The ads had done their job, for all intents and purposes, to introduce Joe to the sleepy line at The Perfect Cup Pod Brewers that December 21.
“Who says you can't have your cake and eat it too?” An omniscient male voice says as a young mother (evidenced by the empty stroller she pushes) smiles knowingly at the young barista.
“At The Perfect Pod Brewers, we don't just brew the perfect cup of pod coffee,” The voice continues as the young mother sits in a single seater next to a fire. Still no baby in sight.
“For a limited time, try our line of breakfast pastries.” The young mother takes a bite out of hers, the chocolate filling drips playfully off camera. The commercial ends with one breathy question.
“Who says you can't have chocolate for breakfast?”
The woman closes her eyes and smiles peacefully. The question haunts him through his whole weekend; whispering to him from the bus shelter walls.
Death by Chocolate is the encouragement he needs to get through the week. Maybe on Friday he can try a different one. He keeps his eyes trained on the one he hopes he'll get. It keeps him from making eye contact with other people in line who are surely also here for mild forms of self-reward judging by their sunken eyes. Like only this coffee, or this doughnut, can bring the light back. He wonders how old were the crumbs on the display shelf or how he can smell a hint of bleach, but the floors still have a greasy film.
Then he makes eye contact with the woman from the commercial frosted onto the outer window of the building. She looks as though she has just finished laughing and now fixes her gaze at her breakfast pastry. He is stopped by a sudden flash of memory.
Anita stands in his doorway, her auburn hair tied in a plait draped loosely on her shoulder. He cannot sense how she feels as her arms cross and her toes trace an invisible pattern on the carpet. It looks like she wants to get it right. He wonders how many seniors have barfed on this carpet.
“Babe, I'm worried that if I don't go to this convention I'm gonna miss some chance,” he says, his eyes following the unseen flower she's drawing.
“I know and I couldn't agree more,” she says leaning her head on the door frame. Her art forgotten. “I just wish you could do both too,” she says. Her smile beams directly to his solar plexus.
One of his housemates Brett bangs the screen door loudly sighing in exasperation all the way to his bedroom.
“Let's get a move on it's only four days!” He says as he shakes Anita's shoulders. She flashes him one last smile and a delicate wave of her small hands before mouthing, 'see you Tuesday.' She makes a grab for her suitcase but Brett pushes her firmly aside.
“Allow me, m'lady,” he says before making an exaggerated show of picking up her bag. He loses his footing and pauses briefly before raising it above his head. “I promised young Joe you never have to break a sweat while he's carving out his place in the world.” Her laugh shatters through the whole house before fixing her gaze back on him.
“I'm bringing three weighted plates so the girls and I can do a workout at sunrise,” she says.
A year later they married and moved to Panama.
The door chimes as he tumbles out the door. An innocent patron exclaims, but he can't hear it over past Brett's response: an expressionless, “there's really an extra 75 lbs in here?”
Outside air cools him immediately. Whatever hot emotion got trapped under his coat in the coffee shop sizzles into the atmosphere. His stomach whines at the delay in sustenance now that his head is in order. He checks his phone. He really has only five minutes to spare having stood in that long line and leaving empty handed. Joe follows his route to work, the faceless Perfect Cup voice asking him why he couldn't have chocolate for breakfast every other corner. He doesn't have the stomach for it today.
The ads got him in the Perfect Cup Pod Brewers cafe alright, but it didn't count on the woman in the commercial having the same shade hair as Anita.
A greasy scent hits his nose. It was the scent of a stove that only knows how to cook bacon. The sign was lightened by 20 years worth of sun and it once said “Spitteri's” with an Italian chef holding a tomato. Now it said “Spitter,” with a headless dough boy holding a tomato in irony.
“Breakfast 7 to 11 am. Daily Lunch Specials 11 to 2 pm.
Soups. Salads. Sandwiches. Fries. Pizza”
This hole had everything it had to offer displayed on its storefront. When he walked in a single bell chimed and four pairs of eyes look up at him from the kitchen. He only paused briefly at the door mentally telling himself it actually wasn't that strange that the Italian restaurant was owned by a Chinese family. The elder man closest to the cash register stops his salad assembly and shuffles his way closer to Joe. His expression remains blank, but Joe suddenly feels rushed to get his order ready.
“Uhh, I'll just have bacon, egg, and cheese on toast.”
The man barely gives a nod and yells a string of sounds and although Joe is not Chinese he assumes the old man yells his order, when another man cracks two eggs and puts down three strips of bacon on the stove. He doesn't see any other employees react and he pointedly ignores that the man has already put the bread in the toaster even though the fillings weren't ready. The old man gives him another penetrating gaze, shoulders squared to the cash register. Joe continues placing his order admiring this man's presence.
“How much is a fruit salad?” He asks more hoping to feel the full power of this man's speaking energy. The older man stares at the fruit: pineapple, watermelons, and grapefruits all still fully encased in nature's sheath. He gives a forlorn sigh.
“You want fruit salad? It will be 25 minutes.” The man says already totalling up his order. Joe supposes that's that and humours the possibility that this man who undoubtedly always gets his way might be named Ernest. A plate with bacon and eggs materializes and gets placed on cold toast with cold butter wiped on it. Golden toasted crumbs shower the counter top – evidence of poor toast time management. Joe taps his Federal Rewards card and is surprised when no other jingles sounds from the machine.
“I thought Mondays usually meant double rewards,” he says more to himself.
“No double rewards from family shops,” Ernest says helpfully. “Have nice day.”
He places Joe's brown paper bag in a plastic bag then grabs a folded menu and a highlighter yellow flyer and shoves it in before Joe can protest. His receipt is handed separately.
“Give receipt to door man get free drink ticket.”
Joe walks out with a bell chime and throws those cryptic words in his pocket along with the receipt. He jogs slightly to his office knowing that the pace will get him to his desk exactly on time.
Joe knows it's about4:30 when foot traffic in front of his office increases and a voice from some unseen speaker suddenly asks him where's the best place after a long day's work. He figures its a good time to give his legs a shake; shine some light on his eyelids. He walks over to his windows and draws on the blinds. He's eye level with the billboard on a building three blocks away. A lightning bolt strikes a grill and at the end of the bolt is a hamburger. On the bottom in comic book font claims it's the most energy efficient protein. The ad transitions to a message that says 'Environmental healing begins with ME(t),' then lists all the stores it can be found (“Find it in the tuna aisle.”). Joe turns away when he hears a rattle at his doorway.
“A bunch of us are going down to Ace's for happy hour,” his coworker Bryan says at the door.
“Yeah I'll catch up just gotta clear all this,” he says motioning to his desk which is basically just a cube of calculations and graphs.
“No better place than Ace's after a long day's work of integrated advertising,” Bryan says already halfway to the exit. Joe doesn't think of the implications of head of marketing blindly repeating one of their biggest client's catchphrase in casual conversation. Instead he collects his rejected notes in a bin, reflecting on a sheet titled Rapid Eye Advertising Projection (R.E.A.P.) before replacing it on top of a notebook with a light bulb on it. Everything else he crumples in the plastic bag when he glances at the highlighter yellow paper at the bottom. He also pulls out a pamphlet and sees a simple print with a header and description. He sees the top of a page says soup, the other sandwiches. He finds a tack and absentmindedly pins it on his cork board. He's reading the yellow highlighter paper.
There's a negative of a figure on the front, hunched over an orb, as though looking through a crystal ball. The details are left to the imagination.
“Winter Solstice Celebration. December 21 at 4:43 pm. Flyer valid for one entry.”
It was followed by an address that wasn't too far from work and he weighed his options between spending another evening with the team or Winter Solstice. He glances at his watch and sees that he has about five minutes to make it before a notification pops up on the face.
“Happy Happy Hour from Federal Rewards. Enjoy Surge Rewards for the next hour.”
He fires off a message to Bryan telling him to go ahead and order without him.
Joe looks at the wooden door with a gold sign that says 'no soliciting' taped to it, the rusted words “Unit 11” looking tired on top. He glances around before eyeing the address on the plaza sign board: 11 Ellesmere Rd. He looks at the flyer again, 11-11 Ellesmere Rd. He turns the Louis V. Cuff links on his left wrist, straightens his tie, brushes his hair to the side and makes a mental note that it was too long if he could 'brush it aside.' Then he undoes every bit of grooming he just did wondering if Winter Solstice celebrations were a cuff links required celebration and wondered if he went to Ace's now and only ordered a pint and some Me(T) rolls, could today be salvaged as a regular day?
Suddenly the door opens and Ernest stands there eyeing him up and down. Joe barely catches his quick glance to the camera above the rusted 'unit 11' sign and sees the dim glow of a black and white surveillance screen. The two men stare at each other. Without breaking eye contact, Joe reaches into his pocket and produces a highlighter yellow sheet. Ernest takes it without a word, never breaking Joe's gaze. A few seconds pass and Joe reaches into his back pocket and takes out a small slip that reads total: $5.65 at the bottom. Ernest opens a mini fridge beside him and takes out a punch bowl. He ladles a scoop into a plastic cup and places it in Joe's hand.
Joe racks his brain for the protocol on accepting drinks from old men at parties to which you were invited by the same old man that served you breakfast. Finding none, he stares at his cup stupidly, the dim lighting of the foyer adding a romantic filter to scene that helps his situation none.
“My name Tim,” the old man says and Joe takes that as an invitation to take the sip in one gulp. It tastes like lemonade.
While the moment at the door was a very intimate encounter indeed, inside was a bustle of movement and sound. Fire danced in some jugglers hands while other booths displayed neon lights on every available hook. Candelabras on pedestals of varying heights dotted the room. All the vendors were arranged in a semi circle on the back half of the room. Joe walked languidly past the booths, picked up a sample of a butternut tart from a homely old lady. Wondered if it was out of pocket to go back for round two only to keep his mind off how very close the juggler's flames touched the winter solstice banner. It didn't feel right to ruin the vibe with fire safety concerns.
Suddenly a sweet voice sounded through the room and although he did not think “Anita,” he also knew she was the only candidate to illicit that feeling. But it wasn't her and he wasn't sure how it made him feel. At least he wasn't at Ace's right now comparing moon drives with those sharks.
“We welcome the winter solstice, the day Persephone finally reaches Hades' chambers for her long sleep.” The lady at the mic says. “For after the longest night comes a longer day.” A shuffle ripples across the crowd at this announcement. Murmurs of 'yes's reverberate throughout.
“Turn out the lights so that stars may guide her back to Earth.”
Joe expected a harsh dimming of lights until he realized that the lights had been off this entire time and that the room was deafening in that he can hear interaction between everyone in attendance. How the lady to his left traded multicoloured candles for a bundle of cloth and bread and there were no jingles of Federal Rewards taps. The Perfect Cup Pod Brewer man didn't ask him who's been denying him chocolates in the morning. He revelled in the silence and remembered briefly long ago a four day weekend spent in the cottage with his auburn haired girl beside him and his house mates ducking in lakes.
“Every scenario you go to REAP convention, you meet Bryan and pursue internship with Agency.” Tim says beside him. He's a small man that stands no taller than shoulder height with his arms crossed behind him. “Once in awhile you say you go to cottage. Strange margin of error. Occurs small number of population only.”
Tim leads him counterclockwise around the room, stopping at various vendors. Joe says nothing, but the feeling in his shoulders is begging Tim to continue. He makes notes of the various nick nacks for sale so that he doesn't have to take note of the familiar faces of the vendors. At one point Brett offers him a salt lamp. He does not notice.
“When one you chooses to go cottage, other yous remembers. Make reality very difficult.”
They're nearing the end of the fare and lights are appearing brighter tightening the space in his rib cage. He thinks he is crying, but when he chokes out his question his voice sounds tired.
“How is it a reality when it's only the worst possible outcome?”
“Only worst if you know others,” Tim says taking a Death by Chocolate pastry from an outstretched hand that may or may not have belonged to Anita. “Algorithm very hard, but many easy fix. Only be sad if Joe never go cottage.”
“I never went to the cottage.”
“One time Joe go so that's okay,” Tim says finally handing him the Death by Chocolate. Joe fiddles with it having a faint idea what happens when he eats it the lights slowly brightening to their usual vibrancy.
“Does that Joe get to stay?” Tim looks at him with sad eyes for a moment, pushes the pastry closer to him. “We keep that Joe until we can't. Then you can choose cottage over again. For now do math with Bryan here.”
Joe chews the pastry and mulls over how the taste delivers in comparison to the intense eye contact between the young mother and the barista in the commercial.
“Tomorrow we change hair colour of woman to brown. Maybe no trigger.”
Joe tries to agree and to also tell Tim to lose the stroller, but his eye lids are too heavy.
The simulation tech rubs his eyes in frustration and ponders never raising his head for all eternity. In general, he was completely underpaid and wonders if this coat understands that he is a tek-nish-yan not a math-muh-tish-yan. He turns the dial counterclockwise again and starts the simulation from the top. Looks over the code as if he can see the reason the calculations provide two outputs on this equation and wonders if a simple end script in the first scenario solves the issue. He just wants to go home.
“I say we terminate at the first scene and then run script. That way he wont ripple across the game on launch day and we have time and funding to work the kinks. He's only a side character with a side quest anyway and I am sick of this error message.”
Tim caresses the error message on the screen and is silent for a moment.
“End script tomorrow before launch. Complicated back story too much for first ram,” he says taking off his lab coat. “We come morning. Let script run tonight and show all error for terminate.”
The tech sighs in relief glad to finally put away his tools. Maybe he can catch the last few minutes of Federal Rewards Hour.
“Today long day. Hopefully night time is same.”