The Pop-up Artisan of Drink Me Café
by Marie Croke
I came to her coffee shop, but never bought anything–things like that the owner’s bound to notice. Figured my days were numbered as soon as she took note, but my mom ran me off and the cold drove me in and there’s only so many stores one can pretend to be shopping at before people start looking at you all suspicious-like.
Took a coffee cup out of the trash and did the mime thing actors did, pretending to sip while I turned pages in my library book. Whenever the owner came near–wiping down a table, picking up dirty napkins, delivering a latte–I got all stiff, shoulders tense, waiting for her tap on them.
Like I said…
“What are you reading?”
“A book,” I muttered, hugging the book awkwardly with my arm.
She laughed, a husky deep sound like my aunt who smoked too much, but this woman didn’t smell the same at all. Pink crept up the ends of her short hair and she had this kind of smile, like she knew exactly what you were thinking and were just waiting for you to say it. Hated people like that. Like the counselor at school who didn’t know nothing and yet always tried to say she did.
“Well, if I can get you anything, you let me know.”
She fraking hummed as she walked away. Like some crazy cylon or something, hearing music where it wasn’t playing.
I got back to my book, but it was hard that day, the coffee shop felt like Dad all over–all bitter breath, but warm and cozy, a big hug right through my shedding coat. And the walls, they were starting to feel like steel, spaceship-gray metal, the shelves all arranged like portholes and view screens where mottled wood grain acted as stand-in for a not-quite-realistic asteroid belt.
Coats, even shedding ones, were good for hiding things inside: pregnancy, snacks at the movies, books. I’ve only used it for the books, to be honest. (And that one time where I stole Mom’s foundation and threw it at the stone wall at the end of the street because she screamed at me for using it.) I hid my book under coat and shirt, tucked just inside the waist of my jeans when I came inside the apartment.
Mom had passed out, TV running a soap, the grow-lights in the closet a shade of magenta, and the world all calm and collected, pretending that was how things normally were, though the shattered frame in the hall and my rifled bed sheets put told to those lies.
I went back three days later, more out of necessity than anything else. Thing was, Mom knew to look for me at the library, would cause a scene, all narrow-eyed and high-pitched, the librarians all arched brows as I got marched, sans book, into the cold, into the car, all while she told me about how I’m wasting my time, that if I were going to read then why not read a manual and get the computer running again like I should be some sort of guru without ever having looked at circuitry.
Took a corner table, that way the owner would be forced to go out of her way to kick me out. She looked terribly busy in any case. Made sense when I finally pulled out of my book to look about the place while she was hustling with a list of coffee orders a mile deep.
Whole inside had changed setting. Decor rearranged so the walls were forest green with crystal blue runners. The shelves ran up and arched out like branches while spits of pale, luminescent white could be glimpsed between the leaves. Near the counter the clock had been replaced with a grandfather–nice big one too, could walk through that thing–and beyond, where the door to the kitchen swung open now and again, there was the smell of the sea and a glimpse of fire-red paint.
I liked it, reminded me of a unicorn I was reading about, one Mom would have scolded me over had she found the book shoved in the bottom of my book bag.
Owner didn’t come up to me all day and the hours waxed long and peaceful, words traveling me to whimsy and regret as the sun sank early and the darkness stretched. I did hear her name though, called from the kitchen once after the rush had calmed to trickles.
Gina, they called her. She smiled at me–that I-know-what-you’re-thinking smile–and called a cheerful goodbye as I left, just as she did anyone else. Even though I’d not bought a single thing.
Mom asked me where I kept skipping off to, said she’d scoured the park and the library and demanded to know my friends’ numbers. Thing was, I didn’t have any friends anymore, not since Dad had gone and gotten a plot under a sycamore at St. Germaine’s and made me move-in full-time with Mom, so joke’s on her, I guess.
I left when she was in the bathroom, two books tucked under my coat–one to return and one to finish reading at the coffee shop.
Interestingly enough, Gina had redecorated again. Becoming like a pop-up artisan, she was. New drinks listed included: Dragon Fire (cinnamon and sage) and Numbing Salve (chamomile and vanilla). Walls were decked out with strips of cloth streaking down like meteors on a happy background of blue fading to rock. All that paint must be costing a fortune.
Not my business though. Put my back to the window and slouched over my paperback as computers hummed and smart phones beeped and the coffee grinder made people raise their voices to be heard. I could almost imagine it was last year, sitting at my old kitchen table, Dad shuffling through his book while I did with mine, the computer buzzing the one he checked for work, the coffee brewing on our own counter.
I jumped and belatedly met Gina’s eyes.
“Dragons? Ah, that makes sense.”
“What does?” No, don’t engage. Fly between! Between! “I mean, yeah, dragons.”
She hesitated and I thought maybe she’d walk away, but she got this funny look in her eye. “You just look like you like fantasy.”
“Actually it’s considered science-fiction, but whatever,” I muttered.
“Do you know what you’re going to read next?” And I swear she sounded so hopeful, like conversing would just make her day. “I added some books to my shelves, in between the coffee canisters. If you like any, you’re welcome to read them.”
Then the door bell crashed against the glass and Gina took her I-know-things-you-don’t smile off to some actual patron who would buy something. I admit, I sneaked a look at the books (How did she manage to get the lower shelves to look like sand?) and found one that struck my fancy–about androids and sheep or something–and read the first couple of chapters before I left for the evening. I think she’d added the seven-book series about the boy-wizard, but I’d read that back in middle school. She must be behind the times.
But, nice of her, really. Dad would have tipped her a ten for a two dollar coffee and given her wink before we’d left.
School got rough as coats faded to jackets. Can’t hide ratty clothes as well when the coats start swapping for short-sleeves. Can’t hide books either. I could feel panic setting in, inching up my scalp every time I had to sneak past Mom in the dingy lighting of our living room or when she called me into the kitchen before I’d a chance to offload my book bag.
She tossed my room more often too. Looking for money, for books, for any more jewelry Dad might have given me though I’d told her she’d already confiscated it all. I wished St. Germaine’s was in walking distance. Could go over and visit to yell at him.
But the only thing in walking distance was the coffee shop. So that’s where I headed.
Gina was growing on me, in direct proportion to the number of books she stocked on her shelves. Place started to go all zoo-like recently. Animals with wires poking from their ears had been painted in streaks on one wall, like water or fog making them impossible to see quite right. I wanted to ask Gina how she managed the stress of constant pop-ups, especially as the lines grew longer and now and then someone begged for her to set up a suggestion jar.
She did, I noticed one day. A little glass thing with tiny slips of paper. She pointed it out to me one time. “You want to make a suggestion?” Her eyes twinkled like we shared some joke.
I ignored her because I didn’t know what to say.
She came back around that day while I was on the final chapters of my book. “You picked one of the books I set out! I’d been wondering…”
“Thanks,” I muttered, out of obligation.
“You’re quite welcome. Any suggestions to improve my selection?”
“Anything at all?”
No customer saved me this time though I stared at the door wishing someone would walk in. Gina slid into the seat opposite mine smelling of coffee beans and vanilla.
“My name’s Gina.”
Yeah, it’s literally written on your stupid nametag. I smiled stiffly. “Stella.” Dad had called me Star, Starry Girl, Stellacious.
“That’s a pretty name. Want some water?”
Did water cost money? Was this that sort of establishment? I could pretend ignorance. “Sure.” Especially if it made her leave.
It did. It made her leave for all of forty-six seconds. Then I got a paper cup filled with water and a mini-muffin (chocolate chip) on a napkin. Okay, maybe she wasn’t quite so bad.
“Anything about robots or dragons is good.”
Gina paused. “What about princesses and brides?”
I started leaving my books on the shelves at the coffee shop. Didn’t ask Gina, just…did it. She never seemed to mind. Not through spring, summer, beginning of autumn. She changed out books the way she changed paint. Going from leafy greens and wooden benches to hard-backed metal chairs and red-streaked gray.
She did a pop-up for two weeks with herbs drooping off the ceiling and fat-bottomed glass bottles filled with tea and coffee beans, almost like an apothecary. Then switched to buttresses of gold and silver, strands of fake emeralds and sapphires and diamonds draping along stark palace walls with more frames than shelving. One time she dotted the floor with blue and violet mushrooms; they lined the trim and hid behind bookcases and under the counters and tables.
People came to interview her and I’d watch her demur, her gaze sometimes catching mine before I hunkered back to my book. Her employees printed off online recommendations and reviews and created a collage they hung below the register. My heart soared for her, liked seeing her success, her hard work paying off.
Hope, that’s what it was, crawling up my spine and eating at my hair one strand at a time. Watching her was like watching hope turn pink and frothy and ready to drink.
And no, it wasn’t because she started giving me two mini muffins every morning I came in or a soufflé if I showed up around lunch on the weekends. Wasn’t because I’d find books I murmured about on her shelves a few weeks later. Wasn’t because she greeted me by name or offered me lipstick or nail polish she decided she didn’t like the shade of.
Well, maybe it was a little because of all that.
Dad would have liked Gina. I had this dream, that he’d have asked her out, that we’d have dinner at my old table with him winking at me and then later at her. I’d talk about what I read, paint the world with my dreams just the way Dad always said I did when I gestured big and wide. I would head home with my head stuffed with nonsense and drivel, of words scrambled into majesty.
That’s where the hope turned cold and hard and brittle, because only Mom sat at the kitchen table.
All good things end, that’s one of those truths of the real world. Why I like to sink into the unreal. And my day came one clear Saturday morning in early September. Mom got an offer. A coffee meet up.
Weird, that I ceased thinking when I saw her, her words going in and out, like from a distance, her grip like iron shackles, heavy and numbing. All the while, I saw Gina staring, her mouth pressed thin, a finished coffee held in one hand, her other scrunching up her apron. Her pink hair looked like spiky bristles of fury.
I felt the same as when Mom caught me at the library, as she stormed me out, into the warmth, into her car, sweat licking at my neck and shame rising to my cheeks as I only saw, over and over, the ripped book of Gina’s now laying on the tiles and darkly stained with coffee.
It’d been a circus pop-up. Popcorn flavored drink, colorful tent-top on the ceiling, hints of mechanical creations peeking out between books and canisters on the shelves. All those creations stared at me with eyes filled with gears churning and churning as I stepped through the glass door and into the real world.
I didn’t go back. I couldn’t go back. Mom kept me on lockdown, like I were a toddler who’d been caught trying the stairs by myself, but that only lasted for a week before she grew tired of chasing and berating me. Yet, I still couldn’t go back, a level of shame I’d not known before aching in my gut, twining in my chest, picking at my throat. Another place stolen from me. Happy times gone to ground.
I’d twist in my seat when the bus passed Gina’s shop, wanting to see what she’d come up with next, but the shop seemed so normal, so drab, gone back to wicker and wrought iron seating with plain shelves and white trim and no spice. I wondered if she felt the same dull ache I did.
And then I thought, how silly, I had just been a patron, and not even a real one at that.
The apartments in the area began to look glorious, more so with every day stuck with Mom’s anger, more so as my birthday crept forward daily and yet felt so very far away. In a flurry after school, I stopped by grocery stores, the knitting shop, the games store, the restaurants, asking after applications and constantly being directed online, though I rarely got a response. The time I did, I strode in with an unblemished shirt and pants that only had the tiniest of tears at the hem and still didn’t get more than a few interview questions before they said, “Thank you, we’ll be in touch,” but they never, ever were.
Or they were, and Mom just chose to not tell me. Could be either, really.
I owed a total of twenty-six dollars and thirty cents at the library when I went in desperation to check out a book on how to set out on my own. They cut you off at twenty-five.
And the book in question, still racking up debt ten cents at a time? Long torn to shreds when Mom found it. Long in the trash, never to be read again.
Courage, if you asked the lion, was a thing that set you apart from all the other animals in the forest who prowled and hid in the nettles and brush. It took a particularly bad day, the sort that stings in your mind forever, awash with cruelty at school dancing in the background, and an empty bedroom at home, mattress slashed open because Mom had been searching for something, though she didn’t remember what. I opened my mouth to protest and paid the price for it.
After I cleaned myself up, wiped away the shame and anger, I put on jeans I’d spiced up with color and thread to make the tears seem purposeful and tied knots in my shirt to hide the fact the seams had pulled free. Snuck away like a criminal while Mom huffed something in the bathroom.
Strode right up to the coffee shop. Stopped outside the glass door.
Inside, all hints of Gina’s pup-up madness had been eradicated, wiped floor to ceiling in a plain, sullen brush and leaving her with mediocrity. Conformity. A shop like all the others on the outside, but I knew it to be so much more within its roots.
I stepped inside with chin held high, though a bird had caught in my chest and beat frantically to escape. I’d planned things perfectly, no breakfast rush, no lunch line, just a couple of lazy-afternoon patrons hunched over computers. The chalkboard sign read pumpkin spice, like every autumn shop would. And no one stood before me to allow the fear time to fester and feed until I swooned like some princess in one of Gina’s tales.
Her pink hair appeared from behind the machines, and then her eyes, and her smile, that I-can-see-what’s-going-on smile. “Stella!”
“Hi, Gina, Iwaswonderingifyou’rehiring.” That could have been better. Slower, enunciated. My hands not plastered clammily against the counter.
But Gina must speak nervous almost-adult. “Of course! You can read on your shifts. You’re still in school, right? So I’ll put you on mornings and evenings and if you want to work weekends, that’d be great too. We can reserve you a table where you can read.”
The feeling of hope that bubbled up suddenly stifled. “Read? No, I meant–I’m not looking for charity. I want a job. A real job so I can get out on my own. I don’t want your pity.” Maybe I’d raised my voice a little too loud because Gina jerked like I’d smacked her and blinked like I’d gone all fuzzy.
“Pity? You think I…” Then she laughed, that husky deep-throated sound that reminded me of my aunt, but Gina also shook her head and her laugh felt aimed at herself than at me. “You think I pity you? Stella, your ability is beyond good for business. I’ve been trying to lock you in with fantasy books and free food. Pure selfishness on my part. Should have offered you a job months ago.”
“Look around! There’s nothing! No dragons, no robots, no bottles or mushrooms or electric sheep, because you’re not in here reading about them.”
I stepped away from her and looked as she’d directed me to. Really looked. Saw the cracks in the paint, the pinholes in the ceiling, the dusty shelves and occasional old paint mars escaping from under the trim. I walked around, grazing my fingers across my favorite tables, and then walked around again.
Then looked back at Gina. “I did all that?”
Painted the world with dreams. Just like Dad said I did. Painted the world with the books I read, their settings bigger than what could be contained in my mind. Slipping out the cracks that had grown since his death, spreading like wildfire into paint, into the floor, the ceiling, the shelves to create a safe, safe place that wouldn’t be torn to bits. Couldn’t be torn to bits. Or stolen. Or ruined.
Escape, escape pushed at my mind, growing bigger and brighter and filled with power. I straightened. “Breakfast and dinner included in my pay?”
Gina sighed and her eyes got misty. “Lunch too, if you’re working during, if,” and she held up a finger, “you let me pick what you read every now and again.”
I cocked my head.
“Was just thinking, Halloween’s coming up. Maybe Haunting of Hill House?”
“Well…I have to read Frankenstein for school.”
She smiled that I-know-what-you’re-thinking smile, the one that actually said, we-share-a-secret. “I’ll buy you a copy.”
This place always had smelled of Dad, all bitter breath, but warm and cozy, like a hug that clung and tightened. Now it smelled of freedom too. And when I was done with it…it’d look the part as well.
About the Author
Marie Croke is a fantasy and science-fiction writer living in Maryland with her family, all of whom like to scribble messages in her notebooks when she’s not looking. She is a graduate of Odyssey 2020 and is a first place winner in the Writers of the Future Contest. Her stories have been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, and DreamForge Magazine. This is her first appearance in Cast of Wonders! You can find her online at mariecroke.com or chat with her @marie_croke on Twitter.
About the Narrator
Kitty Sarkozy is a speculative fiction writer and actor. She is an Associate Editor of Pseudopod, an award-winning weekly horror podcast in the Escape Artists network. Several large cats allow her to live with them in Marietta GA, She enjoys tending the extensive gardens, where she hides the bodies. For a list of her publications, acting credits or to engage her services on your next project go to kittysarkozy.com.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.