Ria here. I got this plot bunny in the middle of the night and it wouldn’t stop pressing me to write, So here it is! Not my best, but I’m pretty satisfied with the way it turned out. Dedicated to Biblio_phile, my favorite swan princess. Check out her work if you haven’t already — it won’t disappoint! Happy birthday, Amaya!
The life of a gourmet chef is harder than I expected.
The heat of the kitchens is impossible, the customers are a pain, and the constant pressure to deliver the finest items breathes down my back all day. Granted, it’s a privilege to work for Mr. Sherman. He says I make better pastries and drinks than anyone he’s ever met, and that praise earned me a spot as head of the breakfast counter at the renowned Café de l'Ouest. He’s much nicer than most employers and allows me to travel internationally to taste new things. Sure, I have to write a report when I come back from my travels, but for someone who loves traveling and excels in the art of cooking? It’s worth it.
Well, sometimes. My job allows me to experience different cultures, meet new people, and practice my hobby, which I love. Yet, there are times where I absolutely do not want to go to wherever I'm supposed to but am forced to anyway. Like now.
And then there are instances where the food provided is just gross. Like now, again. The Salted Caramel Frappuccino with Cinnamon Clusters — whatever that is — is nothing more than a blend of melted ice, milk, a shot of caramel, and enough cinnamon to make my eyes water. I don’t have the heart to leave, even though I'd hightail back home the moment I find an opportunity to do so.
But I can't. Not when Mr. Sherman specifically told me to try this shop. He even arranged a first-class round trip for me, adorned with a five-star hotel, exclusive spa access, and a personal butler.
I sigh. He’s going to be disappointed that the well-known Coffee Salon of Nashville can’t make a decent frappe. A fall drink should warm the insides without overdoing it, but this mess is too cold with too much spice to even be called a “fall drink.”
As I stand up, a young waiter comes over to take my drink. “Everything good?” he asks. I grimaced. This guy kept shooting me sly looks and didn’t know the meaning of personal space. I pull out my trademark sarcasm and offer a tight-lipped smile and a nod. “Of course. Thank you for the service. The drinks were wonderful.”
His smug grin makes me want to hurl. “Oh, I knew it. We are known for our signature Salted Caramel Frappuccino with Cinnamon Clusters. People come from all over the world to have it. Oh, dear me. I suppose you already know that — after all, you’re one of them.”
I roll my eyes internally. Some people simply don’t understand sarcasm. I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt and plaster a fake smile on my face. “Mm-hmm. Of course. It was great.”
I pick up my purse and leave before he can reply, purposely leaving my barely touched drink on the table. Another minute with a guy like him would make me want to gouge my eyes out. Ugh. Some people are simply atrocious to be around.
My fast pace and furious muttering under my breath attract curious glances from many strangers. I glare at them and keep walking. Seriously, what happened to basic decency? Can’t parents teach their children that staring is plain rude? I shake my head in disapproval.
A booming woman’s voice snaps me out of my reverie. “Café of Bliss is open! With new flavors! Special for the season!”
I have to resist the pressing urge to take my purse and whack the obnoxious woman on the head. Why can’t some people understand that normal humans (like me) want some space and solitude? Sure, it’s downtown Nashville, but some peace and quiet shouldn’t be so hard to get!
Then I realize what she just said. Café. Open. Special flavors for the season. Bingo! This place better brew a normal drink, or Mr. Sherman is getting an earful from me.
The sound of jingling bells above me makes me groan. Since when is the mundane act of getting a coffee so hard, and so loud? I try to smile as I order. The woman at the counter smiles sympathetically at me, and I want to slap her so bad I almost laugh. I don’t need sympathy! Especially from Nashville folk.
“One small — uh, I’ll take whatever special you have today. I assume it’s the Cinnamon Almond Milk Macchiato?”
She nods. “Yup. It’s a-ma-zing, believe me. I run through at least three every day of the season.”
I inhale deeply. One stroke of luck in the unluckiest day ever. “I’ll have a small size, please.”
“Alrighty! Coming right up!” Her cheery mood is giving me a headache and I plop myself onto one of the chairs to avoid replying.
I try not to scream when the drink comes up. This was a drink? It looked like a bunch of brown specks floating around in almond milk. I don’t bother trying it — the look of it makes me want to vomit.
“Anything else, ma’am?” the waitress taps her pen on her notepad. The idea of tearing it from her clutch and shredding it almost makes me smile, but at least someone around this place should have decent manners.
“No, thank you,” I tell her. She smiles and rushes to the back. I take the opportunity to slip out of the shop. Another moment in there, and I’d have to go to jail by the end of the day for murder. I can not understand how people can apparently “run through at least three every day” of that offensive mix of grossness.
Just when the day couldn’t get any worse, I happen to catch a glimpse of a hanging sign from a smaller shop on the corner. My heart stops and my breath catches. No. I swore I wouldn’t come back here.
Voices and memories hit me with the force of a pound of bricks. I sag onto the ground and lean against the shop front. Tears blur my vision and the world around me ceases to exist as the memories I’ve successfully kept at bay attack me full-force.
“Come on, hurry! The shop’s open! They have our favorite!” George, only 5 years old.
I had to wake up to my little brother jumping on me and poking my bare shoulder every day the entire autumn season.
“Alright, alright, come down, you two. We’ll head there in just a few.” Mum laughs.
Five minutes became thirty because Dad kept forgetting things. First his wallet, then his glasses, then his phone, then the car keys.
