by Michael Kingswood
Steph ran her left hand through her hair, and wished she hadn’t cut it short the previous week. She hadn’t realized how much just running her fingers through it, and then being able to give it a little tug—just a little—was soothing when she was irritated or upset. Now there was barely enough to get a hold of at all, and she really needed some soothing.
She felt the frown digging furrows into her cheeks and tried to will herself into a smile, but that just made the frown deeper. Images of the confrontation with Jenny at work and embarrassment over being called out so harshly, and so publicly, kept running through her head, and her mood just grew more dark.
She wanted to say she was stalking down the concrete sidewalk of Third Avenue, her light whitish-green jacket zippered up tightly against the late afternoon drizzle that had begun shortly after she started to walk.
But she wasn’t stalking. She was fleeing.
Brushing past hundreds—thousands?—of faceless and nameless people as they too navigated the walkways of the great city around her, oblivious to her and her returning the favor.
Splashing through puddles below each curb as she crossed the streets, the leavings of yesterday’s stronger rainfall.
Trying not to notice the smell of exhaust in the air that overwhelmed the natural odor of moisture that she used to find so pleasant, when she lived out in nature instead of in an artificial jungle of concrete and steel.
Not paying attention to the car-rattling uber-bass as some gangster wannabes drove past in an old El Dorado that had been painted bright yellow with red lightning bolts on the side.
Simply fleeing, and lost as she ruminated, and got more angry at Jenny. And at herself.
Steph lost all track of where she was, and it didn’t matter. She wasn’t going anywhere. Just walking to get away.
But you’ll just have to go back there again tomorrow, that little voice in her head stated. She snarled inwardly, feeling the frown turn those furrows into canyons on her face, and told the voice to shut up.
The voice was beginning a retort when movement from the right brought Steph up short. She barely saw the trenchcoat-wearing guy emerging from a shop at breakneck speed before he bumped into her. Hard.
She stumbled backward, and had to pinwheel her arms to keep from falling over entirely. She felt another impact on her back as she rammed into another person behind her, followed by an annoyed, “Hey!” in a nasally tone.
The guy who ran into her—tall, dark, and handsome, of course—barely spared her a glance. Just grunted and said, “Watch where your’re going.” Then he pushed his way through the flow of pedestrians and vanished from sight.
“Seriously?” Steph said aloud. More like shouted, and all of the pent up emotions she’d been stewing came out in sheer volume.
Faces on all sides, those who hadn’t turned to watch the minor incident, now all turned to regard her. It was like being in a spotlight. An inhuman, impersonal spotlight. All around, the faces were disinterested except for perhaps a smidgeon of amusement.
A few cell phone cameras were pointing her way.
Had the entire crowd been pulled away and replaced by robots, Steph would have found that more genuinely human than what she was facing right that second. Flushing, but almost more from fright than embarrassment, she cast about for a place to go, just to get out from under that weight of the automatons-that-were-also-people’s gaze.
And from the rain. It had picked up from its initial drizzle to a more steady pour while she was walking, and her jacket, which was for show more than for really combatting the elements, was beginning to soak through. The day was already cooler than normal for early fall, and she’d catch a chill if she didn’t dry off soon.
The shop the guy had come from was a cold and intimidating business attire tailor. On any other day, the pictures of models wearing trim suits that were posted inside its display windows might have had some appeal, but right then, under the collective stare of that crowd…
No, no way.
She looked left, and her spirits lifted.
Miss Melody’s Cafe, the sign said. Food for the Body. Healing for the Soul.
The front windows were uncluttered by signs or advertisements, letting the warm light from inside spill out onto the grey overcast of the street. Yellows and greens and blues and pinks made up the decor inside, and the white-backed chairs around white tables looked comfortable and inviting.
Before she realized it, Steph was inside, and shaking the water off her jacket, which she doffed and hung on a coat hook that the proprietor had placed just inside the door and to the left.
