Saturday, February 12, 2011

Adventures At Cupid Cafe (Friday Fiction) [Final]

This week's Friday Fiction is hosted by Karlene Jacobsen @ Her blog Homespun Expressions. Click here to read and share more great fiction!

Author's Ramblings: This installment has taken me so long to finish. I've been working on it on and off all day in between of my homework and general randomness. I can't believe that I've actually cut out more than I've typed. Whew! What an exhausting piece. ^_^ But it was still fun to see this story come together. I'm not sure how I quite like this ending--because there was so much more I wanted to add, but I couldn't bear to extend it another week.Do keep an eye out for future adventures at Cupid Cafe. I have a few ideas in mind, but I don't know when I'll write them out. As a treat, I've made a mini line-drawing map layout of how the cafe is divided, so you can follow the action a little better. This 'episode' "First Heart" can be dubbed as a Kamei episode. She was the one character who wouldn't shut up, so she kind of elbowed her way into the heart of this fluffy piece. Hopefully next week, I'll have something new up for your reading enjoyment. Thank you for the wonderful comments on the previous installments, I do hope that you enjoy the conclusion to this mini-serial. Comments, feedback, suggestions and general randomness is fine. Have a great weekend and happy reading! (Oh and happy Valentines day.) ~_^



Cupid's Cafe : First Heart


Read the previous installments here:

Part One : Cupid Cafe : First Heart
Part Two: Cupid Cafe : First Heart


RECAP: At the mysterious Cupid's Cafe, five girls work to make the establishment a warm and inviting resting spot for everyone who passes beneath the legendary stone archway. Things are running smoothly until gift shop manager Kamei, discovers that her school friend Celia is seeing the resident playboy, Brent. Kamei's interference with a love potion has caused trouble for the couple and things move steadily from horrible--to downright awful! Can the girls pull through together or will their friendships fall apart?




When the afternoon rolled around again, the evening shift at the café was more rushed than usual. Melody was barking out orders from the kitchen and Cheri had everyone hopping on their feet to handle the nighttime crowd. Kamei was even pulled out of the gift shop and made to run the front register so Cheri could play head hostess and keep things running smoothly between Lucy and Tomi.

“Why is it so busy tonight?” Cheri stepped into the prep room, wiping her forehead on one white sleeve and sagging against the smooth white walls. “Mel, did you get those-”

“Fifteen and eight are done. I have the parfaits coming right up. We’re out of hazelnut cream so you’ll have to ask about substitutes. I’ve made an extra batch of sweet biscuits, you can throw in one or two to make up for it, if you like.” Melody was a whirl of activity as she bustled from one counter to the next, her magical fingers cutting, chopping, smoothing and frosting various confections lined up on the counter. “Lucy, darling-” Her voice darkened. “If you dare touch that, I will-”

“Lucy!” Cheri caught her before she could swipe a pastry from a prepared tray. “That’s for the customers. If you want to get something to eat, you’ll have to wait until we have the time to slow down. Drink some cocoa in the meantime—Lucy?” The younger girl sagged into her arms, her body going limp. “Hey, are you alright?” Cheri guided her to a stool in the corner and felt her forehead.

“What happened?” Melody paused in mid-frost, leaning over to squint at the blonde’s pale face. “Maybe you’d better give her a cookie.”

“I don’t think a cookie will fix it.” Cheri bit her lip. “She looks feverish.”

Melody frowned. “Haven’t you been paying attention?”

“What are you saying?”

“Have you been paying attention?”

“This isn’t my fault.”

“I didn’t say that it was.”

“But you’re implying-”

“You made the inference. I did not say anything of the sort, shouldn’t you be out there instead of in here?” Melody gave a jerk of her head towards the prepared trays. “We can’t keep the customers waiting.”

“But Lucy-”

“Send her home. She’s of no use now if she’s like this.”

“There’s no one at her house right now. Her parents work late.”

“Not my problem. Your problem. Fix it. She can’t stay here like this. It isn’t good for the food.”

“The food?” Cheri sputtered. “Melody, how could you-!”

A handful of chimes echoed through the kitchen, announcing new orders and reminding of the customers still waiting.

“We’re falling behind.” Melody frowned. “Cheri, get back to work.”

Cheri stared at her for a moment, but the young woman had already returned her mind to the task at hand. Any protest she might have made was silenced when Cheri took in the amount of work stretching out on the other counters. She could hear chimes still sounding in the kitchen room and there were scattered tubes of frosting, whipped cream and food coloring everywhere. Melody was working even harder than they were outside. She was doing the work of two. Her head bowed and she caught up two trays, balancing a third one in the crook of her elbow. “Be right back.”

There was only a grunt in reply.

“What’s going on?” Tomi caught her at the doorway, taking the tray from her hands. “Where to? I think it’s a tourist bus, but I didn’t think that they’d all be this demanding.” She chewed on her lower lip. “Where’s Lucy? Kamei isn’t good at this at all, she’s really clumsy and I can’t say a word to her.”

