A Bucket of Shells

Third Degree Burns

Vanessa woke bright and early, once again. The sun peaking in through her blinds like an insufferable child trying to play a game. She pulled a pillow over her head, but she knew it was no use. She was up and there was nothing she could do about it. To her surprise, the house was pretty quiet. Usually by now Grandma Sherry would be up making all sorts of noises. Maybe she drank more last than Vanessa realized. Vanessa tip-toed out of her bed and peaked into Grandma Sherry’s room where the old woman lay completely spread eagled on the bed. Her mouth was ajar and she was snoring (or snorting maybe) pretty loudly.

Vanessa let the door close behind her and decided this was an opportune time to leave the house without her Grandma pestering her on where she was going or what she was going to do. It felt like she had the chance for real true freedom, especially since soon her parents would be here too. She had to figure this town out for herself, without their eagle eyes or judgmental little clucks. She had to figure this town out with Grandma Sherry’s opinions or random stories. She had to start making stories of her own.

It didn’t take long for Vanessa to grab a few books, pile her hair onto the top of her head, throw on her comfiest outfit and steal a bike from the garage. She peddled casually down the bumpy Terrace Road that they lived on. The sea breeze slid against her skin, warming her up as the sun warmed the air all around her. The street was bustling with people watering their lawns or piling into their cars for a day the beach. Excited cries from children, their parents responses, and neighborly exchanges was a chorus that greeted Vanessa as she peddled her way through the simple streets of the town.

She pushed her way until her legs were burning a little and the seagulls over head greeted her at the pier. She hopped off the bike, packed it into the bike rack with the others and headed down the wooden planks. For one fleeting moment, a girl with bright platinum blonde hair rode past her on a penny board and she could have sworn it was Marissa. She took a deep breath and let it go, trying to let go of everything else she held onto so tightly in her chest. That was what the therapist recommended: breath and let it go. It never really worked though, but today it felt more like a slow burn than a sharp intense pain in her chest; maybe the ache would go away eventually after all.

She turned the opposite direction from the girl and found her way to a cute little coffee shop with green bustling plants arching around the doorway. She walked in, the cool air of the air conditioning turning the sweat on her back into ice. The shop was empty aside from the boy at the counter and herself. She offered a soft tentative smile to the clerk before setting her bag down at the a table in the corner.

“Can I help you?” He asked, walking over to her table.

Vanessa glanced up from the book she just pulled out. “Oh, duh. Yeah, I’m sorry. Can I just get an iced coffee?”

The boy’s tanned skin and thin lips twisted into a smirk that arched his freckles up his face. “Sure, but we have a shit ton – uh – we have a lot of different kinds. I brought you a menu,” he said, holding up a lamented sheet of paper.

Vanessa felt her cheeks heating up both from being an incompetent customer and from the fact that she thought this boy was so handsome. She glanced back down at her book. No booze, no boys, no bars, she repeated to herself. It was the only mantra that would help her get through this next year (and the rest of her life maybe).

“Whatever one you think is best will be fine,” she said, a little dismissively.

She felt the ice that settled between them and the guy kind of scoffed. “Cream and sugar?” He asked, reflecting her own empty voice. She only nodded in response and turned the page of her book that she hadn’t finished reading anyway.

As he walked away, Vanessa took a deep breath and let it go: No booze, breath. No boys, let it go. By the end of it, she felt a little better. She refocused on The Great Gatsby and let herself fall into the words so that she wouldn’t try to fall deep into those hazel eyes of his. It was hard to focus though because this was her first interaction with someone her age since everything happened. She frowned, blinking tears from her eyes. Marissa’s death was twisted so deeply into her other relationships that she almost couldn’t make sense of it and she couldn’t find the reason to be close with someone again. Both Marissa and her boyfriend, at the time, Joshua, let her down. Though, only Marissa payed an ultimate consequence. That of course, didn’t really explain why they were in the car together in the first place. She shook her head and took another deep breath, but it came out as a more of desperate gulp for air. She wasn’t even sure why she kept trying this breathing thing, it obviously didn’t work.

“Here’s your coffee – oh, um. Are you okay?” The clerk asked her, setting the mason jar full of coffee down next to her. She shut her book, gave a sneaking glance at his name tag (Clark) and nodded. She wiped her face hurriedly, embarrassed that she started crying in public. Maybe this trip was a bad idea. Maybe she wasn’t ready to go venture back out into the world.

“Yeah, no. I’m actually going to need to get that to-go,” she said, starting to pack her stuff back up.

“No, no. Please, stay. I’ll just leave this here and I’ll go over there and you can pretend I don’t exist. Or I’ll go in the back if you need to cry or something. Or I can give you the key to the bathroom, but you don’t have to go,” Clark said, his words stumbling from his mouth in a more nervous rush than Vanessa expected from someone like him. She pegged him as another guy like Joshua, handsome and overly confidence. Instead, he was rubbing his arms a little anxiously and avoiding eye contact.

She laughed a little, “Um, that’s really sweet of you.”

Clark chuckled, “Yep, that’s me. Sweet and friendly. The exact kind of guy to give you coffee and encouraging words.”

“I could use both,” Vanessa said, letting her eyes fall down to stare at her chipping nail polish.

Clark grabbed a chair from the other side of the table and turned it around. He straddled the seat and smiled softly. Usually Vanessa would have made some snarky comment about him just inviting himself to her table and maybe he’d be snarky back. Maybe they would have made out in the bathroom and locked the door with that key. Maybe if she was who she was last summer that’s how that would go, but she wasn’t anymore. Instead, her watery eyes glanced up at him and she let out an awkward sort of snort/laugh.

“Well, then you better let me get to the encouraging words part,” he said, matter-of-factly. He glanced around them and then looked back. “Sorry, wanted to make sure the boss wasn’t here. What’s your name again?” He asked.

“Vanessa,” she said, grabbing the coffee and taking a sip.

“Okay, Vanessa. Most people are usually happy in here, so you’re kind of harshing the vibe. The best thing I can tell you is that good coffee and a good book, like what you’ve got, can be some nice ointment on any burn,” Clark said softly.

“Even third degree burns?” Vanessa asked, glancing up to catch a little bit of those hazel eyes.

“Oh definitely. I’m pretty sure that’s what they were originally made for and then all these mainstream fuckers picked them up to ease their tiny cuts and bumps and bruises. Coffee and a good book, the stamp of a tortured soul. Don’t you think?”

She chuckled, lifting both the book and the coffee up. “Guilty as charged, but I might be a mainstream fucker too.”

“Oh, well, then. I’m gonna need the coffee back,” he said with a laugh and she laughed with him. “No, but really. I can tell your upset, so just have the day to yourself. I’ll just be working like a dog over there.” With that, he stood, replaced the chair and left her alone.

Vanessa wanted him to stay all the sudden. His charm and kindness was something she had not received in a while or she just hadn’t been paying attention to it. It was nice that he hadn’t tried to overstay his welcome, even though she wanted to extend it now, or that he hadn’t overtly started flirting with her. That never used to happen in her old town. She bit her bottom lip lightly, turning back to her book and letting herself fall back in. She did not want to focus on the fact that she used to ignore the people with good coffee, good books, and third degree burns just a few months ago.

A few hours passed when she finished her book and her second coffee and set it down. She stood and stretched. At first, she thought Clark was kidding but between 8:30am and 11am, he did work like a dog. People came in and out of the shop, a line all the way to the back door stacked up and most of the other tables were full. The quiet cafe became a hub of this small beach town as if everyone came to thi specific spot for their morning. Vanessa was hogging a whole table to read and she wasn't even sure what day it was. Clark, however, worked and filled orders until the crowd settled down. It was just turning to 11:00 when he came back over to her table.

“Can I get you another or your check? Seems like you finished the book,” he said, nodding towards it. Vanessa smiled and grabbed another from her backpack. “Ah, a woman who comes prepared. Smart, so another coffee.”

“Yeah, that’d be great,” she commented.

Within a few minutes, he was back with another coffee and two muffins. He sat back down, twisting the chair just like he did before. “Figured you might be hungry,” he said, offering her the muffin. “What’d you think of the our man Jay Gatsby?”

She dug her fingers into the muffin, ripping the top of it into little pieces and crumbs. It was blueberry which was her favorite, possibly indicating that today may be a lot better than she thought it would be. “Hm, I think if he was alive now he’d probably like good coffee and a good book instead of parties,” she said with a laugh.

“He was kind of tortured, wasn’t he? Honestly, I think he was kind of a dick and like a little crazy. He tries to tear apart a whole family and he is really manipulative. He’s romanticized when honestly, he kind of sucks.”

Vanessa laughed, popping another piece of the muffin into her mouth. “I guess I didn’t think of it that way. I thought he was just a hopeless romantic who liked to drink, like the rest of us.”

The door opened then with a burst of hot air from the outside, a burst of curly gray hair, a burst of angry words. “Vanessa, sweet Lord Jesus! I’ve been looking all over for you child! Then your mother reminded me I can track your phone. Next time, could you leave a note?” Grandma Sherry glanced at Clark. “Hello Clark, dear.”

Vanessa felt herself blushing again. It was a little embarrassing to be an 18 year old girl whose parents and Grandma had to keep tabs on. She was an adult after all and she just wanted to go out on her own like they were begging her to do. Then again, why did it matter if Grandma Sherry was a little embarrassing and fast paced. It wasn’t like Vanessa wanted to impress Clark. She wasn’t interested in him that way, not at all. Besides, he clearly already knew Grandma Sherry. Sherry wasn't the kind of person that could hide who she was, so Clark probably had a great idea of who she was. His whole opinion of Vanessa may just shift from being associated with Sherry; not that she cared.

“Mrs. Sherry,” he said, standing quickly and smoothing his hair. “My grandma wanted me to tell you that she’s missed you at Bingo Night these last few weeks.”

“Why don’t you get me my usual?” She said, dismissing his question. He nodded and walked away. “Boy, you sure do work fast. Cute kid, isn’t he?” Sherry said, plopping down in her loud and expansive way. She took a sip of Vanessa’s watered down coffee and let out a relaxed sigh. “I tell you what, I about had a heart attack when you weren’t there this morning.”

Vanessa huffed, rimming the edges of her book. “I can’t believe you called Mom before calling me.”

Sherry’s eyes softened as she realized quickly what she had done. She put Vanessa in that mistrustful box that her parents kept putting her into. For the whole morning, she ignored the fact that Vanessa had done exactly what she was asked to do: go out and be a kid. Instead, she focused on her going without permission. As if the last thing Vanessa needed was more guilt or shame placed on her. The guilt weighed heavy in her stomach and she reached across the table to grab her granddaughter’s hands.

“Oh, sweetie. You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll just get this coffee to go and then be on my way, okay?” She said and Vanessa nodded. “Make it to go!” Grandma Sherry hollered to Clark who laughed and poured the contents of a glass into a plastic glass. “Hey, Clark is a good kid. You should talk to him.”

“I was talking to him,” Vanessa said, exasperated.

“Ah, well. Keep on keeping on, girly,” Grandma Sherry with a chuckle. She grabbed her coffee and gave them both a wink. “See you at 6 for dinner, yes?”

“Yeah, okay,” Vanessa said. She wanted to be angry with her grandmother, but honestly, how could she? Even when she is wrong, she acknowledges it right away. She was sweet, though certainly not soft. She was a whirlwind of a person that was as hard to keep up with as Vanessa’s own feelings. Either way, she ‘parented’ in a more open way that made Vanessa feel a little better about the decisions that she makes, even if they aren’t the smartest.

“Bet your grandma is too busy looking at the sunshine and daisies to think about third degree burns, huh?” Clark said, handing her another coffee as she chuckled.