It was warmer than outside, and smelled of fresh baking and simmering chicken soup. Acoustic guitar music, all arpeggios and chords in a cheerful major key, no singing, issued from speakers mounted up in the corners.
There were no other customers inside, just four sets of tables for three and the glass-fronted service counter in the rear. An older woman, wearing a pastel green apron over her plumpness, with silver-grey hair done up in a bun on the top of her head, stood behind the counter. She had on a white blouse beneath her apron and pink-rimmed glasses, and she smiled when Steph approached.
It was the kind of smile that would turn a plain face, like hers, into a thing of utmost beauty. And it did.
“Hello dear,” she said, her tone welcoming. “I’m Miss Melody. What can I get for you?”
Steph looked through the glass of the counter at pastries and morsels that all looked they they would just melt in your mouth, then she looked back up at Miss Melody and gave a little shake of her head. “I… I don’t know. I’m not really hungry. I don’t think. I just – ” She looked back over her shoulder at the grey light of the city and shivered.
“Just needed to get away,” Miss Melody finished for her. Her smile grew, if anything, more warm, and gentle. “I understand.”
She turned away and stepped a pace back from the counter. A few moments of exacting movement, and she turned back to face Steph, steam rising from a white and blue porcelain teacup sitting on a saucer. She held it out toward Steph.
“Here. This will be just the thing.”
Steph accepted the cup and saucer, and somehow got the feeling something momentous had just occurred. She wasn’t sure what, but it felt like the cup had more mass to it than it should. But when she looked within, she just saw yellow-brown tea, with a small slice of lemon floating in it.
She inhaled the rising steam, and the fragrance sent a warm feeling through her entire body. She lifted the cup to her lips and sipped. Heavenly. Steph let out a little sigh. “That is great,” she said.
“I thought you’d like it. Please, relax.” Miss Melody gestured toward the closest of the tables, and Steph gratefully sat down on to the white-backed chair with pink upholstered cushion. It felt like sinking into a cloud, despite the chair’s rigid-looking construction.
She just sat there, sipping the tea and wondering as to its blend. She’d never tasted its like. But as the brew settled into her belly it seemed to create a bubble of warm within her that emanated everywhere.
After the rain and the chill and the automatons outside, she decided Melody was right. It was exactly what she needed.
Her cell phone rang.
Of course it did.
Steph was just lifting the cup to her lips. She considered saying screw it, and just accepting the relaxation that so closely beckoned. Then she glanced down at the phone’s screen.
It was work, and Jenny. Why was she calling? It was after their normal business hours…
A cold sliver went down Steph’s spine, and she knew. She was fired. And Jenny didn’t even have the courtesy to do it to her face.
Steph slammed the cup down into its saucer, and felt mild chagrin when some of the tea sloshed out. But that paled beneath the anger at the affront Jenny was shoving at her. She snatched up the phone and snarled into it, “Jenny, you – “
But it was dead. She had waited too long, and the call had gone to voicemail.
Yep, sure enough, the phone chirped a second later, and the waiting voicemail icon appeared on the screen.
Steph considered just deleting the damn thing and getting back to her tea. But then she noticed the time.
It was late. Very late. And she had to meet up with Gwen and Stuart. They were supposed to see the new show together, and now she’d barely have time to get home and get ready.
Dammit. She had ruined everything at work, and now she was going to ruin the night out she’d been looking forward to for weeks!
Biting back something that she wasn’t sure would be a snarl or a sob, she pushed the chair back from her table and picked up the saucer and cup.
Miss Melody was looking at her with concerned, sad eyes when she returned to the counter and placed the cup on top of it.
“I didn’t realize,” Steph said, for some reason feeling like she owed this woman, a complete stranger, an explanation. “I have to go.”
Miss Melody just looked at her for a moment. “A soul needs time to collect itself. Can’t always be rushing around.”
“Yeah, well…” Steph shook her head. “What do I owe you?”
Miss Melody shook her head. “First visit is on the house, dear. Here.” She reached to her right. Steph hadn’t noticed it before, but one of those little stand-up calendars where you could pull off a different page for each day was sitting atop the counter.
Miss Melody pulled off the day’s page, and Steph blinked.
For a second, she could have sworn she saw a series of little flashes, almost like golden sparks, as the paper pulled free of the bonding that had held it in place.
Miss Melody held the calendar page out to her, and Steph accepted it. The date and day of the week were on the right, in an elegant cursive font. On the left…
Steph sighed at the image of a glowing sun shining down on a peacefully still lake, with flowers of every color growing on its banks, and a woman swinging in a hammock between two willows, while off in the distance a unicorn trotted along, an elegant-looking figure in green robes astride the steed. Beneath the picture, Warm Light And Pleasant Springs was written in golden text.
Then, beneath that, at the bottom, the cafe’s address.
“Something to pick your spirits up, maybe?”
Steph looked back up at Miss Melody and tried out a smile. It almost worked. But she appreciated the gesture, however impotent.
“Thank you,” she said. Then she turned for the door.
As she pushed the door open, it made a little belly chime that Steph didn’t recall from when she entered. She glanced down at the calendar page still clutched in her hand, and again she saw little golden sparks, this time flowing all around on the page.
“What the – ” she said, as she stepped across the threshold.
A brilliant flash of golden light. And then she was somewhere else.
Warmth flowed through her. The kind of pleasantly moist warmth that’s comforting without crossing the line into excessive humidity. Golden light was all around her, and she felt a momentary surge of panic that faded beneath wonder as the light receded and she was able to look around.
She stood atop a grass-covered hilltop, looking down toward a perfectly-circular lake of crystal clear blue water. Golden sunlight from directly overhead reflected from the lake’s still surface like a beacon. All around the edge of the lake grew clusters of flowers of every hue, and on the side of the lake to her right stood a pavilion of white canvas beside a pair of willows. Between the willows was slung a hammock of braided white cords.
Steph felt her jaw drop open, and again she looked down at the calendar page.
It was the same place.
What was going on?
Hoofbeats from behind made her turn, and her jaw hit her chest.
The unicorn was beautiful. Proud and tall, rippled muscles on its flanks, and its horn shining like silver in the sun. And riding astride it…
He was the most beautiful man Steph had ever seen. Lean, but clearly well-muscled beneath the green robes he wore. High cheekbones and a chiseled jaw. Piercing green eyes, and long blond hair that flowed around his head to his shoulders and beyond. His robes were held closed by a black leather belt with a golden clasp, and he wore a curved sword on his right hip. He rode bareback, and when the unicorn reached Steph’s side he slipped from the creature’s back with such fluid grace that it took her breath away.
“My lady,” he said, inclining his head to her. As he did, his hair parted, and she saw that his ears were pointed. A thrill of excitement swept through her as it clicked that he was an elf. Right out of Tolkien!
“We are pleased you can join us,” he continued, and smiled at her as he straightened and met her eyes. “May I assist you up?”
He stepped aside and gestured toward the unicorn.
Steph looked at the animal uncertainly. “I don’t think it’ll let me ride. I’m not – ” She coughed, embarrassment flooding her cheeks with color. “I mean – ” She gave over trying to say she wasn’t a virgin and just spread her hands.
The elf chuckled softly and placed his hand on her shoulder, gently pressing her forward. “It is purity of the soul the unicorn judges, not of the body.” His smile was encouraging. “I think he will approve.”
She wasn’t entirely convinced, but she reached out to touch the unicorn’s side. It nickered once, and eyed her, then turned to look straight ahead, apparently consenting to the contact.
Its hair was smooth and silky, beyond anything she had ever touched. It flowed past her fingers effortlessly, leaving little tingles in its wake, and she couldn’t help but shivering at its touch.
Then the elf’s hands closed around her waist and she felt herself lifted. A moment later, she was sitting sidesaddle—but without a saddle—atop the unicorn, and the elf smiled up at her.
“Come, my lady,” he said, then he turned and stepped even with the unicorn’s head.
It moved to match his stride, and before Steph realized it they were beside the pavilion and willows. The elf helped her down, and she turned to see half a dozen of his kin stepping out from within the white fabric of the pavilion. They were all maidens, dressed in white gowns. Some were darker than others but they were all beautiful enough to make Steph feel like a weed among roses.
But the elf continued to smile gently at her. Again he touched her shoulder, and he gestured toward the emerging maidens.
“These ladies will see to your needs,” he said. “Bathe in the waters. Take your ease. Restore yourself.”
The elf women moved toward her, and Steph found herself stepping to meet them. She paused though and turned, to see the man leaping up onto the unicorn’s back seemingly without effort. “You aren’t staying?”
He shook his head. “I have other duties. But you will see me again, when the time is right.”
Before she could ask what that meant, he nudged the unicorn’s sides with his heels, and the beast turned round then cantered back up the hill from which they had come.
Steph watched him go with a mixture of wonder and longing. Then the elf women reached her side, and they showed her into the pavilion.
She lost track of time as the elves gave her the spa treatment to end them all. The water in the lake was just as pure as it had looked from afar, and warm so she was able to swim without effort and in complete comfort. She dove to the bottom to examine the plants and fish there, then returned to the surface without ever feeling out of breath.
Her keepers washed her hair with a soap that smelled of lavender and something subtly sweet, then scrubbed her back and massaged aches that she hadn’t even realized she felt from her muscles.
Warm fragrant oil, and then a time spent putting her hair into tight but somehow luxurious curls, and never mind how short she had recently cut it.
And then she was in a white gown to match theirs, swinging in the hammock as a gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the willows overhead and a songbird twittered from somewhere off to the right. She sipped at a goblet that the elf women had given her, and tasted something that was almost like honey, but also spicy, that set a deep warmth in her belly and flooded relaxation through her limbs.
She dozed. For how long, it was impossible to say because near as she could tell the sun never changed position in all the time she had spent there.
But when the light of that sun diminished from a shadow passing over her, she woke, and smiled broadly up at the dashing elf who had placed her on the unicorn.
“Hello,” she said. She heard the luxurious tone of relaxation in her voice, and part of her recoiled in shock. The rest just went with it, though, because damn, she really did feel good. All her cares, all her stress, everything that had been hovering over her like a storm cloud – it was all gone.
“Hello, my lady,” the elf said, and returned her smile. “Good to see you are well.” He paused to inhale slightly. “Alas, it is time.”
Steph blinked. “Time?”
He nodded gravely. “To return.”
She felt her smile fade as the concept of returning to that grey, stifling prison of a world opened up before her. Steph shook her head. “I don’t want to.”
The elf reached out and took her hand, then, slowly and gently, guided her up out of the hammock and onto her feet. As he did, he said, “You are not meant for life in this place, any more than we are meant for life in yours.”
Steph opened her mouth to protest, but he placed the tip of his index finger on her lips, and she felt her protest fading. She knew he was right. Though she didn’t want him to be. But pleasant as this place was—whatever it was—it wasn’t really her home. Part of her knew if she did remain she would just waste away here.
So she nodded, and he smiled approval.
They walked hand-in-hand up the hill. The unicorn was nowhere to be seen. When they reached the top, she saw there was a small stone square inlaid in the grass. She hadn’t noticed it before. It had a strange glyph—two circles interconnected by a collections of wavy, swirling lines—carved into its surface, and it glimmered ever so slightly in the sunlight.
She was busy studying it when the elf said, “Fare well, my lady.” He gestured toward the stone, as though she should step upon it.
Steph hesitated. “What’s your name?”
The elf cocked his head slightly to the side, then his smile quirked upward ever so slightly. “I am Lorien. And if you should happen to come this way in the future, I will be glad to see you again.”
He made that same gesture again, and Steph stepped forward onto the stone.
Another golden flash, and she stumbled forward back into Miss Melody’s Cafe.
It took her a moment to realize where she was. Then she saw the woman herself standing behind the counter, exactly as she had been right before Steph stepped through the door…portal…whatever. She gasped as recognition swept over her.
Miss Melody smiled gently and raised an eyebrow. “Back so soon?”
So soon? She had been gone for hours surely.
Steph’s cell phone chirped, and she pulled it out. She blinked in shock. According to the date and time displayed on its screen, it was exactly the same time now as it had been when she stepped through the door. But that was impossible. How – ?
The phone vibrated in her hand, and it chirped again. The Voicemail icon had a red 1 overtop it.
The message from Jenny. Well, might as well get on with it.
She lifted the phone to her ear, still not entirely sure what had just happened. Jenny’s voice came through loud and clear.
“Steph, I wanted to call and say I’m sorry for how I acted in the meeting. I was surprised and angry and… It wasn’t your fault, and I was wrong to blame you like I did. I hope you don’t quit over this; I can’t run this place without you. Please come in tomorrow and let me make it up to you.”
Steph dropped her hand to her side, cellphone still playing the rest of the voicemail, and looked wonderingly at Miss Melody. “What is this place?”
The older woman shrugged. “What the sign says. Food for the body. Healing for the soul.”
“But…” Steph shook her head, her mind racing through the events of the last several hours—days?—in that other realm, and back here in the real world. Wait. “Was… Was that real?”
“Was what real, dear?”
“The…place. The elves. The…” She stopped, realizing she sounded like an idiot.
Miss Melody shrugged. “Was it real to you? That is what matters.” She glanced at the little calendar, and Steph followed that with her own eyes. Another wave of shock swept through her when she saw the day and date that was atop the stack, ready to be pulled off: today’s. And there was no picture on the sheet, just the day and date, which filled the entire page.
It hadn’t registered fully when she’d fished the cell phone out, but Steph realized she was back in her own clothes. And… And she was still clutching her page from the calendar in her left hand, just as she had been before stepping through the door.
Hers still had the picture on it.
“We all have different needs, at different times,” Miss Melody said. Steph looked back at her, and the she sniffed. “But now, I believe you need to get moving, or you’ll miss your show.”
“Yes,” Steph said, as memory flooded back into her. “Yes, I – ” She froze, narrowing her eyes at Miss Melody. “How did you know about that?”
She didn’t answer, just smiled her kindly smile and made a shooing gesture.
Steph knew she was right; now that she was back time wouldn’t just stop and wait for her. And her friends were expecting her. So she nodded and turned back to the door.
She paused with her hand on the door’s handle again, and looked back. “It won’t – ?” She didn’t quite know how to ask the question.
Miss Melody shook her head. “Another time, perhaps.”
“So I can come back?”
Miss Melody gave a little shrug. “If you have need. We are always here for those in need.”
Steph wasn’t sure she understood, but she nodded anyway. She opened the door and stepped through.
Somehow the greyness of the street outside was less bleak than it had been before she went inside. The people were less robotic, the city less oppressive. She breathed in the air and couldn’t smell the exhaust, the way she had before.
She felt 100% better.
With a start, she realized she hadn’t said thank you. She turned to go back inside to remedy that, and stopped.
Where Miss Melody’s Cafe had been was a Seven Eleven.
What the – ?
She looked back down at the calendar page in her hand. It was just as it had been, except for one thing. The address at the bottom. She hadn’t really paid it attention earlier, but she could have sworn it had been the street address she had entered. Now it read, “Wherever needy souls are located.”
Despite the weirdness, the absolute insanity of it, Steph found herself smiling. Looked like there was someone looking out for people, after all.
As she turned to hurry down the street toward home, and then her evening out with her friends, she had a bounce in her step that she hadn’t had in years.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: