Jazz music plays from the front of Ron’s Antique Shop. Even several aisles in I can hear him humming along to the melody.
“The music of my time,” he’d cheerfully said when I walked in moments ago. On the counter beside him was an antique vinyl record player, still in mint working condition. “Just got it in yesterday,” he’d said, laying a prideful hand on it. “Thought I’d check and see if it works.”
Apparently, it does. And I can’t imagine him putting it up for sale now.
I smile to myself as another track begins to play, with Ron’s cheerful hums accompanying the piano and trumpets.
I peruse the books on a wooden shelf, continuing on when I see nothing too terribly interesting. My feet automatically pause when I reach the cookware section. The copper kettle on a small table catches my eye once again. But the moment my mind wanders to the Café and its owner/barista, I immediately walk away.
Truth be told, I haven’t been there in almost two weeks. It’s not the longest I’ve gone without stopping in, but this time is different than all the others.
In the past, the café remained closed and locked. No matter how much I might want it to be otherwise. This time, I’m avoiding it, regardless of the door being unlocked or not—and I’ve seen it unlocked a lot recently.
I just can’t bring myself to go. Not after what C.C. insinuated the last time.
You’re being ridiculous, my mind chastises. Yet, somehow, a deep seeded instinct inside tells me otherwise. And I don’t know which one to listen to.
I sigh, feeling a sudden urge to just go home. As much as I love dropping into the antique shop, I find nothing that catches my interest.
As I come to the front, Ron flashes his familiar smile. A quick turn on the knob along the box’s side lowers the volume of the music. “Did you find anything today?” He asks.
“No,” I answer with a shrug. “Not today.
“Well, I’m sure something will jump out at you some time.”
I think about the copper kettle and the pocket watch I’d avoided this time around. The more I see it, the more tempted I am to buy it. “I’m sure,” I agree. “You get new things all the time.”
“Well, you have a great rest of the day, my dear. I’ll see you the next time you come by.”
“Thanks, Ron. I’ll see you next time.”
As I push through the door, a familiar sound stops me in my tracks.
An echoing bell.
My gaze remains stuck on the concrete as the silvery sound fades into the distance. The sounds of people walking and cars passing are muffled to my ears.
It’s just the bell to Ron’s door. I tell myself. Why are you freaking out?
I shake my head, my gaze rising to the stone archway across the road. A temptation creeps beneath my skin, making my legs itch for movement.
Just go, a voice whispers to me. You have no reason not to.
With an audible groan, I give up, crossing the road and passing beneath the arch. The gated door is wide open as music falls creeps down the stone steps. It’s exactly the same every time I come.
Except for one thing.
The mini chalkboard in front offers a cheerful welcome I’m not used to. Instead of the usual “Come On In!” It says something else.
I ignore any feelings this tries to entice and climb the stairs. The music grows louder as I ascend, reaching a height I’ve never heard before. I stop at the top, brows furrowing as to why C.C. would make it so loud.
I step through the double doors, half expecting the music to completely deafen me—and for a moment, I thought maybe it had.
The second my feet hit the café’s dark, gray floors the music stops. The air inside so silent, so still, it makes me pause.
It’s completely empty. I see no Jan, no Al. Nobody. None of the people I’m used to seeing occupy their chairs.
“Okay,” I mumble. “That’s weird.” This doesn’t happen. Not once have I ever been here and there not be at least one person.
My light steps thunder inside my ears amidst all the silence. I stop at the barista counter, watching as the kettles across the way release their usual white plumes of steam.
Sun creeps through an open window, landing on the rose gold bell and its miniature chalkboard sign.
The last time I’d been confronted with that bell, I’d been given an insinuation I still can’t make any sense of.
My hand reaches out of its own accord, my fingers coming down on the bell’s top button.
It echoes, travelling around the room and radiating inside my ears.
I refuse to take my eyes off the counter, waiting to see if C.C. will pop up like she did once before, or magically materialize in front of me.
“Hey there,” a pleasant voice calls from behind.
I whirl around, stumbling back a step when I find her perched at one of the previously empty tables. She smiles at me expectantly, but I find words difficult. Memories of our last encounter clog my throat and I can’t formulate a response to her.
She cocks her head to the side. “Everything okay?”
