It was bitter that day. I remember the air tasted of soot and aluminum, the way my tongue feels before I’m ready to vomit. The wind nipped at my cheeks and harassed my nose. I had happened upon nothing pleasant as I wandered those Scottish alleyways, and I watched solemnly as dawn turned into day, day turned into dusk, and, finally, night had come. The hours plodded along as the soles of my shoes traced listlessly over the cobblestone streets. I walked with my head down, paying little attention to the lights or where the crosswalks might have been. The cabbies would occasionally honk and yell, irritated by my aimlessness, but I paid them little mind. I had stopped several times, searching my pockets with clammy hands for a stray cigarette, only to remember I had quit smoking years earlier. But as the night clouds rolled in over the firth, I began to wonder how in the hell I ever decided to quit smoking.
Even through delirious nicotine cravings and the intermittent depressive states, I couldn’t help but appreciate that Edinburgh is the perfect place to get lost. There are countless roundabouts, dead ends, and one ways, all seemingly disconnected, but distinctly fluid. It’s impossible to tell where people should walk and people should drive. Pedestrians are honked at more frequently than motorists, and the only things that seem to have the right of way are obnoxious, yapping puppies.
I hadn't eaten for hours—maybe even days—but I was far from hungry. My legs were weary and a faint dizziness began to wash over me. I was no more than a block or two south of Heriot Row and knew of a cafe nearby. Rest and caffeine would do me good. I quickened my pace and turned north on Dundas Street.
Rush hour had relaxed, but now the pubs were open and the drunks were out. I could never decide which I liked less in Scotland: the traffic or the drunks. Barflies are one thing; drunks are completely—and appallingly—different.
I followed a herd of jaywalkers across Northumberland Street and saw the cafe just up the way. Even from my distance I could see a fire burning in back, a family of four huddled around it, the mother telling her children stories as they sat patiently at her feet. The cafe workers milled about, setting teas and cocoas in front of their shivering guests. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry, and I was happy this particular cafe was where I chose to lay down my burdens.
There was an open booth in back, just adjacent to the family and their stories. The family’s patriarch sat in one of the leather armchairs, tucked away, reserved. He was reading a crinkled copy of the morning paper which he veraciously shook every few seconds. I saw his nails were chewed to the skin, flush with irritation. He smiled at his wife and children with an awkward rigidness, as if putting on a front for a family he didn’t particularly care for. I saw that his teeth were faded and yellow, their hue resembling that of a former smoker, not quite putrid, but far from glistening. Shitty father or not, one former smoker must always pause to admire another.
The mother was occupying her children—a girl and a boy—with wild stories of mythical beasts and heroic warriors. The children stared up at her, wide-eyed, impressionable. Two cups of cocoa rested in front of them, marshmallows bobbing like miniature buoys. The fire crackled behind them.
I removed my jacket and hung it on the rack with the rest of them. Shedding a layer of clothing was a relief. It had rained during my walk and the jacket never completely dried.
A fair-faced waitress, maybe 30, came over and asked if I wanted coffee or tea. I told her I’d like a coffee and a couple slices of uncured bacon. She left, and by the time she returned I noticed the girl sitting at her mother’s feet was staring at me. She had these wide, blue eyes that were gentle, but piercingly fierce. She looked at me with the curiosity only children seem to have. I blinked at her, flitted my eyes down at the limp pieces of meat, then looked back, half-sure when I did, her attention would have returned to her mother. But it hadn’t. She was still staring. The mother, who continued to gesticulate her wild stories of myth, seemed not to notice her daughter looking at a complete stranger. I found this odd.
I took a bite of bacon. It felt cold against my tongue. I dunked it into the steaming cup of coffee. It didn’t help. I returned the bacon to my plate and sat back in the booth. A wave of exhaustion came over me and I felt my eyelids become heavy.
I heard the mother mention something about a character named Dragoon and his magical sword in the Land of Mirth, and I finally lifted my lids. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but when I looked back over at the family I saw the girl was still staring at me. My eyes met hers and she smiled and waved. I looked around the cafe, thinking she was waving to somebody else, but when it became apparent that she wasn’t, I reluctantly waved back. The girl smiled again and stood up from her cross-legged position. She was wearing a pleated khaki skirt over a pair of elastic leg warmers. Up top she wore a blue and maroon argyle tennis sweater, a gold crest of some indistinguishable symbol on her left breast. Her hair was slicked back—either because of the rain or product, I couldn’t say for sure—into a tight ponytail. The girl looked straight out of a Saturday Evening Post painting. Her mother barely flinched as the girl crossed the room, pulled out the chair opposite mine, and sat down. I suppose the mother was too engrossed in her own tale of lore to pay attention to such a trivial thing as her daughter. So it goes for some kids.
“Hello,” said the girl.
“H’lo,” I muttered.
“You look tired.” While the girl sported an exceptionally thick Scottish accent, each one of her words perfectly distinguishable. She dropped her syllables seemingly at random and dragged her O’s the way those with a southern drawl might do. “Why do you look so tired?”
“I’ve been out walking.”
“Out walking?” she said. “And whereabouts has an American like you been walking in a place like this?”
“Aye. It doesn’t seem like too nice of a day to be out walking, what with the rain and all.”
I looked at her a long time then asked, “How old are you?”
“Ten. But I’ll be eleven next month.”
“You don’t talk like a ten year old.”
“What do I talk like?”
For a ten year old—Scottish or otherwise—the girl spoke with stunning elegance. Her words were thoughtful, full of inexplicable maturity. She used phrases that were beyond the lexicon of most thirty year olds, and she did it with such confidence, it seemed she was creating her own language none of us knew, but all of us believed. Though, all I said was, “I’m not quite sure what you talk like.”
She squinted at me, examining my features, trying to decide if she believed me or not. Finally she said, “All right, if you don’t know, then you don’t know.”
I looked about the cafe to see if anyone was looking at us.
“Don’t be nervous,” said the girl.
“Why would I be nervous?”
“Because you’re counting the minutes until people start staring at you for having tea with a ten year old.”
“I’m not drinking tea.”
“Six of one, half dozen of the other.”
I leaned across the table and whispered, “I’m not nervous.”
“You’re doing a bloody terrible job of hiding it then.”
I sat back and folded my arms across my chest, eager to display some semblance of calm. But I found I was still glancing about to see if anyone had taken an interest in us. It was damn near impossible not to fidget.
“So how about it then?” she asked. “Whereabouts were you carrying yourself this cold autumn evening?”
“All over, I suppose.”
“Didn’t really pay attention. I just started walking, and then I kept walking.”
“A man needs a reason to be out walking?”
“No. A man doesn’t need a reason to be out walking,” she said. “But a man whose shoes are worn to their bloody nubs, and whose jacket is soaked to the core, now that man needs a reason.”
I wrapped my clammy hands around the cup of coffee, but I no longer felt its warmth. I set them back in my lap and began to pick at the ends of my fingers, discarding dead skin on the floor of the cafe.
“So…Are you going to tell me?” she asked.
“Are you going to tell me the reason you’ve been out walking?”
“I don’t think that would be appropriate.”
“Why not?” “Because you’re ten.”
“Eleven next month.”
“You’re still ten.”
“What does age have to do with it?”
“Age has everything to do with it.”
“Why?” she whined.
“It just does.”
“Now you’re starting to sound like a ten year old.”
The girl looked back at her mother who was still fully engrossed in her own theatrics. “That’s my mum.”
“So I gathered.”
“And that’s my dad and my little brother.”
“I gathered that as well.”
“We’ve been out walking, too.”
“So why, pray tell, have you been out walking?”
The girl pursed her lips and narrowed her gaze. I thought she might not answer, that she’d stow away her stories just as I had. But then she leaned forward, her chair creaking as she did, and said evenly, “My dad lost his job.” She dropped her voice to a whisper, glancing around the cafe just as I had, nervous others would be listening. “We only go out walking when something bad happens.”
“Do bad things happen often?” I asked.
The girl shrugged. “My mum will tell my brother and me to put on our galoshes and coats, and then my dad will come out of his study, always with the same somber expression. And then my mum leads us through Old Town and in to New Town until we end up in this cafe—always this cafe,” she said, annoyed. “And we sit by the fire and she tells us stories of extravagance or fantasy, anything to lighten the mood. At least, mine and my brothers’ moods. My dad’s mood never seems to lighten—maybe that’s what happens when you get old.” She considered this point a long time before going on. “We come to this cafe because either he lost money at the track, or got yelled at by his boss, or ran out of oil on the motorway. Each excuse to go walking seems more cumbersome than the last. But this walk was the first walk where we all felt a little gloomy. Now he’s sitting in that chair looking through the classifieds.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“You don’t have to be.”
“I know. But it doesn’t change the fact that I am.”
The girl glanced back at her family, scrunched her face into an unusual expression, and looked back at me. “So, what’s your name? I figure I gave you a nugget of information from my life, surely I deserve one from yours? So before I go on, I’d like to know your name.”
“You’re going to go on?” I chided. I thought the comment might make her smile, but she scrunched her face up in that same pained expression and I immediately regretted it. “My name’s Willingham,” I said before she could articulate her offense. “Willingham Powell.”
The girl seemed momentarily startled. She rocked back in her chair so far I thought she might tip over. “Willingham?” she asked, gulping down a breath of uncomfortable air.
“Yes. Willingham Powell,” I repeated.
“Does my name disappoint you?”
“No,” she said quietly.
“Are you sure? You seem awfully disappointed.”
“I’m just…surprised, that’s all.”
“Surprised? Why would you be surprised?”
“Well,” she said awkwardly. “The thing of it is, my name’s Willingham, too.”
I sat back in the booth and tasted a bit of bacon that had gotten caught in one of my molars. I tried to pick it out, but the bugger wouldn’t budge. “Is that so?”
“My name is Sophia Jasmine Willingham.”
“That’s a very nice name,” I told her.
“You don’t have to feel strange.”
“I just haven’t met another Willingham before, first name or last.”
“I haven’t either.”
I saw Sophia’s mother finish the first of what I could only assume had been many stories. She cast a furtive glance my way and whispered something to Sophia’s brother. The brother looked up without any sort of reaction. He took me in, assessed me, but didn’t seem to have any particular opinion of me. He sighed heavily as he got to his feet and walked over to us practically dragging his knuckles. His disinterest in Sophia and me was astounding. “Sophia,” he said begrudgingly.
“Mum says you have to come sit down now.” The boy looked at me suspiciously. He was a boy of perhaps six, maybe seven, but he had these wise, ancient eyes, as if he’d seen my kind a thousand times before and he knew me fantastically greater than I would ever know myself.
“I’m having a conversation,” Sophia told him patiently. “I’ll come sit down when I’m ready to come sit down.”
“Mum’s gonna get mad.”
“Then you’d better excuse yourself from the situation before you become a part of the situation, Liam.”
“I’m already a part of it,” Liam said. “Mum made me come over to get you. She made me a part of it. Now you are further continuing to make me a part of it by refusing to listen. Please, just come sit down before you get us both in trouble.”
“Hush up you little minion,” she said. “Go tell Mum you’d like to hear the story of Goron and the Eight Knights, that should occupy her for a while.”
“But I’ve already heard that story a million times,” Liam groused.
“Go!” she snapped.
Liam walked, flat-footed as possible, back to his mother. He pointed at me, then at Sophia, and told her something I couldn’t make out. The mother smiled—pleased, I’m sure, that her son requested another one of her stories—and instructed him to return to the carpet in front of the fire. Sophia’s father continued reading his paper. The waitress set another cup of cocoa in front of him. He seemed mildly pleased, twirling the marshmallows with the tip of his finger. The mother launched into the tale of Goron and his knights and Liam’s wheel continued to turn.
“Where were we?” Sophia asked.
“You were troubled having met another Willingham,” I said.
“I wouldn’t say I was troubled.”
“Just surprised, I told you that.”
“All right then.”
“And you still haven’t answered my question.”
“What was it you were doing out walking?”
“Thinking about what?”
“All sorts of things.”
“Top three then.”
Sophia groaned. I was wasting her time and her patience was waning. “If, while out walking, you were thinking about all sorts of things, give me the top three things you were thinking of. Shouldn’t be that hard. You said yourself you’d been out there a long time. Only so much a man can think about in so many hours. Just like I know there are only so many things a ten year—almost eleven year—old girl can think about in so many hours. So before I go confusing things any more, why don’t you tell me the top three things you were thinking about while your shoes got worn and your jacket got soaked.”
“You are one confident and eccentric young girl, Sophia.”
“People find me off-putting and unimpressive,” she said. “My third grade teacher called me ‘alienating.’”
“That doesn’t sound very nice of her.”
“Him,” she corrected.
The waitress returned, but she suddenly looked nervous. She stole a few glances at the father (who did not return her looks), as well as the mother. The mother eyed me just as Liam had, dubiously. “Can I get you anything else?” the waitress asked. “Or would you just like the check?”
“The check?” Sophia interjected.
“Yes,” said the waitress. “If the gentleman is all finished, perhaps he’d like his check.”
“No,” Sophia said. “We’d like another plate of bacon. This time, make sure it’s hot. It cools far too quickly in this place and I simply don’t understand it. And I’d like a cocoa, a fresh one. And bring the gentleman—sorry, Mr. Powell,” she corrected with a fair amount of sass, ”bring Mr. Powell a fresh cup of coffee.”
The waitress towered over us, her mouth hanging open for a spectacularly long time. God, did she look awful. She just stood there staring at us! Fortunately, she turned to the mother, shrugged helplessly, and headed off. The mother mentioned something about an elf or a fairy or an elvish fairy to Liam and pretended not to notice. I was beginning to believe all the stories this woman told were bullshit.
“I sure do get tired of being interrupted, don’t you?” Sophia said.
“I don’t have too many conversations to interrupt.”
“Bit of a loner, are you?”
“Something like that.”
“Then let’s get to it. Tell me why you’ve been out walking before you revert to your hermit ways and disappear into the ether from whence you came.”
I pushed the cup of cold coffee to the edge of the table, making it obvious I was done, and said, “My fiancée left me.”
“Your fiancée?” she asked carefully, almost unsure if she had said the word correctly or not.
“What’s a fiancée?”
“What’s a fiancée?” I asked, my pitch rising.
“I don’t know what a fiancée is.” She was beautifully candid.
“You know words like ‘ether’ and ‘whence’ and you don’t know what a fiancée is?”
“Correct,” said Sophia. She scratched at the sleeve of her sweater fraying bits of maroon thread from its end. The waitress returned, setting down the cocoa, coffee, and bacon (it still looked cold and limp) before disappearing all over again.
“Well, a fiancée is somebody you intend to marry,” I said.
“And she doesn’t want to marry you anymore?”
“It would appear so.”
Sophia stopped picking at her sweater. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Why are you sorry?”
“It’s always sad when people get left behind.”
“You know, when one person moves on from the other, but the one who gets left behind can’t understand why that happened. That’s always sad.” She hesitated slightly before saying, “I guess that’s why there are no happy endings?”
“You don’t really believe that, do you?”
She shrugged with her tiny, shallow shoulders. “I don’t know…I guess I don’t mean that.” Though I didn’t believe her. I don’t even think she believed herself. I wanted her to go on, to say something light and whimsical, but her hands fell to her lap just as mine had and her expression turned dark and grave. “It’s just sad, that’s all.”
“Your pop lost his job,” I said. “That seems plenty sad.”
Sophia practically scoffed. “Jobs come and go. Some people have careers while some people are destined to be nomads of the workforce. My pop, he’ll find a new job, and he’ll hate it just as much as the last. He’ll get paid a little while, money he’ll spend outside our means. Then he'll lose that job and we’ll start this course all over again. Jobs have a way of leaving people behind, sure, but the world just goes on spinning. A fiancée…that’s different. I think only about one of those is supposed to come along in a lifetime, yeah? And you just lost yours. Now that’s about the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. A situation like yours…that’s why I believe there are no happy endings.”
I realized my hand was shaking. “You sure do speak bluntly.”
“I guess I don’t know any other way to speak,” she said. “Maybe that’s why my teacher thinks I was alienating.”
“Who knows? People are idiots nowadays.”
“Too right you are. But, to me, there isn’t one bloody reason why we shouldn’t speak with candor, or courage, or honesty, or passion.”
“Aye,” Sophia said sternly. She stirred the marshmallows into her cocoa. The milky substance wavered in the liquid, floating on the surface like this strange, sugary icecap. She took a drink and wiped the marshmallow from her lips.
I was so engrossed watching her I hardly noticed Liam approach our table again. “Mum still says you have to come sit down. She’s starting to get annoyed.”
“I’m starting to get annoyed. I told you I don’t want to listen to any more of her stories.”
The boy blinked at her uncomprehendingly. “What would you like me to say?” he asked with an old man’s diction.
“Liam, did you know this man’s name is Willingham?”
Liam looked at me with his tiny brown eyes. “Willingham?”
“But…our name is Willingham.”
“You’re right, it is.”
“But…how can his name be Willingham?”
“Because his first name is Willingham?”
“His first name is Willingham?” Liam asked, more confused than ever. “I’ve never heard of someone with a first name of Willingham before. That’s strange.” Liam thought about it a moment longer and confirmed, “Aye, that’s very, very strange.” He headed off, scratching the back of his blonde mop with a pensive finger.
“He’s a rambunctious little fella,” Sophia said.
“He seems all right.”
“He does now, sure, but try spending every waking hour with the guy. He’s a handful.”
“All kids his age are.”
“All right,” I conceded. “Perhaps it’s just boys then.”
“Aye,” she said thoughtfully. “Perhaps it is just boys. I don’t much understand boys.”
“You’ve got time to figure them out.”
“I never want to figure them out!” she insisted.
“Boys are dumb.” Sophia’s elegance waned.
“I’m not dumb, am I?”
“No,” she said. “But you’re not a boy.”
“There aren’t any boys in your grade that aren’t dumb?”
“No,” she said flatly. “They’re all dumb. Do you know how exhausting it is being around dumb boys all day?”
Liam returned, staring up at his sister with that boyish wonderment. “Mum says you have to stop bothering this man.”
“Liam, go sit down.”
Liam looked from Sophia to me, and back to Sophia. He blinked. “Mum says you have to stop bothering this man.” Liam was an automation, programmed for one thing, and one thing alone.
“Am I bothering you?” Sophia asked me.
“No,” I said. “But perhaps your mother—“
“See? I’m not bothering him, Liam. Go sit down.”
“Okay.” Liam left again.
“See what I mean? Boys are so dumb.” Sophia absently pushed her cup of cocoa toward my coffee cup. “So why do you think your fiancée left you?” The question momentarily floored me. I rocked sideways in my seat, admiring (but also hating) her tenacity. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Was that too personal? I never know if I’m being too personal. I guess God didn’t build that filter in me. Do you have one of those filters? Oh, bloody hell, there I go again, digressing and such. If you don’t want to answer the question, I understand…I mean, I can understand if—“
“—She didn’t love me anymore,” I interrupted.
Sophia slumped down in her chair. “How do you know she doesn’t love you anymore?”
“Because she said, ‘I don’t love you anymore.’”
“And then what?”
“And then she left.”
“Just like that?”
“Just. Like. That.”
“You seem to keep getting sadder and sadder, Willingham.”
The waitress returned. She grabbed the discarded cup of coffee, but left Sophia’s cocoa. She thought about asking if we’d like anything else, but, mercifully, she retreated behind the bar without uttering a word. It was the best thing the waitress had ever done.
“I don’t know, Sophia.”
“You don’t know what?”
“I honestly don’t know why she left. I mean, yes, she said she no longer loved me, and I believe that. But there was more behind those terrible, terrible eyes of hers. Something buried deep down, all the way to her core. And no matter how much she tried to hint at whatever it was, I just never got it.” I bit the end of my tongue and felt the warm, coppery taste of blood in my mouth. “I’m afraid I am yet another consequence of the shitty little thing called love.” I paused. “Pardon my French, of course.”
“It’s all right, I’m Scottish.”
“I guess I was guilty of believing in love; believing that it was enough when it clearly wasn’t. I want to believe in love again, but the more I try to justify it, the less sense it makes. My fiancée did a bang-up job of ridding me of whatever optimism I may have had.” I began to laugh, a low, rumbling chuckle that turned into hysterics. I wasn’t sure how long it had been before Sophia interrupted my laughter by asking, “What’s so funny?”
I wiped the tears from my eyes and said, “It’s amazing how appalled she was at my romanticism.”
“That’s amazing?” Sophia asked, truly perplexed.
“It’s amazing because she made it clear—especially early on—how much she loved boyish charm and eternal hope and chivalry and all that nonsense. But the moment I try and hold her hand in public, I became this hun, this beast of a being who had no worldly business taking up space in her miserable little existence. I mean isn’t that hilarious? Isn’t that just so goddamn Grade A six kinds of fucked up hilarious?”
The fire crackled, popping bits of ash into the air and glowing its fiery glow. I looked over at Liam, he was sitting on his knees, one hand folded under his ankle, the other set in his lap. His mother was crouched next to him, no longer telling her loud, obnoxious stories, but engaging him in a kind of weird secrecy. Liam was quiet, bordering on glum. He glanced over at me with these sad eyes that didn’t seem to make any sense.
“I don’t know, Willingham,” Sophia said. “That situation doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the realm of hilarity. I stand by my original point: it sounds bloody miserable to me.”
I wanted to laugh, but my laughter had evaporated. “Have you always been this strange?”
“For as long as I can remember.”
“Don’t ever change, Sophia.”
“I won’t,” she assured me. “So, how did you feel, then?”
“How did I feel about what?”
“No. Not how did you feel about what, how did you feel about when?” she corrected.
My brow furrowed. “You’re not making a whole lot of sense, Sophia.”
“How did you feeling, Willingham, when she left? I’m not talking about hindsight, I’m not talking about the mistakes you thought you made, or how different you thought you two were, or how she condemned your romantic ideals, I’m talking about how you felt as you stood in your flat and watched her walk out that door, knowing she wouldn’t be coming back.”
It was at that moment when I realized during all my hours walking those dark alleys I never once stopped to consider how I felt when that terrible damsel I called a fiancée left my life forever. I tilted my head back and stared up at the ceiling. The Spackle was cracked and listless, rusty water stains running in random splotches. The glow of the fire turned the water stains a shade of maroon reminiscent of Sophia’s tennis sweater. I looked back at Sophia’s blindingly blue eyes and said, “I felt relief.”
The corner of her mouth curled a bit and her eyes seemed to glaze. “Relief?”
“I was so sad standing there as she said these awful things—some of which were cutting and some of which were true—and as she turned for the door I felt my heart sink, and this wave of nausea come over me. I thought she might cross the room and kiss me one last time—at the very least, a hug—but all she did was pick up this Louis Vuitton bag—a bag she cared about more than she cared about me—and walked out. But as soon as I heard the latch catch on the door the nausea went away, and that sinking feeling in my heart vanished. And I felt nothing but a tremendous sense of relief. At that moment I knew there would be no more sleepless nights of worry, no more fights, no more jealousy. It was all on the other side of that door—a door that was forever locked.”
Sophia brushed a few loose strands of blonde hair behind her ear and tapped our table with the ends of her fingers. It made this hollow, clacking sound. Suddenly she stopped and looked deep into my eyes. The sounds of the cafe and the street washed away as she asked, “So, Willingham Powell, what’s next for you?”
An abrasive bit of wind rattled the windows and those sitting near the entrance shivered. A shadow cast over our table and I looked up to find Sophia’s mother, arms crossed, scowling at me. I noticed she was wearing a white cashmere sweater over which was a sheared mink shawl. Three strings of pearls laced her neck and a pair of diamond earrings studded her unusually small ears. She didn’t look like the type of woman who was keen on telling tales. This woman was classic, constipated. There was nothing about her that had the faintest whisper of courage, or passion, or sex, or honesty, or faith. Sophia’s mother was devoid of any true emotion, a walking robot just like the rest of them. “Sophia, didn’t your brother tell you I was going to tell another story?” she asked.
“No,” Sophia said. “He said you wanted me to come sit back down and to stop bothering this man. I did, however, infer you were going to tell another story. I inferred this, Mother, because that’s all you ever do.”
“What is it I always do, Sophia?” the mother asked with this painful, sarcastic tone.
“You always tell your bloody stories,” she said. “And they’re all identical, so tired and monotonous. Every character is the mirror image of the last, teaching the same mundane lessons that are twenty years too old. Just because you make something mythical, Mother, doesn’t make it poignant.”
“Sophia…” the mother sighed, exasperated. “How many times have I told you to stop talking like that?”
“Like this!” the mother screeched. “Like a condescending bitch!”
The cafe turned instantly quiet. Penetrating eyes fell on Sophia, her mother, and me.
The mother cocked her head and leaned in close to Sophia. Her lips parted and I saw her teeth slip out of her mouth. They were surprisingly bland. This woman was immaculate except for those teeth that seemed eight decades beyond her age. Sophia cringed (or perhaps that was just my imagination) and pulled back in her chair. I thought about standing to defend her, to come to her rescue, but a startling thought crossed my mind: I had no idea who this girl was. Sophia looked over at me, hoping for my heroic intervention, but I just sat there with this cowardice expression. I was a chicken shit. And it was a regretfully brutal moment when I witnessed a ten year old witness that in me.
“Sophia!” the mother hissed, paying no attention to the gawking patrons. “Come sit down this instant.”
I craned my neck around the mother and saw the father still sitting in that armchair, his head tipped down, reading those classifieds determined to offer his family such little hope.
Sophia turned back to me—doing very little to hide her disappointment—and said, “It was nice to meet you.”
“It was nice to meet you, too, Sophia,” I said.
“Perhaps I’ll see you again.”
“I think I’d like that very much, Willingham.”
“I’d like that, too, Miss Willingham.” I didn’t look to see if the mother found this peculiar, nor did I care.
Sophia gathered herself up from the table, straightening her pleated khaki skirt as she stood. Her mother wrapped her arms across Sophia’s chest and pulled her toward her. Sophia’s eyes dropped to the floor. It was as if she couldn’t bear the thought to look at me. “Thank you so very much for watching my daughter.” The woman’s disdain was astonishing. “I’m sure she was in good hands. Enjoy your…” She noticed I wasn’t drinking tea and practically dry-heaved. “…Coffee.” The mother carried her daughter away. I was eager for Sophia to look back, a final glance as punctuation to an abrupt ending. But she never did.
The family eventually slunk out of the cafe, the rumpled edition of classifieds tucked firmly under the father’s arm. Liam was the only one to peek my way as they left. He looked dejected, but managed a small smile and threw it my way. I smiled back, but my smile felt just as agonized as his appeared. The family disappeared out the door and into the Scottish streets.
I waited for the rain to stop, but it never did. I sat staring at Sophia’s cup of cold cocoa for what seemed like hours. Eventually the waitress came around and told me they were closing. I nodded and left a handsome tip on Sophia’s stained saucer.
Another gust of wind rattled those fragile, colonial windows. I buttoned up my jacket as tight as I could. It was still wet. I walked to the door and took a final look back. The fire in the far end of the room crackled its last crackle. The remaining bits of dying ash coughed into the air. The log was black and cancerous, dead to the world. Tomorrow there would be another log, and another fire, and more crackles, and more ash to eventually disappear.
I nodded at the fair-faced waitress again (she didn’t nod back) and carried myself out into those treacherous cobblestone streets. I felt something prodding at my right breast and when I reached into my jacket I found an abandoned cigarette tucked away in one of my side pockets. It was slightly bent, its paper creased and wrinkled, but otherwise in good shape. I ran the cigarette under my nose and smelled its filthy power. That nausea I had felt with my fiancée returned and I fought the urge to retch. The streetlights hummed above me, glowing their strange incandescence. I twisted the cigarette between my fingers and watched the wind carry the tobacco away. The filter I flicked into a nearby drain before I began walking again. I was headed back to my flat with the certainty it was time to go.
Also certain I had worn out my welcome in Scotland.