Author: IndiLovely PM
"Did the sun come out, or did you just smile at me?" "I prefer to call it 'baring my teeth'." "Ooh, aggressive. I like it." Running a chocolate shop, victimised by domestic abuse, tutoring to avoid expulsion, and now fighting off a flunking, abrasive classmate? Life isn't too difficult. I could be facing an unrequited love of the most gorgeous guy in the school too. Oh... wait.Rated: Fiction T - English - Friendship/Drama - Chapters: 7 - Words: 27,632 - Reviews: 9 - Favs: 6 - Follows: 13 - Updated: 09-04-12 - Published: 05-06-12 - id: 3019995
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
I put the name of the piano piece that's part of the story in the scene (Chopin's Nocturne in E flat) and I'd really recommend listening to it during the scene. I might just be being a piano nerd, but it's really beautiful and sets the mood pretty well. :3
I took the drive in leaps, hoping that making my strides longer would make the distance between me and my father as big as it could possibly be. It would take mere seconds for Papa to realise that someone was leaving rather than entering the house, and I'd definitely know when he found out –
"Antoinette!" The booming shout shot through my ears more painfully than a bullet would, even though I was already down the drive and on the street. Its intensity made me stumble, but I didn't dare slow down or even look back, knowing that he was standing in the doorway, staring at my back with the promise of what I'd receive when I ventured back to my home.
Instead, I let my primitive instincts lead me as like an animal, I fled from my prey as if my life depended on it. I was sprinting so hard that my muscles burned and my breathing became the only thing I could hear apart from the soles of my shoes slapping against the sidewalk and the wind rushing past my ears.
After what felt like hours but which was probably under a minute, I turned into Zach's drive, glancing back every now and then to check my father hadn't followed me. I knew I was being paranoid; there was no way he would follow me this far. I quickly got out my phone and texted Mason, the ever-lasting adrenaline making my hands shake: Papa's home. I'm at Zach's. Go home late.
Someone must have heard my feet on the gravel, because hands met my shoulders with surprising force. I jumped, my heartbeat speeding up even more, but mercifully, it wasn't who I dreaded to see. Instead, I looked up to see a pair of sky blue eyes filled to the brim with concern. Relief flooded through me in an overpowering wave that made my knees buckle.
"Nettie? What's wrong? Jesus, you're trembling," Zach exclaimed, pulling me into a hug. It was lucky he did, too; had he left me without any support, I was pretty sure I would've fallen to the floor. I was still trying to regain control of my breaths, which were quickly starting to turn to sobs. No, Toni. You will not cry. Not here, not now, I told myself, as I did every time. I had an exterior reputation to maintain, and I wasn't about to let it slip because of my father. So I let Zach hold me while I took deep breaths, clearing my mind and recomposing myself.
"Sorry," I murmured into his chest, letting the smell of his soap surround me. "I'm a little early."
Zach pulled away, and took my hand as he led me inside. "You're staying the night, aren't you?" So he knew what I'd been running from. I wasn't surprised; this wasn't the first time I'd sought refuge in his home. Sometimes, I'd been battered and bruised, so it hadn't taken that many visits from me for Zach and his family to figure out what was up.
"Thank you," was all I said as a response as he took me into the kitchen. "Hi, Mrs Laurence," I said as I took a seat on one of the island counter's stools. Although the bright, welcoming colours of the spacious kitchen did little to brighten my mood, they did wrap me in a sense of comfort. I allowed my posture to slacken ever so slightly.
My phone vibrated in my pocket. It was a reply from Mason: Got it. Hope you're okay.
"Toni! For the last time, call me Abby," she replied, rolling her eyes. "You make me sound like a shrivelling old lady."
On the contrary, the woman was very pretty (no hate against shrivelling old ladies intended). Just like my mother, she had fair blonde hair that curled around her face and gentle, maternal eyes the same colour as Zach's. Only a few lines of age were beginning to appear around them, and if anything, they only made her look wiser. Like she'd experienced the world and lived to tell the tale.
"That's because you are one, Mom," Zach replied, placing a loving kiss on her cheek before putting the kettle on.
Abby must have been taking in my appearance while we conversed, because her expression turned sad. "You two having a coffee filled night in?" Abby was like a second mother; she knew when something was up and I needed the standard Laurence night. I saw her give me a quick once over – most likely checking for injuries.
"Not before I help Cody with his math," I replied with a genuine smile. I was looking forward to giving something back to the Laurence family, along with hopefully seeing Cody get a decent grade.
"His math?" Abby's expression turned bewildered. "What are you talking about?"
I froze. "Um, he hasn't told you…?"
A voice came from behind me. "Hey, Zach! You used up all the hot water in the shower –" Cody ground to a halt half way down the stairs when he saw me in the kitchen. A dreading look found its way to his face. "Toni? You're early…"
"Yeah," Zach inputted bleakly, "Cody tends to wait 'til the very last minute to break these things to Mom."
"Break what things?" Abby demanded sharply. "Cody?" That penetrating gaze turned to the boy on the stairs. But said boy had already disappeared to the second floor while we spoke, and I heard the shower turn on seconds later. Abby's glare after him turned to me, softening a little. "Care to explain?"
I guiltily spilt the beans on how Cody was failing math, and I was there to tutor him. "I came bearing cakes," I added tentatively at the end, reaching into my bag to retrieve a dozen cupcakes similar to the one I'd given Gene. However, this time I was using them with the hope of saving my skin from the daunting scrutiny of the Laurence mother.
Abby's expression turned from furious to delighted, like someone changing the channel on a television. "Oh, Toni, you shouldn't have!" Contrary to her words, she took the box from my hands before I could change my mind. Zach reached out to take one, but Abby slapped his hand away before he could snatch one. "Wait until after dinner," she ordered. Zach groaned but didn't dare argue.
The Laurence family banter did help calm me down a little – especially when an extremely apologetic (and squeaky clean for the amount of time he spent in the shower) Cody came back downstairs. By the time Abby was done with him, he was practically begging for mercy. Even as I tried to hold back a grin while he suffered, I couldn't help but let the occasional dark thought drift into my mind, telling me about how I didn't deserve to intrude on such a family, and how I should just return to my own and face the consequences of my own foolish actions. The thoughts continued throughout the evening, but I put on a good face to make sure I didn't worry the Laurence household.
"Seven?" A voice broke me from yet another one of my reveries.
"Huh?" I blinked and focused on the problem Cody was attempting to solve. "Uh, no. It's not seven." I drained my lukewarm coffee and stared at the numbers on the paper. This stuff was easy; I didn't understand why people just couldn't put it together in their heads. Of course, I'd never tell Cody that. "Your working's all good, up 'til… here." I pointed at the error on the page, and did my best to explain how he'd gone wrong. His expression was determined, but I couldn't tell if he was taking that much of it in.
"So it's… three?" he concluded, kind of sounding like he was taking a stab in the dark, but I'd guided him pretty much to the answer he was looking for, and he had all the working down.
"Yes!" I exclaimed joyously, mustering up as much encouragement as I could manage. "You're getting it."
A blush crept onto his cheeks, and he shrugged modestly. "Not without your help. Want to come with me into the exam hall?"
I laughed. "You wish, kiddo." Glancing at the clock on the wall of the dining room made me do a double take. "Wow. It's already twenty to ten?"
"Time flies when you're having fun," Cody replied dryly.
I rolled my eyes at his sarcasm, but started to stand up. "Well, I guess I should really be on my way…" I kept a wince off my face as I anticipated the greeting I'd get at home.
"No way," a new voice intercepted, and I whirled round to see Zach entering with a fresh cup of decaf coffee, and what I assumed was hot chocolate for his brother. Cody practically lived off that stuff. "You're staying the night, remember?" he reminded me, handing me the coffee.
I took it gratefully, and silently. I always offered to leave, feeling like I was intruding in their lives, but the Laurences would never have it. They even let me keep a few of my belongings in the spare bedroom because I'd stayed over so often. I had toiletries that always stayed at the Laurence house.
We went together into the living room, where the parents were sitting. Once again, I was stunned at how perfect Abby managed to keep the house, as well as working full time. The cushions on the unoccupied couches were flawlessly plumped, and there wasn't even the smallest speck of dirt on the white carpet. It was incredible, since the room often housed three men.
Cody promptly flung himself on one of the couches. Abby was sat next to her husband on one couch, nursing her own cup of coffee. Mr Laurence and I exchanged greetings, but Zach and I excused ourselves to go back to his room.
Although, I was reluctant. Because as I took a seat on the middle of his bed and he shut the door behind him, I knew the conversation that was coming. It did every time.
He sat opposite me on the bed and watched me, his blue gaze unwavering. "You aren't hurt anywhere?" he said finally.
I shook my head.
"So he didn't reach you?"
Another shake. I was quite the chatterbox, but when it came to talk like this I was quieter than a mouse.
His shoulders relaxed slightly. "Okay. And Mason?"
"He's going home late. I guess Papa will be asleep by then." Most likely passed out on the couch. Again.
"You want me to come home with you after school tomorrow?" he offered.
I shook my head for a third time. "Mason will be there. It's fine."
"It's anything but 'fine', Toni," he contradicted. "You're fleeing from your own damn home. You need to get the police involved – "
"No," I interrupted coldly. "No way am I turning to them."
I had my reasons, and Zach knew that. He respected my privacy each time, and never asked about them, even though I was so selfishly finding refuge in his house time and time again.
When Zach didn't reply, I felt guilty. "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be snappy. I just…" I felt awkward about letting my feelings out, but Zach was one of the very few people I knew I could confide in with them. "I just miss her a little, I guess."
Zach's eyes softened, and he said nothing. He just pulled me into a hug. And at that point in time, it was all I could have asked for from him and more.
But later that night, when everyone was tucked up in bed, I decided to stay awake for just a few hours longer, since my pillow had become too damp to sleep on.
"Excuse me." I ground to a halt to tend to the woman with a polite but brief smile on her face. "Could you please tell me where the bathrooms are?"
"Of course," I said, flashing her the most I-know-exactly-what-I'm-doing look I could conjure up before pointing her in the right direction, and then scrambling off towards the kitchen which was bustling with workers. Some were packing cakes into boxes to be delivered, some were finishing final decorations on cakes, and some were just barking orders at poor innocent busboys.
I dumped the dirty mugs on a tray next to the dishwasher. "Vic," I called breathlessly, already heading back towards the kitchen's exit, "could you get these cleaned up? I need to get back to the till."
Vic leaned against the kitchen sink, looking like the perfect representation of nonchalance as he pushed his shaggy blonde hair from his hazel eyes with a grin that made them shine with amusement. "A little extra work making your back hurt again, old lady?"
"You're a year older than me, so you're hardly in a position to say that," I countered, sticking out my tongue at him before leaving the kitchen to tend to the customers waiting in front of the cash register. Mason had asked for me to help set up shop early this morning, and even though I'd been groggy enough to blindly accept the request at four in the morning, I was definitely regretting it now. Morning shifts were difficult – they were usually filled with workers getting their doses of our delicious coffee range before they set off on the long, hard journey of their everyday lives. I had a free session this morning, so I wasn't required to be at school. I couldn't exactly refuse Mason – this was the family business, after all.
Vic, however, pretended that he could handle morning shifts. But after getting to know him for the past year, I could see the telltale signs of his fatigue: he ran his hand through his hair more (only making it look even more like he'd just rolled out of bed – how did he pull that off again?) and he tended to roll his weight from one foot to the other to keep himself awake.
He put on a good face, though. It was a lucky thing, too, since half the customers were only here because of his looks. Heck, sometimes when I served people, they asked if I could go and get Vic to take the order. I willingly obliged every time, somewhat smugly; it gave me less work to do, and all for the satisfaction of the customers. That very situation applied now, when some of my fellow classmates came to the counter, and asked me in hushed giggles to get Vic to come and take their orders before they set off to school. I flashed him a sly grin after he wearily accepted.
I went back to collecting empty mugs from tables, barely sparing a glance for the newest painting Mason had ordered to be put on one of the plainer looking walls, purely because I'd already examined every one of its rich colours about fifty times today. On the first few days of working here, I'd gazed upon the shop's interior, entirely awe-struck. The outside of the shop did tend to attract customers, since we lined up our best products along the windows, and with those combined with the promise of a steaming cup of your preferred coffee, we gained countless customers per day.
But the thing that really made people decide on coming back again and again was the inside of the shop. It was based on our kitchen at home; the walls were a warm, dark salmon colour, and the floors were polished redwood. Luscious scarlet curtains gave a high class feel, yet were made more casual as they were pulled apart to reveal the streets of Portland through the windows. Quiet, classical music was playing from the speakers around the shop. Stairs up one wall led to the second floor (containing more tables) which covered the kitchen beneath it and overlooked the first floor like a monarch overseeing its kingdom, barred from it by wooden railings. The contrast between the busy world out there and the relaxed, fuzzy atmosphere in here was constantly startling. Above the counters, I saw the menu, and sitting on top of that, the sign of the shop written in its familiar burgundy, elegant scrawl against a white background: 'Les Remèdes'.
And in the corner, on a slightly raised platform, sat undoubtedly my favourite feature of the shop: the rich, broadwood grand piano. My mother had insisted that we include it while building the shop, and my father had been so enamoured with her that he hadn't been able to refuse. Mama had wanted it because at the time, I'd had little enthusiasm about spending time at the shop. She knew that putting a grand piano in the corner would make me warm to the shop, and her scheme had definitely worked. From that time on, I'd grown up with the piano. At the beginning, I'd only played when the shop was empty, so that I wouldn't scare anyone off with my wince-inducing melodies. However, now that I was at the peak of my performances, I dared every now and then to tickle the ivories. It helped to calm me, and brought back memories that I rarely got to relive with such happiness.
Today, I felt that I needed that music to flow through my blood, to remind me that my mother was still with me, cheering me on.
Vic must have noticed me staring towards the piano, because he said from behind the till, "Go for it. I'll clean the tables when I need to; customers are thinning out anyway."
I shot him a grateful look before practically launching myself towards the instrument. When I sat down on the stool, I took yet another moment to marvel over the beauty of the graceful piano. I let my fingers slide over the dark, weathered wood, over the dent where I'd once dropped a plate on it, and over the stand which had held so many of my music books over the years. This piano held more memories than the whole shop did; it felt like it was a part of me. I heard Vic turn off the music. Upon noticing the interruption of the professional string musicians on the playlist we had on a loop, the heads of familiar customers turned towards the piano, already anticipating the music I'd make from times when they'd heard it before. I nodded at a few when I caught their eyes. They didn't speak to me, though; they were awaiting the performance.
Finally, I let me fingers find their way to the cool keys, where they rested. I cleared my mind, bracing myself. Moments later, I pressed the first keys of Chopin's 'Nocturne in E flat'.
I played the melody delicately, as if the keys would break under my fingers, but with just enough strength to make each note resonate off the walls of the shop. Soon enough, I'd lost myself in the piece, letting myself drift with the changed in dynamics. It was a wonderful feeling, letting the notes fly through your ears, and brush across your skin like the finest silk. The wondrous harmonies of the chords still sent warm flushes of pleasure through me each time, even though I'd been playing this piece nonstop for months.
For just a few minutes, the clutter of plates and mugs came to a standstill. People had even stopped ordering at the counter so that they could turn and watch. I noticed and flinched as a little performance anxiety filled me, but worked to keep my attention fully focused on my piece. 'It's just you and the instrument,' Mama had once soothed me by saying. 'Don't let anything else in the world get in the way.' I hadn't registered the words at my young age, but now I wished I could tell her that I finally understood them. She herself had been the one to start teaching me how to play the piano, but when she'd died, I'd taken the teaching upon myself, not wanted Mama's efforts to be wasted.
I poured myself into the more intense chords towards the end of the piece, but then let my fingers lead the piece to a peaceful, soft end. For an astonishingly long moment, the shop was eerily silent as the last notes echoed through the customers' ears. But seconds later, they erupted into appreciative applause.
Letting my hands fall to my sides, I felt a little embarrassed by the applause – especially Vic's whooping by the till – and stood up, giving a little curtsey and a grin before returning to my duties.
I was stopped by a woman about the age of your typical grandma, as she put a hand on my arm to halt me. "You just keep getting better and better," she said, a smile on her face as it always was.
And as always, a genuine smile found its way to my face, too. The woman's name was Luce, and she'd been a regular customer here since we'd opened up, years ago. She'd started coming here upon the death of her husband. Her demeanour had once been miserable, but as I'd grown, her weary despair had turned to infectious enthusiasm. "Thanks, Luce."
I didn't know how the woman did it, but she noticed something about my face and her smile faded. "Is something the matter, Antoinette?"
Luce was yet another of the people I often confided in with my problems. It was mostly because, even from the first time I'd been a little down after the death of my mother, Luce had noticed, and asked me the very same question as she always did: 'Is something the matter?'
Around people like Luce, I tended to wear my heart on my sleeve, and never keep to myself with my problems. The first few times my father had abused me, I'd felt so alone, and considered myself lucky to be spilling all my worries to any old woman who would listen, hopefully substituting in for my late mother.
But I'd misjudged her; she actually had some valuable opinions, even if from time to time she just rambled about how I was 'just like the latest cheese on sale in the market'.
Once, I'd let her in on why I couldn't turn to the police about my father. "I don't like the way the others look at me," I'd explained to her over a glass of orange juice at the age of twelve. I'm the girl who has no Mama. If they find out Papa hits me, how will they look at me then?"
Even Luce had been speechless then. But she had never, not once, looked at me with the pity that was all I saw in others' eyes. Because she must have known that was what upset me. And it did, up to this very day. Pity made me feel like a weak, vulnerable human being. I hated it.
"Just the usual," I replied to her back in the present. "No hits this time. His run's gotten worse as he turns into an oldie, much to my advantage." I'd lowered my voice, but still kept an easy smile.
Luce nodded with approval. "Don't let me hear the word 'oldie' spill from your mouth ever again. We're 'senior citizens', and don't you forget that." When I nodded, she smiled again. "You're a strong young lady, Antoinette," she said. "Not just in your stamina, but in there, too." She pointed to my heart with fragile fingers. "Just don't let your dignity get the better of you."
"Noted. You have a nice day, Luce," I told her, and returned to picking up abandoned mugs. The woman always gave me something to consider, and while I was cleaning up, my mind had way too much opportunity for thinking. What dear Luce didn't realise was that, in times like these, my dignity was one of the few things I could rely on to keep me going 'til the end.