Late For His Shift
By Peter G. Reynolds
Outside the Inn, Mary held Ron's arm. "There's a lovely cafe over on Hanover Street," she said, still speaking quietly in Ron's ear. "They make the best tomato soup, though sometimes I go straight for dessert."
"Why are we whispering?" Ron whispered. It felt like they were doing something elicit, which excited Ron as it confused him.
"I don't want her to get jealous," replied Mary with a smile. There was a slight chill in the air, but Mary's smile radiated a warmth more insulating than any sweater.
Who's her? Asked Ron.
"Why the Inn of course, my silly man."
Mary was not lying about the cafe. The Granary was a lovely place to eat. Open and airy, with large windows facing the street. It was family-owned and perfect for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or anytime you wanted to discuss a sentient hotel with its own walk-in freezer.
"She's been around since the mountains first peaked through the ocean to glimpse a bird-less sky," Mary said, sipping on a cappuccino.
"So she's old then," Tom replied, taking a bite from a grilled chicken sandwich. He noted the homemade spicy aioli worked really well with the toasted brioche bun.
"Well, she'd say she was old enough," Mary continued.
"What is she?" Asked Ron.
Mary paused for a moment. "That's not an easy question to answer. She is…has been… whatever she's needed to be. A cave to protect you from the rain, a house to raise a family, a lodge to build community, or even a simple inn, with a five-star Yelp review, I might add.
Ron's eyebrows knit a sweater, prompting Mary to explain further.
"In Gaelic, we call her Go brách baile," Mary said. Ron racked his brain to remember his Gaelic. His auntie Maud taught it to all his siblings and cousins growing up, though, in truth, he forgot most of it the moment class had ended.
Mary didn't let him suffer long. "It means forever home. That's what she is, a home, a place of safety for all who need it. She's provided shelter to our people for centuries until we split into warring factions and left our ancestral home in search of fortune and territory. She was lonely for many years, kept company only by the strays she'd find. She likes strays.
Ron was amazed by what he was hearing. If magic were real, if the Inn was real, he wondered what other stories might be. Elementals? Sprites? Dragons? Well, hopefully not that last one.
"And are you her caretaker?" Asked Ron.
Mary laughed, and so did Ron. In fact, Ron noticed people at several tables laughing. There were even people on the street, well out of earshot, who suddenly giggled as if remembering a funny story.
"Heavens no!" Mary replied, lowering her voice, "And make sure she doesn't hear you say that! She doesn't need anyone to take care of her. If I had to give myself a title, I'd say I'm part front-desk clerk, part concierge. It's job is to look after her guests and assist them with whatever they need."
"And what do we need?" Asked Ron.
"You need a safe place to plan for the coming storm. A place where all the clans can reclaim what they've lost. You are all claws of the same hand; you just don't know it.
"Well, if that's the case, I'm the hangnail," Ron muttered.
Mary reached across the table and held Ron's hands. She turned them face up and studied his palms. "Why do you put yourself down so?" You're as bright and as strong as any of your brethren." With her finger, she traced the lines. You can be the hero of your own story Ronnie, but only if you believe it. I know I do.
Mary's hands were warm and offered comfort, but Ron pulled his away. He had already organized his own pity party, and he had every intention of attending.
"He doesn't trust me." Ron blurted out.
"Who?" Mary asked. "Carl?"
"Nonsense," Mary said, waving away the very notion with her hand. "He sent you ahead first to make sure everything was safe. That hardly sounds like someone who doesn't trust you."
Ron squeezed the metal table leg. Leaving a slight impression of his hand. "You don't understand. They did that to get rid of me. So they could make plans."
The waitress came over and cleared the plates. Mary ordered a slice of roulade, covered in strawberries.
Ron wasn't sure why, but he found himself telling Mary things he could hardly admit to himself. Tucked away in a corner of the cafe, he talked for what seemed like hours. He told her his whole life story, about growing up in Canada, about being ridiculed by his cousins and half-siblings. About being called "Shiftless." He spoke of his loneliness and feeling like a pariah, excluded from even the simplest childhood games.
Mary looked deeply into his eyes and squeezed his hands.
"You sound like Rudolph."
"What?" Asked Ron.
Mary tilted her head to one side. "You know the song, don't you? All of the other reindeer use to laugh and call him names."
Ron violently pushed his chair back, metal legs scraping against the grey titled floors and filling the cafe with a horrible screeching sound. He ran from the restaurant, his face a mask of anger and embarrassment.