Saturday was Google Everything day, which she spent in bed with her laptop and a box of Chips Ahoy cookies. She d had a lecture that morning, but it was optional and who could care about something some old French guy wrote centuries ago when you might have fallen into your own fairytale? Victor Hugo never wrote happy books, anyway, and she was miserable enough as it was. She began with looking up large dog breeds and any possible correlation between myths of canine-like bipeds and real-world medical conditions. Hypertrichosis didn t even begin to cover what she d seen, though the rabbit hole of Wikipedia had her reading about it. She tried to imagine having a medical condition that made hair sprout all over your body until you had a fur coat like an animal. Maybe it was out of kindness that the mechanic was hiding the whatever-it-was.
By noon on Sunday, time and the light of day had given her a different perspective on what had happened. As hard as it was to swallow -far harder than the last chocolate chip cookie had been- Serena could find no reason more rational or logical than accepting that she had met a real werewolf on the full moon. She also had to admit that the Wolf had not attacked her. If it had, she d be dead and eaten up like an hors d'oeuvre. A piggy-in-a-blanket for the Big Bad Wolf. No like a big, curious dog, it had come over to sniff at a new person. Licking her had probably been a friendly gesture or even an attempt to soothe her. Weren't dogs good at judging human body language? Were werewolves the same?
And she was supposed to go back today to pick up her bike.
Procrastination and Serena were longtime friends, so they had spent the day hanging out. It gave her endless time, while taking forever to do nothing at all, to dwell on her behavior. She had betrayed the kindness of the mechanic by stealing his keys and invading his privacy. The Wolf probably only knew that a stranger had broken into its home and hit it for no reason it could understand. What she had done was indefensible, but Serena didn t know that she had the courage to confront the mechanic with the truth. It would be far easier to go to the garage and find a way to drop the key somewhere he would find it. Then she could pretend that everything was okay when it wasn t. She was used to that.
A grey, soaking rain saved her right at the point where she had forced herself into clothing and had been working herself up to open the door. No criminal spared the gallows could have displayed more joyful relief than Serena as she bounced across the room to plant her face against the window. The clouds were weeping as she smiled up at the darkened heavens, blessing every last nimbostratus cloud congesting the normally blue expanse. Then she called the garage and regretfully let the mechanic know she couldn't come in such bad weather.
There was no hint in either the mechanic's words or tone that he knew she'd been in his home on Friday night. Was he the werewolf? Was it someone or something else who he was hiding? So many questions filled her mind, but she could only stammer excuses and he could only haltingly suggest the rain might let up soon. The sigh on the other end of the line was a well deserved stab to her conscience when he accepted she wasn't coming that day. She didn't let herself think for too long that he might have been looking forward to seeing her. If the mechanic knew what she'd done and who she really was, he would have changed his mind.
After hanging up, she picked up her oldest friend and pressed her face it's fur. She'd wanted a real dog, once upon a time, so badly that a childhood friend had given her a stuffed dog as a gift to ease her breaking heart. Serena s parents had separated her from the living friend, but the one made from fabric and thread remained. Her baby blanket, along with RahRah, made up the two treasures she'd spent her life protecting from her parents. They were both too old and ugly for the fine house and the expensive tastes of the people occupying it. A nanny had given Serena the small blanket and it had initially been tolerated because she cried without it. Crying toddlers were inconvenient and were the reasons nannies existed. Moons, stars, and little lambs still frollicked on the printed flannel, but time had reduced the lavender to an indeterminate grey and frayed the hems. The blanket and the stuffed dog had followed her to boarding school and her first act, whether returning home or being consigned to a new dorm, was to find a safe hiding place.
The Velveteen Rabbit, a book she had read when she still believed in magic, had told her you could love things into life and that suffering could make you real. The book still sat on her bookshelf and RahRah, as much as she had loved it to raggedness, had not turned into a real dog. Time and pain had rendered it soft and beloved, achieving a point of existence where her heart saw greater beauty and value in the old stuffed toy and it s companion blanket than in gold and diamonds. Serena wished she could say the same about herself.
Her stuffed friend had been faithfully collecting her tears and keeping the secrets of her heart safe for years. When RahRah s fur became too damp to breath through, Serena forced herself to lift her head up to face the world again. She was already dressed and maybe she d been a fool to let a little rain and a lot of worries keep her locked in her room. The dog was bundled up in the blanket and a kiss pressed between it s soggy ears. It would wait on her bed, loyal as always, for her to come back, but she needed to go. Anywhere. The destination didn t matter as long as she did something other than be a depressing little hermit. Look how much good cutting himself off from life had done for the mechanic. Maybe she d go to the garage after all or maybe she d wander until she found herself somewhere new. She took an umbrella because only ducks and silly people liked getting rained on.
Rain washed the color from her world, leaving only the monotonous grey of moody clouds and concrete. It would have been nice to say she did go to visit the mechanic, but her straying feet got halfway there before veering at a right angle and following a side street. The choice wasn t so much avoidance of confrontation as it was a smell. An amazing smell. It was like the holy bakery in the sky - where all good pastries and cups of coffee go when they die - had flung open its doors to remind the people on earth below that paradise existed. Paradise had cinnamon buns and chai. She lifted her nose to better inhale the warm spicy scent and promptly lost her umbrella. A gust of wind smacked her in the face with a handful of rain while wrenching the item out of her hand, but in all honesty it hadn t been keeping her very dry and she let it fly away with her blessing. Or her curse. Whichever.
She found herself walking down what was clearly Hipster Alley, complete with a used bookstore, second-hand clothes shop, and a store selling all natural candles and bath products from locally sourced ingredients. The umbrella had been doing a better job than she thought, because in minutes Serena was soaked down to her underwear. Each squelching step she took brought her nearer and she finally stopped at a brightly lit window. A world of lifeless black and grey ink was running down the walls of reality with the rain and drowning her cold feet in shadowy puddles, but in front of her was framed a scene filled with color and light. Like the Little Matchgirl reaching out to touch a vision of warmth and comfort, Serena s hands pressed to the cold glass that separated her from a different world.
You! Come inside this instant!
The shop bell rang out a belated warning as the door slammed open hard enough to rattle the glass that she d flattened herself against in alarm. Serena found herself seized by shockingly strong hands and dragged into the brightly lit building before she could voice an opinion on the matter. From there she was deposited on the doormat to drip and told firmly to stay there by a matronly woman barely taller than her own petite height. She thought she heard the woman grumbling to herself about little children splashing in puddles and catching their deaths from cold, but the woman bustled out of sight and into a back room too fast for her to take in much of anything except a whirl of autumn red hair.
Warmth wrapped around her like a comforting embrace, thawing the rainy chill from her skin and the icy shock of being grabbed. Slowly the arms Serena had crossed over her chest lowered and she looked around at a cafe that had more in common with a jewelry box than a Starbucks. Hanging lamps and wall sconces encased in amber glass cast a golden sheen across creamy tile floors and kindled a fireplace glow in mahogany panelling and furniture. The light reflected back at her from the surfaces of burnished bronze and ember-red copper pots, kettles, and cookingware of all sizes and shapes, but the centerpiece of the display was an antique coffee maker behind the counter that towered over everything else. Gold-washed metal compartments and boilers, pipes and nozzles and buttons, formed an amusement park of a machine that dripped coffee and chocolate, frothed milk, and poured forth a cloud of steam that joined with the kettles of tea to form the spell which had lured her to the door.
Across the counter were scattered colored glass jars and enamel painted tins that sparkled in a rainbow of gem-tones, hinting at a treasure trove of cookies and candies. A large glass display case of cakes, muffins, and cookies formed part of the counter and was stacked with what could only be Royal Albert china with gold rims and delicate painted roses. Her parents could have assessed the value of the room down to the dollar, but Serena only saw the magic.
The first trembling breaths of spice and chocolate filled her lungs with joy. All was quiet and still, except for the bubble and hiss of tempting drinks. All the tables were vacant, or so she thought until Serena noticed a man in a corner table. Incongruous to the scene, he had on a dull business suit and was holding the biggest crossword puzzle book she'd ever seen. He noticed her attention and raised his cup of coffee in a friendly salute before going back to chewing on his pen. Serena waved back, beginning to wonder how long she was expected to stay rooted to the doormat.
On the other side of the cafe were tall bookcases, filled with books and knick knacks reminiscent of a magpie s horde. A sign sat on one shelf, calligraphy letters in golden ink spelling out the message Take what you need. Give what you can. Serena almost burst out laughing because next to it, flanked by two votive candles in jars, was the plumpest, friendliest statue of a dragon she d ever seen. It s copper grin was amiable as it sat on a heap of fools gold and glass gems. The end of its nose and it s belly were polished mirror-bright, as if people often rubbed those areas. Maybe the happiness she could see in it s glittering eyes could rub off.
A movement in the corner of her eye announced the proprietor's return. The woman was walking more slowly now, loaded down by two very large fluffy towels dyed a shade of red so deep that she almost mistook them for velvet. Serena didn t even realize that she had taken a step forward until her shoe squeaked against the tiles and she wobbled for balance. In the next moment she was bundled up and swept off her feet. She might have been a baby doll, swaddled and swung like her weight meant nothing. In the brilliant amber lighting of the cafe, even the woman s eyes shone as golden as honey. Curls the color of autumn fire hugged her red cheeks and clustered around the woman s shoulders, but, most of all, gazing up at the face bent over her, Serena saw kindness.
Oh, my darling, it s okay, the woman whispered to her in a low, husky voice. Whatever is wrong now, it will be well in the end. It s just that life doesn t always give us what we think we need in the way we wanted it to happen and certainly not in the timing we would have picked. Now you just sit down and take off those wet shoes. I ll get you something warm to drink.
She was carefully set down in an overstuffed leather chair and a pair of slippers pressed into her hands. She stammered out something about being grateful, but the woman was already off again, her roly-poly body bobbing across the floor and behind the counter. This time, Serena distinctly heard her talking about scrawny children who need to eat better. She thought she might have laughed a bit as she changed her shoes and the towel thrown over her head was good for wiping her eyes too.
The bell over the door rang again, but Serena was too well wrapped to turn around. She could hear the woman talking to someone else who replied as much in laughter as in words. Something about the heat, the comfort of the blanket-like towels, her own emotional exhaustion, and the pleasant sound of the conversation filling the uncomfortable silence of her life left her feeling drowsy. That is, she was falling asleep until someone peeked under the towel.
Who s this?
Glittery, candy pink lip-gloss. Serena blinked, trying to wrench her mind from that single fixation. The lips smiled and she glanced up at shockingly pink hair, buzzed on both sides with an asymmetrical fringe that partially covered one of the woman s mischievous brown eyes. The woman tilted her head and studied Serena with a curiosity that might have been uncomfortable if her expression hadn t been so relaxed and friendly. Few people had ever seemed to find her this interesting and it felt like an open invitation to return the attention. When the woman noticed Serena looking back, she grinned wider and nodded encouragingly.
Her parents had very strong opinions on delinquents that dyed their hair and got tattoos. Those People did all sorts of Bad Things. The list of potential crimes ranged anywhere from vandalism and theft to the unforgivable offenses of being poor and promiscuous. Those People were dirty. They were a disease that was all too contagious, which was why their precious daughter was not allowed near Them. Serena drew in a deep breath and leaned closer. The other woman smelled clean. And like pixy stix. Serena blushed and realized she was licking her own lips. Sparkles and candy bright colors. She wondered what sparkles tasted like. The woman turned to look in the direction of the counter and said, She s cute, Mama. Keep this one.
As suddenly as the woman came, she vanished, cackling with laughter all the way as the proprietor carried her to the door. The woman s boots hit either side of the door frame with an audible thud and she halted her trip out long enough to give Serena a wink before she was heaved out. The cafe owner stood in the door, barring re-entry but laughing too as she waved and yelled, "Shoo! Shoo! No troublemaking in my cafe, Candy! Call Mama later and tell her how everything went. Be safe!"
The businessman had barely looked up the entire time. Serena thought he might be asleep behind his tinted shades. No, his hand moved to add another letter. Chuckling, the proprietor carried a loaded tray over to him with a fresh cup of coffee and then dragged a chair over to where Serena was watching. A small folding table she hadn't noticed propped against her chair was opened up between them and quickly covered with pastries and steaming mugs.
"There, eat whatever you like. First visit is always on the house. How can my guests know they want to come back or what to get when they do if they don t sample a few things? You can call me Cherry, dear, and that was one of my daughters you just met. Don t mind her teasing, she s a very good girl at heart and she always means well. Candy just likes having fun along the way to doing the right thing, that s all. My daughters are all wonderful. You must meet them sometime!
While she chatted, Cherry pushed a mug of hot chocolate into Serena s hands. Tiny marshmallows crowded the surface and a sprinkle of cinnamon added an unexpected heat. They might have been long time friends, the way the older woman talked casually about her business and family, and it set Serena at ease. There was no struggling here to gauge boundaries or motive, no agonizing over whether Cherry was interested and enjoying the conversation. A petit four was offered and popped into her mouth as though she were a baby bird. She swallowed it down along with the most bizarre urge to cry. How could she feel so happy and still want to wail? As always, something was wrong with her. The mug in her hand was seamed with what she abruptly realized were cracks, filled in with gold until it was art.
We don t throw things out here, just because they have gotten a little broken, Cherry said, her merry face suddenly very serious. Serena felt that the older woman s eyes were searching hers. For what, she wasn t sure, but it felt like being caught in a window with the shades left open. Things she didn t want seen were on display. Cherry looked down and laid a hand over her own. You don t have to share anything you don t want to, but my daughters and I know pain and we know how to listen. You re safe here if you ever need an ear or a place to run. Will you tell me your name?
I m S-serena, she whispered hesitantly, her voice catching on the syllables in a humiliating stutter. She bit her tongue between her teeth, punishing herself for not speaking correctly. Serena was the sole focus on someone s attention for once - someone who spoke like they were really interested in her - and she was afraid to ruin that potential. Cherry seemed to be the kind of person who would notice if she lied. That wasn t unusual, but the sense that Cherry might care whether or not she told the truth was new. I I m new in town. Alone. I don t know what the right answer is and I I don t know what I m doing anymore. I m making mistakes! I don t know how to live with mistakes.
Cherry sipped at her own hot chocolate for a while, but the quiet that settled around them was companionable. Her question had been heard, and someone actually seemed to be thinking about how she felt. It felt good. As good as the drink warming her from the inside out and the little homemade treats put within her reach.
Well, I m sorry to say, but mistakes are a part of life, the older woman finally answered, gazing down into her mug. Some people read tea leaves, so it didn t seem too wild to assume that maybe she d found someone who worked in chocolate. There s no right or wrong answer here, but some questions may be more helpful to ask than others. Instead of worrying so much about making mistakes, maybe you should ask yourself why making a mistake upsets you this badly? Is it because someone has made you afraid of them?
She hadn t really thought of that question before. Mistakes were mistakes. They were bad and wrong and you were bad and wrong to make them. Some of the confusion must have shown through, because Cherry set her mug down and came to sit on the chair arm beside her. Serena let herself be pulled against the woman s apron and buried her face in the soft, solid bulk.
Did someone make you feel like you weren t worth loving if you weren t perfect? Did you do something wrong, because doing it the right way felt too hard? Did you lie to someone because the truth was too frightening? There are a lot of different kinds of mistakes to make and people will tell you it s important to learn from them. It is, but you also need to know why you made those choices. That s just as important.
What if it s all of them, she whispered, voice muffled by cotton. Serena caught herself twisting her fingers in the ruffled folds of the apron, but Cherry didn t tell her to let go and stop wrinkling her clothes. The older woman stroked her hair until she was still once more.
Do you see this tray? I have no doubt you could eat everything on it and you re welcome to do it, but you can t fit them all in your mouth at once. That would make a mess and even the ones you liked best might end up making you feel sick. Understand? When there are many things to take or do or think, you need to choose just one to start with. That s what you will do.
The rain pattered against the window, while inside the cafe Serena felt at least momentarily safe from the downpour. She wasn t eager to leave a place of comfort, because she knew her new resolution might not live long once she exposed it to the real world outside. She would go back to the garage tomorrow and thank the mechanic. If he didn t know, then then he didn t know, and not knowing wouldn t hurt him. Knowing would. Serena thought of the cringing Wolf, who was aware she d wronged it. A being who was locked up and alone in the house without even a chance to leave like the mechanic could.
One more time, even if it was wrong or a mistake. She would start with the Wolf and try to make amends. Then she would return the key.