Chapter 1:

A Chance Encounter

Sweet like Honey

As soon as I got dressed in the staffroom, the first thing I did was look at the mirror and resumed practicing in the mirror.

Lift the corner of my lips. No, make it more natural. It wasn’t just a matter of curling my mouth upward. The smile had to reach my eyes too, even if they were hidden behind the gleaming lenses of my glasses. Radiate a bright, friendly atmosphere. Like that. That should do it.

I did it a couple more times until I was satisfied, and then I checked my sky-blue and white uniform. Taking a deep breath, I placed the cap on my head and tightened the apron around my waist.

“Junior, are you still not done?”

“Sorry, manager! I’ll be out immediately!”

I hurried out of the dressing room and toward the kitchen, where Benard Chan, the manager of Honey Café, was already cooking something. From the sizzling oil in the pan and the aroma of flour and butter, it was probably hotcakes or waffles. I still hadn’t been able to distinguish between them despite having already worked here for a month.

Manager Chan nodded at me and gestured toward the coffee maker. “Two cups of cappuccino. Table three. Elderly couple.”

“Understood, manager. I’ll get right to it.”

As I made my way toward the coffee machine, I noticed that my name tag was hanging slanted and almost halfway into my breast pocket. I shook my head and pushed it roughly until it was suspended vertically, displaying my name – Junior Yuan – in full.

Without thinking, I scooped the jar off the machine, poured the already boiling liquid into a couple of mugs, and slotted it back. my hands moved of their own volition, emptying the filter and replacing it with a new one, along with a bag of coffee beans. Then I shut the machine and placed the steaming mugs into a tray, proceeding toward the counter.

“Good morning!”

Honey Chan was at the cashier, counting bills and topping up the coins. At this time of the day, the café wasn’t too busy, and she could look up and give me a friendly wave. I nodded and plastered a smile across my face, hoping that my expression wasn’t too artificial. Honey didn’t seem to notice it, thankfully, and waved me toward the dining area.

“Table three! Dear has already told you, hasn’t he?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Honey was Benard’s wife, and the married couple owned Honey Café for as long as I could remember. I still remembered setting foot here for the first time almost seven years ago, when I first moved into this town. My professors from my previous institution had recommended that I enrolled in a PhD program in this province, and at the time, I thought why not?

I closed my eyes at the memory, forcing them from my mind. Sometimes, I wished I could return to those Halcyon Days, before the tragedy of broken dreams and the weight of crushing failures. Seven years, and what did I have to show for?

Nothing. Maybe a masters that I had obtained almost five years ago when I passed the qualifying exam, but that meant I still wasted five years.

Stop it. Focus on the job.

I realized that I had stopped smiling, and I had to correct that. I was no longer working in isolation, at a desk and behind a computer screen. I was working in customer service now. I needed to present a friendly façade to the people kind enough to patronize our café.

“Here is your cappuccino,” I said to the elderly couple who were enjoying their breakfast of toast and eggs. They beamed back and nodded before returning to their conversation. I didn’t catch what they said, not in those hushed tones exchanged between two people who had been married for over five decades, but I wasn’t very interested either. I was just glad their attention was no longer directed toward me, and I fled back to the kitchen before my smile could break down.

My chest throbbed. How long could I keep this up for?

“Honey? What’s wrong?”

There was something funny about Honey calling me Honey, but I was aware that the older woman was simply being kind. Both she and her husband treated me like family, giving a PhD candidate dropout like me a job where most other places wouldn’t. I was either overqualified, or the interviewers would regard me suspiciously, wondering where I went wrong if I was unable to complete my program.

They knew absolutely nothing about me, those pieces of…no. It was also my fault for being a failure. If I were in their shoes, why would I hire me? Especially when there were so many brighter and more competent candidates applying for the same position.


“No, nothing. Sorry.” I forced a weary smile. “It’s still early in the morning, ma’am. Just a little tired.”

“I see.” Honey Chan nodded and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t push yourself, okay? It’s still early, and there aren’t many customers yet, so relax a bit. Take a break if you need to.”

“No, it’s fine. I just need to take my mind off things.”

“Good.” Manager Chan strode out of the kitchen, carrying a plate of waffles. I held my hands out to take the plate, and he jerked his head back toward the dining room. “Table five, the two office ladies. Ask them if they need a bag for takeout.”


“And Junior?”

I paused and turned back to him inquisitively. He was as grave as ever, but I could see the warmth in his eyes. I wondered what it would take for me to replicate it.

“I know you’ve been through a lot, but we’re always here for you. You can work here as long as you want, and you know we would love for you to stay. But at some point, you need to move on. Someone like you…you really shouldn’t be working in a café for too long. With your qualifications, I’m sure you’ll find a job that’s more suitable.”

I don’t know about that. But I didn’t want to argue with the manager and his wife, so I simply nodded and brought the waffles to the two office ladies at table five. As Manager Chan said, they wanted a takeout bag, and I had brought one. By now, they were regulars, and so we were familiar with their habits.

While I made my way back to the kitchen, I caught sight of someone else. A new customer who I hadn’t seen before, sitting at the corner of the café and nursing her now empty cup of coffee. She stood out not because of her face but because of how concealed it was. A red cap, more distinct than the blue caps the café staff normally wore, huge sunglasses that covered her face, and a mask that was pulled down to cover her chin. Long strands of silky black hair dangled messily from underneath her cap, but her slim physique was hidden beneath a baggy sports jacket.

However, it wasn’t her eye-catching getup that drew my attention. It was the manner in which she was hunched over, staring blankly at her cup of coffee. I watched her, wondering if she wanted a refill, but then she removed her sunglasses.

Her eyes were puffy and bloodshot. She dabbed at her face with a tissue and sighed, and I could hear her sniffling softly.

For a second, I almost thought I was staring at myself. I wouldn’t go as far as to cover up my face, but still…my heart ached. I felt as if she was experiencing the same thing I did.

Taking a deep breath, I made my decision.

A few minutes later, I made my way toward her table. Thankfully, she was still there. I was worried that she had already left, but I knew that there was a reason why she chose that corner. She wanted to be alone, and she intended to stay here for a while.

“Good morning, ma’am.” I placed a warm mug and a small plate of sliced honey cheese cake in front of her. “Here’s a cup of honey milk, and our signature dessert. Please enjoy.”

The lady glanced up at me in shock. I saw that she was fairly young, but not that young. Perhaps around my age, minus a few years. Either nearing her thirties or in her early thirties, but still pretty and in good shape.

“I didn’t order these.”

“I know.” I smiled, and for the first time I could feel that my expression was genuine. Not out of joy, but…empathy. A shared sense of pain and understanding. “They’re on the house. I hope they help in cheering you up.” I nodded toward the manager and his wife behind the counter. “When I was down, my boss and his wife gave them to me, and it helped lift my mood slightly. I hope it does the same for you.”

“Thank you,” she managed. I nodded again.

“Let me know if you need anything else. Please enjoy, and stay here for as long as you want.”

As I returned to the counter, I reflected that Benard and Honey Chan did the same for me. And now it was my turn to help someone.