The vending machine ate Darshan O’Keefe’s last quarters and provided no grape Fanta.
He gaped at it in absolute horror before his hopes were completely dashed. What a great end to an old shit-year and a fitting beginning to a new shit-year, he thought in a voice that sounded like Keely at her most cynical.
Groaning, he leaned against the inert machine and briefly considered kicking it. Purely in the interests of getting his soda. But a glance at the laundromat’s help desk showed that for once, it was manned. And the attendant was watching him curiously from behind thick-framed glasses.
With official eyes on him, assaulting the blasted machine was out of the question. Darshan had no desire to get booted out or banned from the one place he could even getgrape Fanta. Not to mention get warm on New Year’s Eve. And it was within easy walking distance of the shelter.
To which he really should’ve been heading back, anyway.
Glancing out the laundromat windows into the chilly, dark evening, he sighed again and leaned his head back against the vending machine, cursing his abysmal luck. All nineteen years of it.
“Did it eat your quarters?” a low, lightly-accented voice called from the direction of the help desk.
Startled, Darshan looked over at the attendant, who was stepping out from behind the counter. Darshan quickly straightened up and began to back toward the door. It was never good to attract attention from those in authority. Even if it was only a laundromat attendant. “Uh . . . it’s no problem. I’ll just, uh . . . go. . . .”
The attendant, a tall, lanky young guy who looked like a down-on-his-luck hipster, smiled kindly and held up his hands quickly. “Wait—no one said you have to leave. I just . . . wanted to reimburse you for the soda.”
Darshan stopped backing away and blinked. “Reimburse me?”
“Yeah. That thing’s been eating money left, right, and center. I’ve got the guy coming to take a look at it, but he won’t be here till tomorrow morning.” The attendant stopped in front of Darshan and dug in the pocket of his semi-skinny jeans. Darshan warily took a step back, but the attendant merely pulled out a handful of quarters.
“Here,” he said, smiling and offering the loose coins to Darshan.
Still wary, Darshan reached out tentatively and plucked three quarters from the handful, then quickly shoved them in the pocket of his dirty, ratty jeans.
“Thanks,” he said, briefly meeting the attendant’s dark, kind eyes behind their thick shield of glass. “Thanks a lot.”
“Not a problem. Here,” the attendant said, offering the rest of the coins. Darshan frowned and began to back away. “Take the rest.”
“That’s, uh, more than the price of a can of Fanta,” Darshan noted, hands held out almost in a warding gesture. Meanwhile, a voice that sounded a lot like Keely’s gibbered at him in the back of his mind, asking if he was insane, turning down money.
The attendant nodded. “I know . . . but I want you to have it.”
Scowling, Darshan blushed, embarrassed and angry. Because of course. Of course, the attendant could tell that Darshan, with his dirty, worn, oversized clothes and underfed frame, was the sort of person to whom one automatically and habitually gave pocket change. “I don’t need your charity.” He drew his dignity and his battered, secondhand army jacket around him close.
The attendant—whose nametag read Pietr—sighed and kept holding his hand out. “Maybe, maybe not. But why turn down a few free dollars?”
“Because nothing is for free,” Darshan replied, his voice gone hard. “Especially money.”
“This time, it is.” Pietr drew a little closer, his voice soft and low in the empty laundromat. “I see you in here all the time. You come in here to stay warm, yes?”
Darshan didn’t answer, merely aimed his scowl at Pietr’s worn-in, holey, red Converse All-Stars.
“Well, a few bucks could buy you a meal. That’ll keep you a lot warmer than this place. There’s even a decent diner right across the street,” Pietr said, nodding toward the bank of windows at the front of the laundromat when Darshan blinked again and looked up. There was nothing to be read in Pietr’s expression but concern and kindness.
No one looked at him like that, anymore, except for Keely.
Who had now taken up seemingly permanent residence in the back of Darshan’s skull as a voice of cynical reason: Why is he being so nice? she asked Darshan. What does he want from you?
“Why are you being so nice to me?” slipped out on a small, shaking voice before Darshan could censor it. Pietr smiled. His teeth were slightly crooked, but very white, surrounded as they were by a dark, somewhat unruly beard that was several shades darker than the shoulder-length brown hair on his head.
“Why not?” Pietr extended his hand again and this time, Darshan started to reach out. “That’s it. Go on. Take it.”
Responding to the gentle tone the way a wounded animal might, Darshan scooped the quarters from Pietr’s hand. He got a static shock that made him jump and made Pietr chuckle.
“Uh, thanks. Again.” Darshan shoved the coins in his pocket and wiped at his face. His cheeks were wet and he couldn’t figure out when that had happened.
“You’re welcome.” Pietr looked relieved . . . and curious. “Hey, what’s your name?”
“Darshan.” This, also, slipped out. Fell from his lips before he could fake up a suitable alias, and didn’t the Keely-voice in his head kick him for that.
“Nice to meet you, Darshan. I’m Pietr Smirnov . . . like the shitty vodka.” Pietr grinned and offered his hand once more. It was large, warm, slightly callused, and clean. Darshan took it reluctantly, ashamed of his own grubby hands and dirty, untrimmed nails.
Pietr searched Darshan’s face intently as they shook, and Darshan blushed, pulling his hand away, tucking it into his jacket pocket. He’d had gloves, once upon a November, but they’d walked their way out of his pocket one night at the shelter.
To which he really should have been getting back. . . .
“Anyway. I gotta . . . um. . . .” he nodded over his shoulder. Pietr, still smiling, let go of Darshan’s hand. “I gotta skate.”
“Of course,” Pietr said easily, then: “If you’re going to the diner, I might join you. I’m closing this place in fifteen.”
“Um,” Darshan said, glancing at the clock mounted on the laundromat’s back wall. He had a little over an hour until he had to be back at the shelter, and as it stood, he’d missed dinner, walking around and trying unsuccessfully to soak in the hope and good vibes New Year’s Eve brought out in people. “I gotta be back at the shel—at the place I’m staying by nine. . . .”
“That’s fine, it’s only quarter to eight. That gives me an hour to ply you with coffee and talk your ear off,” Pietr replied with great satisfaction. Darshan laughed a little, and was surprised that he had. It’d been a long time since he’d laughed. Or even smiled. “Please? You look like you’d be good company.”
“I dunno,” Darshan wavered, tallying up pros and cons in his head, and chewing his lower lip. Oh, he could scarf a quick meal as fast as the rest of them, but did he really want to spend his new-gotten loot on food now, or later? And did he want company while he ate?
In his brain, the Keely-voice nattered: No, no, no! This guy could be any kind of freak or ax-murderer! He could be a serial-rapist, or serial-killer, or serial-anything!
Darshan deferred to the greater wisdom of the voice for a moment . . . but he had his doubts that Pietr Smirnov was anything of the kind. Moreover, he sensed that Pietr might be that rarest of the rare: a genuinely nice guy. In which case, Darshan would be passing up an opportunity at company, for a little while. Something he hadn’t had since Keely had—
Darshan shut that thought down quickly. He focused, instead, on Pietr’s kind, eyes and smile. His general air of wholesomeness. Over the past three years, Darshan had become a good reader of people, and his instincts were saying Pietr was on the level.
Pietr’s smile widened, as if sensing he had the upper hand.
“I promise: I’m good company, too,” he wheedled, crossing rangy, hairy arms over his chest. Under his plaid over-shirt, with its rolled up sleeves, he wore a red t-shirt that said, in white letters: Keep calm and . . . the rest was covered by the halfway-buttoned plaid.
Pietr caught him looking and grinned again, uncrossing his arms. “The ubiquitous Keep calm shirt,” he said, laughing and unbuttoning his over-shirt. “Here’s the rest of it.”
“Keep calm and . . . Pride On?” Darshan read, glancing up from the last two words—which were rainbow-colored—to Pietr’s dark, magnified eyes. “They . . . they let you wear that here?” he asked in a scandalized whisper. Pietr laughed again.
“It’s a laundromat, Darshan. They let me wear what I want, provided I’m not naked.”
Darshan’s eyes widened and he blushed, looking away from Pietr, whom he steadfastly refused to picture naked. To the amused snickers of the Keely-voice in his head. “But they make you work New Year’s Eve, so I guess it’s a trade-off, huh?”
