By Harper S. Villani
Jones’ Coffee sat on Harbor Boulevard in San Pedro. It was close enough to the ocean
that the smell of salt came in with the breeze. Inside there were squashy seats with a dozen
or so mismatched tables and chairs, all occupied with couples or study groups. Cait looked
around on her toes for a place to sit while Josh stared at the menu and doubted the coffee
would actually be worth the eight dollars he knew he’d be paying. But as they scanned the
room they realized they weren’t going to get a table. Cait originally suggested their favorite
cafe, but Josh picked this place instead because it was farther out and because he couldn't
risk ruining their place.
“We could sit outside?” Cait said, pinching Josh’s shoulder.
“Yeah, great, let’s go outside, I love when my thighs sweat until my jeans stick to
them when I walk. Perfect,” Josh answered. Cait was already walking out the door.
Unlike inside, the outside seating looked abandoned; the indoor occupants likely feeding off
the free air conditioning. Metal chairs and metal tables sat scattered about the patio. They
took the first table they found. Cait didn’t put down her messenger bag or make a move to
remove her jacket, so Josh leaned over and freed his sister of the leather strap that cut into
“Oh, thanks.” Cait sighed in relief and rubbed her shoulder, then she took the bag
from him, set it on the table. A moment later she peeled off her jacket.
“What’d you wear that for anyway? It’s literally ninety-five degrees out,” Josh
“Weatherman said it could rain,” Cait said, crossing her arms over her chest. When
Josh raised an eyebrow at her she scoffed. “I didn’t wanna get wet.”
They both went quiet, watching the street for signs of their guest. Cars whooshed
past on Gaffey, not one pausing at the curb. Cait touched her jaw, her bangs, the underside
of her lip, even unbuttoned then rebuttoned the first button of her blouse. Josh wanted to
reach for her, his eyes flitted across how her own eyes looked eagerly at the street, waiting.
As he caught her foot wiggling under the table he forced himself to remain still, she needed
to let out the energy bubbling under the surface no matter how nervous it made Josh.
“What if she’s not coming?” After another minute Cait asked.
“Then it’s her loss,” Josh said. He backtracked quickly, “but, hey, I mean she set this
thing up so what would be the point if she didn’t show?” Cait’s face went smooth, and she
nodded at him. “I’m gonna get us some water.”
“Get three,” Cait said, “just in case.”
Over the years while Josh’s lingering love for his mother faded Cait’s only grew. He’d
sat across from her all her life, and watching her struggle without a parental figure and yearn
for that connection only made what he couldn’t give her that much clearer. Even though his
interest in finding Liza had all but left him he knew he couldn’t ask the same of Cait. He took a
moment to watch the nerves that strained her features, but walked into the cafe. He scrubbed
one calloused hand through his hair then down his face.
The barista behind the counter chewed bubblegum while reading a magazine. She
popped a bright pink bubble before looking up at Josh.
“Hi, can I get three waters, please?” he said.
“Oh.” She blinked and her hardened expression melted once she got a better look at
Josh. “Yeah I’ll grab those for ya,” she said as she walked away. Josh leaned his hip against
the counter and rolled his eyes once the girl was out of sight.
He went back out to Cait with the waters balanced precariously in his arms.
“Cait, can you give me a hand real quick?” He took each step with care and watched
the waters in his left arm, daring the lids to pop off. Josh glanced up to see if she was going to
help. She was, but that wasn’t why Josh continued to stare.
At their table sat a woman in her early forties. Her face was covered in makeup that
did nothing to hide her many pockmarks and blemishes. Josh stopped moving and Cait
picked up his slack, setting the waters on the table and leaving him mouth open, staring at
the woman who, scars aside, looked so much like him.
He couldn’t meet her eyes, too distracted by the scars, the caked on powder and too bright
lipstick. She looked worn down, Josh couldn’t look away.
Her face hadn’t always looked like that. At one time she had been beautiful, Josh
knew. Her hair, which seemed so severe, once consisted of blonde curls that hung heavy
down her back. They did so as she leaned over the El Dorado Childcare Center desk. He sat on
an armchair the color of toffee with Cait pressed against his side, the soft top her head resting
on his shoulder.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry but we don’t have the resources to take them for longer than the
hours we’re open, we don’t have overnight--”
“You don’t understand I can’t take them!” Liza’s hand slammed onto the counter, her
hair bounced up her back with the force. The woman behind the counter flinched, then looked
over at Josh and Cait. Josh watched the scene, one of his hands closed around one of Cait’s.
“You need to calm down, ma’am.”
“I want to speak to your supervisor,” Liza hissed and leaned over the desk.
The woman picked up a phone and Liza turned to glance at Josh and Cait, her eyes
peering through the curtain of her hair. Josh looked away.
“I’ll be right back,” the woman at the counter spoke to Liza again so she turned away
from Josh. “My supervisor isn’t picking up.”
“I’ll be here.”
Josh watched as the woman went through the door behind her and closed it. Liza
turned and ran over to kneel in front of Josh, picking his chin up in her hand.
