The phone stared back, pale-faced, indifferent, and hauntingly static. In its screen shone the diffuse reflection of a man whose dark, unblinking eyes were ringed in purple. He bit his lip and chose his words. After a few fumbles of his fingers, he sent the message and stood waiting for a response.
“Ellis!” the barista called in a cheery, albeit strained voice. “I have your cappuccino, and with an extra shot of espresso today?” He flashed a smile as Ellis approached the counter.
“I just need a little extra energy today to get me going,” Ellis said. He mirrored the barista’s smile and chuckled softly as he accepted his drink from the counter.
“Rough night?” the barista said.
Ellis took a sip from his cappuccino. At once, the rich, milky liquid brought a tingle to his lips. “I didn’t sleep much,” he said. He suppressed a yawn, and then washed it down with another sip of coffee. A pleasant zip of caffeine shot through his veins.
Nodding, the barista leaned against the counter. He fiddled with the green tassels of his apron as a wrinkle split his brow. “I understand your pain,” he said. “These days the coffee doesn’t even touch my exhaustion. Four, five, six shots of espresso in the morning, and I still feel like a corpse.”
“Don’t I know it!” the barista said. He rubbed his brow and clenched his mouth shut, evidently fighting his own yawn. “Nothing works, Ellis. My work is suffering. I’m messing up orders. Not to mention, I look like shit.”
Ellis made a curt chuckle. “I don’t know about that,” he said. He glanced down the counter, where two ladies were waiting to order. They fingered their dense, curly manes and peered at the barista from under their designer shades. He didn’t notice them in the slightest.
“You’re just being polite,” the barista said. “It’s this work really. Me and the wife are looking for a new home, so the kids can have more room to play. I’ve taken up more hours, but it’s just exhausting me.”
After another sip of his cappuccino, Ellis sighed. “You know,” he said, his voice low and level, “It is okay to take a break. You should slow down. Don’t run yourself into the ground. The kids will understand. After all, just as you want to see them happy, they want to see you happy.” The wrinkles seemed to melt from the barista’s face, and a hopeful glint shone in his earthy brown eyes. “When next you drink coffee,” Ellis continued, “It should be on a peaceful morning, relaxing on a still lake far from the cafe and all its stress.”
The barista scratched the back of his head and glanced at the customers lining up, noticing them for the first time. “Thank you, Ellis. You’re probably right.”
“Enjoy life in all its moments, for it is those moments that make life, and life is precious,” Ellis said.
One of the curly-haired customers made a loud, impatient ahem. “I’ll be with you in just a second,” the barista said. He smirked at Ellis. “I suppose you’ll be off to work.”
Ellis shook his head. “I took the day off. I think I’ll stay awhile.” He winked at the barista and raised his cappuccino in cheers. Then, finding a seat in a cushioned, mocha chair, Ellis pulled out his phone. The screen was blank, his notifications empty.
Yellow, fluorescent lights flickered above the clerk’s head as he accepted Ellis’s camera. The young, pimpled clerk turned the camera this way and that, inspecting the make and model. Ellis blushed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I got the camera as a present. I know how to take the photos, but I can’t print them off.”
The clerk shrugged. “That’s alright,” he said. “I can manage.”
“If you could just print the second-to-last photo, that would be great,” Ellis said.
“Uh…just a normal size? I don’t know.” The clerk pressed a couple buttons and then connected the camera to the computer before him. Ellis saw him smile briefly. His blush deepened. “You…uh ever look at customers’ photos when you print them?”
Swiping a strand of oily hair behind his ear, the clerk snickered. “Of course,” he said. “I can’t help it. The photos pop up on the screen.” As he spoke, the clerk didn’t take his gaze off the computer.
“Yes, but there’s looking and there’s looking,” Ellis said.
This time the clerk looked at him. He offered Ellis a devilish smirk before his eyes darted back to the computer. “Would you like a frame for the picture?” He motioned towards an assortment of wooden frames, some carved into flowery displays, others plain and unassuming.
Chewing his lip, Ellis selected a dark, mahogany frame. But, when he slid it to the clerk, the young man shook his head. The frame was too small. Without looking, the clerk selected a new frame, this one chrome and minimalist. “This will complement the photo better. Not so dark and heavy. Same price.”
“Thank you. You’re kind,” Ellis said in a warm, earnest tone.
