MUSED Literary Magazine.
Fiction

Take Care

William Cass

Amanda hadn’t slept well. She’d been worrying about her daughter, Gwen, who’d recently started at a new middle school and wasn’t adjusting well. Gwen had enrolled as an inter-district transfer, and the school was located a couple of towns away. She knew no one there, and as an eighth grader, circles of friends were already established, so it was tough to fit in. Amanda and Gwen already knew all about that; they knew about it in spades.

After rising early, Amanda made coffee and sat in the living room with it watching the gray light of dawn seep through the curtains, waiting for the time to come to awaken Gwen. Her thoughts drifted occasionally to her ex-husband and his girlfriend, but not as much or as intensely as after he first left. It was his weekend coming up with Gwen, and Amanda hoped he could brighten her spirits somehow.

She woke Gwen at seven and was greeted with her usual morose, guttural response. At breakfast, Gwen replied to Amanda’s upbeat questions with shrugs or silence. On the drive to school, Gwen leaned away in the passenger seat, adjusting the earplugs to her iPod and nodding to whatever music she was listening to. When Amanda pulled up to the curb in front of school, Gwen got out immediately and slammed the door behind her. Amanda doubted Gwen even heard her when she told her to have a good day. She watched her daughter pull the hood of her sweatshirt up over her head, ball her fists into its pockets, and sulk away into the crowd of students.

The new school had an earlier start than the old one, which gave Amanda a little free time before heading to work back near their home. She stopped at a café she hadn’t been to in a long time to buy a cup of coffee to take with her to the office. She got in the line leading to the cash register and the baristas behind the counter. A couple of minutes passed before she recognized the woman three customers in front of her: the mother of the leader of the group of girls who’d been Gwen’s friends since primary grades, but who had begun scorning her earlier that school year. Gwen never knew why. For years, they’d been like sisters and done everything together, and then one day, she was no longer wanted, no longer included, no longer spoken or replied to. The posts on Gwen’s Facebook page became so vitriolic that she had to take it down. The ones from the daughter of the woman in line had been particularly nasty and demeaning. Things became so bad that they’d had to change schools.

The woman’s name was Diane. Amanda didn’t think Diane had seen her because she’d come inside through the back door of the cafe. Diane was fiddling with her purse. Amanda watched her open a wallet at its brim and take out a credit card while studying the chalkboard menu high on the wall behind the cash register. As she did, a second credit card slipped out of the wallet and fell silently to the floor beside a potted ficus near where she stood. Diane hadn’t noticed. The couple between them was engaged in conversation, so hadn’t noticed either, and there was no one behind Amanda in line.

She looked down at the credit card. A rush of rage spread over her as she thought of how badly Diane’s daughter and the other girls had treated Gwen. Diane had moved to the front of the line and was giving the barista her order. Amanda wondered how much she knew about what had happened with Gwen. The girls had been such good friends and shared so many activities for so long that the parents had become friendly, too. She’d sat next to Diane at countless soccer games and school events; their families had even gone camping together a few times. But she hadn’t spoken to Diane or any of the other mothers since Gwen began being scorned. They hadn’t said or done anything negative, but there had been no communication with any of them, and this was the first occasion that one of their paths had crossed her own.

She watched Diane take a scone on a paper napkin and a steaming mug from the barista, move off to an empty table, and sit alone facing away towards the entrance of the café. The couple in front of Amanda moved up to the cash register, and she stepped forward even with the potted ficus. There was still no one behind her in line. She looked once around the cafe, then leaned down, picked up the credit card, and slipped it into her jacket pocket. A flush spread over her, and her heart quickened. Amanda watched the back of Diane as she nibbled her scone and sipped her drink. She thought of the way Gwen had become so diminished and remote; she’d tried to convince herself that it had coincided with the scorning, but sleepless and late at night, she acknowledged that it had begun earlier when her father had left. In some deep way, Amanda felt that Gwen blamed her for his leaving.

The couple in front of her carried their drinks out the entrance, the doors tinkling as they did, and Amanda gave her order and money to the barista. She turned and looked at the back of Diane again. The place wasn’t crowded; just one other customer sitting on a couch by the window. The barista brought Amanda her coffee and gave her change. Amanda paused and took a long time fastening a cardboard sleeve around her cup and a plastic lid on top. Finally, she shook her head and walked up beside Diane.

“Hello,” she said. She lifted the credit card out of her pocket. “I think you dropped this.”

Diane looked up at her from where she sat and took the card from her. “Thank you,” she said. The surprise on her face was replaced with recognition. “My, Amanda…”

“That’s me.”

“How have you been? How is….?”

The look in Diane’s eyes as she paused told Amanda all she needed to know. “Gwen,” she finished for her.

Diane’s mouth stayed open as she nodded. She still held the credit card between two fingers in the same position she’d taken it from Amanda. A hiss came from the expresso machine.

“Oh,” Amanda said. “You know…”

“I heard she changed schools.”

“That’s right.”

“I miss seeing her. We should get the girls together.”

Amanda felt her color rise. She closed both hands around the cup to keep it from shaking. As evenly as possible, she said, “I don’t see that happening, do you?”

Diane held her gaze, blinking. The appearance to her daughter was striking. Amanda imagined that she’d looked almost identical when she was her age. People said the same thing about Gwen when they saw photos of Amanda as a girl. Diane lowered her eyes and shrugged. “I guess not,” she said quietly.

The baristas chuckled over something behind them at the counter. The front doors tinkled again. An old man pushed inside with a cane and passed them, hobbling towards the cash register.

Diane shrugged again, but didn’t look up. “I wish they’d stayed friends. I do.”

“Sure,” Amanda said. “Well, then.”

Diane glanced back up at her with something like worry or fright. “Take care,” she said. “Say hi for me.”

Amanda didn’t reply. Her eyes had narrowed, and her stare hardened. She thought about throwing her cup of coffee in Diane’s face. She thought of snatching the credit card from her fingers and snapping it in half. Instead, she walked past her and out the tinkling front doors. She hurried up the sidewalk and sat down on an empty bus stop bench on the corner. She tried to steady herself, but a little cough escaped her, and she began to weep softly. As she did, she looked out across the street. Two birds, wrens or sparrows, lit on a telephone wire. A woman with a scarf over her head walked a dog. There was little traffic.

Perhaps five minutes passed before a city bus pulled up next to her. Its front doors folded open with a clap and the bus driver looked down at her. He was a big man with kind, gentle eyes. She shook her head. He nodded and smiled. The doors folded closed, the brakes on the bus sighed, and it crawled slowly away.