The magical scent diffused amid old wooden panels; the pungent mix of coffee and cinnamon smells dominated the room. The dim lights of industrial lamps were barely enough to illuminate The Old Bean. The coffee shop was famous for its atmosphere; however, only scarce visitors were appreciating that place at the time of this story. The worn books were dusting oak shelves; one even might saw some thin cobwebs. Quite a few golden frames filled the gaps between the windows and ledges. In the midst of it all was a massive coffee bar.
“Your double espresso is coming right up, Cecilia!” the low barista`s voice sounded enthusiastic. The man brushed his long gray hair behind the ears and started pouring the hot liquid into a mug.
“Is it really? I wasn`t sure what would be faster, your coffee or Second Coming!” the old slander woman interjected from the table right next to the window, away from the bar. She was wearing exclusively dark colours; her dress and blouse suggested that she was quite an old-fashioned ma`am, even for her age.
The door`s chime had paused the friendly quarrel.
“Hi, I am sorry. I didn`t mean to interrupt…” a soft voice broke the silence.
“So don`t, young lady!” Cecilia barked from behind her table.
“He-he, don`t mind her, kiddo!” barista tried to prevent the conflict. “What can I do for ya? Want some tea or perhaps a cup of hot cocoa?”
“Oh, no, but thank you! I am here for a job. I saw your ad in today`s newspaper: Help Needed. So, help is here!” she chuckled uncomfortably.
“Well, perfect timing! Get this mug to Cece; she is one that you just got acquainted with! He-he…” he laughed and paced back to the coffee bar. The young girl barely had enough time to grab the mug from the man`s large paws. It was hot, so she paced swiftly to the table, afraid it might burn her fingers.
“Couldn`t you get off your coat first? Or at least tight that messy curly hair of yours? I don`t want to have it in my coffee!” Cecilia snapped at her.
“Oh…I used coconut shampoo this morning. You might like the new flavour.” the youth replied before she could stop herself.
“Ha! Aren`t you a witty one?! I like her, John! I might even learn her name!” Cece gave away a smirk.
“It`s Ann.” the new hire said quietly.
“I said, I might, girl.” Cecilia turned her head away and started slowly sipping her espresso.
Ann strolled back to the coffee bar, where the barista was already waiting for her, laughing: “Well, Ann, your interview was a success. If you can find your way with her, I bet you will be alright with the others, he-he”
“You must be…”
“John, John Bean: owner, founder, barista, or simply an old man who doesn`t want to give up this charming spot,” he replied and pierced the girl with his green cat-like eyes.
The barista showed her to the closet where the girl could hang her coat and handed her a brown apron with golden embroidery The Old Bean.
“Welcome to the team, young lady,” John said with his low baritone.
“Thank you, sir. Before I start, what is the WI-FI password?” Ann asked.
“What`s WI-FI?” John continued, “Anyway, you`ve already started, Ann, he-he.” John chuckled and beckoned her behind the coffee bar. “There aren’t that many of my regulars out there, but I take good care of them.” the barista explained and turned on the coffee machine.
The next couple of days Ann spent learning the art of coffee making. The Old Bean did not have a massive client base, so she had a lot of time to spare. John was a passionate instructor; he loved his coffee, but more so he loved his clients. Every time someone walked through the door, a new client or regular, the man was there with all the warmth of his heart and coffee. It seemed odd to Ann, that clients that he spent hours talking to, more often than not never came back to the shop. If she only had known a place like this one in her hometown, she would`ve spent there every single day.
“Hey, John. How come no one has claimed that hanging lavender latte from your blackboard?” Ann was curious.
“Oh, that one was left for someone special. Let`s see if she comes around. But don`t ya worry little one, I can make you any drink you want.” the barista replied.
“I can make it myself now, so…” Ann declared with a smirk.
“Really? I bet you had a great teacher!” John laughed.