The clerk snorted as if it could not have been further from the truth. He pressed a final button and detached the camera from the computer. Behind him, a printer ticked and screeched. Then, returning the camera, the clerk snorted again. When next he looked at Ellis, his face had shifted. His eyebrows had scrunched together, and the mischievous glint in his eye was nowhere to be seen. “You’re right. There’s looking and there’s looking,” he said. “I have been known to do the latter on occasion.”
“I thought so,” Ellis said with a chuckle.
“Oh yes. There are some photos that disgust me, some that make me laugh, and even some that make me blush,” the clerk said. The printer spat out a photo. It made a low hum and a final tick before falling silent.
“I can only imagine,” Ellis said. He glanced at the photograph sitting in the printer tray while the clerk knit his brow and stared at his fingers.
“But you know, there are some photos that make me jealous,” the clerk said, his dull, grey eyes sinking. “There are some that make you feel worthless in comparison.”
Ellis frowned. “You shouldn’t think that way,” he said. “Photos are just moments frozen in time. There is infinitely more happening outside those moments. You cannot know what pain others feel.” The clerk’s sunken eyes twitched. “Just as I cannot know what pain you feel.”
“Yeah,” the clerk said. He opened his mouth to say more but decided against it.
“What matters is what we choose to focus on,” Ellis said with a warm grin. “All those happy photos that you envy. Those people are choosing to focus on precious moments. I am certain even you have some precious moments. Perhaps you should focus more on them.”
The clerk chuckled to himself. “Yeah maybe,” he said. Eyes distant, the clerk scanned the picture frame and grabbed the photo from the tray. A smile slipped onto his face as Ellis paid. Then, as he handed Ellis his change, the clerk snapped out of reverie. “You want me to place it in the frame for you?”
Ellis hesitated, wondering if the kid might smudge the glass with his greasy fingers. However, before Ellis could say no, the clerk had already grabbed his purchases. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure,” the clerk said. Once he had fit the picture into its place, he scrutinized his work with a clenched jaw and pursed brow.
“So, as far as pictures go,” Ellis said, “How does mine rate?”
The clerk smirked again. “It’s a nice one.” He turned the photo around so Ellis could see. “This should make you very happy.”
Backs turned towards the camera, a man and woman gazed at an expansive sky blushing red as the sun dipped below the horizon. The man wrapped his arm around the woman and kissed her cheek. The touch of her body set his mind clear and his heart skipping. He was at peace, and so was she.
“It’s not for me,” Ellis said. He could almost feel the heat of the sun tickle his face. He took the photo and exited the store. Then, once he had reached his car, he pulled out his phone and opened his messages.
There was no response. There his own text remained, unread and unanswered. “I will be gone for a couple hours. I love you so much, darling. Let me know if you need anything while I’m out.”
Lilies, daisies, and carnations of every color illuminated the flower shop and filled it with a sweet, floral fragrance. Ellis roamed the aisles, all the while inspecting the carefully manicured bouquets set out on display. He studied them for their diverse spectrum of colors and for the gentleness of their aromas. Yet, the more he browsed the florist’s ware, the more he realized how clueless he was. He knew nothing about flowers.
At the cash register, a teenage girl craned her neck this way and that to watch Ellis. Her eyes were curiously wide but gentle and the color of morning sky. “Sir? Sir, do you need help?” she said in a singsong voice.
Ellis whirled around, but an older, grey-haired woman answered for him. “Don’t worry about him. He doesn’t need help,” she said as she pruned a potted daffodil. Her voice was rough and cynical from age.
“I might need help this time,” Ellis said.
“Oh no you don’t,” the florist said. She set down her shears and looked at the cashier with a dubious expression. “He comes every month or two to buy flowers for his wife. He’ll search the whole store for something special. Then, after much hemming and hawing, he’ll purchase a single rose.” The florist snickered. The cashier giggled as well.
Ellis shrugged. “Too corny?” he said.
“Obviously,” the florist said. “There are tons of flowers in this shop, some whose names even I don’t know. Yet, you choose to pick the most cliched one of the bunch.”
“I think it’s cute,” the girl said. A smile buried itself in her freckled cheeks. “I would be happy if someone bought me flowers, no matter what kind.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?” Ellis asked.
“No,” she said with a blush.
