Hello, Internet! Welcome to Flash Fiction Friday! Kelly Jensen drops by with The Lost Ones. We meet Keven, a man with strange fascinations that float as effortlessly on the breeze.
The Lost Ones
by Kelly Jensen
He couldn’t say when the breeze became familiar. Expected. No one else seemed to notice it. Keven wouldn’t have either if he hadn’t been in the habit of propping open the café door with his left foot so he could safely push through without spilling his coffee. If a rush of air failed to tickle his right elbow one day, he would be miss it in the absent way one missed the sun when obscured by clouds. He’d miss the warm and light caress without questioning when he’d taken it for granted.
He never expected the breeze to jostle his elbow, though, spilling hot coffee across the back of his hand. And, dammit, the top of his muffin was wet. It would get all soggy now. Mealy and weird tasting. Keven glanced up, a retort dancing on the tip of his tongue, and frowned. There was no one there. No one loitering in the open doorway, brow creased in apology; no one weaving between tables in a bid to escape notice. The café bustled as quietly as it had a moment before. Warm, caffeinated, friendly.
Then he saw something. The café had large windows facing the street. It could have been sunlight reflecting through those windows, lighting the side of a face for a brief second. But the sun still hid behind the clouds and what he’d seen wasn’t light, but movement. As if a ghost had been weaving a complicated pattern through the small cluster of tables.
Keven stepped back inside the café and let the door close behind him. Burnt hand forgotten but for the slight pull of sticky skin as he shifted his muffin, he surveyed the shop with narrowed eyes. A small voice whispered somewhere in the vicinity of his hindbrain. A dust devil? Not in Pennsylvania, surely. His front brain mocked him. Staring at shadows again. Believing the air itself breathes.
“Shut it,” Keven murmured, focusing on the low, rounded end of the long counter, the spot where the barista formed up tall paper cups of coffee before calling customers to claim them.
His skin prickled—except for the back of his hand, which continued to sting in a muted fashion. Someone was looking back at him. He could feel it. Someone he could not see. Then a waiting cup of coffee disappeared. One second he could see it, the next he couldn’t.
“What the hell?” Keven blinked a few times, certain all his brain colluded against him. Rational, irrational. Even sense could not always be rightly defined, but coffee cups did not disappear and air did not look. It moved, it might breathe, but it did not stare.
As he waited for sense to attempt redefinition, again, the air before him stirred and waited. Expectation crept toward him from a short distance away, as if someone stood in front of the door waiting for him to open it.
He opened the door.
The breeze caressed his elbow—just as it always did—and disappeared.
Keven followed. There were no clues. None. Just a feeling. If I were a breeze, I’d go this way. Toward the end of the block, to the junction where three other directions opened up. A breeze would want that freedom, wouldn’t it? He picked a new direction at random, heading downhill rather than up. Toward the wide creek bordering the southern edge of town. Ahead of him, he sensed curiosity tinged with caution. His quarry moved away from him at a steady pace, but didn’t attempt to lose him. He, she—it?—believed he’d lose interest before long.
But men who followed random currents of air did not easily lose interest in their folly. Surely his bookish appearance should have given that away. Or the way he held the door open daily for this rogue breeze? The fact he had actually left the shop in pursuit?
Maybe the breeze remembered him. They’d brushed elbows for weeks now, after all.
Keven stopped. He was in sight of the creek, his—their destination, but he stopped. The small voice was whispering again, offering rational explanations for irrational actions. He was taking a walk…had decided the creek would be pretty this time of morning, especially if the sun chanced a peek from behind the clouds. He could already smell the water over the aroma of fresh brewed coffee and the sweetness of the muffin he gripped so tightly, it might crumble.
He had not just chased a shadow down the street. He had imagined the coffee cup disappearing, the presence at the door. He’d personified air, for Christ’s sake. Being known as a fantasist was one thing. He had tolerant friends. But actually acknowledging it, participating in an episode so far removed from his usual contemplation of what might exist outside the edges and beyond the realms of understanding… His heart was pounding. He could feel a flush of heat on his cheeks. His hands trembled, the one spilling more coffee.
Then he saw him…her? Not an it, a person. Small, lithe…ethereal. Standing in the shadow of the bridge, coffee cup in hand. The breeze—the real, actual breeze—ruffled his…her short hair. Her eyes were large, features finely proportioned and defined. Keven took a step forward, the movement awkward, mechanical, and she shimmered. In the space of a blink, the bridge became visible through her.
Why did he think it was a girl? There was nothing feminine about her slim form. Jeans gone grey from lack of soap, a loose t-shirt gaping about a thin neck and arms. Hair a buzzed halo over her scalp. It was the eyes, he thought. Perhaps the shape of her face.
She didn’t disappear again. In fact, she seemed to solidify as he drew closer.
He stopped right in front of her. “Hello.”
“Hello.” She didn’t smile.
Was he smiling?
Her gaze dipped, brushing across the top of his muffin before lifting to meet his again. Keven held the muffin out to her. “Would you like it?”
Did she live beneath the bridge? Her unkempt appearance suggested she might—though her face was clean and her hair obviously cut recently. Within a week or two. Was offering a single muffin to someone who might be starving an insult?
“What flavor is it?” she asked. Her voice was low—not masculine, but not feminine, either. Somewhere in between. Young, as if she…he had yet to decide how he should sound.
“Mmm!” A smile lit the young face, replacing solemnity with beauty—a joy greater than simple happiness, beneath which lurked a celestial calm.
“Are you an angel?” Keven asked.
Shaking her…his head, he plucked the muffin from Keven’s grasp.
“What’s your name?”
The youth looked up with a mouthful of muffin. Chewed and swallowed before answering. “Sam.”
His surprise was only that he wasn’t surprised Sam should know who he was. They’d been acquainted for weeks, hadn’t they?
“What are you?” he asked, not meaning the question of gender, the way Sam seemed to shift from male to female before his eyes.
“One of the lost ones,” Sam replied, all solemnity returned. His eyes brightened again. “But you can see me now.”
Sam took a single backward step and his form began to fade. “I have to go.”
“Wait…” Keven took a step forward.
“Tomorrow.” Sam held up the cup of coffee.
“Do you need another muffin? Or something else? Food…money? Help?”
Sam was fading quickly, head moving from side to side. A definite shake, reassuring in its slowness. “You can see me now,” he said. “You know I’m just Sam.”
A person. Not a he, she or it. Sam was a person rather than an idea. “Tomorrow,” Keven said, a faint smile edging along his lips.
Sam smiled and then was gone.