“Let’s see who gets there first!” Dad’s deep voice echoes.
I won that race. George said I cheated.
“Gosh, this is great! Wish they had this year-round.” Mum sighs in pleasure, her eyes closed.
Pumpkin Spice Lattes were a favorite of the girls in the family. Dad and George preferred hot cocoa, but Mum and I thought that was too ordinary.
“Hey, you have me! That’s better than this stuff!” Dad, always one for flirty banter.
Dad always pretended to be jealous of anything that held Mum’s attention for more than a minute, except for George and me.
“Ewww, stop kissing! That’s stinky!” George was so small, only his head peeked over the table’s edge.
I joined him, but I secretly loved how affectionate the two were with each other even after years of being married.
Mum and Dad’s laugh — his rich with a lovely timbre, hers a sweet melodic note.
All of our laughs could create a band, they were so different.
George’s childish squeals. Dad tugging on my ponytail. Mum nudging my foot under the table.
My family trying to keep introvert extraordinaire — me — from spacing out. I wish I spent more time with them.
Then screams. Gunshots. My dad, falling lifeless to the floor. George’s bloody face. Mum getting hit by the falling ceiling. Me managing to get out.
A nightmare turned into reality.
Living alone. Learning of the organized massacre that took place. A protest against some tax thing. Scrapping work at the local animal shelter, barely managing to get into basic community college courses, and getting hired by Mr. Sherman.
The rest was history.
“All right there, miss?” A voice startles me out of my thoughts. I quickly wipe my face and glare at the imposing man.
“What’s it to you?” I snap. I have had it today.
“Whoa, there. I’m sorry. Let’s start this again. I’m Rick. I work at the coffee shop you’re sitting in front of. I was just curious why such a pretty lady like you is sitting all alone here. Crying, I presume? Oh, darn. That was insensitive. I apologize. Why don’t you come in and have a drink? It’s on the house.”
I sniffle. Oh, this was so embarrassing! “Is the coffee real coffee, or is it just chunks of mystery who-knows-what floating around in a pool of expired milk? If that’s the case, not a chance. I’ve had a terrible day, and I’m not in the mood for some nice chit chat.”
He chuckles. “I can tell. Shoot — don’t kill me for that, okay? No, we serve real stuff here. The things they have down the road? I tried it once and never looked back. Nasty.”
I eye him. “You better not be saying this for business’s purposes. I swore I’d never come back to this store. So now, you better find a good reason. Or I’ll personally have the police set after you.”
“Oh, no. I promise. I’ll even whip up a batch for myself, then we’ll both have to suffer if it’s bad. K? And, don’t mind me asking, are you… are you hesitant about entering because of the — you know, the thing that happened here years ago?”
I shoot to my feet. “That,” I growl, “is not your business. Keep your nose in your life, leave it out of mine. Or else —”
“Okay, okay! Sorry! Just trying to make conversation! Since that didn’t work out, let’s go in.”
I freeze at the doorway. It looks the same. Same tile design, same portraits. A wave of nostalgia hits me and I almost lose it in front of him (again). I manage to keep myself in one piece until I see the new addition to the back wall.
I let out a sob. “May I?”
He nods. I can see pity in his eyes, but it’s laced with understanding. I allow my fingers to trail over the photos. “Are these all of them?”
“Yup. We had family and friends send it pictures. Y’know, to create a memorial of sorts.”
“This is George,” I whisper. I have no idea what devil possessed me, but once that dam cracked, it came crashing down. My mouth blurts out everything before I can process what I’m doing. “My baby brother. He was five. He liked his dinosaur so much he took it everywhere. See? It’s in the background.”
He comes to stand behind me. “He’s beautiful.”
“And this woman? My mother. People say I look like her, but I have my father’s eyes. She wanted to live in Australia someday. And work in the zoo, since she could see the koalas every day that way.”
“She sounds lovely. Koalas are amazing.”
“Uh-huh. This is my father. He — he hated koalas with a passion. Said it took up too much of my mother’s heart, space that he should have occupied.”
He snorts. “I can totally see myself doing that someday. That’s probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard, and yet the most logical.”
I nod. “That’s him. Absolutely mental, but the wisest man on Earth.” My voice is (thankfully) a lot more stable now. I think it has to do with my facing my past demons after holding back for so long. Somehow, I know my family’s deaths won’t haunt me as much anymore. It’s a nice feeling, to be free of what chained you to the trauma you faced in your past.
I straighten my shoulders and take a breath. “Well. With the elephant in the room taken care of, why don’t I get something? A Pumpkin Spice Latte, please.”
He smirks. “Back to business, aye? Well then. Give me a minute.”
And I do. When I see the drink, I almost burst into tears in sheer happiness. It’s actually, really, a proper drink. With the perfect consistency, beautiful foam, elegant drizzle — it’s just how I remember.
My hands tremble as I lift the cup to my mouth. I can almost imagine my family around me. In a way, they are. They’re watching over me, all the time.
With that in mind, I close my eyes and allow the scents of pumpkin, cinnamon, and a hint of vanilla fill me. I haven’t felt like this in forever. I can’t believe I lived without this for so long.
So when the time comes for me to write a report on the shop, I happily sign off with my signature flourish.
The place is stunning. My favorite aspect of the shop? The mural on the back wall. My favorite drink? The Pumpkin Spice Latte. If I had to describe it in two words, the only thing that fits is this: