Farewell To The Coffeelands

Original version by Lady Glass
New Version by Aurora Borealis

I
When I saw that sign, hidden behind the bushes and trees looming overhead, I knew I had reached it – the middle of nowhere. "Welcome to Oak Harbor." I had never felt more unwelcome in my life.

Natalia had been devastated when she realized she had nowhere to go. Her parents were in Europe for two years. What was she supposed to do? She was only nineteen! Most kids still lived with their parents at nineteen, right? Or did they leave home and make it on their own? Natalia didn't know. She'd lived a rather sheltered life. Sheltered enough to have thought she had another four years with her parents until she graduated from college and was able to support herself with a full-time job.

"You'll have Grandma, in Oak Harbor," her mom had said, as though it was supposed to comfort her. "She says she knows of an apartment for sale and it's a great deal! And we'll send you some money until you're ready to support yourself. You remember Oak Harbor, right? It's such a cute town. And you'll be by the ocean! That'll be nice! I almost envy you!"

Yeah right, Natalia thought with a silent laugh. You're going off to Italy, Greece, England, France, and you envy me? I doubt it. She gazed out of the car window, wishing Grandma would speed up a little. Grandma Flo lived in the retirement homes for rich people in Oak Harbor but she had come to pick Natalia up at the airport and drop her off at her new apartment. Natalia hadn't seen it yet but Grandma Flo had insisted it was "to die for" and Natalia hardly had a choice.

Natalia's thoughts went back to Seattle, to her parents and their two-year trip to Europe. Maybe it wasn't as bad as it seemed – maybe their going away might be a chance for her to… And what if not? No, it probably was not. She would pass this chance as she had passed so many. And she would only realize she had passed it when it was way too late. It had always been like that. It would be like that now.

Natalia felt resentment toward her parents well up inside of her. How could they have left her? She should have stayed with them, protected by them, for another four years. But they had thwarted her plans, her hopes. Thwarted them by making their own. She couldn't really blame them. Still, Natalia's sulky mood would not pass.

"It's so nice to have you here all to myself!" Grandma Flo squealed excitedly. "I have a ton of friends you just have to meet!" I'm sure you do, Grandma. After all, you must be so popular with all the people at the old folks' home. "When I told Caleb, oh you'd like Caleb, he's quite good at the piano, when I told Caleb that you were coming he offered to let you stay with him but I says to him, I says, 'Caleb! The day I let my dear granddaughter stay with a man like you is the day I die!' Of course," Grandma Flo chuckled, "he laughed and said, 'I'll take that as a no, then!'" Grandma Flo almost died laughing right there at the wheel.

"So, Grandma, what did you do to your hair?" Natalia asked hesitantly, eyeing Grandma Flo's cotton-candy pink and blue hair suspiciously. Her grandma had had the typical old lady hair. Light and fluffy, white as snow, and worn short around her earlobes. Now the right side of her hair was light pink and the left half baby blue, so she literally looked like she was wearing cotton candy on her hair.

"Oh, this!" Grandma Flo laughed, patting her hair. "Darrell and Erin insisted that if I were to hang out with people as cool as them I needed a cool nickname and a cool hairdo. So they had Joan do my hair and they dubbed me Cotton Candy! Ho ho! You can imagine how thrilled I was at that! I tell you, young people these days…" Oh yeah, I'm sure all those sixty-year olds are just full of energy…

For the next ten minutes the two rode in silence. Natalia wasn't interested in keeping up the conversation (she remained in her sulky, bad mood) and Grandma Flo, it seemed, had finally run out of things to talk about. Finally, they pulled into a parking lot, just a few feet away from the glittering ocean. Natalia's jaw dropped and she stared at the apartments in awe. There were only two floors and hers was on the bottom floor with a porch and a little gate that led directly to the path out to the sidewalk. Just across the only slightly busy street was the beach.

"Oh my God, Grandma," Natalia said in a hushed voice, all her previous thoughts wiped clean out of her head. "It's amazing."

"Wait till you see the inside," Grandma Flo said with a wink.

