by Laney Bennett

I sat there quietly, every single day, just listening. Every person that came along, who sat, who cried, who laughed, who slept, who spilled some of their coffee and cried a bit more, I was there for. God gave me a purpose, and I was there to simply be an ear. The room in which I resided in was where I resided for the rest of my life. I had the perfect setup, off in the corner where no one else could see.  I enjoyed staying, it meant I got to listen more to those who came to me. I wanted to help as much as possible, but I decided it was more beneficial to let others come to me. My purpose was not to be a therapist in the aspect of giving advice or helping people outside of my corner, but to lend an ear for those who came my way.


I had experienced the feelings of loneliness, despair, sadness, all of it. I don’t blame anyone, but deep down I know it’s the story of every single person that I encounter who puts my mentality where it is. I began too greedy with stories to collect, and it ended with only hurt. I started to continuously remind myself that this is what I signed up for and this is what I will always do.


The first year I decided to stay put, an older teenage girl came in with her mother. After much discussion between her and her mother, she finally came clean and admitted to her mother, “I’m pregnant.” She spoke with a voice raw from tears that she’d been attempting to force back. The mother, obviously shocked, stood abruptly and stepped out. Her action sent the young lady from the beginning of a quiet sob to an uncontrollable wail. She held onto me, afraid at her next step, afraid of the loneliness, for she had been in the same room just two days ago with a man about her age, when he did the exact same thing. I’ve never felt so lonely for someone else.


I wanted to reach out to her, and tell her that it would be alright, but I didn’t. I had already learned that I was not meant to speak, only listen. I don’t even know what I’d advise any of them to do, but I know that nothing I say could help.


The situation was similar to the many other unhappy experiences that I’d started collecting. As I recall, one time about three years back, a family of four came into my presence. It was a cold winter night, and nothing about the sleet outside was inviting. The two parents cried into me silently as to not alarm the young children who were playing with teddy bears just a few feet away. The father had lost his job, and the mother was already unemployed. They hadn’t been able to pay the rent for two months in a row, and were evicted along with their two, very young, children.


“What are we going to do?” They kept asking, but I stayed silent. I knew I wouldn’t say anything to help. I had no idea what I could have even told them. I kept trying to justify my silence.


“I know of a place a few blocks down, they can assist you with everything that you need. They’ll have clothes for your kids. Food too.” It was a woman who’d been been sitting outside my corner who had come over to us all and offered to help them find a shelter for the night.


She sounded like a normal woman, but the words themselves were angelic. Grateful, the family followed her out of where I had resided that night. I remember thinking of how warm the couple was. They held together and stayed strong in such and unpleasant time. Even if the whole idea was nonsense, I continue to regard them as the closest thing to soulmates that I’d ever witnessed.


I’d known a couple that I had believed would be soulmates back a few months ago on a late winter day. However, I realize now that my guesses were incorrect in this particular case. The young woman sat in my area of the shop, alone, drinking coffee that she had spiked with the occasional swig of something in a cheap, silver flask. Every once in a while she’d adjust her pink sweater, which was far too big for her body and had been slipping off her shoulder. A man, glorious in most aspects, approached her and sat beside her. He seemed light, but reality created him with full muscles that seemed to catch the girl’s half-drunken attention. With his black leather jacket, one might beintimidated, but his face and smile lit up the entire room as he  swiftly entered the area we’d been seated. At first it was just a few niceties, just a greeting and an icebreaker, but soon enough, the final exchange began.


“So, Isabelle, how long have you been on dating apps?” He started.


“You’re my first one, actually.” She adjusted the sweater once more, playing it off by turning her body to face him better.


“Oh?” He asked with his smile, so sweet that nothing but good could be expected, “so I get to set your future standards?” She laughed and they spoke a few times more, but there was nothing truly meaningful. She slurred some of her words, but nothing noticeable to anyone who didn’t watch her drink for the past half hour. “How ‘bout I take you to a movie, and then we can get some dinner? I really want to keep this going,” he suggested, smiling with those commercial- white teeth.


I saw the fire in his eyes, but she was young and eager, “yeah! Sure!”


