Chapter 1:

Monday Morning- The Barista Begins Her Shift

Cafe Abri

It was an especially hot summer day, but the air conditioning in the cafe was not the only reason Hal wanted to get to work faster. Key in one hand and phone in the other, Hal ran towards an older looking building at the corner of an intersection.
Why isn’t he picking up?!
Violently shoved her phone in her pocket, Hal looked both ways before jaywalking across the intersection and sprinting towards the building. She thrusted the key into the hole and slammed the door open, only to be met by a rotten smell. Flicking the lights on, Hal quickly scanned the room to find the perpetrator sitting in a mug on a table next to the window. She wrinkled her nose as she rushed towards the mug, noting the sour smell’s undertones of chocolate and… watermelon? Hal regretted ever thinking this would be a good week. She grabbed the mug and poured out all of its contents into the sink behind the counter, washing it down with as much hot water as possible. Hal wiped her brow and, for the first time that morning, felt calm wash over her. The phone in her pocket began to vibrate and the calm was gone in an instant. Hal picked up immediately.
“Whoa, calm down. I just got out of bed.” said a tired voice.
“Don’t give me that crap! You texted me at 1:00 AM, saying there might be a situation at the cafe! How the hell was I supposed to process that?!”
“Uh, a lot better than what you’re doing now? I mean, it was just a drink.”
“How was I supposed to know it was a drink?! I thought we were robbed or the cafe had been vandalised or something! And besides, WHO PUTS WATERMELON IN COFFEE AND CALLS IT A DRINK?!
“Oh, you could smell the watermelon? Heh, I thought it might make a good addition to the summer menu.”
Hal took a deep sigh. She did not have the energy to deal with Valent.
“Why did you have to leave it out in the sun, conveniently on the week it’s my turn to run the cafe?”
Hal heard Valent chuckle. “I was making it to try for lunch and got distracted by a customer, at which point, I may or may not have forgotten about it. But is being forgetful really a crime?”
“Only when I have to deal with it. And when it smells worse than the compost bin.”
“Yeah, but have you tried it yet?”
Hal ended the call immediately.
Next time I see him, I’ll lure him into the woods and slice his body to pieces.”

Hal looked around the cafe, making sure to look out for any more “situations”. The cafe housed many scattered round tables with chairs to match and had large glass windows facing the front, displaying the passing traffic. Around Hal were various supplies and machines for drinks, all behind a black countertop with a cash register, and above was a chalkboard with a dozen or so drink names and prices handwritten on them. Checking outside (and properly closing the doors), Hal noted that the old sign above the restaurant stating Abri next to a picture of a coffee cup might need a wash. Relieved that everything seemed to be normal, Hal began sluggishly moving towards the back room. She tried to get back into her work mindset by checking the time on her phone.
7:00 AM sharp. An hour and a half till opening. I don’t think I’ve been this early since… My first day here… Gives me enough time to air out the cafe, at least.
Hal picked up an apron hung up on the side of the wall and threw her keys into a small locker. Though it felt like she had expended a month's worth of energy, for Hal, the week had just begun.

.                    .                    .

It took until late afternoon for anyone of interest to enter Abri. Most customers stopped by in the early hours of opening and business slowed from there, so the soft chime of the bell above the front door caught Hal off guard. In the summer heat, Hal warily hoped to get no customers past lunch, but the girl standing before her proved the week would not be that simple. Hal wiped her disappointed look off of her face and went to greet her customer with a smile.
“Welcome to Abri. What would you like to drink?”
The girl stood in silence for a while, before replying in an exhausted but relieved voice.
“I’ll have an iced chocolate; I’ve had too many caffeine-heavy drinks within the past few weeks.”
The girl had a high, worn voice and long black hair, but what Hal found odd about her was the fact that she was still wearing her school uniform.
“Right away, Ms….”
Hal started reaching for ingredients while Mae took a seat near the counter and began fiddling with her phone.
“Are you in summer school, Mae?”
“The only reason kids wear their uniforms in the summer is if they’re taking extra courses in summer school.”
“I am, but it’s still June. How did you know that my school’s already out?”
Mae put her phone away and squinted at Hal’s face.
“Are you also a student?”
Hal began heating up milk in a saucepan, occasionally pouring in cocoa powder.
“No, it’s just that I had to deal with a slew of kids cramming for finals a few weeks ago. A few tried to stay past closing hours. They wouldn’t take no for an answer and were bouncing off the walls from all the caffeine they’d downed. It was a mess.”
“Is finals season really that bad for coffee shops?”
“It honestly shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. The other barista who works here took the worst of it, though. He missed a kid and accidentally locked him in for the night. He got a call from the police a few hours later, asking him to come and let the kid out. Turns out the brat had panicked and dialed 9-1-1.”
“Wow. I feel like I need to apologize on behalf of all students now. Where’s that other barista you speak of?”
Hal poured the milk/cocoa mixture into a blender, adding ice and a small lump of chocolate ice cream.“We take turns running the cafe each week. The only other person who works here is our boss, who’s out at the moment doing who knows what.”
“From what it sounds like, you might want to hire a few more employees.”
“Well, we’re not exactly busy most days. You could even say finals season single handedly funds this cafe. Do you want whipped cream on your iced chocolate, by the way?”
Hal poured the blended mixture into a mug and carefully began swirling the whipped cream on top. She placed the drink on the counter, sprinkling crushed chocolate bits on top as a final touch.
“There you are.”
Hal pushed the drink towards Mae while gesturing for payment. Mae obliged. Standing in front of the counter, she picked up the mug by the handle and took a big sip of her iced chocolate, as if to prove something to Hal. She smiled cooly.
“It’s good.”

As Mae sat down and began to slowly sip at her iced chocolate, Hal couldn’t help but notice the melancholic air surrounding her. Most customers prefer the comforting silence of the cafe and Hal was usually happy to sit back and relax, but she couldn’t sit in good faith as a depressing enveloped the cafe. Who knew how long Mae would be here to guilt her conscience, after all. Hal called out to Mae from the counter.
“So how did you find yourself here, Mae?”
“I had some time after school and didn’t feel like going home. I wandered around until it got too hot and settled on this place. I thought a cafe would be a good place to cool down.”
“I didn’t know there was a school near here.”
“There isn’t. You underestimate my heat resistance.”
“I… see.”
Mae smiled and looked around at the cafe.
“I’m glad I found this place, though. Something about it calms me down. Though, the air inside the cafe smells a bit… off-putting.”
Shoot, she can still smell that?! What does she have, a dog’s nose?!
Hal held her head in her hands at her and Valent’s failure. Mae didn’t seem to notice.
“Please. Don’t ask.”
“Huh? Ask about what?”
“Uh, never mind. Do you wander around often, Mae?”
“I suppose. Why do you ask?”
Hal shrugged.
“I guess I didn’t expect anyone to be out and about in this heat.”
I also needed to change the topic as quickly as possible.
“I must’ve picked it up when I was a child. I loved exploring whenever my parents took me out on hikes or camping. I’d go as far as possible into the woods or wherever before my parents would call for me to come back.”
Hal nodded.
“Then are you the outdoorsy type?”
Mae thought about the question for a second.
“Not so much being outdoors as it is exploring the unknown. I could even spend days investigating every nook and cranny of a mall, given it was big enough!
Hal watched as Mae giggled at her own joke and smiled wryly.
Mae paused, resting her index finger on her cheek and looking far into the distance.
“I even believe there was a time we went camping that I wandered far into the woods and my parents didn’t notice. We had gone to this campsite many times and I thought I was familiar with the woods surrounding it. I wasn’t. I got lost very quickly and couldn’t find my way back. When I realized that I was lost, I sat in place and cried for a long, long time, but the moment I heard my parents’ voices, I stopped crying. I wiped my tears away, walked up to my parents, and tried to pretend that I’d been happily wandering the woods all that time.”
“Wow, your parents must have been really worried.”
“You have no idea. I think we stopped going camping after that.”
“Wow, that bad? I guess they trust you enough to wander the city now though.”
“Hm? Oh, no, I’m supposed to come home right after school. I’ve been ignoring my mom’s calls for a while now.”
Mae pulled her phone out of her pocket, showing Hal that someone listed as “Mom” was indeed trying to call Mae at this very moment.
“Are you gonna, uh, pick up?”
Mae seemed to consider the idea before answering.
“No, the atmosphere of the cafe is really nice.”
“A-alright, I’ll let you enjoy the atmosphere then.”

As Hal sensed that her job entertaining Mae was done, they both relaxed for the time being. Mae took occasional long gulps while looking through the large cafe windows at the cars passing by and Hal found herself falling back into a peace that can only be found with no customers to worry about. Mae was nearly done her drink before she spoke again.
“Hey, Ms. Barista. Did you enjoy school?”
Awakening herself from her peace, Hal looked at Mae, who was still turned away, looking through the window. Without an expression to go off of, Hal could only guess the intent behind the question. Even so, Hal was not one for mincing words.
“Like hell I did. I hated it. I hated the teachers, I hated my classmates, I hated what I was learning. The happiest I ever was at school was graduating.”
“That’s… reassuring. I guess.”
“Heh, is it? I guess school never stops being a trash heap.”
“You could say that, yes.”
“I’m surprised you’d take summer school, then. Not that I can judge, actually.”
Mae turned to face Hal again.
“You took summer school too?”
“Yeah, every damn summer of my high school career. In my head, I’d take as many summer school courses as I could to the point where I could skip grade twelve. Of course, by the time grade twelve actually rolled by, I’d taken even harder courses instead.”
Mae nodded as if she agreed with the idea, even though Hal thought it was pretty childish.
“That makes us one in the same. I also thought summer school would mean I could escape school faster.”
“Already regretting taking summer school?”
“No, I’m just a little tired.”
Mae took another big sip of her iced chocolate before continuing as the tiredness in her eyes came to the forefront of Hal’s mind.
“I feel like I’ve given my life to school.”
“In what way?”
“You know, classes with never-ending homework, all-day study sessions, extra classes on the weekends- the usual.”
I really hope that’s not the usual…
“With the amount of effort I’ve put into school, I guess I’m just hoping it’ll give me something good in return.”
“What are you hoping for?”
“Right for the throat, huh?”
“What’s that supposed to mean? But yes, I have high expectations of myself. I’ve planned this out since the end of grade eight, after all.”
Mae grinned widely and puffed her chest out with pride.
“So you do enjoy school after all.”
Mae immediately frowned and turned her head defiantly.
“I really don’t have a problem with giving my life to school. I don’t. I just… wish it was easier.”
There was more sorrow in her voice than Mae might have intended for, and as her voice echoed in Hal’s mind, For the first time since meeting Mae, Hal smiled- not out of pity or obligation, but from a feeling of familiarity. Hal moved from behind the counter and took a seat at Mae’s table. Mae looked surprised, but accepted the more intimate company nonetheless.
“Hey, tell me more about school nowadays.”
“Huh? Why would you want to know more?”
“I’m just curious if school sucks the same way it did fifteen years ago.”
“You’re thirty?!”
“Shoot, did I just hint at my age? I misspoke. I meant, uh, five years ago. Now tell me about school before I remove you from this cafe.”
Mae calmed herself down by sipping on the remnants of her iced chocolate before she spoke. She seemed to agonize in her head over what to talk about, before finally sighing continuing on.
“What’s there to say? I go to school, I sit through classes, I go home, I take more classes. It’s not exactly a complicated lifestyle.”
“Sounds rough and boring.”
“It’s not all that bad. The classes, I mean. It’s everything around school that gets to me.”
“How so?”
“Have you ever gotten the highest test mark in your class, Ms. Barista?”
“Maybe once.”
“Well I have to get the highest test mark every time. And every time I get it, I feel the pressure to get the next one grows bigger. You know, the closer you are to perfection, the more everyone expects perfection out of you…”
Mae smiled regretfully.
“...Including yourself.”
Hal regarded Mae’s comments thoughtfully in silence. She wanted to give some sort of advice or words of encouragement, but words in her head wouldn’t formulate properly. In the end, Hal kept silent with a look crossed between concern and confusion. Mae noticed Hal’s dubious expression and giggled.
“Again, it’s not that bad. I just have to keep my mind on the future.”
Mae smiled softly at this remark and looked far off into the distance, as if she was picturing her own hopeful future.
“As long as my future is beautiful, I can stand the present.”
Mae took a final, messy sip of her iced chocolate. She wiped her mouth with her hand before letting her head fall and sit on the table.
“And if my future is beautiful, I guess I’ll just have to wait to enter the adult world, when I’m not owned by school. When I’m finally free.”
Hal slumped over to one side, resting her head on her arm and matching Mae’s eye level.
“Tell you what, as an adult myself, you’re never free.”
Mae looked at Hal with tiredness in her eyes. She closed them and let out a long sigh.
“I know. But please let me believe that I can change the world.”

Hal took Mae’s empty cup and went back behind the counter while Mae finally picked up her mother’s call. She told her mother that she’d be home before dinner and endured her mother’s deafening yelling, which Hal could hear clearly from behind the counter. There was a tinge of sadness in Hal as she watched Mae get ready to leave. She may have been just another customer at the end of the day, but Hal couldn’t help but hope that Mae would drop by again. Mae opened the door of Abri and the bell chimed softly once again. Turning around to give her last farewell, Mae waved at Hal.
“Ms. Barista! Thank you for the iced chocolate. It was delicious.”
Hal waved back with another gentle smile.
“Call me Hal.”
Hal watched Mae exit through the door and her eyes followed Mae as she strolled down the sidewalk. She watched Mae as far as the front windows would allow, but Mae quickly disappeared behind the edge and soon enough, all that was left for Hal to see were a blur of cars passing by. 

Cafe Abri