by Michael Kingswood
It wasn’t every day that you rounded a bend in a hiking trail and found a cafe there, waiting for you.
At first, Jeff thought he was seeing things. He blinked, then rubbed his eyes. But when he opened them it was still there.
Right there at the side of the creek that was meandering its way down from the ridge Jeff had been scaling for most of the morning, on a patch of relatively level ground that was remarkably clear of trees.
The rest of the trail had been shaded by oaks…or were they elms? Hell, Jeff never could tell one tree from the next except that they looked different; he didn’t know their names.
And he didn’t figure he had to, to enjoy being out among them.
But whatever their names, he had been in the shade of their limbs and leaves for the last three and a half hours, meandering his way along the trail from the little pull-off by the side of the road that acted as the trail head. He had been the only person in the pull-off when he arrived, and he hadn’t seen a soul the entire time he’d been making the slow but steady ascent up the mountain.
And that was just the way he wanted it. Just him and nature, nothing to listen to except the wind rustling the tree limbs, his Kresta Hikers digging into the dirt of the trail, and the occasional scurrying of a small critters scampering away through the underbrush.
Nothing to smell except dirt and growing things, and nature, and life.
He always came out hiking when he needed to clear his head, and after last night he needed that more than he ever had. He’d found the listing for this trail—it was called Red Spruce Summit, though that wasn’t the name of the ridge, so what the hell—and he’d never done it before, so he’d packed his day pack, filled two water bottles, donned his hiking boots, and headed out at first light.
It had been cool at first, but now as it was approaching noon the early summer heat was swelling, and his red t-shirt was nearly soaked with his sweat. At least it was good wicking material. His cargo shorts were getting wet too. Despite the relatively small grade, the trail hadn’t exactly been easy, meandering up over the occasional boulder patch. And despite being simple to follow—he almost didn’t need the trail blazes on the trees, the path was so worn from years of footsteps—it had been far from smooth walking even without the rocks.
So he was feeling it in his thighs, and he had been thinking to sit down a take a rest.
And then the cafe appeared as he rounded yet another wall of rocks, and he stopped, cold.
It could have been on Main Street in a Norman Rockwell painting. One story. Brick front with big wide display windows. A swinging glass door allowing entrance, with a sign overhead the display window. In a font that somehow seemed to exude cheer and wellbeing through just the shape of the letters alone, he read, “Miss Melody’s Cafe. Food for the Body. Healing for the Soul.”
Jeff looked left, then right, still convinced he was seeing things.
Was he that dehydrated already? It was warm, bordering on hot, and humid, but he’d brought two 1-liter bottles of water and he’d been making sure to drink.
He checked his bottles real quick, tucked into pouches on either side of his day pack.
The left one was almost empty; he could tell from the weight. The right one full.
So yeah, he’d been drinking.
And he’d stopped to pee fifteen minutes or so ago. He definitely wasn’t dehydrated.
So what the hell?
There were lights on inside Miss Melody’s Cafe, but he didn’t see any power cables running into it. Hell, there were no power cables anywhere here. He was way the hell out in the middle of the woods.
Nonetheless, a cheery light illuminated pink and green and yellow and blue on the walls inside. And there were white-backed chairs around white tables, just screaming at him to come in a take a load off.
Before he realized he was doing it, he was at the front door, palm pressed against the door’s glass, and about ready to push it open.
He stopped, and looked behind himself.
Just the woods, the way he had left them. Peaceful and still. Green and growing. Not a sign of man anywhere.
The door pushed open beneath his palm, and Jeff spun back to face it, taking a step back, suddenly tense as fight or flight welled up with a surge of adrenalin.
Just as quickly as his fright came, it fled when he saw the person who had opened the door from inside.
She was elderly, but not old. Plump, she had a round face and a gentle smile, and her silver-grey hair was done up on a bun atop her head. She wore a pastel green apron over a white blouse and khakis, and pink-rimmed glasses that made her eyes seem a little too big.
“Hello dear,” she said in a warm, welcoming tone. “I’m Miss Melody. Would you like to come in?”
“I – “ Jeff swallowed, glancing back at the woods again. “I’m not sure. I’m rather surprised to find you here.”
“I get that a lot,” she said, her smile somehow growing more broad. “You look hot and tired. Come have some iced tea.”
Jeff had to admit, that sounded good. Real good. So good that he decided it wasn’t so incredibly weird that someone had set up a business along a well-used hiking trail. Sure, he hadn’t seen anyone today, but the way the trail had been worn down said tons of people used it other days.
She probably had a generator or something in the back for her lights. Probably made a decent profit, and it got her out into the country away from town every day.
Not a bad idea, now that he thought of it.
Jeff returned her smile. “Sure,” he said, then he followed her in.
It was blessedly cool inside, air conditioning working like magic, and Jeff let out a sigh of relief, only now realizing how hot it truly had become outside, how uncomfortable.
He followed Miss Melody across the cafe floor toward a glass-fronted display case in the rear, and felt his worries drip away like the sweat that was still flowing; though flowing less by the second as the coolness of the air refreshed him.
The place smelled of chocolate chip cookies in the oven and chicken noodle soup on the simmer, and there was some kind of classical guitar music playing from hidden speakers, slow strumming and fingerpicking that combined with the scents and the coolness to put Jeff completely at his ease.
He was smiling freely when he stopped in front of the display case, where Miss Melody had taken up station behind.
“Now then,” she said, and turned to his left. She opened something, Jeff couldn’t see what but it sounded like a cooler case, and lifted a pitcher full of yellow-brown liquid with lemons cut into eighths floating in it. She waggled her eyebrows at him, and he laughed.
Miss Melody set the pitcher down and turned around to a white-painted cupboard behind the display case. Opening up one of the cupboard doors, she withdrew a glass, so clear that Jeff wondered for a second if it was crystal. Then she bent over and he heard a crunching sound. When she straightened, it was halfway full of ice cubes, which she proceeded to drown in the tea.
“Do you want sugar, dear?”
Jeff shook his head. No need to ruin perfectly good tea that way.
With an approving nod, Miss Melody set the glass on top of the display case and slid it across to him.
“Thanks,” he said and lifted it up. He inhaled the vapors for a second, appreciating the tea’s slightly earthy odor. Then he took a long, refreshing drink.
The cold seeped down his throat and into his stomach, and it felt like the coolness of it spread through his entire body without any effort at all.
He closed his eyes, just enjoying, for a moment. When he opened them again, Miss Melody was looking at him, not un-kindly, with with a direct stare.
“What brings you out on such a hot day, dear?”
Last night’s news, and the fight, came back to Jeff’s mind, and some of the calm that he had been seeking all morning, but had stubbornly refused to come until he followed Miss Melody into the cafe, fled.
He looked away from her gaze. “I just needed to get away. Get my thoughts in order.”
From the corner of his eye, he saw Miss Melody nod in understanding. “Bad news is never easy to receive.”
He looked back at her, the tension he had felt when she first opened the door returning, though it was a shadow of its initial self.
“Who said anything about bad news?”
Miss Melody didn’t retreat, didn’t show any sign of reacting at all to the accusation that Jeff had put into his tone without realizing it. She merely shrugged. “It’s my job to know what people are feeling, and what they need.” She reached down behind the display case and a moment later came up with a long, thin piece of paper, printed front and back in flowing script. Jeff didn’t need to read it to know it was the menu.
“Thanks, Ma’am, but I think I’d better be going after this.” He lifted the iced tea, then took another drink.
It really was pretty damn good.
“Are you sure? I make the best chicken and dumplings.”
Chicken and dumplings.
Jeff flashed back to all the times over the years that Mom had made that for him and his brother, Keith. On every special occasion and holiday, to be sure, but also sometimes just whenever, because she thought one of them might need or want it.
No one had ever made it as well as she did. It was like love rolled out in a rolling pin and dropped into rich broth, with pieces of hope for his and Keith’s incredible futures floating alongside in a whole that was as completely restorative as it was delicious.
No one ever made chicken and dumplings for him like Mom did.
And now no one ever would. Not now that Keith had sent her off to that –
Jeff felt one of his knuckles pop, and looked down to see his fingers gripping the glass of iced tea so tightly they had turned white.
If it wasn’t for the fact the glass was circular, and thus very strong, he might had broken it, as tightly as he was gripping it.
He placed the glass down atop the display case and stepped back. He couldn’t take his eyes from the glass; it was like he was afraid he had hurt it. And never mind that glass has no feelings, and that the thing was completely intact.
Jeff shook his head. “Thanks,” he found himself saying, woodenly. “I’m just gonna go.” He took another step back. “What do I owe you?”
Miss Melody gave a little shake of her head, drawing Jeff’s gaze back to her face. Her smile, though still kindly, was sad, like she could feel some measure of the heartache that he had been trying to drive away all morning with exertion.
Trying, and failing.
“First visit is on the house, dear,” she said. Then she turned to her right.
Sitting there atop the display case was one of those year-long calendars that you can tear off day by day.
Jeff hadn’t noticed it before.
Miss Melody tour off the top calendar page, and for a second Jeff thought he saw a little group of golden lights puffing out around it, like fairy dust in those old kids movies.
She held the calendar page out to him and put some more cheer back into her gentle smile. “Take this to remember us by?”
He reached out and took hold of the little page. As his fingers made contact, he felt a soft trill of energy, almost like the page had a small little static electric charge on it.
Of course, that was ridiculous.
The paper was thicker than he thought it would be. More coarse. He looked down at it and saw it was divided in two. On the right was the day and date, in large, easy to read lettering. On the left was another picture out of a Norman Rockwell collection. Two boys sitting on either side of a dining table, with their mother, clad in a blue dress and white apron, standing between them, holding a pot in one hand and ladling out soup into one of the boys’ bowls with the other.
It struck close to home, so close to what he had just been thinking, that he almost didn’t see the script at the bottom of the calendar page: Miss Melody’s Cafe. Red Spruce Summit Trail.
He blinked, and those were not tears that he blinked away, and looked back at Miss Melody.
He wasn’t sure what to say so he just said, “Good bye.”
“Good bye, dear,” she replied as he turned toward the door.
He pulled the door open, and he heard the tinkling of a bell over his head. He was just thinking that he hadn’t heard a bell when he came in, and wasn’t that odd, when a brilliant flash of yellow-white light tore through his vision.
The instant of the flash stretched out into a small eternity, and then he could see again.
He had just walked in the door. It had been a long, hard day at work, and he wanted nothing more than to kiss Nina, have some dinner, then take her to bed and just sleep—that’s it, just sleep—for a year.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, a voice said he wasn’t married to anyone named Nina. His brother was.
But he walked in the house anyway, kicking off his shoes inside the doorway like always. He felt the familiar thread of the carpet between his toes as he walked down the entranceway hall, past pictures of him and Nina and their son Jordan—I don’t have a son named Jordan either, what the—to the living room.
And already he could hear the voices. The argument.
Mom was acting up again, and Nina sounded like she was at her wits’ end.
Biting back a curse, and trying not to feel the anger turning toward hatred that always tried to rise within him when Mom got this way, he rushed forward, passing the living room toward the hall to Mom’s room, to help.
Yellow-white light flashed again, and he was on the back porch. Sitting in his wicker chair looking out at the lawn where Jordan was practicing his kata.
It was amazing how grown up he looked. How strong, as he took a low stance, practically brushing the ground with his hand as he made a rising blocking movement and then stretched up to his full height and punched forward.
Eleven years old. Had it already been eleven years?
Eleven years old, and almost as tall as he was, already muscular and handsome. Jordan was going to be a lady-killer. He made a note to start having the talks about women with his son. Give him Rollo’s books, so Jordan could avoid some of the mistakes he had made. Some of the pain.
If Jordan –
“She needs her bedpan changed again.” It was Nina’s voice, from inside the house. Flat, unamused. “She won’t let me near her.”
He sighed and pushed himself up out of his chair, nodding. “I’ll take care of if.”
He spared one last look at his son, sweaty and vibrant in the sunlight, then stepped into the shadows on his home.
It was dark inside. Even with all the lights on, it was dark. Dark, and joyless.
He wanted to wonder where they joy had went, but as he turned toward the bedroom and heard the complaining voice coming from within, he knew.
God help him, he knew.
He pushed the door open and stepped inside.
The scent of the bedpan struck him first. Then the wide-eyed, accusing eyes from the women lying on the bed. Accusing, and mixed with fear and anger.
“Who are you?” she demanded, her voice harsh in its lack of recognition for the son who had been caring for her, along with the rest of his family. “Where’s my son? I want my son!”
“Mom, it’s – “ He meant to say, “It’s me, Keith.”
But she interrupted him, saying, “Where is Jeffrey?”
Another flash of yellow-white light, and he was bent over the kitchen counter, his elbows resting on the formica and his head in his hands.
He wanted to shut his eyes, not look at the papers on the countertop in front of him. But he couldn’t.
It was necessary. God knew it was necessary. He couldn’t care for her any more. She was driving him insane, and Nina too. And Jordan…
All the same, the guilt felt like it was going to gobble him up. Gobble him up and leave nothing behind except excrement.
And deservedly so.
He looked at his signature on the page that committed his mother to the nursing home, and he cursed himself for a coward and a weakling. A terrible son, and a horrible father, to set such a bad example for Jordan.
It was so selfish of him…
He felt Nina’s arms around him as she came to his side and hugged him close. Felt her warmth, but it didn’t help fill the hole where his heart used to be.
“You’re doing the right thing,” she said.
And he wanted to believe it. But…
“Jeff’s never going to forgive me.” He didn’t know why he said it. After all, he wasn’t sure he would ever be able to forgive himself.
Why was his big brother’s approval the thing that came to his lips, right then?
Nina squeezed harder. “He’s on the other side of the country, Keith. He doesn’t know how it is with her.”
He nodded. That was true. All the same…
“I have to call him, and tell him.”
“You want me to do it?”
“No. I will.”
The yellow-white flash came again, and then Jeff was stumbling forward.
He was facing toward the back of the cafe, and Miss Melody behind her glass-fronted display case. He managed to catch himself before falling completely, but it took him a couple steps.
He looked up at the kindly old woman, his jaw dropping. “What…. What was – ?”
He couldn’t finish the words.
“Just what you needed, dear.” She gestured toward the wall to her left. Jeff followed her hand with his eyes and saw the same thing as had been on the sign out front.
“Food for the Body. Healing for the Soul.”
He retreated, confusion competing with fear battling with revulsion and anger.
“You stay away from me, witch,” he said.
Then he turned and ran.
He flung himself through the door, then across the trail. He didn’t register the water getting into his boots as he splashed across the creek through calf-deep water.
Then he was on the other side fo the creek, running. Except he lost his footing and stumbled again.
Pinwheeling his arms, he turned partway, and then landed against a tree trunk, curling his arms around it to stop himself from falling completely.
Jeff stood there—more like he hung there—for a long time. He wasn’t sure how long, because his mind was racing so.
What was it that he had seen?
It had been so real. He had felt every second of it. Ever touch, every scent. All the frustration, all the guilt, the anguish…
At some point he pushed himself up off the trunk and fully back onto his feet. His vision was blurry. He blinked away tears that had been flowing freely, then brushed them away with the back of his right hand.
He brought his left hand up –
And it was still holding the calendar page from inside Miss Melody’s.
Anger flared up within him and he grasped it between both of his hands, meaning to tear it asunder.
He stopped, as he saw the Norman Rockwell picture on the left hand side more closely.
That wasn’t just any mother ladling out soup for the boys at the table. That was his mother. Vibrant and smiling, like when he was a boy. He could practically smell the chicken and dumplings in the ladle she was pouring out into the bowl –
That was his bowl. It was him in the picture. And Keith on the other side of the table.
What the – ?
He spun around, looking back at the cafe.
It was gone.
Gone like it had never existed. There was just the creek and the trail leading uphill on the other side. There were even trees growing right through the spot where the cafe had just been.
A shiver went down Jeff’s spine, and he looked back down at the calendar page that he still held clutched between his two hands.
At the bottom, beneath the picture and the date, was the area where it had listed the cafe’s location as being on Red Spruce Summit Trail.
Now, it said, “Wherever Needy Souls Are Located.”
Jeff released the page with his right hand, then used that same hand to smooth the wrinkles out of the paper that he had inadvertently put into it.
Then he splashed back across the creek and went back to the trail. But this time, he turned downhill.
It took an hour before he got a good cellphone signal. As soon as he saw a bar, he called up Keith’s number.
It rang three times before Keith answered.
“Keith, it’s Jeff.”
“Hey.” Jeff could hear the trepidation, the hurt, the uncertainty in his brother’s voice.
He paused, just now realizing he had no idea what he had intended to say. So he said the first thing that came to mind.
“Brother, I’m sorry.”
The sudden hitch in Keith’s breath told Jeff that was exactly the right thing to say.
* * *
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: