The street outside Dregs Coffee Hut was bustling and noisy. A pink and yellow awning flapped above the café door. Inside, the air was cooler than normal; cashiers wore sweaters under their aprons. Students jostled in line for coffee and pink-glazed donuts. The school bell would ring in ten minutes. When it did, the students would leave the coffee shop, cross the busy street, and attend first period.
Two girls sat at a table by the window.
“What’s the count?” the blonde asked. She lazily swirled a straw in a tall plastic cup of iced coffee.
“Forty-eight,” the other responded. She curled a strand of copper hair around a finger and scratched a large ‘X’ over Tuesday in the spiral-bound planner in front of her.
“I wonder why the marks don’t revert, like the coffee. Or like this.” The first, blonde girl slid a long fingernail under the corner of a pink flyer taped to the wall. She shredded the flyer into bits and threw the pieces into the air. The confetti drifted to the floor.
The redhead looked at the wall, where the pink flyer still hung. “I had the planner with me when we died. So it’s part of me, I can change it.”
The blonde jabbed the straw toward the bottom of the cup. “I’m betting fifty. A hundred days at the most. What’s your guess?”
“Jesus, shut up,” said the redhead. “No more guessing. You can’t change it.”
“You don’t know that. You sit there and pretend like you have all the answers, but you’re guessing too.”
Cars sped by. Students came and went from the coffee shop, jingling the bell over the door.
“Sorry,” said the blonde. “Can I ask you something?”
“Seriously, stop asking if you can ask.” The redhead looked out the window. “I wish my mom came here. She prefers that futzy Starbucks across town.”
“Yeah, I know. You’ve only mentioned that a billion times.”
“Fine. What’s your question?”
The blonde waited a moment. “If this isn’t — what did you call it, a layover? — if this isn’t just a quick layover on our way to heaven or hell or whatever comes next, what does that mean?”
“What?” The redhead shifted on her seat.
“I mean, we agreed it’s short-term, right? If not, where are all the other dead people? Where’s my grandma? Where’s your dad? Or… what if they all went to heaven and this is actually hell? What if we are the only two people in the world who ever went to hell, and it’s Dregs Coffee Hut?”
“That’s dumb. What about serial killers?”
A new crowd of students poured through the front door. The blonde jumped up. “Mike!”
She touched the boy’s face, ran her fingers through his hair. She reached for his body, clinging to his waist as he made his way to the counter.
“We’re stupid late,” said a boy walking next to Mike. “Same as usual?” He moved into the cashier line.
“Yeah,” said Mike. He sat down at a table and pulled out his phone. The blonde hovered near him.
“What’s the news?” the redhead asked from the window.
“Still checking Instagram. He’s cute when he concentrates.”
“Tell me when he gets to the news.”
The blonde moved her eyes to the screen. “Oh. She’s home.”
“Who?” the redhead asked.
“Nettie. She’s home from the hospital.” The blonde read aloud from the screen. “‘The sophomore’s parents, Bob and Ella Hardman, say their daughter is expected to make a full recovery and return to school in the spring.’”
The sound of a bell echoed across the street.
The boy handed a coffee to Mike, and they hurried out of the café. One of the cashiers mopped up a spill. She shivered and pulled her apron tighter. “Turn the heat up again, will ya, Kate?” the cashier yelled toward the back room.
Two girls sat at a table by the window.
“I’m happy for her?” The blonde lowered her forehead onto the table. “Why aren’t I happy?”
“I don’t know,” said the redhead. “If she’d died, she’d just be here with us. I’m glad she lived.”
The blonde looked up. “I wouldn’t want to be here with anyone else, you know that, right?”
“Can I ask you—”
“Just spit it out.”
“What if we’re here because she lived? What if we were all supposed to die together, but she didn’t, so now we’re here? What if we’ll be here until Nettie dies?”
“She could live until she’s like, as old as that lady.” The redhead pointed to a white-haired woman finishing a cup of tea. “She could live to be 100.”
The redhead opened the planner. She spoke softly. “You mean… we could be here for 100 years?”
The white-haired woman stood, dropped the cup in the trash, and walked out the front door.
“No,” said the blonde. She watched the door close. “No. It’s just a layover.”
Megan Scudellari is a science journalist and fiction writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. Find her on Twitter @Scudellari.