The florist walked behind the counter and draped an arm over the girl’s shoulder. “Ugly duckling here has had some trouble with the boys,” she said with a scratchy chortle. The girl knit her brows and frowned. “Oh cheer up. It was a compliment. In the end, the ugly duckling becomes the beautiful and elegant swan.” The florist posed with a hand under her chin as if to display what beauty and elegance looked like.
“Thanks,” the girl said in a deflated tone. She rested her head in her hand while her frown lengthened. All the while, her back curled, and her shoulders hunched over the counter. After a drawn-out sigh, she sank deeper into her contorted pose.
“Ignore her. You are already a sight to behold,” Ellis said. “Besides, looks fade.”
“Speak for yourself,” the florist said with a haughty tilt of her head. Then, after a moment, she brought a shaky hand to her face. She touched the bags beneath her eyes and the wrinkles that drooped around her lips. Then, just as quick as she had examined her skin, she resumed her proud expression.
Smiling to himself, Ellis looked again at the girl. “What matters is inside. You seem like a sweet girl. Someone will notice that just as I have. And once they do, they will give you the affection and adoration you deserve. The love of a woman is a special thing, and a thousand red roses will never match what you will give a man.”
Although the girl had nothing to say in response, her cheeks bloomed brighter than any flower ever could. And her contorted stance, once painful to look at, loosened and relaxed. After one short shake, the cashier straightened to her full height.
All the while, the florist waved her hand dismissively. “So what will it be, Ellis?” she said. “Should I get you another rose?”
Ellis shook his head. “No. I need something bigger and better than a single rose.”
“Oh my! Is it a special occasion?” the florist asked in a mocking tone.
“You could say that.” Ellis’s expression was unreadable. “But I don’t know what to choose.”
The florist grinned with excitement. “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you and your honey, won’t we ugly duckling?” The cashier rolled her eyes. Regardless, she joined her boss in the search for a suitable bouquet. As soon as the pair disappeared down an aisle, Ellis heard them bicker. This arrangement was too sparse. That one too dull. This one monotone. And that one a shoddy bundle put together by a foolish apprentice no doubt.
Left alone, Ellis pulled out his phone. To his delight, a notification filled the center of the screen with sharp, black letters. Bound by a cheery, white bubble, the letters read: “Do what you want. I don’t care.”
His delight faded. “This never should have happened,” Ellis wrote back. “I am so sorry.”
Head half in the cooler, Ellis searched the convenience store’s bountiful collection of ice cream. Neopolitan, mint chocolate chip, cookie dough, maple walnut. There were more flavors than he could count, but he had yet to find the one he was looking for.
As Ellis dug through the cooler, a mother strode by. Behind her she dragged a child, who was whining and screaming for her attention. In his hand, he carried a plastic, green army man like Ellis had when he was a kid.
“Come on,” the mother said, half to her son, half to herself. She was younger than most mothers, but her stress showed all the same. Droopy bags underscored her eyes, and her hair curled every which way. Clearly, she had seen neither a bed nor a mirror in a long time.
Just as the kid passed by, the toy soldier slipped out of his hands. He stretched desperately to pick it up, but his mother pulled him along all the same. Before long, the boy exploded into tears. He begged his mother to stop, but she would not listen. “Enough!” she said. “We are in public. You can’t scream like that.”
“But mommy! Mommy!” he said in between sobs. Snot rolled down his lip. “My toy.”
“Not now. I am in a hurry. I need to pick up food so we can eat tonight. You want to eat, don’t you?” she said over his incessant cries.
“Hey wait,” Ellis called. He picked the soldier off the floor and called for her once more. “Hey!” This time the woman stopped. “Your son dropped his toy.” He jogged towards them and offered the toy to the child. Ellis had barely extended his arm before the child grabbed the soldier out of his hand. As soon as he had, the boy sniffled and hid behind his mother’s leg.
“Thank you,” the woman said. She clenched her eyes shut as if shaking off a bad dream. She forced a smile, and then scurried off with her teary-eyed son in tow.
Having returned to the cooler with fresh eyes, Ellis found what he was looking for much easier: rocky road ice cream, his wife’s favorite flavor. He picked up a pint for her. Nothing for himself.
As he made his way to the cash register, Ellis heard a sudden explosion of noise and tears. Just in front of the counter, the boy had collapsed into a sobbing mess. His mother yanked at his arm and pleaded with him to be quiet. He had his toy. She had their food. What more could he want?
“I’m so sorry,” the mother said to Ellis as he approached. “Please go ahead. I-” She winced as her child loosed an ear-splitting cry.
“It’s okay,” Ellis said. He stepped around the red-faced child, who had curled into a weepy ball. The mother crouched down beside her son. This time she tried to calm him with comforting words in a hushed tone. Even so, the boy would not let up.
The cashier suffered a grin as Ellis stepped up to the counter. They both flinched as the boy screamed again. “Just the ice cream?” the cashier asked. Ellis slid the pint of rocky road to the cashier. All the while, he looked at the weary mother and her inconsolable son.
“I’ll get this too,” he said, grabbing a candy bar. The cashier scanned his items and wished him a great rest of the day, albeit in a dreary monotone.
Crouching down beside the sobbing child, Ellis offered the candy bar. “Hey,” he said in a warm, easy tone, “Have it. It’s yours.” The boy looked at Ellis with wide, wet eyes. “Go on. It was my favorite as a kid. Smooth chocolate, sticky caramel, and delicious nougat. I could never resist it, and I bet you…” Before he could finish speaking, the boy snatched the chocolate out of his hand. Without hesitation, he unwrapped the candy bar and devoured it, all without making a noise. “That’s what I thought,” Ellis said.
Equal parts gracious and perplexed, the mother sighed heavily from her chest. “Thank you. I…you didn’t have to do that,” she said. She pulled out her wallet. “I should repay you for the chocolate.”
But Ellis waved his hand to dismiss the idea. “Don’t worry about it. Not every deed must be repaid. Some deeds are rewards in and of themselves.”
“Well, thank you. I…sometimes I just don’t know what to do with him,” the mother said, breathless. “His father is on tour, and I’m…I’m not as good with him. My husband was always so fun and relaxed. He managed to get everything done and still make the child happy. But I’m…I’m struggling. I’m starting to think I’m not cut out to be a mom.”
“Nonsense,” Ellis said. “You love your son. That is clear. You would not be so stressed if you did not.” The woman chuckled as if to say “stressed” was an understatement. Ellis smiled. He looked down at the pint of ice cream in his hand. His smile faltered. “People need to feel loved,” he continued, “And children are no exception. Food, clothing, and a bed to sleep in. Those are all necessary for a child. But you need to treat them now and then to show them you care. Children are a gift. Treasure them.”
“You sound like an expert,” the woman said. “You must have a child of your own.”
His smile fell into a tilted frown. “No,” he said with a shake of his head. His eyes glazed over, and the color ebbed from his cheeks. A moment of silence passed before Ellis was disturbed by the shrill ting of his phone. “Sorry. I have to go,” he said.
Eyes glued to his phone, Ellis headed back to his car. He placed the ice cream on the passenger seat next to the flowers and framed photo. Then, he read the text to himself. Then, he read it a second time. Then, once more. “I don’t want to hear it,” she wrote. “It’s all my fault.”
Ellis was anxious, fearful even, but eager nonetheless. His fingers twitched as they touched the rusted, iron doorknob, and his chest shuddered as the door opened with a creak. “Hello? Honey?” he said. Against his chest, he held the framed photo. Its brilliant, sunlit scene hovered just over his heart. In the crook of his arms, he carried the bouquet of flowers. Their delicate petals shook with every step, and their slender, green necks bowed as he stepped inside. In his hand, he held the pint of rocky road, softened but still just as sweet.
Lying before Ellis in a careless heap were three trash bags. Each was filled to the brim with baby clothes. Spotless. Unworn. Tags still hanging from their sleeves.
Ellis shut the door behind himself. At once, the heavy thud of footsteps resounded through the floorboards. A moment later a woman shouted in a harsh, threatening tone. She spat obscenities and biting remarks. She pointed fingers and gnashed her teeth. And yet, in her voice, something quivered ever so slightly.
Glass shattered. But her shouts grew, in volume and in fire. They built more and more until her throat could handle not another sound. And at last, her voice broke.
Muffled in an embrace, the woman sobbed and shook. Her arms hung limp at her sides. But Ellis held her still. He wrapped her tighter in his embrace, and kissed her once upon the cheek. “I love you,” he said, for there was nothing else to say. “I love you so much.”