It wasn’t that he hadn’t known about the weather. He just hadn’t expected all the dire warnings to be so accurate. So when the rain changed instantly from a cold drizzle to a freezing downpour interspersed with sleet, he couldn’t even pretend to be surprised, despite the fact that he was without an umbrella. Again.
Squinting up the street, Max could just make out a dry cleaner’s sign through the gray curtain, and beyond that, what looked to be an art gallery of some sort. When he came closer he could see one of those little clocks hanging on the dry cleaner’s door with the hands pointing to eight o’clock. It was now quarter past three, but the shop was dark. The art gallery might have been more promising, except for the fact that the windows were soaped and card-boarded over. It managed to convey a “look,” he supposed. Urban, chic, and out-of-business?
Head tucked down, resigned to a frigid trudge back to his apartment, Max almost missed the tiny door set back a good three or four feet from the rest of the buildings on the street. It looked like a residence. He saw no display window, no windows at all, just the dark green door set dead in the middle of a narrow, brick front. There was a miniscule courtyard as well, made narrower still by the profusion of pots filled with evergreens covering everything except a path of stepping stones that led in a roundabout way amongst the pots to the door. The giveaway, however, was the wooden sign stuck in one of the larger planters that read “Enchanted Grounds” in cheerful yellow letters.
Without a window, he found it impossible to tell if the place was open or not, at least until he smelled the first whiff of coffee on the damp air. Coffee and… Feet slowing almost of their own accord, Max sniffed again. Something sweet. Cake or cookies probably, since he wasn’t picking up any of the tell-tale odor of frying that would indicate doughnuts. In the end, the smells rather than the rain made up his mind.
Once inside, it took several seconds for the jumble of impressions to sort out. The smell of baking, warm and sweet and thick, the hum of a dozen conversations interspersed with bursts of laughter, and the cozy islands of light scattered throughout the room.
“Welcome to Enchanted Grounds.” The girl was dwarfed by the massive bar that took up nearly half the room, her elbows propped on the wooden surface, chin propped in her hands. “You’re just in time.” She unfolded herself, grinning cheerfully. “Here’s your cookies, fresh out of the oven so they’re still warm, and there’s a table over by the fireplace.”
The room looked much deeper than it had seemed from the outside. Sure enough, a fireplace stood on the far wall, with real logs and real flames, instead of the usual gas heat.
“I… thank you?” Max said, bemused. He wanted to ask if she’d mistaken him for someone else, someone she had obviously been expecting, but then she pushed the plate toward him and the words flew out of his head. If the cookies were meant for someone else, they were going to have to take him down for them because he wasn’t giving them up willingly.
“Go sit down. I’ll bring your coffee over in just a sec.” She laughed, patting his hand as he picked up the plate. “And don’t worry, there’s more coming up from the kitchen. Most everyone else is already on their second helping.”
Sure enough, as he made his way between the tables, arranged interestingly enough in a pattern that mirrored the path through the plants on the terrace, there seemed to be plates in front of everyone. Most were empty except for crumbs.
Velvet club chairs in either moss green or brown were grouped around the tables, and Max sank down in a brown one facing the open hearth. He could easily have stepped into the fireplace without stooping, the scarred oak mantelpiece higher than his head. It was covered with what looked to be antique daguerreotypes that he had every intention of getting a closer look at, but it could wait. Right now there were warm cookies.
While the whole visit so far had had its share of the unexpected, it wasn’t until the girl from the counter set his coffee on the table that he really started to feel otherworldly. For one, it looked exactly the right color. Steve had accused him of being positively phobic about the amount of cream going into his coffee, and while Max had no trouble admitting that he was picky about the coffee to cream ratio, knowing what you liked could hardly be considered phobic. Yet, here sat a mug that looked like he could have fixed it himself. A cautious sip verified that not only were the dairy proportions spot on, so was the sweetener. Sugar in the Raw, three teaspoons.
He gave the girl a tentative smile. “This is perfect. How did you know?”
“Awesome! I was pretty sure, but it’s always satisfying to have your genius verified.” She extended her hand, nails cut straight across in a no-nonsense way. “I’m Kristie, by the way.”
“Max. I’ve never had anyone fix my coffee for me before, much less likely get it exactly right. So yeah, I’ll verify your genius if anybody asks.” When he pulled his hand back, he felt amused to find a dusting of coffee grounds on his fingers.
“Everybody has a look. I’m just good at reading them. Enjoy, Max. And just wave when you’re ready for more cookies.”
Three bites in, he felt ready to start waving. Sugar cookies, soft and chewy, with pieces of real vanilla beans throughout, and when he leaned close, he could actually smell vanilla. Halfway through, Max slowed down, guiltily glancing around to see if anyone else had observed him shoveling the bites into his mouth like someone was going to whisk the plate away before he was finished.