Natalia followed Grandma Flo inside in a half-daze. The lobby was clean and had a loveseat in between two bookcases full of tattered harlequin romances that Grandma Flo said were donated and borrowed constantly. "They're a favorite of Erin's," she said with a chuckle, elbowing Natalia just a little too hard. How Erin could get his hands on the books when he lived with Grandma Flo in the retirement apartments was beyond her but Natalia decided not to put too much thought into it.

Her room was at the end of the hallway, right next to the staircase, but Grandma Flo assured her the noise level was at a minimum because most people used the elevator. The suite was small, with only one room, a kitchen, a dining room/living room, and a bathroom, but Natalia didn't care. She didn't need a lot of space just for herself. "It's amazing, Grandma," Natalia exclaimed, happy for the first time since her parents had announced their surprise trip to Europe.

"I'm glad you like it," Grandma Flo said, obviously pleased with herself. "I've got to get going because it's poker night at Ed's room but I'll get Erin and Darrell to help you get everything to your room." Natalia frowned, wondering if Grandma Flo was going senile, but Grandma Flo knocked on the door across from Natalia's and shouted loudly, "Boys, get up! My granddaughter's here and in need of assistance!" There was a small crash and a loud curse and then a muffled thud, and finally the door was whipped open to reveal two blond young men, probably the same age as Natalia, if not older.

Natalia's eyes widened. She hadn't imagined Grandma Flo's friends would be under sixty years old, and she had never even thought that there was a chance of them being so hot.

"Cotton Candy!" the shorter man yelled, his light blue eyes wide and sparkling. "I love you!" He pulled Grandma Flo into an enthusiastic hug while the taller blond man looked Natalia up and down, smiling at her. For whatever reason, Natalia didn't feel uncomfortable under the man's gaze. He wasn't checking her out, or at least Natalia didn't feel like he was, he was just meeting his new neighbor.

"Nice to meet you, Natalia," the tall man said, extending his large hand toward her. "I'm Darrell."

"Hi," Natalia said nervously, slipping her small hand into his and feeling his firm shake. He squeezed her hand slightly before he let go and she felt herself blush like the typical red-head she was. A moment later it occurred to her she hadn't introduced herself. "Hey – how'd you know my name?"

"Oh, please, darling," Grandma Flo said with a snorting laugh, still in the arms of the short man who was moaning something about missing her into her collarbone. "I talk about you all the time! How could he not know you?"

Natalia raised her eyebrow at the short man uncertainly. As though feeling her gaze on him, he released Grandma Flo and pushed his shoulder-length, white blond hair out of his eyes again. "Hi!" he said with a friendly grin. "I'm Erin, nice to meet ya, Natalia!"

"You too," Natalia said uncertainly. Erin's handshake was gentler than Darrell's, his hand warmer, but he let go of her hand more quickly than Darrell had, and rather than squeezing her hand he, instead, trailed his index finger along her palm as his hand slid away from hers, causing a tingle to run up her arm.

"What'cha need help with, Cotton Candy?" Erin asked, turning to Cotton Candy with his smile still glued to his face. Natalia liked Erin's smile, a large, toothy smile that seemed genuinely friendly. She could easily see why Grandma Flo was so charmed by him.

"Natalia needed our help, not Candy," Darrell said, elbowing Erin. "What's up, Natalia?"

"Oh, um, it's just that Grandma Flo needs to get to a poker game and we need to get the car all unloaded. I can get all my stuff in the apartment myself, we were just hoping that you guys could help us with getting the stuff out of the car," Natalia added quickly.

Darrell laughed. "We'll help you get your stuff in the apartment, too, don't worry about it. It's not like we've got more important things to do."

"Thanks," Natalia said.

"You guys know what to do," Grandma Flo said, handing Darrell her keys. "Stay out of her stuff," she warned them. "That means you, Erin."

Erin grinned mischievously. "Me?" he asked innocently. "What have I ever done to be suspected of something so – "

"Quit talking," Darrell said, slapping Erin lightly over the head. "You look smarter with your mouth shut."

The two continued down the hall, arguing playfully as they went.

"I don't know what's wrong with those two, honestly," Grandma Flo said with a breathy laugh. "They're usually so well-behaved. They must be trying to show off. I'm sorry, Natalia. I'm sure they'll quit wagging their tales so eagerly when they realize no one's getting their hands on my granddaughter without going through me first." Grandma Flo wiggled her eyebrows suggestively and Natalia held back a gag.

"Grandma!" Natalia exclaimed, hiding her disgust behind false playfulness.

"I'm still young," Grandma Flo said seriously. "You know those boys are howling after me." Sure, they just can't stay away from you, Natalia thought sarcastically. Grandma Flo led Natalia back into the apartment. "I tried to get the best I could from the money you and your parents sent but there wasn't much I could do. Most of it's from thrift shops so you might want to earn some money and sell the old stuff so you can buy some new furniture. You're lucky that you live here. The thrift store's only a few minutes' walk away, Erin and Darrell can show you, and all the cute little downtown shops are just around the corner and obviously the beach is right across from here, I made sure you got a lovely view."

"Where d'you want the bags?" Erin's voice interrupted Grandma Flo. Natalia turned to see Erin carrying six suitcases at once, with Darrell in tow, carrying an equal amount with a few extra plastic bags that carried her shoes.

"That was fast," Grandma Flo said, slightly shocked.

"Oh, you can just drop them there, I'll get them to where they're supposed to go later!" Natalia said quickly, seeing the strain on Erin's face. Erin let go of all the suitcases at once and Natalia winced. "I didn't realize you'd literally… drop them."

"Sorry," Erin said. "I lost my grip." It was obviously a lie but Natalia laughed anyway. Darrell set the suitcases down carefully, sending Erin a meaningful stare as he set each suitcase down individually.

"Well, now that that's done, I have to get to that poker game," Grandma Flo said, giving Natalia, Erin and Darrell each a kiss on the cheek as she hurried out of the living room. "Boys, you take care of Natalia!" she called and in less than a minute Grandma Flo had driven away to the important poker game at Ed's.

Erin and Darrell exchanged amused glances and laughed. Natalia smiled nervously, wondering if they were going to leave, too. She found herself wishing they'd stay.

"So, you need any help unpacking?" Erin offered. "Sorry for, uh, dropping everything."

"It's okay," Natalia said, only half-lying. "But I don't want you wasting your time unpacking my stuff with me."

"I don't care," Erin said with a shrug.

"Well, I've got a date," Darrell said, rolling his eyes. "You guys enjoy yourselves, I gotta make myself beautiful." Natalia laughed and waved back as Darrell raised his hand and turned to leave. "Oh, and Erin," he said, turning back for a moment. "You listen to Cotton Candy – I don't wanna hear any complaints from Natalia about you, got it?"

Erin raised his hands and held them behind his back. "My hands are tied!" he said seriously, his blue eyes wide. Darrell laughed and left. Erin looked over at Natalia. "So what am I doing?" he asked, looking at the suitcases. "Shall I start with the undergarments first?" He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Natalia laughed. "Well, the heaviest bags have all my books in them," she said thoughtfully. "I can do my clothes later, but the books and stuff are going to take awhile and they're murder on my back."

"Leave it to me!" Erin said cheerfully, lifting each suitcase to test its weight. When he finally grimaced from the weight of one of the suitcases he knelt and unzipped it. "Found them! Where's the bookcases?"

"Oh… good question," Natalia said, realizing she hadn't seen any bookcases. "Hold on, maybe they're in my room…" She quickly checked her bedroom but there wasn't even a shelf to put some of them on. "Damn," she muttered. "I guess I'll have to buy a bookcase later. I'll just keep the books in the suitcase for now…"

"I could go with you and get a bookcase. Caleb's got a truck that's perfect for carrying furniture," Erin offered.

"For real? Great!" Natalia grinned and checked her purse. She had a few hundred dollars on her in cash, to pay for groceries, but she guessed if she could find a cheap bookcase she could deal with eating cheap noodles for a week or so before she got a job.

"Let's go now," Erin said, "before Darrell leaves. Hold on, lemme just grab his cell so I can call Caleb and tell him we're coming over."

Natalia sat on the old, beat-up couch in the living room while she waited for Erin. She smiled to herself. Thank God Grandma Flo knew Erin and Darrell. She wouldn't have been able to get a bookcase over to her apartment herself and she wasn't sure she would have bothered going to the trouble of getting it delivered and she couldn't deny that she was more than a little grateful to have someone with her as she unpacked everything. Doing it by herself would have been lonely and frustrating. It would have reminded her unnecessarily of her home and that she was all alone now, in a small town she didn't know anything about yet. Grandma Flo had usually visited them instead of the other way around – the last time Natalia had been in Oak Harbor was almost 10 years ago and she couldn't remember any of it too well. The one thing she could still remember was the ice cone incident at school, the day after she had returned home from a visit to Oak Harbor and Grandma Flo… Natalia shook her head slightly to get rid of this unpleasant memory.

At that moment Erin returned, cell phone in hand, and waved Natalia to come with him. "Okay, Caleb says we can borrow the truck. He never says no, but, you know, you don't just take someone's truck…" He laughed. "He wouldn't even notice, though. He's so obsessed with writing his music, you know, so he just forgets about everyone else. Sometimes he doesn't come out of his house for days. He just sits in there at his keyboard and then when he finally comes out he's got this masterpiece." Erin shook his head and chuckled. "I wish I were that committed."

"You write music?" Natalia asked curiously. She couldn't picture Erin as the next Beethoven. The thought alone made her want to laugh.

"Sort of," Erin said modestly, his cheeks growing slightly pink. "I should just stick to playing but sometimes I really want to get something down and it just comes out in music."

"That's so cool!" Natalia gushed, wishing she could write music. "What do you play? I bet it's something like… the trumpet or something."

"Uh, actually… guitar," Erin said with a laugh. "Where'd you get trumpet?"

Natalia tried to picture Erin holding a guitar but he was so small she found it hard to believe he could hold it properly. "Guitar?" she repeated, dumbfounded. "Are you really good?"

"I guess," Erin muttered, suddenly growing shy.

"I don't play anything," Natalia said, sensing Erin's obvious displeasure at the turn in the conversation. The two left Natalia's apartment and started walking down the street toward, Natalia assumed, Caleb's house. She wondered who Caleb was. Didn't Grandma Flo mention him? She was pretty sure she had. "…oh, you'd like Caleb, he's quite good at the piano…" Of course, Natalia remembered, he was the one who had apparently offered to take Natalia in. Grandma Flo had sounded fond of him. She had also sounded fond of Erin and Darrell and look how nice they had turned out to be. Natalia hoped Caleb was as nice as Erin and Darrell were.

"You don't play anything?" Erin repeated incredulously, his mouth hanging open in shock. "How can you not play anything? At least you sing, right? I mean… you have to listen to music… you can't survive without it."

"Correction," Natalia said with a laugh. "You obviously can't live without it. I prefer painting, myself."

"You're a painter?" Erin asked, taking a moment to think it over. "Oh well, it's still art. I guess that'll have to do. Are you really good?" He smirked, obviously aware he was asking her the same question she had asked him about his playing the guitar.

"I guess," Natalia said and the two laughed.

"What do you paint?"

"Nude models," Natalia said seriously. She looked slyly over Erin's shocked face and cracked a smile. "Just kidding," she said with a giggle. "Right now I just like painting the models in ads and stuff, like Vogue models, but I want to be able to paint live people some day. I'm still working on getting shadows right, too."

"Is it that hard?" Erin asked doubtfully.

"More than you know," Natalia said. As a car whipped by the driver leaned on the horn. Erin's face lit up and he waved enthusiastically. Natalia laughed. "I've never passed a person I know when I drive somewhere," she said, shaking her head.

"Really?" Erin gasped. "I see people I know everywhere! Maybe it's just because Oak Harbor is so small. Where did you live before you moved here?"

"Seattle," Natalia said, rolling her eyes.

"That's so cool! I've always wanted to live in Seattle. I bet the art scene is insane." He sounded jealous for a moment, then wistful, and smiled.

"Seattle isn't all that great," Natalia threw in. Her voice sounded gloomy even to herself. She snorted inwardly – Seattle sometimes was the worst pit in the whole world. At least to her…

Natalia was lost in thought for a moment, her face rigid, her eyes empty. Erin watched her with concern. "Are you alright?" he wanted to know, his voice soft and a lot gentler than before – he sounded more serious, too, not playful anymore as a moment earlier.

Natalia started. "Yes. Yes, I am. Of course… I'm alright!" she said. A smile flickered across her face, frail at first, then growing stronger and more convincing.

Erin furrowed his brows. Something was not alright – he could sense it. But he knew that Natalia wouldn't tell him anything else than that she was alright – who wouldn't, given the fact that they were complete strangers to one another. Still, Erin didn't like the thought that this nice girl had any dark and haunting secrets as it seemed.

"What were you going to say about Seattle?" Natalia asked with a warm smile on her lips. Either she was a very good actress (a better one than Erin had ever met) or she felt better already – and the shadows had passed.

Pulling himself together, Erin decided to play along – as if nothing was wrong. That was probably the best tactic for the moment. "I'm going to move to Seattle one day. We all are, the whole band. When we find the right girl to sing Caleb's songs we're just going to leave Oak Harbor and make it big in Seattle."

"Why can't you find a singer now?" Natalia asked. Good move – steering the conversation away from Seattle and her blunder. "I mean, it can't be that hard. All the people back home had no problem whenever they wanted to start a band."

"Caleb's really picky," Erin said with a sigh. Sensing that Natalia felt more comfortable talking about anything but Seattle, he kept rambling on. "He only wants the best of the best and it has to be a girl. He wants a girl with a soft, husky voice, but she has to be able to hit the high notes, too. Girls like that are practically impossible to find! And someone who doesn't mind spending all her time with guys and instruments and noise and beer and stuff. Girls don't like that stuff. They like shopping and… other things like shopping." He wrinkled his nose in distaste. A little fooling around can't hurt. "And even if we do find the right girl who doesn't mind all that, what if she tries to change Caleb's songs? Caleb wouldn't let anyone touch his music and he's even more protective of his lyrics. He won't even let Darrell help him and Darrell used to write all the music and lyrics for the band he was in before he joined us."

"Darrell is in the band too?" Natalia asked, glad that the conversation had returned to safer grounds and inclined to keep it there. She wondered what instrument Darrell played.

"Yeah, he's our bass," Erin said with a grin. "He's really good. He used to sing but Caleb likes writing for girls more and that's why we decided to look for a girl instead."

"Wasn't Darrell a little insulted?" Natalia wondered out loud. If it were her she would have been more than a little mad that Caleb wouldn't write any more music for her.

"Nah," Erin said with a casual wave of his hand. "We all knew that Caleb wanted a girl." He paused for a moment and chuckled. "I feel like I'm talking about a baby." They stopped suddenly. Erin shot a furtive glance at Natalia. She seemed to be at ease now. He decided to let it drop and forget about the incident for the moment – she seemed to be doing the same.

Natalia looked curiously around. "Why are we stopping?"

Erin motioned to the house they were standing in front of. It was an old brick house with an uneven brick path leading up to the front door. An old truck sat in the driveway. Natalia wondered if it was completely safe to drive in but decided to keep the thought to herself. "Caleb!" Erin yelled.

"Why don't you just knock on the door?" Natalia asked incredulously.

"This is easier," Erin replied with a laugh. "Caleb!"

The front door whipped open and Natalia's eyes widened. Standing in the doorway was one of the most attractive men Natalia had ever laid eyes on. His body was long and slim, particularly his legs, his arms lightly muscled, but only enough so he didn't look like a skinny wimp. His hair was wavy and black, resting lightly on his shoulders, his face slightly feminine looking, aside from the fact he had a small beard on his chin. He wore a pair of faded, tattered jeans and a white wife-beater, yet he looked like perfect anyway. This was the Caleb that had offered to let her stay with him. Damn it, Grandma! You should have told him I'd stay with him! Natalia complained silently.

"What do you want?" Caleb growled when he saw Erin standing at the end of the brick path.

"I called you earlier and you said we could use your car!" Erin answered with a grin, undisturbed by Caleb's irritated tone. "Natalia's getting a bookcase from the thrift store and we need the truck to get it back to her apartment. I called you, like, twenty minutes ago."

Caleb thought for a moment, then shook his head. "I don't remember," he said softly. "Come on, lemme get my keys."

Erin grinned again and grabbed Natalia by the wrist, pulling her over the brick path toward Caleb's house. The moment they entered Natalia fell in love with the smell, primarily sandalwood mixed with vanilla, cinnamon, and cigarette smoke. Natalia had always hated the smell of sandalwood. She loved it now.

The apartment was a disaster. Clothes were strewn about the floor along with paper covered in scrawled words. As Natalia focused on them more deeply she realized they were lyrics. In the corner of the living room was a keyboard. On a table behind it there were about a dozen cans of beer and a cigarette still burning in an ashtray. It was exactly what Natalia had always pictured for an artist to live in. Beer, cigarettes, and a keyboard, along with some sandalwood incense and clothes. It was all he needed, or at least that's what it seemed. Caleb returned to the living room a moment later and Natalia felt her breath catch in her throat as she was faced with him only a few feet away. He held a cigarette lazily between his middle finger and index finger. Every one of his fingers had one ring on it, if not two. Every ring was silver, worn so it didn't look new anymore, and worn so casually that it was as though he were born with the rings.

"There's the keys," Caleb said. He looked over at Natalia and smiled. "You're Natalia?" he asked.

"Yeah." Natalia nodded shyly.

"Nice to meet you." Caleb extended his hand and Natalia took it hesitantly. Caleb gave her hand a brief shake and let it go quickly. "I've got work to do," he said and walked over to his keyboard. "Just leave the keys on the hook when you're done with the truck."

"'Kay, bye Caleb," Erin said, obviously unperturbed by Caleb's attitude. He and Natalia left without another word. Erin climbed into the truck and unlocked Natalia's door for her. "Nice guy, huh?"

"He seems a bit… quiet," Natalia said carefully, not wanting to insult Caleb in front of Erin.

"Yeah, he's always been like that. He's not very social," Erin said thoughtfully. "But he's a really nice guy and he's not so quiet when he gets to know you. Plus he was working on his music. He hates being disturbed so he's not as friendly as he usually is. Caleb can be a nice guy, but when he really gets into his music and stuff he can be a real jerk, too. I guess that's an artist for you, though." He paused for a moment and thought. "You're not like that, are you?" he asked curiously.

"I don't think so," Natalia said thoughtfully.

"Good," Erin said, smiling. "The last thing we need around here is another Caleb. One's enough for me. But you'll love him once you get to know him. We just caught him at a bad time. All the guys are nice. You haven't met Finley yet, have you? You'll love him. He's our drummer and probably the most responsible of all of us. He takes care of us all when we need it. Like last year, Caleb got really messed up because of… well, he just had a really bad day, right? And then to make things worse he got kicked out of his apartment because he was really late in paying the rent and everyone was annoyed that he played the keyboard all the time. Finley took him in and let him stay for over four months even though his girlfriend Joan had just moved in with him not even a month ago. He's a really good friend… I just wish everyone were more like him."

"You guys all sound so close," Natalia said wistfully. She looked out of the window at the bright blue, glittering ocean they were just passing by. She blinked rapidly a few times. "I've never had a friend that would just take me in like that."

"Never?" Erin repeated, dumbfounded. He wondered whether this was the reason… "Well, we'll fix that! You're our new friend and we'll all take care of you."

Natalia laughed. "Thanks," she said. Erin noticed there seemed to be a new glint in her eyes – but that might have been just the sun.

He grinned at her and pulled into a parking lot. "Voilà! Le Thrift Shoppe!" Natalia laughed and followed Erin out of the truck into the old, beaten down building.

"We'll take care of you," he had said. Natalia smiled to herself and felt the sudden urge to wrap Erin into a hug. Instead, she just followed his blond head, bopping through the aisles cheerfully, already fulfilling his promise…


Author's Note: This story was originally written by Lady Glass but as she put this story on hold she gave me permission to carry it on my way. Thank you, LG! At first I couldn't think of what to do with it but I think I've now had an idea that suits me quite well. Let's see how it will turn out. Whether or not you thought this was any good, please send me a review and give me a piece of useful advice because no one's perfect and everyone needs a push in the right direction!