01: The Divine Chocolate Shop
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What baffles the police most about the deaths of Liam Wheelwright’s parents is the father’s missing eyes, plucked cleanly from his head like ripe fruit from a tree. They search the scene of the car accident for two days but the eyes are never found. The makeup artist from the funeral home decorates a pair of glass eyes for Liam’s father, one blue and one green, so visitors at the wake don’t have to look upon a pair of empty sockets when they pay their respects. It’s a wasted effort, as few people attend the wake. His mother and father are buried together in a plot they chose before Liam was born, and Liam, the priest, and two sparrows in a nearby tree are the only witnesses.
The day after the funeral Liam visits the police impound where his parents’ red Honda Accord has been put to rest, its broken steel frame hunching in a corner like a wounded animal. It takes him two tries to open the door, the front of the car so mangled that the hinges stick. A hot gust of air assaults him when the door opens, smelling of lime air freshener and faux leather.
He puts items in a box, feeling like an intruder. He hasn’t spoken to his parents in two years, let alone sat in their car to loot through it. He takes off his baseball cap and rests it on the dashboard, though he isn’t sure why he does it: a mark of respect, maybe, or simply because the trapped air in the car is suffocating, dust floating in the air like glitter. A lime air freshener goes into the box, along with an outdated road atlas, a Billy Joel Greatest Hits CD, and three dollars worth of change that Liam finds beneath the front seats. There’s nothing else in the car. His parents had ascetic sensibilities. Even now, Liam thinks, his parents taunt him with their habits.
“Neat freaks,” Liam mutters to no one in particular, but he feels better saying it aloud.
He would have missed the candy wrappers entirely if not for their smell, the two wrappers wedged in a corner of a backseat cushion. It’s a scent like rusted metal but slightly more sour, mixed with – and he wonders if he’s wrong in this, but his sensitive nose is never wrong – dark chocolate. He picks up the wrinkled foil squares. He sniffs them again and recoils, sneezing. The wrappers, gold-tinted with a design of thin silver swirls, held chocolate once. But chocolate does not smell like this, tangy and unnatural. It smells almost familiar.
His mother liked sweets, though Liam cannot imagine her liking these. Something is wrong in them. He puts the wrappers in his pocket, jams his cap on his messy light brown hair and takes the box home.
Liam is unsurprised to find his two roommates waiting for him in their small apartment’s living room, sunlight from the open windows spotlighting them. Joe sprawls on their one battered couch, a plastic bag of weed spilling on the scratched coffee table as he rolls a joint. Eben sits on a nearby armchair, his laptop opened on his knees. Neither speaks when Liam enters and he knows they don’t want to look as though they have been waiting for him. But the television is off and Joe rolls the joint in his fingers without lighting up and Eben, less subtle, shuts the laptop to look at Liam like an expectant puppy. Liam feels a rush of gratitude toward his friends, who waited for his return without his having to ask, in case he needed someone to talk to.
“So did you find anything?” Eben asks, his voice hesitant. “How did it go?”
“How do you think it went?” Joe says. “He and the impound guys had tea and crumpets. Tomorrow they’re going clubbing.”
“It went all right,” Liam says swiftly, because Eben is reddening and taking a deep, furious breath and Liam cannot handle an argument right now.
He drops the box onto the coffee table next to the weed. His two friends peer at the sparse contents and exchange a baffled look. Joe presses his lips together. Eben’s brows knit.
“I fail to see how this qualifies as ‘all right,’” Joe says sourly. “Unless all you really wanted to know was how bad your parents’ taste in music was.”
“The atlas is a year out of date,” Eben offers. “That’s something, right?”
“This is the part where the dashing journalism student saves the day.” Joe sticks the joint behind his ear and picks the atlas out of the box gingerly, as if death could be transferred via objects. He flips through the pages. “If you’re going to use an atlas, you’re going to write things down in it. Draw your routes and circle your cities and –” He reaches the back cover of the book. Frowning deeply Joe flips through it again, more slowly. There are no stray marks on any of the pages.
“Son of a bitch,” he says to the atlas.
Eben miraculously keeps his face straight when he turns to Liam and says, “I suppose we should start looking for someone dashing.”
“I’m dashing,” Liam volunteers. “As a bonus, my ego is in check.”
“Hardy fucking har har,” Joe says. He tosses the atlas back in the box. “Excuse me for trying to help. It’s a whole mess of confusion.”
“That,” says Liam, “is my parents through and through.” He tries to hide the bitterness in his voice, but Eben cringes. “They aren’t people someone can understand. Or, they weren’t. Even I didn’t get them.”
“You really have no idea who’d take your dad’s eyes out?” Joe asks quietly. “I mean, that’s pretty heavy stuff, to take a guy’s eyes out after he and his wife die in a wreck.”
“That’s the understatement of the century,” Eben says.
“I wouldn’t know,” Liam says shortly, repeating what he has told countless police detectives.
“We didn’t talk. I didn’t even know they were in New York.” He takes the chocolate wrappers out of his pocket, offers one to each of them. “Smell these,” he instructs.
Joe inhales the scent from the gold wrapper deeply. “I don’t smell anything.”
“Chocolate, maybe,” Eben says. “You know we don’t smell things the way you do.”
Liam takes the foil squares back, thinking. Liam’s nose is annoyingly sensitive. He often identifies scents that are only a faint whiff to his friends, sometimes smells things that can’t be identified at all, but this is one of the few times his friends can’t smell something this malodorous. To Liam the sour metal scent of the wrappers is seeping through his fingers and into the room like a fine mist, mixing poorly with the sweetness of bud and the underlying scent of worn carpet and deodorant that Liam indentifies as Home. The wrappers stain his pockets with an ugly tang. He wants to wash his jeans.
“These were in my parents’ car,” Liam says.
Looking perplexed, Joe takes the joint from behind his ear and rolls it between his fingers again. “It’s just garbage isn’t it?”
Liam holds one of the wrappers up to the overhead light and away from his face, trying to avoid breathing in the fumes. And he sees it: scrawled in flourished calligraphy across the foil, visible only in the direct light, the word Pneuma.
“Pneuma,” Liam repeats.
“Wind, breath, or spirit, as in the soul,” Eben supplies. At the amused look on Joe’s face he says defensively, “That’s what it means!”
“It’s an old medical philosophy too,” Liam says. “The ancient Greeks thought it was the force that made the body work.”
“I’m glad we’re all in the right majors,” Joe quips.
“Maybe not you,” Eben retorts. “I recall a really lousy atlas theory.”
Liam listens to them fire insults at each other, feeling thoughtful. Pneuma. What the hell is Pneuma? He realizes that once again he’s chasing after his folks for answers, something he believed he had given up on.
Liam likes to think that he’s turned out perfectly fine despite his parents. When he thinks back on his childhood he only becomes furious that there was no sign of what was to come. He remembers gardenia perfume on his mother’s wrists when she cupped his face to kiss him, sandalwood and old books when his father fixed broken toys. They were happy, he thinks.
One day they announced that the family was going on a long vacation, let him pack his bags, and left him at a boarding school in Delaware with a hefty bank account, never to set eyes on their son again. He was fourteen then. He is twenty-one now, a skinny and wary pre-med student.
Now they’re dead. He should feel sad, regretful, and he sort of does but it’s distant, like he’s observing a stranger from across a large room, knowing the stranger is waiting but unsure how to approach. What would he say? There is nothing to say.
It is two in the morning when the sour metal wafts across his nostrils again, stronger and fresher than before. He is sleeping. At first Liam thinks that this is just a part of his dream, the unnatural smell turning his ordinary dreams of attending class naked into nightmares of demons and falling stars. But he sneezes, he wakes, and the cloud of scent is outside.
He dresses quickly, jeans and a screen-printed tee, jams his cap on his light brown head without brushing his hair, though he wipes the sleep from his blue eyes. He hesitates and grabs his skateboard where it rests against a wall near the bedroom door. It’s dark and Liam’s movements seem slow as he rushes down three flights of stairs and outside; maybe he’s still dreaming after all.
Brooklyn is quieter than usual, the streets curiously empty of drunks, pedestrians and general ruckus. It has rained sometime in the evening and the street and small brick storefronts have a pearly sheen, flecked with black spots of tar and lines of graffiti. This does not help Liam’s state of mind. He boards down the sidewalk, the hard wheels loud in the silence, following his nose.
Several blocks pass before he sees the warm glow of an open store, the only lit storefront he’s found. He slows, inhales deeply and coughs. The mist encircling the storefront is one he senses rather than sees, full of the same metallic tang as the wrappers he found in his parents’ car. His parents came to this store. It’s a battered-looking, tiny thing without a number, and though Liam has passed this street almost daily, he has never seen this shop before. A torn and faded black awning proclaims “Pneuma Chocolatiers” in white block letters. In the window a single dusty truffle sits in a bed of silver satin. His face to the glass, Liam sees faintly a curvy woman with long brown hair stirring something in a silver bowl.
Before he knows what he’s doing, he is pushing open the glass door and stepping inside, skateboard in hand. A bell tinkles from somewhere deep inside the store. It’s warm inside and smells of rich chocolate, raspberries, nuts and fresh-brewed coffee, the scents so strong and lulling they almost mask the now-familiar metallic sheen. Displays of dessert boxes line the cream-colored walls on his right and left. Some of the round glass tables are carelessly heaped with gold boxes tied with various-colored ribbons, while others hold baskets overflowing with small sweets in pastel foil.
The woman stands behind a long dark wooden counter polished so thoroughly it reflects the light from the scattered ceiling lamps in blurry white circles, though the polish can’t hide the deep gashes in its surface. Her white apron has bright stains on it, pink and brown and blue.
She stops stirring the melted chocolate in her bowl to tilt her head at Liam. She’s beautiful, frighteningly so, bronzed with dark eyes that seem to see right through him. She’s got quite a rack, but something about her makes Liam keep his eyes above the (admittedly low) neckline of her dress.
“Dorian,” she says so loudly, so suddenly, that Liam jumps. “Dorian, a customer.”
From a door behind the counter, open but draped with white Christmas lights and a blue beaded curtain, a male voice shouts back exasperatedly. “So do the thing.”
There is a long pause at this. Liam wonders if she’s talking about him, but she must be – there is no one else in the shop. They stare at each other, the counter dividing them. Finally Liam reaches into his jeans pockets and pulls out one of the wrappers. He places it on the counter.
“Did this come from here?” he asks.
Two long, delicate fingers lift the wrapper slowly. The woman cradles it in her palm, takes a slow whiff. Her expression brightens. “Yes! Thank you for returning it; I hope it didn’t trouble you.”
Waking up in the middle of the night to discover a mysterious shop that gives him the creeps? That qualifies as trouble in his book, but Liam is a polite boy. “No, not at all. But maybe, you might remember if my parents came here? They look a bit like me, but my father has” (he makes a gesture about his eyes) “unusual eyes. Had,” he corrects himself.
“So they have moved on,” the woman murmurs. “Unusual indeed.”
Hope rushes through Liam. “So they were here? Can you tell me what they did? Did they say what they were doing?”
She smiles at him beatifically. “All purchases at Pneuma Chocolatiers are confidential.”
Liam fists his hands. This is his first lead on his parents and he cannot lose it now. “What if I buy some of your chocolate?”
At this the woman gains a wicked look in her eyes. She grins at him, nearly bounces. He takes a step back; the slightly manic smile is weirder than her quiet calm.
“Welcome to Pneuma!” she chirps. “Here we sell the best-quality emotional chocolate, made on premises with only the freshest ingredients. My name is Dora.”
She sweeps a bow, then gestures to a gold box on the counter in front of Liam – when did that get there? She opens it with a flourish. Inside sit twelve fat luscious truffles. They smell so rich that Liam feels dizzy; it’s only the metallic undertone that keeps him grounded.
“Emotional chocolate?” he says faintly.
“This is the variety box.” She points to one in the right corner, a dark chocolate topped with shredded chocolate sprinkles. “Envy.” She points to another, a milk chocolate with, Liam can smell it, a raspberry center. “Lust.” And then yet another, a plain, smooth bitter. “Remorse. Twelve delicious emotions for a price that is more than fair, considering the quality.”
“That smell – it’s emotions? Human emotions?” He cannot hide his shock and disbelief.
Dora spears him at a glance. “What smell?”
“I could smell it on the wrappers,” he says, “and in the shop, and in those chocolates – it’s like heated iron. I don’t know it but –”
“That is the scent of spells.” A man, taller than Liam, appears through the beaded curtain.
Dorian looks like Dora, lanky and graceful, the resemblance so uncanny that Liam wonders if they’re twins. The resemblance gives him an oddly feminine air, though his hair is cropped short and he wears pants. “You should pat yourself on the back – not many people can sense the components of our chocolate. They only understand that it tastes good, and that it makes them feel whatever they have been lacking.”
“A five percent discount,” Dora concedes.
“This shop is protected,” Dorian says. He examines his buffed nails idly. “Only those who truly desire chocolate will see this shop. It weeds out gawkers and the unworthy.”
Liam grips his skateboard so tightly the deck cuts into his fingers. Anger rises in him. Just yesterday he put his dead parents in the ground. Today he’s in a candy shop that can’t exist.
None of this makes sense.
“I don’t believe this,” he says. “This is bullshit. You can’t package feelings into dessert, that’s impossible.” He sounds hysterical to his own ears. “What is it? E? Something new?”
“We don’t deal drugs.” Dorian’s voice is sharp, irritated. “We don’t work with something as tawdry as brain chemical manipulation. We’d be out of business in a week. We deal in real feelings, real chocolate.”
“That’s what feelings are, they’re chemicals in the brain,” Liam retorts, a premed student to the core.
“Do you believe you’re dreaming?” Dora asks mildly. She dips a finger into the bowl of melted chocolate and swirls it around the bowl. “Do you truly believe that everything you feel is nothing more than a chemical reaction?”
Dorian watches Dora lick the chocolate from her fingers. “You found us, so there is something you want to buy,” he tells Liam with some distraction. “Is there something you wish to feel? Or perhaps” (and Dorian’s eyebrow quirks upward) “you wish to sell?” His eyes alight on Liam’s face. “Your nose would fetch quite well in the right circles.”
Liam’s breath is ragged. He hopes Dorian doesn’t mean his physical nose. “I just want to know why my parents came here.”
At this both adults look genuinely regretful. “We cannot share that,” Dora says.
The bell tinkles as a breeze of cool summer air and crushed magnolias ruffles Liam’s hair. A girl, looking a few years younger than Liam, steps into the shop. Even in the jumble of his confused brain Liam notes that she’s pretty – not eerily perfect like Dora and Dorian, but sweet-looking, with a tumble of yellow hair, timid eyes and a distressed mouth. She glances at the three of them, unsure whom to address, smoothing down the front of her yellow sundress.
At first Liam wonder if she has wandered in by mistake like him, then remembers Dorian’s words about protection and spells.
Her gaze settles on Liam.
“Not me,” he says. His arms are starting to feel tired, holding his board. “You want your fix, ask them. I’m just the rejected customer.”
Dora shoots him a nasty look before turning a kind eye to the girl. “I don’t know how much we can help in this situation,” she tells the girl, “but it is certainly worth a try.” Behind her, Dorian nods. He fiddles with one of the curtain’s beaded strings.
Rummaging through the baskets that line the shelves behind the counter, Dora produces two squares of chocolate wrapped in pink foil. She puts them on the counter and extends her hand palm-up. Both the girl and Liam regard her blankly for a moment before they understand: the payment. The girl looks at Dora helplessly.
“I haven’t got any money.” Her voice is mousy, in a register just barely above a whisper.
“I’m sorry,” Dora says. “We run a business, not a charity.” Her eyes rake over the girl. “Nothing valuable at all?”
The girl hangs her head. This is ridiculous, Liam thinks. He shoves his hand in his pockets, praying that he is wearing the pants that hold his wallet. He is. He takes out a ten dollar bill and slams it on the counter.
Dora pokes the bill but doesn’t pick it up. “Not enough.”
Liam makes a sound that can only be described as a squawk. “Are you kidding me? Is this a business or a mafia racket?” he demands. Dora smiles benignly. Grumbling, Liam forks over extra money.
“A sale!” Dora sing-songs. Dorian cheers. And then, and Liam can barely believe his eyes, the two actually high-five like a pair of little kids who’ve just won a game of marbles. He wants to snatch his money back.
The girl beside him giggles a little, and Liam blinks – the girl wobbles in his vision as she laughs, as if her edges have gone blurry, and he wonders if his eyes are failing – but the moment is gone almost as soon as he sees it.
The girl catches him staring at her, reddens and ducks her head. “Is something wrong?”
He shakes his head. “I really must be tired,” he says lightly. “‘For a second there you looked almost transparent. That’s what happens when you don’t sleep.”
He’s not the wittiest guy on the block but he expects her to at least smile. At worst he expects puzzlement. But nothing prepares Liam for the look of terror that sweeps across her small face, pale lips opening and closing like a fish. With a stifled sob the girl flings the door to the shop open and runs out. Through the windows she is momentarily visible tearing down the dark street, her hair and dress two yellow spots bobbing in the black night.
Liam watches her go, open-mouthed. “What the hell?”
“Good going, idiot,” Dorian says. “Way to make her self-conscious. How often are you single, by any chance? All the time?”
Dora dangles a small gift bag at Liam, bedecked with ribbons. “We’ll get a bad reputation, taking people’s money without giving them their purchase.” She shakes the bag at him; the two chocolates rattle inside. “Hurry up.”
“It’s very late at night for a girl to wander around alone,” Dorian murmurs. He looks meltingly into Liam’s eyes. “I’d go but it’s your fault.”
When this night is over and he is safe in his bed, Liam will think back and realize that this is the moment that changed everything. He understands this later. But right now he is only concerned with two things: the gentlemanly guilt of causing a girl to run away and the less manly desire to escape two smirking shopkeepers.
And so Liam Wheelwright drops his skateboard, takes the offered bag and runs out after the girl.
She’s quicker than she should be – when Liam dashes out of the shop she’s already gone. The street is dark and empty. He turns the brim of his cap backwards, irritated. He closes his eyes and inhales deeply… and he can smell her faintly, fallen magnolias and the cotton of a dress and the darker scent of that girl. Nose in the air, he follows the scent for four blocks to a small park.
She’s a silhouette slumped on the bench. It’s less a park and more of a sorry patch of greenery across from a subway station, composed of a few dark Lindens, the lone bench and several patches of grass nestled between buildings, illuminated by a lone street lamp several feet away. He hurries to her, gift bag swinging on his arm.
“What the hell are you doing here alone?” he demands. He crosses his arms across his chest to keep from wagging a finger at her in disapproval. “You’re outside by yourself in the middle of the night? How is that a good idea?”
The girl’s mouth puckers; she’s pale and tired. It’s clear she didn’t think he would find her.
Liam sits beside her on the bench. “I’ve got your contraband,” he says, and places the bag between them.
She looks up at the ink black sky with an intensity that makes Liam look up as well. There’s nothing up there but stars. “I just thought that shop might help.”
“They don’t help me very much,” Liam grumbled.
She looks surprised. “Are you stuck too?”
Liam leans back; the bench creaks in protest. The slats are cold through his shirt. He wonders how this girl can wear a dress without shivering, summer or not. “I guess. Yeah. My parents are dead,” he says, “and I don’t know why. I guess stuck is something to call it.”
He is horrified that he can state his losses so cleanly. He senses again that distance within him, a yawning ravine where his grief should be. He tugs the brim of his cap forward and pulls it low over his eyes.
The girl unties the ribbons that bind the gift bag slowly; there are bows upon bows within knots and at least three different ribbons are involved. She smiles at this, reaches into the bag and pulls out one of the chocolates.
Despite himself Liam peeks at it. It looks ordinary enough, a pink foil square with the characteristic silver swirls on the wrap, though he knows better: the scent of Pneuma’s spells rises from it like steam. She looks at it and holds it out to Liam.
He boggles at her.
“I have two,” she says, by way of explanation. “It’s Joy, I think.”
“I can’t take that,” he says. “You’re kidding me.”
The girl looks troubled by this. “You miss them that much?”
“No.” Liam smiles wanly. “I don’t feel anything about it.” He feels that he ought to defend himself, so he says, “I didn’t know them well. I should feel upset because they were parents, and they were mine, but I don’t know how to start. So I don’t feel anything at all.”
“To move on properly requires happiness,” the girl says. She sounds like she’s reciting something she learned by heart. The girl hugs herself, as if only now feeling the night’s chill.
“That’s what my mom said. I can’t help but think it’s a scary place. I won’t go if it is.”
He studies her: the hunch of her shoulders under her dress, the rapid twisting of fingers in yellow hair, the pale confusion. There’s something off here that he cannot place. “How do you know where to go?”
“It’s hard to remember how.”
“Try,” he encourages. The bench slats creak as he shifts his weight to face her.
And he must look as grave as he feels, because the girl reluctantly takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. Her brow furrows in concentration. Liam keeps very still, waiting. A breeze shifts the Lindens and he catches the fresh paint of the subway stair railings across the street.
“I was walking home from school.” Her voice is quiet and he strains to hear it. She doesn’t open her eyes. “I was in a rush so I ran when I crossed the street and there was a car and – I just remembered it then. Like finding a map to a place I forgot about. But I couldn’t get there, and I found your shop instead.” She looks at him and he can see the beginnings of panic in her eyes. “That’s what you meant?” she asks hopefully.
Liam cannot answer her; it is taking all of his power not to throw up. This girl is dead. He knows this deeply, with surety. She is dead like his parents but she is beside him and she looks terrified and cold and whole. His whole body vibrates. He wants to get off the bench but can’t make his legs obey his brain.
She starts to cry quietly and the sound snaps Liam back in focus. She doesn’t bother to turn away from him, but puts her face in her hands and cries, quiet hiccups muffled behind her hands as tears stream down her face. Liam reaches out to touch her – then stops. She looks whole (the breeze shifts her hair and her dress wrinkles against the bench) but what if she is not? He has no experience with this kind of thing and he’s afraid. His hand drops in his lap.
“I won’t go,” she mutters, wiping at her cheeks fiercely. “Why should I?”
“I thought,” and Liam’s mind is working too slowly, even his words seem slow, “you wanted to do things properly?” He wants to laugh. His dad used to tell him to always conduct himself properly. This is probably not what he meant.
She stiffens and lowers her hands to glare at him, tears stopped. Her face is red and blotchy.
“Don’t act like you care. You don’t even care where your own parents went.”
Liam sucks a breath in; his face warms. He wants to smack the satisfied look off her face, but fists his hands instead. He could leave her here, to wander around aimlessly for the rest of – well, not her life. Her life is over, snuffed like his parents’. The most metaphysical Liam got at the funeral was a brief thought, as his parents were lowered into the dry ground, that his father’s plastic eyes will likely never decompose. Liam doesn’t believe in heaven or an afterlife.
But she does.
“I don’t have to worry about them,” he says roughly. “They always knew how to take care of themselves – it was what they were best at. So it’s stupid to think they’d be in a bad place.” She snorts disbelievingly, but he ignores her. “They’d be in a place with lots of leather couches and a big old library stuffed with books in a language nobody can read.”
The girl is confused. “And that’s a good place?”
“That’s a fantastic place for them.” Liam takes off his cap to scratch his head and sighs. “They love to learn dead languages nobody else cares about. They did it for fun.”
The girl seems amused for the first time since Liam found her in this park, blue eyes crinkling at the corners when she smiles. He jokes, “A dull library is the last place I would want to be for eternity, even with them.”
She turns the chocolate over in her hands, the silver swirls on the foil winking in the lamplight. “I don’t think I want a library either.” But she sounds uncertain.
“There’s got to be some place you really like,” Liam says. He waves his cap at the skinny trees that are barely visible in the glow of the street lamp, drooping and listless. “A better place than this dump.”
The girl looks around, taking in the sad trees and the dirty walls of the buildings flanking their bench. Across the street, several drunk college girls stumble up the subway steps and onto the sidewalk, tugging the hems of their short dresses down and toppling with high-pitched shrieks as their heels catch in the cracks of cement. Liam watches them wobble away with distaste, then starts. The girl is watching him.
“I like it here with you,” she says simply.
Liam is no stranger to crushes or infatuations or even… well, the rest. But very rarely has anyone offered him such an open admission, and he’s touched. So he tries to gentle his voice when he says, “You have someplace else to go.”
She nods resignedly, playing with the hem of her dress and looking deep in thought. She meets his eyes, the old fear and panic in her face again. “Do you really think it’s someplace better? Truthfully?”
His pulse quickens and he fights to look neutral. When he’d said that bit about libraries and his parents, he’d been half-joking. He isn’t even sure if they had still been into their scholarly interests when they died. He asks himself where his parents are now, and is annoyed when all his mind can conjure is the cemetery. He could lie but she trusts him.
He twists the hat in his hands. The girl looks at him with rising disappointment, and he wants desperately to tell her that wherever she ends up will be perfectly fine, though he has no evidence for it. He wants to believe everything will make sense and work out in the end, for this girl, for his parents and even for him, all of them charging blindly into the night.
So he says, voice husky, “Yeah, I think so.” And that’s really all it takes to find himself believing it. He can’t help but smile.
She flings herself across the bench to him and at first Liam panics, smile gone – this is a spirit, or a ghost, or whatever it is attacking him – but her arms wrap around his neck and she’s warm and laughing and he instinctively hugs her back for a moment before she pulls away, yellow hair in her face, to put a hand on his cheek. Her face is flushed and bright.
“You’ll tell them if you see them, won’t you?” he asks impulsively, nearly tripping over the words in his haste to say them. “You’ll tell them I’m doing all right, and you’ll be fine and –”
The girl nods as she laughs at him then vanishes. It happens so abruptly that his eyes unfocus.
He blinks and she is gone, the warmth of her hand on his face replaced by a cold wind. The chocolate she held in her hand drops to the grass. The scent of crushed magnolias is overwhelming, pressing against his face though he can’t see the girl anymore, and all he can do is close his eyes and breathe in deeply. His hat falls from his hands. Then the flowers are gone and the trees are still. He can only smell the paint of the bench and the heated metal of the subway across the street, and Liam finds his hand outstretched towards nothing.
Liam stands to retrieve his cap and the chocolate from beneath the bench, then sits under the lindens until Dorian finds him. Liam rubs his face with his hands, wiping away the last traces of tears before allowing Dorian to rest cool fingers on his elbow and lead him back to the shop.
When the door tinkles open Dora is still standing behind the counter, but a steaming mug is in her hands. Dorian lets go of Liam to stand with Dora. She leans over the counter and wraps Liam’s fingers around the mug. He takes a weary sniff of the contents. Liam can smell cocoa, a hint of milk and vanilla, but nothing unusual. It is hot chocolate and nothing more, and the fact is a relief. He lets the ceramic warm his hands. The bottom is chipped and the shop feels over-warm after sitting so long outside.
“You did well,” Dorian ventures.
Liam chuckles bitterly and the cocoa sloshes in the mug. He throws the two chocolate squares onto the counter. “Your chocolate is full of shit.”
Dora bristles at the insult, her face darkening. She ties her dark brown hair back at the nape of her neck with a degree of ferocity, nearly getting the strands tangled in the neck of her apron, before opening her mouth to rebuke him.
But Dorian puts one hand on her shoulder and the other hand through his hair and she falls silent. He picks up the chocolate. “The afterlife is tricky. She thought she needed joy to achieve it, and so that became true. The rules change depending upon the person. We gave her the Joy she asked for; it’s your own fault she ended up not needing it.”
The words wash over Liam but do not compute. He is exhausted; the mug shakes in his hands and he leans on the counter. His head aches. He can’t begin to fathom what time it is now. This place, he thinks, should have some goddamn chairs.
“I couldn’t see how she left,” he says. He can’t hide the wistfulness he feels. “I didn’t see where she went. I didn’t even get her name.”
Dorian weighs his answer carefully. “Your senses are limited. You can smell unusual things, things beyond others’ realm of knowledge or understanding. But you are gifted in scent only, not sight. You cannot see things that are no longer of this world.”
When he concentrates he can catch hints of broken magnolias in the air, though he knows this is wishful thinking. Liam rubs his eyes hard.
“Where’s my skateboard?” he asks. His voice is rough and low.
“You must work here,” Dora breaks in, speaking for the first time since Liam’s return. She still glowers at him.
“Are you kidding me?” Liam counters harshly. He feels the ceramic in his hands and wants to break it. He puts the mug down on the counter with extra care. Dora instantly lifts the mug to put a coaster beneath it.
“What about your parents?” she presses.
Liam is defeated. He wants to go home and sleep; he isn’t sure what to think about tonight, and his chest feels tight and his head is pounding. “I can’t do anything for them now. They’ve gone some place I can’t follow.” He cannot smell flowers, only chocolate and spells.
“That is a disappointment,” she says. “It is a disappointment that you do not see what a job here offers you.”
She looks down her Grecian nose at Liam with frustration, as if he is a particularly slow child that has made a common mistake that she must correct. Liam feels his anger and despair recede. There is a patience mingled with her frustration that says mistakes are all right, because she expects to correct mistakes, and will always correct them until he no longer makes them. Her expression makes Liam ache; he is reminded strongly of his mother though the two women look nothing alike.
Calmer, forcing his mind to function, Liam says, “If I work here I’ll learn what happened to my parents?”
It is Dorian who pushes the hot chocolate across the counter toward Liam. “We can’t guarantee it. But it seems like a good idea, no? To warn you,” he adds, “we’re not easy employers.”
Liam takes the mug. The thick liquid inside is still hot. He takes a sip and the chocolate coats his tongue, dark and almost spicy, sending lazy heat down his throat to pool into his belly. He feels fortified and drowsy, and regards the drink with suspicion. “Are you sure there’s nothing weird in this?”
Dora shakes her head no. Dorian says, “I may have put a booger or five in it.”
Taking another sip of hot chocolate, Liam finds two pairs of identical brown eyes watching him. He sighs into his mug. “I want an easier way to do this,” he admits. “For once I wish they would have just told me the truth without making me battle for it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting life to be easier or simpler,” Dora says kindly. “The trick is accepting that nothing ever is truly easy or simple.”
Liam mulls this over, tapping a bitten-down fingernail against the mug arrhythmically. He has no other clues about his parents’ deaths. He can abandon this investigation of his and leave it to the police, but he cannot shake the feeling that he has stumbled upon something necessary and vital, that this path leads to his mother and father. The chocolate wrappers were in their car. Maybe that was a message, a sign.
“All right,” he concedes. “I’ll take the bait. I’ll be your part-timer.”
Dorian leans across the counter and yanks the mug out of Liam’s hands, spilling cocoa on the counter. Dora shoots her counterpart a look of impending doom, which Dorian ignores in favor of lifting a mop out from behind the counter to shove into Liam’s empty hands.
“You’re out of your mind,” Liam retorts, flabbergasted. “The sun is rising!”
“The floor is filthy,” Dorian says happily. “And for once I don’t have to mop it!”
The mop-head is balding and dirty. Liam holds the mop at arm’s length and looks at Dora appealingly. She shrugs, hiding a smile behind steepled fingers. Dorian nods encouragingly, and Liam comes to a quick decision: He’ll mop the floor but he’s going home afterward. He has to put his foot down about some things early on. He senses that if he doesn’t, they’ll run roughshod over him for the rest of his life. With a stifled yawn and a few choice curses, Liam begins the search for a bucket.
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