He could see Pietr shrug from out of the corner of his eyes. “True. But I’m low-man on the totem pole, so, it’s to be expected. I’ve been here less than six months.”
Darshan, himself, had only been coming to the laundromat to keep warm since Keely had dragged him there in late September. And even after Keely had . . . disappeared in October, Darshan still came to keep warm, drink grape Fanta—Keely’s favorite drink—and think of her. To wonder where she was and if she was ever coming back.
She’d been his friend—the first he’d had since his stepfather kicked him out when he was sixteen—and the one to show him the ropes when he first landed in the big city. Over the two and a half years of their friendship, she’d often disappeared . . . sometimes for weeks at a time. But she always came back, despite Darshan’s fears that she might not.
She always came back, and it was like no time had passed between them, when she did. Though, she refused to talk about her time away, however, only saying that she’d needed to go walk-about for a little bit.
And never mind that this time she’d gone walk-about for nearly three months.
Darshan shook his head and tried to recall himself to the present. This time would be no different. Keely would come back to him, like always. Same shit, different year.
“Are you alright?” A hand, large and warm, settled on Darshan’s shoulder and he blinked up into Pietr’s eyes. That grin was gone, replaced by the look of compassion from before. A look that was doubled . . . then trebled as Darshan’s own eyes filled. “You suddenly looked . . . worried and upset.”
Darshan opened his mouth to . . . he didn’t know what. Explain? Lie, and say nothing was wrong? Change the subject?
But nothing came out, though tears once more wet his cheeks. He wiped at them hastily, impatiently, as Pietr watched him with growing concern. “Hey, it’ll be okay,” he said softly, his other hand settling on Darshan’s other shoulder. “It’ll be okay.”
Shaking his head, Darshan glanced off to the side, away from the compassion in Pietr’s eyes. “I don’t think it will,” he admitted, sniffling. “Not this time. She’s never been gone this long before. Never. All the other times—” a quiet, truncated sob escaped Darshan as his chest hitched, and more tears spilled.
Pietr looked fairly alarmed, now. He tentatively cupped Darshan’s cheek in one of his large hands and leaned down a bit. “Tell you what, Darshan: I’ll close up shop a few minutes early, and we’ll go grab some grub and coffee, and talk. And you can tell me all about the other times she was gone, okay? And we’ll see if we can make some sense of this. Okay?”
Darshan sniffled again, but nodded once as Pietr’s big thumb brushed tears away from his cheek. “Okay.”
“Good.” Pietr smiled encouragingly and Darshan returned it, as limp and weak as he suddenly felt. “Now, if you’ll tag-along with me, I’ll show you how a laundromat shuts down for the night. Doesn’t that sound like an exciting way to ring in the New Year?”
“No,” Darshan said, laughing a little, despite the tears still running down his face. Pietr snorted.
“You’re right. It’s not. But who knows when such knowledge might come in handy, eh? C’mon.”
And so saying, he led Darshan back to the attendant’s counter, one arm around Darshan’s narrow, under-padded shoulders. Hesitantly, Darshan followed Pietr behind the counter, and watched the older man open a binder on the countertop, take a grubby-looking golf pencil from his pocket, and begin scribbling notes on the lined pages within.
As he scribbled, he bit down lightly on his bottom lip with those white teeth and, after a minute passed—during which Darshan composed himself as best he could and watched the other man covertly—Pietr murmured: “There, now. Isn’t this better than champagne and confetti?”
“Oh, much better.” Darshan chuckled and rolled his wet eyes. “I feel like Cinderella at the ball!”
“Count on me, your Prince Charming, to turn your head with all this fine living and high-toned flattery.” Pietr snorted again, and glanced at Darshan with magnified, unreadable eyes. “By the way . . . Happy Early New Year, Darshan.”
Darshan found himself blushing, but held Pietr’s gaze. In doing so, he also found himself believing that this new year might just be starting off . . . okay. Not great. Not unless Keely turned up well and safe before too much longer.
Darshan crooked a genuine smile at his erstwhile benefactor that Pietr returned. “Happy Early New Year, Pietr.”