the fifth of spring
As she continued up a higher level of the pier, Jade passed a food stand. Her stomach rumbled, and she realized she hadn’t eaten all day. Not since leaving the farm. A salt-and-peppery gentleman walked out from behind the stall, closing the rolldown as he appeared to be locking up. Jade recognized him. She quickened her pace, hoping to catch him before he completely closed for the night.
“Hello, Mister… Linus, isn’t it?” Jade introduced herself politely, bowing deeply to hopefully put the man at ease.
“Hiiii… he…lllo…” he stammered. “Yes, I’m… uh… Li…Li…Linus.”
“It’s so nice to meet you Linus,” she replied, genuinely, with a warm smile.
“You’re…a…uh… stranger? Hello. Don’t mind me,” he said.
“Mister Linus… are you still selling food or are you closed?” she asked.
“Uh… I… could be…” he said, with a slight squeak.
The man dropped his gaze, and pulled his enormous arms close to his legs. With his physique, he certainly worked out. Jade wondered why the gentle giant appeared frightened of her. He was shy in his manner, but his voice, while shaky, was deep and soft. Tonight, the top button of his deep blue polo was unbuttoned, probably as he was leaving work. The white collar was immaculately starched. His apron, despite working what she assumed was a long shift due to the bags under his eyes, was spotless.
“Hey Mister Linus,” Jade tried to ease into a more comfortable conversation. “I don’t have a washer and dryer on my farm. Would you happen to know a good place to get my clothes clean?”
“Oh… I… uh… don’t know… about that… Miss… Jade…” Linus answered, averting his eyes.
“I was just admiring your apron… so clean, despite working with fish,”
“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” he said, appearing to relax slightly. “That’s what Isabelle always says.”
Jade smiled. “Oh, is she your wife?”
“Uh… now… er… listen… I really have to be going…” Linus threw up his hands defensively.
“I’m sorry if I said something to offend you,” Jade narrowed her eyes.
“I… I… have to go…” Linus said, removing his apron and hanging it on the side of the food stall.
“Please, don’t let me keep you,” she stepped aside to appear less intimidating. “I’m really sorry to have disturbed you.”
“Oh… oh…” was all Linus said before hurriedly disappearing up the walkway and turning abruptly toward the street, disappearing beyond the trailer park.
That was strange, she twisted her lower lip and kept walking.
“Hey Jade!” a familiar voice called out to her from another food stall.
She froze in her steps, grimacing to herself as she realized she would have to answer his text sooner than she expected. Jade had hoped to at least have a night to think about how she should tell someone she was interested, but not yet. Sam smiled happily as she turned and moved toward him. He wore an outfit similar to Linus, and she wondered if they worked for the same company. Her abdomen gurgled as her eyes clamped on the firecracker shrimp.
“Hi Sam,” she greeted, trying to keep her voice neutral, though she was sure some of her tiredness laced her tone.
“Can I interest you in a late night snack?” Sam grinned. “Creamy lobster salad on a buttery bun? Or a cozy bread bowl of seafood chowder with old bay seasoning and corn?”
“I didn’t know you could cook” Jade replied, graciously feeling the warmth of the sizzling stovetop and fryer from the booth.
“I don’t,” he replied. “But I do know my way around a spatula and a crockpot. And I just toasted the rolls myself and you should get it while it’s hot.”
“You’ve convinced me,” she said, handing him some cash. “I’ll have the chowder. didn’t know you worked… uh… along the docks.”
“Don’t usually,” he scooped the thick soup into a bowl of bread. “Drew the short straw. Morris said I had to work the late shift with today’s catch.”
“Morris, your boss?” she guessed.
“Yeah, more like dictator…” Sam snorted. “Sorry. I’m not planning to work in the grocery biz forever.”
“Ah,” she replied. “I didn’t think so.”
“A guy like me,” he continued, enthusiastically. “I’ve got plans. I’m gonna see my name in lights one day. I’ll be known around the whole country. Maybe even the whole world.”
“Oh really?” she raised her eyebrows and smiled. “What for?”
“What for? What for?” he slapped the counter in disbelief and excitement. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he cupped a hand near his mouth. “Sam Archer is going to wow you tonight on stage with his incredible riff. The most incredible riff you’ve ever heard in your whole life.”
Jade couldn’t help but feel his exuberance. She smiled and clapped. “Alright, let’s hear it for Sam.”
“Yes, my band is gonna hit it big. We’re gonna leave Stardew Valley behind and play stages all over the place. We’re gonna open for some great bands and then one day we will be the headliner,” Sam shared, dreamily. “I am gonna make it someday. And I hope you’re there to see it, Jade,” he winked.
An unknown emotion washed over Jade. She gulped, trying to ignore the lump in her throat. Instead of facing Sam, she awkwardly eyed the top corner of the blue and yellow striped booth pole.
“Sam, can we… uh… talk?”
“Uh oh,” his face fell. “That’s not good. Just… uh… wait…” he waved his hands. “Tell me. Did I come on too strong? Am I trying too hard? I really wanted to get that text message right. And oh boy! I should’ve told you face to face… but I’m a cow…”
“You’re not a coward,” she shook her head vigorously.
“Okay, good,” he eased into a charming smile. “I really like you, and uh… I just wasn’t sure what to say to your face, and I thought it would be easier to get all my thoughts out in a text message. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Sam,” she winced.
“Yeah,” he squeezed his eyes shut. “A guy knows when he’s about to get friend-zoned. I know the answer already.”
“No, you don’t,” Jade said urgently. “Please hear me out. You’re a nice guy. Sweet. Funny.”
“Yeah, my resume as a golden retriever lap dog,” he sighed.
“Sam, don’t beat up on yourself,” Jade clenched and released her fists trying to redirect her nervous energy. “Don’t joke. I actually…”
“I’m too young, that’s it, isn’t it?” Sam said. “I… know… but age is just a number. Or is it Haley? I know she was really mean to you the other night, but I promise, it won’t get in the way. Or is it because I still live with my parents? I can explain…”
“Please,” she interrupted. “It’s not any of those things,” she sighed heavily, trying to muster her own courage over the butterflies fluttering around in her heart. “It’s too soon… for me. You know about my fiancé. He just died last fall. He was killed…” the words sounded foreign as she said them aloud. “…in a hit and run.”
“Oh gawd!” he grunted. “I’m a jerk. I’m sorry, Jade. I didn’t think… I mean, yeah, I knew about him. You said it. I didn’t realize it was so recent.”
She nodded appreciatively. “It was… hard to lose him… and I’m really not myself yet. Or I don’t know myself. And I can’t ask you to be part of that. Not now. Not yet.”
“I… I understand,” he bobbed his head. “Look. I’m sorry. Can we just take it all back? Can we still be friends?”
“We can’t take it back,” she said. “But we are absolutely friends.”
“Yeah,” he said, obviously disappointed, but he was trying to put up a brave front. He slipped her food onto a plate and handed her back the bills beneath. “Hey, look. It’s on me.”
“What? No!” she shook her head.
“I insist,” Sam replied with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “It’s the least I can do.”
Author Notes: Thanks everyone for your thoughts. Jade answered the text with “Let’s just be friends.” I did not expect Jade to run into Sam on the docks that very night though. Awkward. But I rolled with it, and while it was uncomfortable, I’m proud of her for waiting… for now.