Aisha squinted in the dark, scratching at the employee entrance with her key. The door opened and she nearly fell inside. Her manager, Clarissa, held it for her.
“You’re on time. Good.”
Aisha met her dark jade eyes and forced the first smile of her shift. “Good morning.”
She slid past her manager into the coffee shop and frowned. She despised getting up before the sun. The only perk of the job, besides the free coffee, was having the place to herself for an hour when she opened. She never thought she’d wind up as a barista-in-training at this stage in her life.
Her manager studied her. “Have you eaten?”
Aisha wasn’t sure what the right answer was. A functioning adult should have made their bed, made breakfast and probably written some ‘thank you’ notes already. Aisha tucked an errant curl behind her ear and shook her head.
“Good," Clarissa clapped her hands together. "You’ll need a clean palette for the new drinks.”
“That’s why I skipped breakfast,” Aisha lied. She’d barely slept or showered that week, and she had totally spaced on today’s ‘Autumn Beverage Training Module’. At least she’d remembered her uniform.
Clarissa tilted her head towards the kitchen area. “Let’s get started so you can be ready when we open the doors.”
Aisha wondered how old Clarissa was. She had great cheekbones and a brushstroke of grey in her long black hair. They might even be the same age, but there was an old soul behind those green eyes.
Had Clarissa started in this business, or lost her real job like Aisha had? Did she want to be a manager, or did she simply never escape the coffee shop?
Clarissa pointed to a row of ingredients and utensils. “We won’t be serving Pumpkin Spice this season.”
Society had reached Peak Pumpkin Spice two years ago, and ‘caffeinated cider’ had been a sickly-sweet failure.
“We have some special offerings for autumn.” Her manager cupped a colorful handful of candy corn in her hand. “First up is the ‘Hallowcream’.”
She tossed the candy corn into a blender with one cup of light roast coffee and a scoop of ice. The mixture blurred together and soon Clarissa was pouring a frothy tan stream into a glass.
“Note the cascade and separation.”
The beverage settled and divided into layers. Aisha thought that was a sign of poor blending, until Clarissa added a cloud of whipped cream on top. The Hallowcream now looked like a giant candy corn, with a yellow bottom, orange center and white top.
It also looked like something that would be better on Instagram than inside your mouth. She reluctantly took a sip.
A jolt of sugar chased the morning fog and dreary clouds from her brain. It was the perfect mix of coffee and candy!
Why hadn’t she made any plans for Halloween? That was obvious, but she deserved to have some fun after the awful year she’d had! She began dreaming up a costume. It was time to connect with all of the friends she’d been avoiding.
She took another big sip and smiled. “This is amazing! What else do we have?”
Her manager opened a stack of bins and placed ingredients into a black mortar and pestle. There was a charred orange leaf, a wilted flower and a tangled clump of pale green hair. “Grind these up.”
Aisha mashed them together while her manager heated some milk. The leaf crumbled into ash. The green stuff appeared to be some kind of moss. “Is this, like, an herbal tea? Never made one with moss before.”
Clarissa took the bowl. “It’s called ‘usnea’. It’s all-natural.” She packed the powder into a metal filter and ran it through the espresso machine. She also pulled a regular shot of espresso.
She handed Aisha the shots. “First the tea, then the espresso. Top it off with the foamed milk.”
Aisha caressed the drink's surface with a pale layer of milk. A black stain crept across it, ruining her presentation.
“It’s fine, that’s supposed to happen. Go ahead, try it.”
Aisha took a sip. It was harsh and biting. She’d thought that the floral notes might help, but they tasted like ashes and dirt.
She looked at the black smudges of ground up powder under her nails.
Two months ago she had tossed a handful of earth onto her mother’s coffin. That should have felt like an ending to a long bleak chapter in her life. It had only added funeral bills to the mountain of medical debt.
Aisha turned away. The last thing she needed was for her boss to see her crying.
“It’s bitter, isn’t it?” Clarissa said. “It’s called the ‘Macchiato Mori’.”
Aisha wiped her mouth. “I might have more luck selling those Hallowcreams.”
Clarissa smiled, but Aisha didn’t see any joy in it. It was a gentle smile that communicated patience. Her mother’s nurses had worn it frequently.
“Life isn’t always sweet,” Clarissa said. “Neither are coffee and tea.”
“Got it.” Aisha stared out the coffee shop window. It was so dark. Her shift had barely begun and she wanted to put her head down on the counter.
“I’ll make the last one for you. Just watch.” Clarissa unwrapped a mahogany brick of Oaxacan chocolate.
She chopped up a piece along with a dried chili pepper and dumped it into the pot of warm milk. She added some vanilla, a pinch of salt and a charred cinnamon stick. The mouth-watering scents turned the kitchen air into warm velvet.
Memories bubbled up from Aisha’s childhood. Movies on the couch with mom, wrapped under a big blanket. Late night talks. Spending the day in fluffy bathrobes with a stack of books between them.
Aisha clenched her jaw. She tried to stay numb in the coffee shop. The place was a just a rut that she was climbing out of, not part of her real life.
A different smell brought her back to the present. The delicate aroma was vibrant, like fresh cut wood.
She watched Clarissa blow a plume of burning incense into the pot of melting chocolate. She captured the ethereal smoke under a lid.
“Wow,” Aisha said, “what is that?”
Clarissa wrapped up the clear resin and the brick of chocolate. “This is copal, an important part of the ceremonies for Dia De Los Muertos.” She tilted the pot and filled a mug with steaming dark chocolate. “As well as our ‘Cocoa De Los Muertos’.”
She offered the mug to Aisha. “Oh, and don’t forget,” she dropped in a small grinning sugar skull.
Aisha tasted the spicy hot chocolate. Memories continued to crowd her mind, too many to explore, but each left behind some warmth as they parted.
Clarissa fixed herself a mug of cocoa. “I don’t mean to pry, but one of the girls mentioned that you had a loss in your family. I wanted to offer my condolences.”
“Um, yeah. Yes. Thank you. My mother.”
Clarissa gave her another patient smile. “What was she like?”
“She was the best,” Aisha said.
Aisha took another drink. Was. Past tense. The meaning sank in, but she was surprised that it didn’t make her sad. Mom was gone, but the love was still there. It would always be there.
A sigh took flight from her ribcage and fluttered into the sky.
Clarissa smiled, green eyes crinkling at the edges. “I’d like to hear more about her.”
They headed into the customer seating area and sat on the old leather sofa. They sipped chocolate and shared stories about the loved ones they’d lost. Smiles turned into laughter, and before they knew it the windows were painted in peach and purple light.
A weary customer approached the front door.
Aisha swiftly unlocked it and smiled. “Good morning! May I interest you in one of our autumn specials?”