Page 74 of Before (After 5)

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“Hey,” I say, smiling at her where she leans against the ice machine. Her hair is tucked behind her ears, and she’s reading the back of one of the bags of ground coffee. When she looks up at me, she smiles a quick greeting, then returns her eyes to the bag.

“It still makes no sense that they charge fifteen dollars for a thing of coffee this small,” she says, tossing the bag to me.

I barely catch it and then it nearly slips from my hands, but I grab it tightly.

“We.” I correct her with a laugh, and sit the bag down on the break table where it came from. “We charge that.”

“I haven’t worked here long enough to be included in the ‘we,’ ” she teases, and grabs a hair band off her wrist and lifts her curly reddish-brown hair into the air behind her. It’s a lot of hair, and she ties it up neatly, then nods her signal that she’s ready to work.

Posey follows me out to the floor and waits by the cash register. She’s mastering taking customers’ orders this week, and will likely be making the drinks next. I like taking orders the most, because I would rather talk to people than burn my fingers on that espresso machine, like I do every shift.

I’m putting everything in order at my station when the bell attached to the door sounds. I look over to Posey to see if she’s ready, and sure enough, she’s already perked up, all set to greet the morning’s caffeine addicts. Two girls approach the counter chatting loudly. One of the voices strikes me, and I look over at them to see Dakota there. She’s dressed in a sports bra, loose shorts, and bright sneakers. She must have just finished a run; if she were leaving for a dance class, she’d be dressed slightly differently. She’d be wearing a one-piece and tighter shorts. And she would look just as good. She always does.

Dakota hasn’t been in here in a few weeks; I’m surprised to see her now. It makes me nervous; my hands are shaking, and I find myself poking at the computer screen for absolutely no reason. Her friend Maggy sees me first. She taps Dakota on her shoulder, and Dakota turns to me, a big smile on her face. Her body is coated in a light layer of sweat, and her black curls are wild in a bun on her head.

“I was hoping you’d be working.” She waves to me and then to Posey.

She was? I don’t know what to make of this. I know that we agreed to be friends, but I can’t tell if this is just friendly chatting, or something more.

“Hey, Landon.” Maggy waves, too. I smile at both of them and ask them what they’d like to drink.

“Iced coffee, extra cream,” the duo says at once. They’re dressed nearly identically, but Maggy is easily overshadowed by Dakota’s glowing caramel skin and bright brown eyes.

I go into automatic mode, grabbing two plastic cups and shoving them into the ice bin with a smooth scooping motion, then pulling up the pitcher of premade coffee and pouring it into the cups. Dakota is watching me. I can sense her eyes on me. For some reason, this is making me feel quite awkward, so when I notice that Posey is watching me, too, I realize I could—should, probably—explain to her what the heck I’m doing.

“You just pour this over ice; the evening shift makes it the night before so it can get cold and not melt the ice,” I say.

It’s really basic, what I’m telling her, and I almost feel foolish saying it in front of Dakota. We aren’t on bad terms at all—we just aren’t hanging out and talking like we used to. I completely understood when she ended our three-year relationship. She was in New York City with new friends and new surroundings. I didn’t want to hold her back, so I kept my promise and stayed friends with her. I’ve known her for years and will always care about her. She was my second girlfriend but the first real relationship I’ve had up to now. I’ve been hanging out with So, a woman who’s three years older than me, though really we’re only friends. She’s been great to Tessa, too, helping her get a job at the restaurant she works at.

“Dakota?” Aiden’s voice overpowers mine as I start to ask them if they want me to add whipped cream, something I do to my own drinks.

Confused, I watch as Aiden reaches over the counter and grabs Dakota’s hand. He lifts their hands into the air, and with a big smile she twirls in front of him.

Then, taking a glance at me, she inches away just a bit and says more neutrally, “I didn’t know you worked here.”

I look at Posey to distract myself from eavesdropping on their conversation, then pretend like I’m looking at the schedule on the wall behind her. It’s really none of my business who she has friendships with.

“I thought I mentioned it last night,” Aiden says, and I cough to distract everyone from the noise I just made.

Fortunately no one seems to notice except Posey, who tries her best to hide her smile.

I don’t look at Dakota even though I can sense she’s uncomfortable; in reply to Aiden, she laughs the laugh she gave my grandma upon opening her Christmas gift last year. That cute noise . . . Dakota made my grandma so happy when she laughed at the cheesy singing fish plastered to a fake wooden plank. When she laughs again, I know she’s really uncomfortable now. Wanting to make this whole situation less awkward, I hand her the two coffees with a smile and tell her I hope to see her soon.

Before she can answer, I smile once more and walk to the back room, turning the sound up on my headphones.

I wait for the bell to ring again, signaling Dakota and Maggy’s exit, and realize that I probably won’t hear it over yesterday’s hockey game playing in my ear. Even with only one bud in, the cheering crowd and slaps of sticks would overpower an old brass bell. I go back out to the floor and find Posey rolling her eyes at Aiden as he shows off his milk-steaming skills to her. He looks weird with a cloud of steam in front of his white-blond hair.

“He said they’re in school together, at that dance academy he goes to,” Posey whispers when I approach.

I freeze and look toward Aiden, who is oblivious, lost in his own apparently glorious world. “You asked him?” I say, impressed and a little worried about what his answers would be to other questions involving Dakota.

Posey nods, grabbing a metal cup to rinse. I follow her to the sink, and she turns on the hose. “I saw the way you acted when he held her hand, so I thought I’d just ask what was going on with them.” She shrugs, and her big mass of curly hair moves.