“Sweetie, Mommy has to go away for a few days okay? You be good for the people
here and make sure Cait is on her best behavior too, okay?” Josh couldn’t look away, not with
Liza’s hand holding his chin. He nodded. She kissed his forehead, smelling of cigarettes and
hairspray, then she kissed Cait’s warm cheek and stood up. “Mommy loves you,” she blew
them a kiss, looked toward the desk once and ran for the door, leaving her children alone in
the waiting area.
“Josh come here,” Cait said, waving her arm.
She pushed his seat back from the table. Josh sat down and reached for Cait’s hand.
“Hi Josh,” their mother said. She leaned in. Josh thought she wanted to shake his
hand but she just sat there with her hands in her lap with her ribs resting against the table.
“Liza,” he said with a nod and watched with some satisfaction as her expression fell,
and scarlet patches bloomed on her face making the scars scattered around her skin stark.
Liza took a sip of the water Cait gave to her, then began to tap her fingers on the table.
She looked at Cait. “So, are you still in school?”
“I graduated, actually!” Josh couldn’t help but smile as Cait’s mouth broke into a grin.
Liza’s mouth curled at the corners and she sighed, “That’s amazing, did you do the
whole thing? Walk in the cap and gown? I would’a loved to have seen that.” Josh fought a
scoff, biting down on the inside of his cheek. “I never got to graduate from high school,” Liza
said as she began to draw on the side of her cup with the tip of her index finger, “too busy
takin’ care of Josh.” Liza’s face went blank, but when she looked at Josh she replaced her
former grin, tapping her fingers again.
Over the years Josh had thought of a million questions to ask Liza if she ever came
back into their lives, but after a decade turned into fifteen years his curiosities began to ebb.
He sat across from her without any idea of what to say. He downed his water in one long draw
and kept his expression neutral.
“So you two come here a lot?”
“Nope, first time,” Cait said.
“It’s cute, nice little shop. A little out of my way,” Liza said with a shrug, “but it’s cute.”
“Oh, well, we could’ve gone someplace else,” Cait said, looking at Josh. He grit his
“No it’s no trouble, really, just don’t have my own car right now.” Liza reached across
the table and patted Cait’s hand twice before withdrawing.
No one spoke. They watched as a couple left the cafe, walking past them.
“Sorry, I just feel so strange having to get to know you two. You’re my kids after all,
right?” Liza let out these breathless laughs as she spoke, looking from Josh to Cait.
Josh picked at the dead skin at his thumb and thought he could feel sweat spreading
through the back of his shirt. The sun beat down on him.
“Rain my ass, it’s hot as shit.” Josh pulled at his shirt, forcing dry air to circulate.
“I gotta say Cait, I’m so proud of you,” Liza said, ignoring Josh’s comment, shifting
her body to face Cait, “you’ve graduated from high school, you seem to have a good head on
your shoulders, and you’re just as pretty as you were when you were a baby!”
The corners of Cait’s mouth curled up, but Josh rolled his eyes; Cait caught him and
he saw the corners of her mouth droop back down. Liza caught on after a moment and looked
over at Josh, her nostrils flaring.
During a rather short stay at a foster home when Josh was fourteen and Cait was
twelve a man they lived with used to say Cait was the prettiest girl he ever saw. He’d come in
after a day at work, kiss Gina on her temple and walk around the table to where Cait worked
on homework and kiss hers too, she would flinch.
“You sure are pretty,” he’d say, and his lips would stay dangerously close to her ear.
Cait’s whole body would tighten, her fingers digging into her own thighs.
“Cait! Wanna go for a walk?” Josh said the day he noticed, rising from his place on the
couch to join Cait. He made sure to stay in the vicinity when George was around, knowing his
presence acted as a deterrent and sure enough he walked over to the fridge to grab a beer.
Cait leaned into Josh as they walked. For the first time in their lives they were the
same height, thanks to Cait’s growth spurt making her shoot up four inches that year. He
rested an arm around her shoulders and let her thread her fingers through his.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Cait said.
“I need you to tell me if he’s done anything to you.”
She stopped walking and looked at him, her eyes swam with tears. Josh couldn’t
Cait finished her water last, but once she had she smacked her lips and raised her
eyebrows. Before she could say anything Josh pulled out his wallet and handed it to her.
“Iced latte, right?” Cait asked him, and he nodded. She looked at Liza, “Liza?”
“Oh! You’re so sweet,” she placed one hand over her chest.
Josh realized that he could see Liza’s ribs through her shirt, “I’d love an iced coffee, just black
Cait nodded and walked into the cafe without another word.
Josh stared at his shoes through the mesh of the table.
“You workin’?” Liza asked.
Josh said nothing, watching the shadows his feet cast on the concrete. She was waiting.
Finally, he let out a breath and said, “Construction.”
“Wow, hard worker, huh?”
“Gotta be,” Josh said. His cheek hurt from biting it, so he bit his tongue instead, rolling
the muscle between his molars.
They sat in silence after that, Liza looking awkward and Josh stone-faced. When Cait
came back with their drinks in a carry-out tray she threw Josh a grin and he rolled his eyes
“It’s so funny what they come up with to help you carry stuff,” Cait laughed.
Cait handed him his wallet and drink. He drank greedily. “I don’t know how you can
drink black coffee,” Cait said as she watched Liza drink her coffee. Her expression floated
somewhere between disgust and admiration.
“I like the taste, not too big on milk either. Makes my stomach hurt,” Liza explained.
They drank their coffee in silence. Josh watched the traffic and Cait in turn. Cait
sipped at her drink, stealing glances at Liza when Liza looked away. Josh felt himself go cold
when he thought of Cait being tricked into feeling sorry for their mother or getting hung up in
what could have been. The whole thing made him uneasy. He scooted his chair a little closer
to his sister and reached for her drink once he finished his to steal a sip.
“God! That’s too sweet!” He grimaced. Cait barked a laugh and clapped her hands
together once. Liza laughed, then let loose a hoarse cough.
Josh’s phone rang in his pocket, startling him. He pulled it out and, with a wordless
apology to both Cait and Liza, left his seat. He walked a few paces away before he answered,
but the call had already dropped.
He meant to walk back over to the table when he saw Liza move closer to Cait, reaching to
touch Cait’s hair. Cait let her. Josh kept the phone to his ear and turned his body from them,
eyes staying on Cait all the time.
“So you and Josh are real close, huh?” Liza asked, leaning back in her seat and tapping
her fingers on the table again, “That’s nice.”
“Yeah, he’s my best friend.”
“A little overbearing though, huh?”
Cait’s eyebrows drew together and Josh watched her, stomach tying itself in knots,
“No not really, he’s just protective.”
Liza shook her head, “That’s probably my fault, when I left-- I mean when I had to
leave you two I told him to make sure you were alright, to take care of you.”
“Well he has and he does,” Cait said, nodding.
Liza nodded, too, and looked over at Josh, he turned his gaze to the ground and
kicked at a pebble near his toe.
“Alright, yeah, sure Mike-- No, no I got ya, you’re fine,” Josh spoke just loud enough
for Liza to hear. “Yeah I’ll do that, see you then. Bye.” He pretended to hang up and shoved his
phone back into his pocket. “Sorry about that,” he said and sat back in his seat. He pried the
lid off his cup, digging in it for a piece of ice, tossed it in his mouth and chewed.
“That’s alright,” Liza said, then she looked at the watch that hung loose around her
wrist, “Listen you two, I oughta get going here soon. I told you I didn’t have a lot of time today,
and I’m sorry, but I’d love to do this again sometime.” She smiled at Cait, then briefly at
The three of them stood and Liza moved to pull Cait into a hug. Josh watched and felt
his heart beat a little faster. Liza pulled back and raised her hands to Cait’s face to look at her,
“I need you to know I love you, I always have, alright?” Liza’s mouth stretched wide and she
looked like she might cry if not for the fact that her eyes were dry.
Josh slammed the trunk of his car and saw Cait standing on the porch, glaring. Her
hair wavy from the plait it had been in and it blew in the wind, brushing against her crossed
“Cait I’ll be back before you know it,” Josh said. He took a step towards her.
“Whatever,” Cait looked away and walked back inside.
Josh wanted to go after her, but the click of the screen door told him she needed her
space. Those days she barely spoke to him, and when they did talk she fought him on everything
from what movie to watch to what she wanted to do with her life. The days started
to bleed into one another like too little jam on too much toast and Josh knew his time was
running out. It only took their counselor three days after Josh’s eighteenth birthday to give
him the rundown on what they expected of him, leaving the group home. When he told Cait
she screamed for him to leave her alone. He did. He took the money he had saved up and got
a room. As soon as he got off work he hit the pavement applying for more jobs, hunting for
apartments, doing everything he could to make good on his promise.
Cait would understand. He’d make her see.
A month after leaving the facility they’d both been after for a few months Josh came
back, as promised. Cait stared at him wide-eyed.
“I told you I would be. Can’t get rid of me that easily,” Josh said.
Her eyes welled with tears and she ran to him, immediately burying her face in his chest.
“Hey,” he said into her hair, “I got us a place. It’s just gonna be us now, you’ll see. Not
gonna let anything happen to you. I’m not gonna leave you.”
After packing up her things, Liza picked up her iced coffee cup, took the last sip and
set it down again. She brought her shoulders up around her ears as she inhaled. “We’ll have to
find another time to meet up, hm?” Josh watched her tap a nervous rhythm against her thigh.
Then Josh looked at Cait, at the familiarity of her face and he knew he had all he needed.
“We’ll see,” Josh said, but he was still watching Cait.
Cait turned her eyes from their mother and looked at Josh.
“Yeah,” she said, then she looked at Liza again. Liza was smiling at her, but then Cait
lifted her shoulders in a shrug, “We’ll see.”