It was late afternoon, and the bookstore was quieter than usual. The music played softly and the few conversations happening were hushed. Dave was crouched over shelving paperback romance novels when he heard the crash. His brow furrowed. He stood up straight and walked towards the center aisle. Kids were always knocking the toy fixture over trying to grab something.
“Are you okay?” Dave rounded the corner and peered down at the mountain of stuffed toys on the ground. Instead of a child, a fully grown man sat half buried under the avalanche. The guy on the ground stared back at him and broke out into a wide grin. Dave felt his cheeks flush.
“Whoops,” the man said. He ran a hand through a messy mop of dark curls. Dave glimpsed a tattoo on the palm of his hand, and another on his wrist. The man smelled faintly of weed and something else he couldn't quite recognize. He wore a sheepish look on his soft features.
“Sorry for knocking this over,” he said and gestured at the mess around him. Dave thought of how chaotic the store looked after close on a weekend, when hundreds of customers had torn through the aisles. This wasn’t nearly as bad.
The man picked up a plush unicorn and looked into its wide pink eyes. He mirrored its expression and broke out into another grin. There was a childlike tinge to his erratic behavior. He put the unicorn down and looked at the merchandise that stuffed the wooden shelves.
“It’s fine.” Dave picked up the display and righted it. He grabbed his PDT, scanned a toy, and placed it in its designated spot. Carefully, he began to put the display back together. Come tomorrow it would be torn apart again by tiny hands, but Dave didn't mind. He felt a small pleasure in putting things in their rightful place. One of his favorite things about the store was that nothing was ever truly out of place. At least not for long.
“Cute stuff you sell here.” Dave followed the stranger's gaze to a tote that read “I like big books and I cannot lie.” The man laughed. It was a high pitched, airy laugh that melted into a soft giggle. Dave looked away from the curious man and ignored the effect the sound had on him. He continued cleaning up.
The man was still there. He’d picked himself up off the floor and leaned against an end cap. Dave met his gaze. His eyes were chartreuse under the fluorescent light. He wore a feathered jacket, a much too-small crop top and tied leather pants. The man’s pale, flat stomach peaked out from under the shirt. Dave swallowed.
“Can I help you with anything else?” He liked a pretty face as much as the next guy, but he had a lot of work to do. The closing barista had called out and they were days behind on receiving books. Payroll was tight. Getting tighter by the day, in fact.
“I’m sorry,” the man said. “For knocking it over. Can I help?” Dave sighed. He didn’t have time for this. Irritation prickled his skin. He placed a plush on the display and scanned another. The man picked up a toy at random and put it on the top shelf.
“It doesn’t go there,” Dave snapped. He grabbed the offending toy and scanned it. PLUSH DISPLAY, SIDE A, ROW B, SPOT 3. He placed it three from the left on the second highest shelf, next to a tiger plush. Dave forced himself to relax his clenched jaw. He heard nails scratch lightly back and forth against skin.
He turned to the man and saw he had averted his gaze. The man looked down the history aisle intently. Dave leaned over to peek at the aisle and saw nothing. Okay, he thought. That was kind of weird. His young coworker Minda quirked her brow at him as she walked by with an armful of books. Dave raised a shoulder in response.
“Look, I’d like to apologize.” He raised his hand to the back of his neck and dug his fingers deep into the muscle. It had been six hours since he’d arrived at the store, and it didn’t look like he’d be leaving any time soon. “I shouldn’t have snapped at you. I’m sure it was a mistake. We’re just a little short staffed today,” he continued. The man turned from the empty aisle back to Dave. He tilted his head.
“No harm no foul, big guy,” he said and winked. The man playfully punched him in the shoulder. Dave laughed and shook his head, face contorted in confusion. He wondered exactly what had brought the man to the bookstore. Not that the indie bookstore didn’t get its fair share of odd duck customers, because, they did. Dave remembered the midnight release of the last Harry Potter novel and shuddered.
“I said I’ll ask him when I’m good and ready to ask,” the man hissed down the still empty aisle. Yeah, Dave thought to himself. This one might take the cake. The man turned back to him with a flourish. He was staring at Dave again and it took more effort than he cared to admit to not fidget.
“So,” he said drawing out the ‘o’. His eyes flickered to the name tag pinned to Dave’s shirt. “Dave the bookseller. Can you tell me where I might find some Descartes?”
“This one?” He sought approval from the empty air. Dave had a creeping feeling that something was very, very off with the man. A moment passed and Klaus smiled. His lips were pink and plush. “This is it! I thank you very, very dearly.”
“Peter,” Dave called out as he placed the scalding latte on the counter. A burly man took the drink and walked out. He checked his watch. They were closing in ten minutes, and there was only one customer left in the store. The biting winter wind cut through the cafe as the front door opened and closed. He looked at Klaus in his holed jeans and light t-shirt. The jacket he had previously been wearing was gone. Dave let his head fall back and suppressed a groan.
He grabbed a cup and cardboard liner and filled it almost fully. Three sugars, two creams. Klaus sighed and flipped a page in his upside-down book. Dave looked at him and added a few shakes of cinnamon to the coffee. He crossed the small cafe and placed the drink in front of him.
"It's cold," Dave choked out. He squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath. He was so fucking good at making things awkward.
"Outside. Cold outside. And in here, too!" Klaus looked up at Dave and said nothing. It was a simple enough gesture. What wasn't he getting? Dave ran his hand through his hair and it caught in a knot. He tugged it free.
"I can't pay for this." The coffee was two dollars at most. His stomach clenched. Dave shrugged and tried to remember what cool, uninterested people sounded like. The acoustic song that played from the overhead speakers gently filled the silence between the two men.
"You don't have to," he said. Klaus's expression shifted and god, Dave could have gazed into the man's bright eyes all night. The vulnerability in his face was too much and Dave turned around.
"We throw out the coffee at the end of the night anyway," he said as he walked back towards the counter. "No use letting it go to waste." He grabbed the milk pitchers from the counter and walked through the swinging doors to the cafe's back room. As he crossed the threshold, he heard a quiet "thanks" come from across the dining room.
Dave bit his bottom lip and smiled.