One day passed after another; a month of work was accomplished. Nearly everyone knew Ann by that time. Cecilia even became fond of the girl and actually memorized her name, which, I dare say, could be treated as a reward in The Old Bean. Her life was slowly dissolving in the place, and she liked it that way. Ann loved to stay after hours and browse through the heavy old books on the shelves while pretending to clean them. The dusty parchments and scent of coffee were her common friends those late nights.
“Ann, my dear. I feel like you work here more than I do. Don`t you have someplace or people to go to? If I didn`t know any better, I would`ve thought ya`r in love with the old bean, he-he” John always knew his way around words.
“In fact, I am!” she said and continued with a smile on her face, “But with the one with the gray pillows on its chairs, not the gray temples on its head, hah.”
“Oh ya, little rascal, always know what to say,” John commented.
“I moved here alone. My dad, well, he isn`t with us anymore,” she sighed deeply, “and my mom stayed in our hometown with her new boyfriend and little Danny.”
“I am sorry, kiddo.” John comforted her.
“Nah, he is the one who should`ve been sorry!” Ann snapped, “He was not an easy man, you see,” she explained.
“I am sure he had his reasons, young lady.” the barista assured her and gave a feeble smile.
A young boy had entered the shop. His small hand was dragging an enormous backpack full of books.
A little man had sitten himself behind one of the tables; it took him a few minutes to nest on the large wooden chair. The boy reached a red book from his backpack, crossed his legs, and proceeded with his readings. His long dark hair kept falling in front of his eyes, so he had to brush it off every now and then. Ann was stunned; clientele who did not remember life before the internet was scarce in The Old Bean. The girl looked at John with a question on her face, but he didn`t seem to notice her. Mr. Bean was gazing at the boy. A few little drops from the steam were glittering on the old man`s cheeks. For a brief moment, Ann thought of tears; however, she shook that idea off her head immediately.
“Do you know him? Should we call the police? His parents must be worried sick!” Ann cried.
“Yeah, they must be…,” John whispered back and continued, “go talk to the young sir and try to help him. I got a feeling, he might just listen to you.”
Ann squeezed her lips and slowly headed towards the table; her hands were trying to find their place behind her back.
“Hi there,” she gulped “what is a little boy, such as yourself, doing all alone in the coffee shop?” Ann tried to be neutral in her tone.
“I am not little! I am six years old!” the boy replied with pride.
“Sure, young sir. Six? Like my little brother! What`s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Max. My name is Ann.” she smiled and extended her hand for a shake.
“Nice to meet you, Ann.” he smiled back and shook the girl`s hand.
“Would like some hot cocoa with marshmallows? After you can tell me where your parents are.” Ann suggested. She got an assertive nod back from the boy and strolled to the coffee bar to grab a drink. Max got back to his reading.
“Here you go, Max. Be careful, it`s still hot.” Ann instructed.
“Thank you!” the boy exclaimed and started his sipping.
“So, Max. Tell me, where are your parents?”
“At work, I guess. My dad for sure, he is always there…” Max sighed.
“I get it, I really do. My dad wasn`t always around when I was your age,” she revealed and added soon after, “Anyways, let`s call them. They must be worried.”
“Please, don`t! I should be at school…” she added with a note of guilt, “I know my way home.”
“Did you miss a school bus?” Ann asked.
“I remember seeing a bus, but somehow I didn`t get it,” Max explained.
“Hmm, you don`t tell me all the truth, young man.” she chuckled and continued, “You finish your cocoa and I will walk you home.”
“Thank you, Ann!” the boy was already hugging her. After a moment or so, he trod back to the conversation. “Your dad wasn`t around much before, is he now?”
“Eh? Well…he is no longer with us. I am not sure if you can understand it yet, but…”
“He is in the sky? With the Angels?” Max mumbled, “Like Nana.”
“Yes, he is.”
“I am sure he was there with you all the time before he flew away.” Max didn`t give up on his hopes.
“He tried many times. But…”
“You didn`t like him anymore?” Max interrupted.
“No, I just wasn`t sure if I could believe him again.” Ann sighed and moved the knuckle to her nose.
“My mom says that our dad is not here now because he works to keep the roof over our heads. I`ve never seen him holding a roof, but maybe he does it elsewhere.” the boy added, “Maybe your dad was busy keeping the roof over your heads too.”
“He was…” Ann started crying. The boy was hugging her again. His little hands were stroking her back while she tried to pull all her tears back into the sockets with her mind. It didn`t work. She tried to talk through the tears, “It`s not an excuse for him. I am sorry, Max. I didn`t mean to be like this.” she stopped sobbing and wiped her watery eyes with tissues from the table.
“It`s time for me to go, Ann.” The boy said gently.
“Sure, just give me a second. I will go get my coat.”
Ann was heading back to the closet when she heard chimes of the front door. She rushed back – the boy left. She dashed right after him. It hadn`t been more than a few brief seconds since he exited the door; however, he was nowhere to be found. The lane was empty. Ann ran to and fro, yelling the boy`s name; there was no answer. The girl went back inside and stumbled right in front of John`s face.
“Cool down, little one. It`s all good! I am sure the boy will be just fine now.” he tried to soothe her.
Another week had passed; Ann was still thinking about the boy. It was better, however, when she was spending her time with John and his regulars. I hope he is fine, she thought to herself often. Perhaps, it`s not the boy himself that concerned Ann so much, but rather the way she felt during her time with him. Her thoughts about Max were gently intertwined with the images of her father: strong, but forever-tired after long hours of toil. Is there any chance that I am at fault? Every broken promise, every moment he wasn`t there…nothing can excuse that. She fought those weary thoughts back time and time again.
“Ann, ANN!” sharp voice brought her back to reality.
“Your double espresso is coming, ma`am!” the girl replied back and strolled o the familiar table.
“I thought, I would be waiting for it till…,”
“The second coming, I know. I am sorry.” Ann interrupted.
“Are you alright, child?” Cecilia asked. The question surprised Ann, for she never expected the words of compassion from the woman of her character.
“Oh, I am fine. Thank you, ma’am. Just a bit tired.” Ann said.
“There are only us in here, get yourself some tea and join me. Shall you?”
The twilights were taking over the windows; the gorgeous orange beams were piercing through the glass. Ann made herself a cup of peppermint tea, while she was still processing the invitation from Cecilia. They never stayed alone in the shop; there was some peculiarity to all of it. However, the girl was intrigued. There was some cloud of mystery around the older woman, weird magnetism, despite her grumpy personality. Ann was ready to receive her fair share of insults, if needed, just to unveil some parts of her secret.
“What`s on your mind, Ann? Perhaps, issues with some young man. You`ve been down lately.” Cecilia asked.
“With man it is, but not so young: my father.” Ann sighed.
“Oh, yes, yes. An interesting man, I dare say.”
“I am sorry, have you met? You knew my father?!” the girl`s pupils enlarged instantly.
“Just briefly. He was a fine man. We had a coffee, right at this table.” Cece explained, “We share rather similar life stories, you see.” she said continued with her coffee.
“Had you neglected your kids as well?” Ann snapped before she could even stop it. She turned scarlet; she hid her eyes away to the window. A few deep breaths. “My apologies, ma`am.” Ann was ready to see Cecilia in her complete fury.
“I had my dear, I had…” the woman gulped. She coughed quietly and brought her back straight. Cecilia extended her shaking hand to grab the espresso. There was an awkward moment of silence till she continued, “We had a fight with my boy. Hah, and to what end? He wanted to marry that peasant girl from our town: no proper education, no manners, no future. So it happened right before the war, you see. There was chaos everywhere. We never talked since.” Her upper lip was trembling; however, she kept her crooked nose up, while trying to keep her posture.
How old is this woman? War? Iraq? Or perhaps even Vietnam? Ann couldn’t complete the puzzle no matter how hard she tried. Peasant? Even though Ann got used to Cecilia`s odd way of talking, that was something new even for her.
“What stops you now?” the girl said without thinking.
“I love him dearly, but I am afraid he won`t be happy to see me; moreover, listen to my apologies.” Cecilia gave away a few drops from her sockets, that she held inside for all this time.
“Whatever you`ve done in the past cannot be helped. But he is your son, he will understand. You thought you are doing the right thing. He still loves you, you are family -” Ann tried to soothe the woman.
“Apologies, my dear. I didn`t mean to put this weight on you.” Cecilia took a tissue from the box and cleaned herself carefully. “Do you really think he will accept me back, do you?”
“I am sure of it, ma`am!” Ann smiled and hugged the woman.
“Thank you…thank you, Ann…,” Cecilia gulped while holding Ann`s back with her thin arms.
It had been a week since Cece crossed the threshold of The Old Bean. The poignant evening Ann spent with her, was deeply embroidered in her memory. What happened to that woman? Had she talked to her son? Why isn`t she coming back to “Old Bean”? Simultaneously, she couldn’t shake off her own words that she told Cecilia. She wondered if her father felt the same way when she refused him over and over. Had he hurt her more than she hurt him? Was the pain he caused stronger than the pain living without him?
“Hey, John. I haven’t seen Cece for a while? Is she ok?” Ann asked curiously.
“She is better than ok, little one,” he smiled, “She was finally ready to meet him.”
“Her son? Oh my God, that`s amazing!” Ann exclaimed.
“All thanks to you, Ann. I don`t think she will ever come back to Old Bean.” he continued, “By the way, remind me at the end of your shift, I have something ya!”
“What is it, John? Tell me now!” she demanded.
“Patience, Ann. You will know soon.”
The images of Cecilia with her son warmed Ann`s heart, even though she would miss that old grumpy lady. Her mental radio even tuned off from the surprise promised by John. She was battling her guilt and regret. Cecilia still had a chance to make things right, but Ann`s father was gone. She couldn`t talk to him, she couldn`t say sorry, she couldn`t say that she forgives him. However, the pain wasn`t sharp anymore. Indeed, she experienced something completely different: the warmth of relief and feeble feeling of regret. An intriguing dissonance made her eyes full of tears.
“Hush, little one, what is going on?” Mr. Bean was next to Ann what in happened.
“I am sorry…I forgive you… Please, God, I hope you hear me…” the waterfalls hit her cheeks.
“Hey…hey…Ann. Look at me, it`s ok. Let me give you your surprise!” John stroked her hair gently and started his coffee-making magic.
A cup of coffee was a surprise? God, even that will do right now. Ann thanked the man and made the first sip. Something peculiar had happened: the taste of the liquid rushed down her body, sweet and gentle smell drunken her brain. Lavender, she thought. The image of her father appeared: he was hugging her, playing with her hair, and looking deep into her eyes. I am sorry, princess. The whisper filled her ears. I forgive you, dad. I love you. She replied out loud. I love you too. As she heard it, the phantom had vanished. The time had stopped; Ann`s tears dried on her cheeks. I am free, so is he.
“He left it for me. John, where am I?” Ann asked.
“It doesn`t matter anymore, little one.” Mr. Bean beamed back and smiled.
“The boy, Cecilia, my father…are they all -,“ the girl insisted.
“They are all happy and free, because of you. So are you, because of them.” John interrupted her. He moved closer and grab her tine shoulders, “It`s the end of your shift, Ann, go home.”
“Will I see you again?”
“Not for a very long time, little one.” he sighed and continued, “Hopefully, when it`s time, you won`t stay long either.” John kissed her forehead. The man went back behind the counter and start making a new batch of coffee for his dear customers, ready to talk and ready to listen.
Dan is a Ukrainian-Canadian writer who resides in Calgary, Alberta. His short stories “Broken Beyond Repair” and “Unchained” were published by grxmx magazine. Dan is currently getting his MA in creative writing at the University of Hull and teaches communications at the college level. He works in different genres and experiments with new ideas.