A simple question with a complicated answer. Was I okay? Standing in the middle of a café I’ve had nothing but unusual experiences in, mixed with a barista who tends to disappear and reappear in the blink of an eye…was I okay?
I clear my throat and bob my head. “Yeah, everything’s fine.” I cautiously approach the table, trying to find a good way to make myself appear normal. “I-uh-I just noticed there wasn’t anyone in here today. It surprised me.”
C.C. drops her chin into her hand. “I have my extremely slow days too.” She gestures to the chair opposite her. “Sit down. I’ll make you something to drink.”
She rises as I sit, heading straight for the counter I just left. “Any requests?” She calls over her shoulder.
“Surprise me,” I respond, trying desperately to relax. I have no idea why I’m feeling so nervous. And it’s beginning to frustrate me.
C.C. taps her fingers on the counter in a contemplative tick. “Are you feeling coffee, tea, or hot chocolate?”
Considering how jazzed up I already feel, I don’t think coffee would be a good idea. “Hot chocolate.”
“Oh, good choice.” She grins, turning towards her steaming kettles. “Especially since it’s starting to get cold outside.”
“Exactly my thoughts,” I say, though I can’t tell if she heard me or not. The words came out lower than I intended.
As she works behind the counter, I sit, trying desperately not to feel or appear awkward. I shift in my seat, my purse held tightly in my lap.
Stop acting like a criminal about to be caught!
“How’s business been?” I ask, when the silence grows too deafening.
C.C. vanishes behind the counter, the sound of rummaging following her disappearance. “Not bad,” she shouts over the noise. “The usual in and out flow of people.” She pops back up, flashing a smile as she lays something rather large on the counter. “Nothing too exciting though.”
Curious to see what she’s doing, I make my way back to the counter. I pause when I see a hot plate she’s plugged in, and a small, saucepan sitting next to it.
“What’re you doing?”
She beams at me as she pulls out more utensils and ingredients. A whisk, measuring cups and spoons, a solid bar of dark chocolate, a container of cornstarch, cocoa powder, and a carton of milk. “I’m making hot chocolate,” she answers.
“Is there any better way?”
I shake my head. “It just seems like a lot of trouble.”
“It’s no trouble to me. I enjoy making this stuff.” She opens one of her drawers, pulling out a wooden cutting board and a knife. “So,” she continues, unravelling the bar of chocolate and laying it on the board. “How’s the writing coming along? Any new short stories you want me to read?”
I lean against the counter, observing the grace of her movements as she cuts the chocolate into tiny bits. “Not really. I haven’t felt the motivation lately.”
She frowns at me. “Really? Why not? More writer’s block?”
“No, actually.” How do I explain this to her when I can’t even explain it to myself? I don’t know why I haven’t opened my laptop for several days now. “Guess I’m just not feeling the urge like I was before.”
C.C. pushes the chopped chocolate aside. “I’m sorry to hear that. Maybe you just need a rest from it?”
I shrug. “Maybe.”
We grow silent as she begins measuring out her sugar, cocoa powder, cornstarch, and milk.
“What’s the cornstarch for?” I ask, wanting to banish the quiet.
She dumps it into a small bowl, pouring milk over top and mixing the two together. “It’ll help it get thick.”
“Hot chocolate is supposed to be thick?” This notion seems incredibly odd to me. I go back to my memories of childhood, where hot chocolate was simply a drink made up of mixing powder and hot water or milk.
C.C. chuckles at my surprise. “Yes, it can be. Depends on which kind you want.”
My brows arch at the prospect. “Who knew hot chocolate could be complicated?”
The cornstarch and milk mixture is placed to the side with the chopped chocolate. C.C. sets the saucepan on the hot plate, combining her other ingredients—sugar, cocoa powder, milk and a hint of salt—inside.
The knob turns, and the hot plate begins to heat.
She whisks everything together, waiting patiently for it to start simmering. Once it begins to bubble, she dumps the cornstarch and milk in, whisking it more.
After a couple more minutes, the chopped chocolate is added too. C.C. turns off the heat, and whisks everything for the next several seconds, until the drink thickens up.
“All done,” she says, removing the pan from the heat. She waves me off. “Go on and have a seat, I’ll be right over with this.”
