating with his best friend, Madison. She’d showed it to him once after they’d watched both versions of Fright Night, and she wanted to verify that a flare gun would indeed be a bad ass weapon for hunting vampires.
Normally, Arden would have said something, made some kind of quip about this strange little man’s Tyreon Lannester and Van Helsing mash-up; however, on occasion, no matter how quick witted an individual happens to be, they run into a situation that wanders too far outside of their capacity to process that they miss their window of opportunity. This was such a moment for Arden Sunback. With this betrayal of wit, he could only sit, coffee half-way to his mouth, which hung open as potentially the greatest snark moment Arden’s life walked out of the Starbucks, wakazashi, flare gun, smart phone, and all.
Arden remained sitting, almost drinking, staring at the door several minutes after normalcy returned to the coffee shop. When the fugue lifted from his addled mind mind, he realized the enormity of the lost opportunity.
“Damn it!” Arden snarled through clenched teeth.
Wet heat washed over Arden’s hand and then splashed onto his lap. In response to his fury brought on by his wit abandoning him, Arden had squeezed his coffee cup, which resulted in his Firefly overflowing. He jumped up, letting fly a string of expletive deleteds as he tried as best he could, in the way of high school boys, to maintain some semblance of cool while, at the same time, performing an awkward shuffle of shame to the bathroom.
The bathroom door was locked.
“What the hell!”
The big reasons Arden preferred this Starbucks to the two closer to his school — aside from the really cute barrista that opened Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays — was because the men’s room had a urinal and a handicap stall. Doing the coffee-overload shuffle outside of the bathroom was the antithesis of cool. At seventeen, Arden Sunback possessed enough self awareness to know that he would never be of the in crowd, but he had enough cool points stashed away to receive the occasional invite to a party. He also know, he couldn’t afford to squander any of those points, but sometimes the universe just didn’t get a shit, let alone two shits, about about Arden’s coolness.
By the time the men’s room door opened, the coffee soaked into Arden’s pants has started to cool and had soaked into his skivvies. He opened his mouth to explain to the selfish jerk monopolizing the bathroom just how selfish a jerk he’d been, and for the second time within ten minutes, the words fizzled out of his mind. This was a new record for the spread of the minutes between Arden’s speechless moments.
The man coming out of the restroom projected an air of thou - shalt - not - fuck - with - me. Only certain people ever managed that, drill sergeants, certain vice principles of discipline, older siblings of that girl you want to date, and the one kid who wore entirely too much dark clothing, dark make up, dark hair die, who never quite looked anyone in the eye as if they were constantly on the verge of either hurting themselves or everyone around them. Higher on the list of any of those archetypes was anyone wearing a sharkskin suit, dark sunglasses indoors on a cloudy day, and slicked back hair. The ear piece receiving orders from some nearby command center just added to the effect, so that, survival instincts kicked in for even the most clueless and snarkiest of teenagers.
“Excuse me, sir.” Arden said, stepping back against the wall.
The man, who Arden’s mind had identified as Mister Suit, gave Arden an unreadable once over. Something about the guy, something Arden couldn’t place, set Arden on edge. He wanted nothing less to become one with the wall while under the Mister Suit’s scrutiny. And so, Arden did his best to be as unassuming and uninteresting as possible. Nothing to see here, Mister Suit Sir. Just an average idiot teenager who had spilled his drink all over his pants, Mister Suit Sir. Take as much time as you need standing in the door way to the bathroom where I want to go get cleaned up, Mister Suit Sir. In the time it took those thoughts to run through Arden’s head, Mister Suit stopped looking at him and walked away.
Even after Mister Suit had gone out of sight, Arden forced himself to make a slow ten count before going into the bathroom. Once inside he snatched some paper towels, grateful that some places realized that people used bathrooms for more than doing their business and washing their hands. Having paper towels rather than one of those blower things was far more than an ecological issue, it was also an issue of customer satisfaction. Could a coffee place really call itself a coffee place without the means to assist in the cleaning of messes that occasionally came from frequenting coffee places.
“Fucking Tyreon Van Helsing,” Arden ranted as he used paper towels to try and soak up at least some of th coffee soaking his crotch and thighs. “I mean… who does that? Who leaves their phone unattended like that? Who crawls under someone’s table without even saying, ‘excuse me?’ Who wanders around with a waka - fucking - zashi and a flare - fucking - gun in their back - fucking - pack?”
Despite Arden’s best efforts, he could not get the coffee stain out of his pants. He groaned. Despite any number of reasonable explanations, like spilling coffee all over himself, Arden knew with complete certainty that he could look forward to a day full of questions and commentary about him pissing himself. Great. Just Peachy. For a moment, Arden considered stripping out of his pants and trying to wash them in the sick, but reconsidered after about two seconds. It might not get the stain out, and if the ploy failed, he’d face the ridicule in damp pants. With the autumn chill mixed with the unreliability of the school’s heating system, he’d be suffering both indignities all day.
Arden sighed the sigh of someone under the cloud of impending doom.
He left the bathroom. When he turned the corner to leave the little alcove where the restrooms were, he stopped short. Mister Suit sat at the table where Arden had been just a few minutes before. More than that, he leaned toward Arden’s laptop with the posture of someone reading something they found intensely interesting. Then, Mister Suit leaned over,picked up Arden’s bag, and opened it.
“What the actual fuck?” Arden yelled.
Everyone has their triggers, those things that set them off, even at those times with those individuals who project an air thou -shalt - not - fuck - me. Hell, sometimes those individuals are the ones that trigger other people past the point of behavior beyond the point of self - interest or survival instinct. Nothing pushed Arden’s zero - to - pissed - off button more than people messing with his stuff without permission, and he never gave anyone, ANYONE, permission to touch his laptop or his bag.
Arden cleared the space between the little alcove leading to the restrooms and his table in under two second. In a miraculous display of unprecedented dexterity, Arden snapped his Mac Book shut with his left hand while snatching his bag away from Mister Suit.
Mister Suit looked at Arden, or at least it seemed like that. Always hard to tell with someone wearing shades so dark you couldn’t see their eyes.
“Now look young man—”
“No,” Arden interrupted. “You look, crazy old bastard. Keep your hands of my shit.”
Other patrons in the Starbucks turned toward them.
Mister Suit stared at Arden. Most adults, especially adults in a perceived position of authority had trouble processing such loud and forceful challenges.
In that moment, Arden’s mind raced.
Having the attention of so many other people on this confrontation might be really good or really bad, and he didn’t want to see which way this fell. Arden needed to either run or pull out one of his nukes. Running might not help. If Mister Suit had a car, that took Arden away from his one advantage.
“I told you yesterday,” Arden turned his voice up a few more notches. “Stop following me. I don’t care how much money you offer me. I am not going to be your special little boy.”
Several people in the Starbucks gasped. Everyone in the place gave Arden and Mister Suit their undivided attention. Mister Suit glanced around, as if realizing for the first time that other people happened to be in the Starbucks. That showed Arden the chinks in Mister Suit’s super - confident demeanor. So maybe the whole air of thou - shalt - not - fuck - with - me was a sham. Maybe Mister Suit was just a bully, and the nice clothes were a part of his shtick.
“Excuse me,” said the voice of rescue. “What’s going on here?”
Tyler, the manager, was walking toward them. Arden didn’t knwo if Tyler was in his late twenties or early thirties. He had pretty smooth and youthful skin, but his hairline had receded so far it might as well have been in full retreat. Regardless of how old he was, Tyler was cool and awesome and super chill. Within the first couple weeks of Arden’s freshman year, when he’d started the tradition of Mom dropping him off at Starbucks, Tyler had made it a point to get to know this scrawny little guy who spent so many mornings in his shop.
“You okay kid?” Tyler asked.
“I don’t know.” Arden glared at Mister Suit. “Am I okay?”
“Just a misunderstanding,” Mister Suit said. “I thought you were someone else. Sorry.”
Arden wanted to make sure all the adults in the Starbucks were paying attention, and maybe to play it up a bit for Tyler.
“Did you think I was someone else when your car pulled up to me next to my school yesterday? Because that’s a hella weird coincidence. Was it a coincidence that had you looking at my laptop and going through my stuff?”
Even with the sunglasses, the way Mister Suit;s entire face tightened, like he was just barely maintaining control let Arden know that Mister Suit was glaring at him. That look lasted until Mister Samaritan cleared his throat in that way people did to let someone know that another someone knew the first someone was being a jack ass.
“Sir,” Tyler said. “I think you need to leave store. I don’t want to see you in here again.”
“Fine,” Mister Suit said. “I tried to explain it’s a misunderstanding.” Lowering his voice, he said to Arden, “You’ll see me again.” Then he turned and walked toward the door.
“Jesus.” Arden called. “Can you possibly be any creepier?” He turned to Tyler. “Thanks man. He was really weirding me out.”
“Next time, just come and get me,” Tyler said. “I don’t need to you causing a scene.”
“Sorry,” Arden said, and he meant it; Tyler was, as Mom would say, good folks. “He had my stuff, like my bag in his hand. And seriously, he was creeping me out.”
“I understand,” Tyler said. “Get me next time.”
Now that the moment had passed, and he didn’t need to be hopped up on adrenaline, Arden started to shake a little. Mister Suit was more than a little creepy, and he’d told Arden that Arden would see him again. Mondays man. Can’t beat em. Can’t nuke em from orbit.
Staring out the window, Arden worked at calming his nerves down. Just as he thought, I can’t possibly handle school today, he saw the bus that passed within a few blocks of his house coming down the street. He and Madison were supposed to meet at lunch to go over their partner work for their science project. He could text Madison and explain what happened. She’d forgive him after a couple of days, a week at the most. This Monday seemed really desperate for Arden to blow everything off and spend the day having quality time with his Xbox.
WHERE ARE WE GOING FROM HERE?