“Clumsy?” Cheri perked a brow. “She shouldn’t be. Tables fifteen and eight. What did you tell her?”

“She is now. I tell you if she drops one more thing-” Something crashed to the floor and Tomi winced. “There. She did it again. I can’t keep cleaning up after her, Cheri and we can’t keep breaking dishes like that.” She started towards the dining room. “I feel like I’m trying to be in a million places at once and I didn’t say anything. I just suggested she balance the trays with the palm of her hand rather than a fist.”

“I’ll take care of it.” Cheri squared her shoulders. “And Lucy isn’t feeling well, we’re going to cover for her.”

“What?” Tomi’s eyes grew wide as she twisted and swerved to the left, attempting to keep her trays balanced after stopping so suddenly. “We’re short-handed as it is. Fine.” She hesitated. “Is she okay? Did she eat something weird?”

“She’ll be fine. It’s probably more what she didn’t eat. Be careful with that. There’s a bunch more finished in the room, I think Melody’s still numbering them, if you can remember the orders…” Cheri stopped as the other girl disappeared through the dining room doorway, weaving in between the tables. Ducking down the side corridor, Cheri retrieved the spare broom and dustpan from the utility closet.

When she found Kamei in the dining room, the girl was on her hands and knees, picking up pieces of ceramic and dropping them into a wet cloth napkin. Cheri frowned. “Kamei, I’ll get that. Go run the register. No more table running for tonight.”

The girl didn’t even look up as she rose from the floor and turned, shuffling towards the front counter. Cheri watched her go, feeling a wave of annoyance rippling over her as she pulled out her customary smile and directed it to the table at her left. “I’m terribly sorry about this.” She apologized, beginning to sweep the floor. “I’ll be through in a moment and perhaps you’d like a coupon to use with your next visit?”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“I’m exhausted.” Tomi dropped into a chair, relieved as she tugged her apron over her head. “That was some rush. We haven’t had such a group in—well, I don’t know. A while, I guess. We should get a bonus. It was insane out there.” She wiped her forehead with one sleeve and then leaned forward to rest her chin on the edge of the counter in the prep room. “Hey, Lucy’s still here? Shouldn’t she be at home? I thought she was sick.”

“She has a fever, but she was sleeping. I figured it was best to leave her.” Melody entered from the kitchen, a platter of sweets balanced in one hand. “Where’s her cellphone? It wasn’t on her uniform and I didn’t have time to check the breakroom. It’s probably best to call her parents and have one of them pick her up. I’d drive her there, but we live in opposite directions and I have a paper I should’ve written yesterday due tomorrow morning.” She yawned into her elbow. “These are the leftovers, anyone want anything?”

“Have you tried to wake her?” Cheri emerged from the break room, already dressed in her street clothes and coat. She had Lucy’s things tucked in the crook of one arm as she approached the sleeping girl. “Lucy? C’mon, time to wake up, girl. You’re not getting paid for sleeping on the job. Trust me.”

“Where’s Kamei?” Tomi inspected the tray, pointing to a few treats. “I want those.” Melody scooped them out with one hand, dropping them into a cardboard delivery box. “And that one. Did she leave already?”

“No.” Cheri threw a glance over one shoulder. “She was still out in front. Is there any strudel left?”

“You can’t be serious.” But Melody walked over anyway, stabbing a plastic fork through a raspberry specimen. “I’ve got a berry one, here. I don’t think it’s going to work-”

Cheri waved the pastry in front of the sleeping girl. “Lucy, it’s strudel.”

“What are you doing?” Kamei stood in the prep room doorway, her apron crumpled in one hand, her expression as dark as her short black hair.

“Trying to wake up Lucy.” Tomi yawned. “Are you alright?”

“Of course not. How could I possibly be alright?” Kamei burst out. “And how stupid are you to try and wake her up with a strudel?” She stomped up to them reaching past to grab the sleeping girl, shaking her awake. Melody rescued the strudel, standing to the side and well out of the other girl’s reach.

“Hey—wait, leave her alone—ow!” Cheri recoiled from the shove and the look in Kamei’s eyes. “Kamei?” The tension was interrupted by Lucy’s sudden wail. She was awake, disoriented and very, very upset. “Now you’ve done it.” Cheri muttered, snatching the plastic fork and strudel from Melody’s hand. “Lucy? Hey, Lucy, it’s okay. It’s Cheri. You’re in the back of the café in the prep room. It’s okay. Kamei didn’t mean to wake you up like that, it’s just that the shift’s over and I need to call your mom so she can come pick you up. You weren’t feeling well—and it’s okay, sweetie, please calm down, please—you’re making me worry.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

Lucy didn’t show up for the morning shift the next day.

Thankfully, the morning rush was hardly much of a rush at all. A relieved Melody took her time crafting a half-dozen layer cakes and sectioning them into even slices for the afternoon cake display. A yawning Tomi sat out front by the register thumbing through her homework assignments as Kamei disappeared into the café gift shop, dusting, stacking and polishing.

“She’s distracting herself.” Melody said, quietly, when Cheri entered the kitchen carrying a tray of dirty dishes. “Are we empty out there?”

“Pretty much.” Cheri headed to the sink, easing the tray downwards. “Which one of them?”

“Cute, Cheri, very cute.” Melody crossed over to wash her hands in the sink. She flicked a wet hand in Cheri’s direction. “Did she tell you what happened?”

“Nothing happened.” Kamei growled from the doorway. “I’m so flattered to know that my issues are the top ranking gossip in-”

“What happened?” Melody turned to face her, drawing on every strand that made her four years of seniority more apparent. “I do not have problems with you making your own choices and reaping what you sow, however, when your personal problems begin to interfere with your work, I consider it my business—not gossip.”

“Then you could ask me to my face instead of going behind my back and blabbering to-”

“I just asked you. I haven’t laid eyes on you since last night when you ran out.”

Several shades of red decorated Kamei’s pale face as she swallowed. “It backfired.” Her hands fisted at her sides. “It all backfired. It was supposed to make Brent fall for Celia, but he just happened to see Monica first.” She shrugged, helplessly. “It was an accident. There was nothing I could’ve done about that. He’s all over her now and I can’t—Celia—she—” Kamei squeezed her eyes shut, even as tiny tears slipped out and dribbled down her face. “She hates me. She really does. She told me I was the worst friend she’d ever had and I was just trying to help-”

“So that’s what it was.” Cheri continued her methodical dish washing, but her shoulders had slumped a few degrees. “I was wondering what the cafeteria ruckus was about. I didn’t realize she called you out on it in front of everyone.” Cheri turned the taps off and wiped her hands on the towel tucked in her apron waistband. She walked over to the other girl and hugged her tight. “I’m sorry.”

Kamei tried to push away when Melody reached over and patted her head, a sad smile on her face. “I’m sorry too, kid.” She turned away. “Sometimes things don’t work out the way we want them to.”

The doorbell chime sounded in the kitchen and Tomi’s cheerful voice floated around the corner. “Good morning and welcome to Cupid’s Café, how many in your party?”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The school day dragged on.

Cheri was witness to a few scenes she didn’t care to have in her memory—most of them painful to watch—the others, embarrassing. Celia had singled out Kamei, going out of her way to avoid speaking and seeing her ex-friend. Kamei couldn’t leave it at that, however, and their encounters were more public than private, fueling the school gossip.

“This is making me sick.” Cheri slumped into her chair at Tomi’s table. “I can’t keep watching this.”

“Why do I remember hearing this before?” Tomi mumbled around her vegetable wrap.

“Tell me you can’t watch this with a-”

“I have a stomachache.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Why are you telling me?”

“Why can’t I?”

“Do I care?”

“I-” Cheri stopped. She stuffed her mouth with limp macaroni from her plastic lunch bowl. “No.” She allowed, after a moment. “You don’t. So how come I do?”

“Because you can’t help yourself.” Tomi sighed, popping up from her chair, stuffing the last mouthful of wrap in her mouth. “Because you're a real friend. But really, some things you don’t get involved in.” She shrugged. “This was one of them.”

“So I’m supposed to just sit here and watch?”

Tomi turned away. “That’s not my call to make.” She walked towards the trash can. “I’m going to need two days of next week, ‘k?” 

“When?” Cheri stabbed her fork in the mass of orange noodles.

“Mmm, I don’t know yet. I’ll check with the Class prez and let you know. It’s volunteer stuff.”

“Fine.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Hey Cheri!” Tomi skidded around the hallway corner, her arms full of textbooks, notebooks and stray sheets of paper. “Did you get the-ow! Hey, what are you doing-oh.” Tomi stopped and stared.

Cheri was watching Brent and Monica standing at the foot of the stairs arguing. Monica was grabbing Brent’s arm and they were whispering between themselves, with Celia standing just a few feet away, a stricken expression on her freckled face.

Tomi’s head swiveled back and forth before she juggled the armful to balance in the crook of her left elbow and then reached out with her now-free hand. “Hey, let’s go.” She pulled the reluctant redhead away from the scene and down the hall.

“What are you doing?”

“What you would do if it was Kamei.” Tomi let go of her sleeve. “You okay?”

“Why?”

“Because…I felt like it.” Tomi shrugged. “Never mind, can we go now?”

“Where are we going?”

“School’s out. Afternoon shift.” Tomi elbowed her. “Get your brain in gear, head hostess.”

~*~*~*~*

“Isn’t Lucy coming?” Tomi threaded her arm through the loops in her apron, attempting to tie a bow in the back. Her fingers tangled up and Cheri automatically reached over to do it for her. Kamei stood in the far corner of the room, folding her street clothes and placing them neatly in her locker. 

“I-I haven’t heard from her.” Cheri bit her lip. “I’m sure she’s fine.”

The front door chime sounded and the trio stiffened. “Lights are on.” Melody’s voice arrived before the rest of her did. She swept into the breakroom, dressed an expensive sweater and slacks, her hair in a fluffy cloud around her head and shiny cosmetics painted on her face. “We’re open in ten.” She shrugged out of her coat and began to shed her layers. “and it’s nice to see you all too. Don’t everyone talk at once.”

“Hi Melody.” Cheri forced a smile. “I’ll go count the napkins or something.”

“I’ll help.” Tomi volunteered, hurrying after her.

Melody watched them go. “Count napkins, eh?” She shook her head. “I’m not that scary.” She ducked behind the changing curtain with her chef’s uniform. “Can we count on you today, Kamei?”

“Of course.” The girl said, stiffly.

“Good.” Melody chuckled. “Then get out there and go count teacups or something.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

They counted teacups.

They counted napkins.                                                                                                      

Lucy arrived two hours later, already dressed in her waitress uniform. She smiled and waved with the guests as she floated through the dining room and to the kitchen.

“Cheri, Cheri, Cheri.” She chirped, taking up a position beside Melody in the prep room, eyeing the tray of cream puffs.

“Lucy?” Cheri’s trays wobbled, she winced, setting one down on the counter and balancing the other two. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m sowwy I dinna come this morning.” She grinned, impishly. “Momma says I’m nine. I mean, fine.” Her head gave a little shake. “I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

“What’s wrong with Kamei?”

Cheri winced.

“Nothing’s wrong with Kamei.” Kamei glowered at her from the entry way. “Nice of you to show up, cream puff.”

“Hey!”

“Where were you this morning?”

“Kamei,” Cheri began. “Lucy’s just-”

“Are you okay now?” Lucy asked, innocently.

“What?”

“Are you okay?” Lucy repeated, waving her hands to punctuate her words. “You look better now.” Cheri opened her mouth and shut it as the chimes began to sound.

“Talk later, work first.” She ushered the girls out, guiding them with her trays. “Grab those and let’s go. Kamei, that includes you. Give the trays to Tomi and get back to the shop.”  

~*~*~*~*~

Cheri heard the yells a little too late. By the time she’d rushed to the prep room, she was only able to witness the disaster in slow motion, unable to prevent nor warn of the event. Kamei was yelling at Lucy and they’d come to a point where they were pushing and shoving at each other in the precise moment that Melody rounded the corner with a heavy stock pot of flavored syrup.

Emotions slammed through her in rapid fire as Cheri took in Kamei’s angry, darkened face, Lucy’s tears and Melody’s shock as it turned to the surprise. The angry hands hit Melody who dropped the pot and made a grab for it, missing by a mere centimeter.

Rich pink syrup decorated the floor and the lower halves of both girls in addition to Melody. The assistant pastry chef stood stock still for a long, painfully silent moment. Then her head tilted slowly to the side and a forced smile came to the front.

“Cheri.” Her voice was a slightly higher. “What are your two waitresses doing in my kitchen?”

Cheri licked herlips. “One waitress, one gift shop clerk.” She swallowed. “Melody, I’m really-”

“I don’t want to hear it.” Her voice was odd and the fake smile remained as Melody took a fingerful of pink from the front of her chef’s uniform. “This syrup takes three days to simmer. Three whole days. We had special orders waiting on this.” Her body trembled. “I had everything ready and then-”

“They’ll clean it up.” Cheri darted forward. “You’ll both clean this up, you hear?”

“Get out.”

“Melody?” Cheri turned to her, a slender inkling of fear trickling in. The assistant pastry chef was dead serious.

“Get out of my kitchen.” Her voice was deadly. “And take those two with you.” Her glare was fierce and terrible. “I don’t care what kind of problems you have Kamei, but I don’t care about them when it interferes with the duties I am obligated to perform. This is a business, a working operating business, not a personal playground for your own sad soap opera. I understand you are going through a difficult time, but that was more than just a couple hundred dollars you and Lucy, just spilled on the floor.”

“I didn’t mean to do it.” Lucy sniffled, swiping at tear-stained cheeks. “It mars an accident.”

“Was.” Cheri heard herself correct. “Was an accident. What were you two doing?”

“Then take it out of my paycheck.” Kamei shot back. “Look, whatever your problem is-”

“Stop.” Lucy’s voice cracked.

Everyone turned to look at her.

She was small and shaking, half drenched in pink, her hands fisted in the edges of her apron. “Stop yelling. What’s wrong with boo? You. What’s wrong with you? I was just trying to be nice. I wasn’t trying to-” Lucy burst into tears and bolted from the prep room.

“Lucy? Lucy, wait!” Cheri started after her, pausing in the doorway. “What did you say to her?” Kamei just lifted her chin.

Melody caught her before she could rush out, her arms strong and deliberate. “Let her alone, you’ll only make it worse. Someone’s going to clean this up, because we still have customers out there and I won’t be delaying their orders, just because of one…expensive mistake.”

Kamei glowered in response.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Uh, guys?” Tomi stuck her head in the kitchen where Kamei was washing the unending stack of dishes in a sectioned corner.

Melody was on the opposite end, pouring vanilla into a large cake mixer. She looked up at the interruption, wiping her forehead with one white sleeve. “What is it now? Ask Cheri.”

“I can’t find Cheri and I—Monica, Brent and Celia are here.”

Both girls looked up at once.

“So—take their orders.” Melody scowled. “Seriously, do I have to do all the thinking around here?”

“They said they’re not here to order.”

“Then kick them out.” Melody huffed.

“I don’t think they’re going to leave.”

“Are they disturbing the other customers?” The assistant pastry chef sighed. “Tomi, out with it already. I don’t have all day to play twenty questions with you and I’m sure you’re short-handed out there.” A string of chimes rang through the prep room. Melody rolled her eyes. “Wonderful. I bet there’s a dozen requests for Angel Wing cake and I haven’t even finished this-” Her attention returned to the mixers.

Kamei stood, frozen at the sink, a white plate clutched tight in her hands. She said nothing, but her eyes seemed to beg the newcomer for information. Tomi looked away, then sighed.

“They’re sitting at a table in the middle of the dining room and they’re arguing really loud and I can’t find Cheri.”

Kamei started forward.

Melody didn’t even look up. “You’re not going out there, Kamei. Stop her, Tomi.”

“I’m not going to stay in here and-”

“You going out was the cause of this mess in the first place.” Melody snapped. “So help me if I let you set foot out of this kitchen, much less my sight. You’ve been absolutely nothing but trouble since then.”

“I’m not the villain here.” Kamei screeched. “This is all entirely out of my control.”

“Then stop acting like one. You shouldn’t play with things that aren’t made to be played with.”

Tomi braced herself against the doorway as Kamei tried to push past.

“Kamei.” Melody’s voice was deadly serious. “Walk through that door and you won’t be answering to me. I’ve had enough of this game. I’ve been able to turn a blind eye to half of the things that have taken place, especially with Naola away. But I am not going to stand here and let you walk out of here and make another mess. You haven’t even cleaned up the first one. You’re letting yourself be run by the kind of emotions that I absolutely despise and that is reason enough for me to do this.” Replacing Tomi with herself, Melody folded her arms across her chest, her lavender eyes narrowed to eyefish slits. “Try me.”

Kamei swallowed.

Tomi backed away. “I-I’ll try to find Cheri. Sorry.”

“Cheri probably went looking for Lucy because of something Kamei shouldn’t have said.” Melody sighed. “Kamei, dishes. Tomi, watch Kamei.” Turning on her heel, Melody turned around and straight into Cheri. “On second thought, cancel that. It would seem that our hostess is right here.”

Cheri leaned forward, bracing on hand against the wall, panting, trying to catch her breath. “What’s going on out there?” The door chimed rattled. “We just lost three customers and I can’t be in three places at once and there’s people complaining about delays and-”

“Where were you?” Tomi spluttered. “I was drowning out there and you-”

“She was running after her precious little strudel.” Kamei sniped.

Cheri stiffened at once. Her pale blue eyes seemed to frost over to ice. “Whatever you said to her-”A darkened smirk spread over her face. “You’re going to eat every single word back. You have no idea what that girl is going through. I can’t even pretend that I know or that I understand. She’s always too cheerful. Too quiet and in case you haven’t noticed, she does most of her eating here—at this café. I’m not stupid. I can read enough of life to know what she isn’t saying.” Cheri fisted one hand slowly in the other. “I’m sorry to think that I considered you a fr-”

Melody slapped a cookie in her mouth and kept her hand there amidst Cheri’s muffled protest. Her lavender eyes still burned. “What were you going to say? Don’t you dare finish that sentence. This whole café isn’t something that you just join and leave. Is leaving that easy? Is saying things like this any less hurtful to you than it is to her?” She took a careful breath, her hand falling back to her side.

Cheri’s head bowed. “I’m sorry.” She turned away. “Please excuse me. I have customers outside to attend to. What should I say about the-”

“You’re such a wimp.” Kamei scoffed. “Someone stuffs you full of sugar and you just-”

“That’s enough. All of you.” The voice came from a young woman in the prep room entrance, swathed in a long black overcoat, with pink streaks running through her dark hair and a golden heart pin on the coat collar. Standing beside her was Lucy, dressed in a clean cotton T-shirt dress and barefoot, her curls limp around her face.

“Naola!” Melody whirled around. “Lucy…”
“Melody.” Naola smiled, the expression forced. “Could you please finish up the cake? Also, I would need those keys. Hello Cheri, Tomi, Kamei.” She took the golden keyring from Melody’s outstretched hand. “Thank you.”
“I can-”

“Please do not trouble yourself thinking of suitable excuses.” Naola flashed a cheerful expression. “The cake, Melody, the cake. Go. Now?” She sighed. “Put it in pans and then come back. Cheri, could you please visit each table and explain a temporary delay? I believe we only have a mere nine customers remaining. Lucy, spare uniform—and shoes, find them.”

“Bow?” Lucy perked up.

“Now.” Naola corrected, unbuttoning her coat to reveal a crisp white, chef’s uniform. “Here and put this in the usual place for me, would you?”

Lucy bobbed up and down. “Yeppy yep.”

“Thank you. Ah, where was I, oh yes, Tomi, turn the lights out, I want to clear the dining room as each couple leaves. We will not open late today. Curtains, decorations and the blackboard.”

“What about me?” Kamei demanded. “Just close up the gift shop?”

Naola’s pink eyes flickered a brief shade of red. “Actually, Tomi would you also see to that? You’ve closed up before, haven’t you?”

“R-right.” Tomi scampered from the room, her French braid bouncing after her. 
~*~*~*~*~*~

The prep room emptied.

Naola and Kamei remained.

One girl defiant, the other annoyed.

Naola twirled the keys in her hand, then turned and stooped beside the forbidden lower cabinet. She opened the door, drew out a glass cruet filled with sparkling pink liquid. Rising, she took a shot glass from another cupboard and poured until it was half-filled. Replacing the cruet, she locked the doors once more and then turned with the offering. “Cheers.” She handed it to Kamei.

Kamei stared at her, refusing to take the glass. “Excuse me?”

“Drink it.”

“No.”

“Drink it.”

“No way. Are you insane?”

“Drink it.” Naola repeated, emphasizing each word. “I will not ask again.”

“Shut up!” Kamei knocked to the ground. “I don’t care if you fire me. You’ll never get me to drink some disgusting-”

The glass shattered, the pink liquid exploding into sparkly smoke, then sparkly dust as it decorated the floor amidst the pieces of glass. Naola looked from the mess to the employee before her. “You hypocrite.” Her voice was low, accusing.

Kamei stiffened.

“You big hypocrite.” Naola said, taking a step backwards. “You couldn’t even drink it yourself, but you gave it to her? She didn’t even see it coming. Yet you call yourself her friend?”

The color drained from Kamei’s face. She didn’t have an answer.

The other girls returned to the prep room just as Melody appeared in the kitchen doorway, wiping her hands on a towel. “Cakes are in the oven. I thought I heard something break and whoa-!” She stared at the pink splotch on the floor and then at the two girls standing opposite each other. “Maybe I should check the timer and make sure that I-”

“I believe I have mentioned it before.” Naola tilted her head to the side. “God created human beings with freedom. The choice to choose. Who am I, much less you, to interfere with His design? He didn’t create us to be mindless robots that could be manipulated by each other. He didn’t give people unique talents to be used against each other. You gave her something that took away her free will, you gave her friend something that stole his freedom and above all, you did it because you thought you knew better. You thought you knew better.” She shook her head, sadly. “I am extremely disappointed in you, however, I would prefer to continue this conversation after you’ve had a moment to think. Because I won’t accept a half-hearted excuse for your actions. Clean up the mess in front of you, while I clean up the one you left outside.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

The café dining room was empty when Naola swiped a chair from an opposite table and sat down before the trio. She smiled, pleasantly, taking in their confused expressions and varied reactions.

“Good evening.”

“I’m here to speak to Kamei!” Celia demanded. “Send her out.”

“I’m afraid Miss Leung is otherwise occupied at the moment.” Naola’s smile didn’t waver. “I hope I can be of assistance in her stead.”

“You can’t. We’re leaving.” Celia popped up from her chair. “Come on—both of you.”

“Are you leaving, Monica?” Brent drawled, his hand tight around her wrist. “Already? I don’t wantcha to go, babe.”

Monica shifted, nervously while a blushing Celia chewed on her lower lip. Brent smirked at both of them, his face somehow more devious than charming in the dimmed dining room light. “W-we’re going, Brent.” Monica’s voice was strained. “Like, now.”

“Actually, you’re staying.” Naola rose from her chair to guide Celia back to hers, pressing gently on her shoulders to encourage the girl to sit. “Because I’ve ordered tea. Lucy-love, if you would.” She turned and whistled over her shoulder. Lucy popped out from behind the counter, balancing a heavy, black wooden serving tray bearing a full tea set. She eased it carefully onto the table, whisking away the table centerpiece as Naola shooed her off. “Care for a spot of tea?”

“I don’t want to drink tea.” Celia snapped, her eyes flashing with anger. “I want to strangle that-”

“You really love him, don’t you?” Naola ignored her, pouring three steaming cups of tea and uncovering the strawberry-shaped sugar bowl.

Celia blushed, turning away to push up her glasses with one stiff finger. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m only here because Kamei-” The name was pronounced with distaste. “Put some spell on-”

“and what about you, Brent?” Naola measured off a spoonful of sugar. “Do you love her? I mean, really love her? I know the answer, but she doesn’t, so please be kind enough to enlighten us all.”

Monica snorted. “He likes me.” She rolled her eyes. “and I guess I like him back? I don’t know. He’s a bit much, but come on, he’s cute, right?” She shrugged, attempting to pull her arm away from Brent—again.

“Ah, I see.” Naola leisurely poured the sugar into the first cup of tea. “I suppose we’ll begin with you first, Miss Monica.” She stirred the sugar into the teacup. “I thought you had a boyfriend.”

The girl rolled her eyes again. “Had. Like, totally in past tense? He’s so last week. Brent’s the one for me now.”

“Brent is not a toy.”

“Right.” Monica wrinkled her nose. “What century are you from anyway?”

“Why did you try to take him away?”

“What?” A high-pitched giggle spasmed from Monica’s lips. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re a really weird person, you know that?”  

“You thought you could get away with it, because Celia didn’t seem like much of a threat. But Brent—the Brent—turned you down when you asked him to break up with her, didn’t he?” Naola finished stirring the tea and set it on a saucer, presenting it to Monica. “Your…outdated boyfriend still cares about you, but he didn’t appreciate the games you were playing. That is why your relationship ended the way it did. You thought you could get him back by making him jealous, but that backfired a bit. It went too far when Brent suddenly changed his mind and decided he did like you.”

Monica opened her mouth. Naola held a finger to her lips. Monica shut her mouth.

Celia stared at her, then at Monica. “W-what are you talking about?” Her voice quavered. “How do you know that?”

Naola calmly measured off another spoon of sugar and dropped it into the second teacup. “Ah, yes, let’s talk to you next, Miss Celia. A classic shy beauty, you were so flattered when he noticed you. Too flattered. You got a little possessive on him, it was starting to strain you both, wasn’t it? He yelled, so you mellowed. You thought as long as he was all yours, you could handle everything. Everything, except you were suspicious. You knew what everyone said about him. You knew all about him. You worried. So you had to find something to convince yourself it was fine, but you couldn’t. Then you saw him with other girls and you couldn’t put your mind at ease. You yelled again. He yelled back.” Naola began to stir the sugar. “See, he couldn’t publicly call you his girlfriend. You didn’t want him to do that, because you didn’t want to be the girl who showed up to school—the last one to know you’d been dumped, after he’d told everyone else. You thought if it was a big secret, you could keep things together and if it didn’t work out, then it wouldn’t cause any trouble.”

“T-that’s a lie. Brent loved me. I didn’t—I wasn’t, I mean, I wouldn’t have ever doubted him and-”

“But you doubted yourself. That’s almost as bad, isn’t it? You couldn’t rest in peace. You couldn’t turn to anyone to tell them what was going on, because no one knew. But you knew about this café. You knew about the rumor and then you realized that he’d never taken you here. He’d taken all the other girls, but he hadn’t taken you here. That worried you. So you pestered him until he agreed and then you started asking around. You found out that there were certain things available here that might make your dream love true. You planned that you would bring him here and buy one of those things. You thought it’d work out just fine and no one would ever know. You thought you’d get away with it. But you didn’t realize that Kamei worked here, did you? That put a wrench in everything.”

“That’s not true! I wasn’t going to do anything. You’ve got it all wrong.”

“Do I?” Naola drawled. She tapped the spoon lightly on the edge of the teacup and set it on the spoon rest. “Kamei was worried about you. She didn’t realize how long you two had been seeing each other. She got worried. You two argued. Things got out of hand, because you ended up telling the one person you didn’t want to tell—about the one person you really loved. That ruined your entire plan because when you placed your order, Kamei was the one who took it. She realized what you were trying to do and because she knew you—because she was your friend—she did something different. She did something unnecessary and troublesome out of the goodness of her heart. She meant you no ill will. But then Monica turned up and you panicked. You couldn’t face her yet—so you excused yourself and ran away. In the instant that you did, Kamei brought your order and Brent didn’t wait for you to return. Monica just happened to be there at the precise moment that Kamei’s favor worked.” Naola sighed, setting the cup on a saucer and placing it before Celia. “And when you saw the result, you were upset. It might have fixed itself, but you couldn’t keep your temper in check. You threw your share at Monica and started a catfight. You didn’t realize that something was wrong until the afternoon. Then you started worrying. You started doubting.”

Celia opened her mouth. Naola held a finger to her lips. Celia shut her mouth.

“Ah and the most troublesome for last.” Naola spooned out a heaping spoon of sugar and began to drizzle it into the third cup of tea. “Brent, Brent, Brent. You are the cause for some of the distress belonging to these two lovely young ladies. I’m glad you’ve changed though, because if you were happy about it, I don’t think that I would be able to sit here and pour sugar in your tea so calmly. You certainly wouldn’t have deserved it.” She stirred the sugar until it dissolved. “But I am glad. I am doubly glad to see that you’ve finally found the real courage to speak to both of them, so I’ll save myself a few words and you can set things straight. Should you find yourself in this sort of situation in the future, I would suggest making your intentions clear to both parties so that there are no misunderstandings. A reputation is a difficult thing to maintain and an easy one to ruin.” Setting the cup on a saucer and the spoon in the spoon rest, Naola placed the finished product before him.

Brent opened his mouth. Naola held a finger to her lips. Brent turned away.

“Now then.” Naola poured a fourth cup and lifted it to her lips. “Shall we?”

~*~*~*~*~*~

“I love you…Celia.”

Monica nearly choked.

Brent’s hand dropped from her wrist and he stared earnestly across the table at his girlfriend, now crying giant tears. “Please don’t cry, Celia. I should’ve told you that I—I mean, I wasn’t seeing anyone else. Girls just come up to me and I have a hard time trying to make excuses—because I couldn’t tell them that you were my girlfriend. I had to talk to them, but I didn’t really want to. I really like you. I like who you are inside. Celia? Celia-”

“I don’t care.” Celia sobbed. “I don’t care.”

“Celia-?” Brent gave a start. "Didn't you hear what I said? I'm sorry! I really am, I mean, I didn't think that things would turn out this way and-"

“I don’t care if you’re seeing other people or who you talk to.” Celia wailed. Naola handed her a napkin, but the crying girl didn't even stop to swab her face. “As long as you’re mine as long as you’re the one that is all mine, I don’t care.”

Two spots of pink graced Brent’s cheeks. He blinked and stammered and then he popped up from his chair and circled the table to grab Celia in a hug. “Celia. Oh Celia.” He hugged her tight as she cried into his shoulder. “I don’t want to see anyone else, but you, babe. I won’t. It’s just you. It’s been you ever since I worked up the nerve to ask you and you said yes.” He kissed the side of her head and she turned her face towards him.

Monica rose from the table, her face turned away, her movements stiff. “I can tell when I’m not wanted.” She said, haughtily. “Excuse me.” 

“Monica.” Naola called after her. The girl didn’t pause. “That attitude will get you nowhere.”
~*~*~*~*~*~

Packing up the empty teacups onto the tray, Naola returned to the prep room where her employees awaited her in a solemn, somber line. Setting the tray on the counter, she looked at Kamei and gave a slight jerk of her head. “If you would all excuse us for a moment, Kamei? A word.” Naola stepped out towards her office. “If the rest of you could see to the closing up of things?”

Kamei shuffled out from the group and to the dreaded office. Cheri caught her—briefly, a hand on her shoulder—before she passed on. Kamei almost smiled.

~*~*~*~*~*~

When they returned, the others had changed from uniforms to street clothes and Lucy was sitting on a swivel stool, happily stuffing her mouth with a blueberry strudel. She hurriedly stuffed the last bite in her mouth, licking her fingers clean as Naola and Kamei entered the break room.
“So?” Cheri popped up to her feet.

Kamei moved robotically to her locker and retrieved her street clothes. She started for the dressing curtain when Cheri spun her around. “Hey!”

“It’s fine, Cheri.” Naola cleared her throat. “Hurry up, Kamei. The rest of you, there is one last matter I would like to discuss.”

“Missed us?” Lucy’s cherubic face immediately mirrored worry.

“Discuss.” Naola perked a brow. “I do not know why I must keep repeating myself but these keys-” She held them up. “Are not toys. The locks they open are not toys. The things guarded with the locks are very important. I ought to dock your pay for a whole-”

“No!” Lucy launched herself forward, grabbing Naola in a frantic hug. “I didn’t do bit. I had nothing to do whiff it. I didn’t do manything at all. I don’t wanna discuss.”

Naola considered her for a moment. Then leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “I see. You are also right. I am very proud of you. I appreciate your lack of participation in this particular matter.” Lucy beamed. Naola gently disentangled herself from the skinny arms. “Lucy-let go.”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Lucy.”

“No yelling.”

“I will not yell.”

“Can I have a strudel?”

“Since when do you ever ask?”

“So I can?”

“Lucy.”

“Another blueberry one?”

“Let go.”

“I really write the blueberry one.”

“Like, not write. Lucy-!”

Cheri darted forward. “I’m sorry.” She dipped her head, lightly. “This was half of my own fault. I didn’t even-”

“It was out of your control, there was nothing you could have done.” Naola waved her away. “But there won’t be any overtime this week or next.”

Cheri took a deep breath, then nodded. “I understand. That’s fine. Thank you.”

“In the future, Cheri-” The redhead looked up. “Do like Lucy. Find me. I’ll come. Of course, if you don’t create any problems in the first place.” Naola tossed the keys to Melody. “Hang on to those, would you?”

Melody managed a shaky smile. “Thanks.”

Tomi sagged in her chair, relief showing plainly across her face. “I don’t have anything tos ay.”

“Then don’t say anything.” Naola winked. “Lucy, could you let go now?”

“Can I have wit?”

“It.” Naola suppressed a smile. “It and yes, Lucy, you can have it.”

“Strudel!” The happy girl let go with an energetic bounce. “Mine all mines.”

“Mine.” Cheri corrected, a smile slowly creeping across her face. “Mines are things that blow you up, you little cream puff.”

“Strudel. I’m a strudel.”

© Sara Harricharan

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