I nod in compliance and return to my earlier seat. I hear her fumbling around some more in the back, and within two shakes of a lamb’s tail, she appears at the table, a steaming mug in hand.
It finds its place on the tabletop in front of me. Chocolatey aroma hits my nose and I salivate.
The already enticing offering is topped with a couple dollops of what appears to be whipped cream, and chocolate shavings.
C.C. slides into the chair opposite me, leaning in expectantly. “Well?” She says when I sit and stare. “Don’t just look at it. Give it a try.”
I lift the cup and take a tentative sip. I’ve always loved hot chocolate. It was a favorite of mine growing up, especially around this time of year, when the air grows cold.
But the hot chocolate of the past—a simple envelope of chocolatey powder mixed with hot water, or milk if I was feeling fancy—is nowhere near the class of this delicious holiday favorite. The drink is thick and silky smooth, the chocolate is sweet, but not overpowering. The whip cream on top adds an extra bit of creaminess that makes me smile.
“It’s really good,” I grin. “I’ve never had hot chocolate like this before.”
C.C. leans back in her chair with a triumphant grin. “It’s a specialty of mine around the holiday season.” She glanced towards the windows. “I only make it for special customers, like yourself, though. I never put it on the menu.”
“Why not?” I take another sip. “If you did, I bet you’d make a hearty dollar amount.”
She waves my words away. “I don’t really do this for money. I do this because I enjoy it.”
I recall the times in the past I’ve tried paying for my drinks, encountering her insistent rejection every time. The most I could do was drop a few dollars or more into her tip jar. Which, I suddenly notice, is nowhere in sight.
We sit in companionable silence for a few minutes. She nods her head to the relaxing music playing from above, while I concentrate on drinking the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had.
When I finally down the last bit, she reaches across the table. “I’ll go ahead and take that.”
I watch her as she walks back to the counter, busying herself with cleaning the cup and various other utensils she just used. With nothing much else to do, I stretch my legs and head for the counter too.
The rose gold bell catches my attention again, and I finally can’t resist the urge to ask. “Why didn’t you answer me last time?”
C.C. glances up, her brows rising in obvious question as to what I’m talking about.
“Your name,” I explain. “Last time I was here, I asked what C.C. stands for. You didn’t answer me.”
“Oh,” she nods. “That.” C.C. grows silent, laying the dishes she used out on a white, drying towel. She flashes a friendly smile. “I did answer.”
I shake my head, recalling what happened last time. “No, you didn’t. All you did was ring the bell.” I gesture to the rose gold item at my elbow. “You didn’t actually say anything.”
C.C. once again pauses, her hands wrist deep in soapy water. She inhales deep, then slowly releases it. She pulls her hands from the sink, drying them with another towel. Her expression sobers, but in her eyes I see a glint of sympathy, as though she feels sorry for me for some strange reason.
“You don’t have to pretend with me,” she softly says. “I know you know what that meant.”
I feel the blood drain from my face, and the ground shakes beneath me. No, I think. There’s no way she knows what I thought. And there’s no way what I thought makes any sense.
“No,” I argue. “I don’t.”
“You do,” she counters.
“No, I don’t,” I stubbornly refuse, my voice rising. “How would you know what I think?”
“Because I do.” C.C. leans her hands on the countertop. Her brown eyes bear into mine. “You know what that meant. You might as well say it out loud.”
I shake my head, taking a step back. “There’s no way,” I whisper. “How could that be possible? This isn’t a movie or storybook. It’s real life.”
She purses her lips, the corners of her mouth drawing down. She looks troubled, troubled by something she appears to know, but I don’t. “That’s the thing,” she whispers. “It’s not.”
It’s not? What the hell does that mean?
“What do you mean?” I demand, my heart slamming against my ribs. Her words are beginning to scare me. I try to play it off inside my head. Maybe she’s crazy. Maybe she’s out of her mind.
Maybe she’s not, another voice whispers.
She seems to notice my rising anxiety, because she circles the counter, both hands coming up when I retreat from her. “Okay,” she sooths. “It’s okay. Don’t freak out.”
“Why wouldn’t I freak out?” I snap. “You’re not making any sense.”
“I can clarify,” she offers.
Suddenly, I don’t want to hear her explanations. I don’t want to listen to another word she says. “Forget it,” I interject before she can say another word. I grab my bag from the table, immediately turning for the door.
I slide to a halt when I spot her across the café, standing right in front of it. There’s no way she crossed that distance that quickly. I stumble back, putting an even greater distance between us. “What the–”
“Hear me out,” she urges. “I know I’m scaring your right now, but I promise there’s a reason.”
“What reason?” I exclaim. “What the hell is going on?”
C.C. attempts to step closer, but when I flinch, she moves back. “First, what your instincts are telling you about me are correct. When you asked me what my real name was, I told you. I didn’t just ring a bell.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” I urge. “You’re telling me, that you…..you and this café….” I can’t finish the thought. It’s too absurd.
But she nods in answer. “Yes, we’re one in the same.”
My mind immediately rejects her words. “No. That’s impossible!”
Her mouth falls into a grim line. “In a world like this, anything is possible.”
“’World like this’?” I repeat. “What do you mean ‘World like this’?”
She hesitates, as though trying desperately to find a way to explain it without scaring me further. But there must not have been one. Because when she answers, it’s blunt.
Every muscle in my body freezes. “F… fiction?” My arms grow limp and I almost drop my bag. The world tilts on me, but I remain standing. When I speak, I can barely hear myself. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “But She doesn’t want to lie to you anymore.”
I don’t say the word out loud, but it’s like C.C. hears it anyway. “The Author,” she explains. “She was going to keep you in the dark, but she needs your help–”
“Woah, woah, woah.” My hand shoots up, urging her to stop talking! “The Author? As in, like what I am?
She nods. “Yes. She wrote this place.” Her eyes roam the café. “She wrote me. She wrote everyone you’ve seen and met.” She pauses, lips pressing into a fine line. “She wrote you.”
I blanch, my brain shooting fireworks inside my skull. “What?”
C.C. looks at me with so much sympathy, it makes me want to break something. “You’re a character,” she whispers. “Inside a story.”
I stumble back, the walls closing in around me. “You’re crazy,” I gasp. “Your insane.”
She gives me a small smile. “I wish I was. But I’m telling the truth. And, deep down, you know that.”
I don’t say anything. I can’t.
Because I’m beginning to think she’s right. I can’t explain it. There’s no way I could even begin to try.
There’s a small voice inside my head. It sounds like me. But it isn’t me. Whispering inside my ear and telling me that, no matter how unbelievably crazy this whole thing seems, it’s slowly becoming my reality.
“No,” I shake my head, rejecting the voice, rejecting C.C., rejecting what they’re both trying to make me believe. “You’re wrong. I’m real!” I don’t wait for her to say anything else. I run for the door, brushing past her and hurrying down the stairs so fast, it all passes in a blur. Before I know it, I’m standing beside the street, trying to catch my breath.
For the first time in a long time, I don’t glance back towards the café as I rush off. I don’t sneak a peek back to see if the door is magically locked, or to read the “Come Again” written on the miniature chalkboard.
I don’t stop until I’ve safely locked the door to my apartment. I lean back against it, huffing and puffing from the exertion it took to get here.
See, I internally berate myself. Your lungs are burning, your muscles are tired. A character wouldn’t feel that.
Unless it was written to feel them, another voice states.
I push away from the door, throwing my bag down on my couch and fishing my phone out. I text Angie.
Me: Can you come over?
Angie: Of course! I’ll head over after work. Is everything okay?
I hesitate, wondering what I should tell her.
Me: Yeah, everything’s fine. Just need some girl time. It’s been a while since we hung out.
Angie: I know right? I’ll get off in a couple of hours. I’ll head right over!
Me: Awesome! See you soon!
I drop my phone to the couch cushions, releasing a sigh of relief. Seeing Angie will help, it always does.
I nestle onto the rug between my couch and coffee table, turning on my tv to find something to occupy my mind for the next couple of hours.
But no matter what I do, I can’t get C.C.’s words out of my head.
“She wrote me. She wrote everyone you’ve seen and met.”
“She wrote you.”
I banish the conversation from my mind. “No, she didn’t.” I mumble to myself, hugging my knees to my chest. “I’m not a character. I’m real.”
I drop my forehead to my knees. “I’m real.”