Exactly one week later, I overheard a conversation at the front counter. His voice blended with the raindrops on the windows until I fine-tuned my attention to overhear his inquiries. The man’s booming voice demanded to speak with anyone working last Tuesday. Why last Tuesday? I wanted to peak around the corner to have a better view, but I stayed still in my place with just a small glimpse of the man’s side. Megan, my favorite waitress, was sitting next to me testing the old coffee maker that they’d replaced but wanted to sell. She hurried to join the newer waitress at the counter. Both were confused as to what was going on.


“I’m detective Tanner. Did you see this girl last week?” The man’s voice repeated sternly.


“Yeah, she was over in the corner. She left with some guy-” Megan was cut off. “Describe the man you saw her with.”


“He was nice looking, dark hair, dark jacket, tall, I think? Why?”


The detective lowered his voice, and it wavered slightly, “she was found dead three days ago. This was the last place she was at. We think whoever was with her killed her.”


My heart sank. I could no longer hear what they were saying, I just stared ahead of  myself and tried to catch my breath. The girl, no, Isabelle, had just been here a week ago. I couldn’t remember the man’s name; I wouldn’t tell them if I had known. My thoughts were racing, I wasn’t sure how to react. I calmed myself down by remembering how there was nothing I could’ve done, and there was nothing I could do now. The detective asked to have any security footage the shop had and quietly left.


I’ve had my fair share of loneliness and hurt. Knowing that Isabelle had left not only the shop but the world forever was the worst feeling I could’ve imagined. The world I’d known was bleak. However, I knew there was nowhere else for me to go, and nowhere else I’d rather be.


My night was just like any other. The shop was locked up and I stared at the wall watching the occasional flash of lighting, waiting for the morning to come. I hoped that I would be able to come across a happy story. A proposal, a first date that didn’t end in tragedy, perhaps even a happy child who played quietly with his toys while his mother caught up with an old friend. Just, anything. The lightning carried on, the thunder rumbled once more, and I was still stuck in the feeling of everything opposite of satisfactory. I began to think more in-depth about the good stories I’d imagined earlier and giving them names, outfits, personalities, backstories. I saw a flare out of the corner of my eye, the lightning, but felt a spark of heat along with it. Not lightning. The old coffee maker was next to me and I could see the outlet was beginning to melt, as the flames danced up the side of the machine.


The flames began to eat the wooden table like termites. I could only think of my responsibility to stay in the shop. Panicked, I stared at the fire that was beginning to spread closer and closer to my arm. I was frozen, I had to be there for people when the sun rises. It made contact with my arm but was slow to spread over me. The flimsy table collapsed, too burnt to be stable, and the fire filled coffee maker fell alongside with it. The flames, still hungry, began eating away at the wooden floors. An alarm started and I felt water sprinkling from above. It was fruitless. The blaze had consumed more than half of my corner while the weak pressure of the dated sprinkler was no match. I thought about the girl who had told her mother that she was pregnant that day, how I could’ve reached out. I could’ve reached out.


“I’m here for you,” I imagined myself comforting the girl.


“Let me help you find a place to stay,” as I hugged the homeless family.


“Don’t go,” I pleaded the intoxicated young woman who had sat before me just seven days ago. I would follow her if she didn’t heed my warning.


There were so many things I could’ve said to each person who had needed help in my presence at one time or another. Now I was burning, and I couldn’t hardly feel the heat of the flames over the drowning feeling of regret. The fire had reached the coffee table in front of me. I was nothing now, just the bones full of memories that were fading away in ashes that fell off of myself onto the floor. It was all gone too quickly.


My mind flashed to the day a mother told her son that their dog had gone to a farm upstate and wouldn’t be returning. The boy had held onto my crying, “not Wally!” Then to the time a waitress had quit and threw her apron at my feet in frustration. She had been my least favorite waitress in the shop. Back further when an older man had what he thought was a heart attack just one chair away. He was lifted into an ambulance but came back a month later to let everyone know he was okay, and thanked them for their quick actions. I hadn’t taken any action.


With all the regret and sadness, I couldn’t tell you how lonely I was. I sat aflame, waiting for help that I knew I didn’t deserve. My memory was fading, my thoughts slowing. The alarms above me were becoming more prominent than my guilt and I could no longer see my surroundings, as it all became a smoky blur.


I heard a man yell. “In here!” But it was too late for me.