“You all right?” said Deanna as he passed her desk, heading for the men’s room.
He paused, mid-stride, and grinned at her. “All right? I’m great! Do I look not all right?”
“It’s just that….” She looked around, lowered her voice a little. “You’re dancing.”
Oops. He stilled his feet. “Uh, just in a good mood, I guess? I stopped in at this new coffee shop near the bus stop, and, wow.”
“Huh. I could use some amazing stuff. What’s it called?”
He opened his mouth, then closed it again. “Actually, I don’t remember. But I’ll stop by there again tomorrow on my way in, get the name for you, okay?”
Of course he was going to stop by the next morning. Wild horses couldn’t stop him from going back there. (Not that there were wild horses in the city, but.) He had never thought he’d even liked coffee that much. Maybe it was just that it was the first time he’d gone into a real coffee shop, not just Dunkin’ Donuts. And it had been so good.
At least, he thought he remembered that it had been good.
He washed his hands and looked at himself in the mirror. There seemed to be something sparkling in his hair, but when he brushed it away with his hand there was nothing on his fingers. He straightened his tie. (Hadn’t he been wearing a bow tie? No, that was silly. He didn’t own a bow tie.) It almost looked as though his reflection winked at him. Must have been a trick of the light.
He grinned as he walked back to his cubicle. It was a glorious, glorious day, even if he had to be at work, and life was wonderful and sparkling and winking at him. He was definitely getting some more of that delicious black coffee tomorrow.
The coffee shop wasn’t there. He paced down the street, back and forth, from J. P.’s Hardware to Oscar’s Diner, but the coffee shop still wasn’t there. He was sure it had been on that block, between the hardware store and the art supply place, but there was nothing there at all, not even an empty storefront with papered-over windows.
He went to the next block, but it wasn’t there either, and one more block, and then one more. Nothing. He retraced his steps back to his bus stop and got there just as the bus pulled away.
He was not dancing as he walked into his building and took the elevator up. He waved at Deanna as he went to his cubicle, but fortunately she was on the phone so she didn’t ask about the coffee shop, because what could he say? “Oh, yeah, I went there this morning and it had disappeared.” Right.
It was a sucky day. He needed coffee.
The coffee shop wasn’t there the next day, either. He sat on the bus and stared out the window. Had he only imagined it? Had it been a dream?
The details were getting foggy in his mind, like a dream. Hadn’t there been people dancing in the coffee shop? He had danced, too, he was pretty sure. Yes, he remembered dancing with the barista, a handsome man with round glasses and glitter in his beard and the most glorious grin.
Okay, that did sound like a dream. Only in dreams did hot baristas dance with accountants who lived in crappy apartments and took the bus to work every day. Which was a pity, because if he could find that coffee shop again, he’d never leave. It would be paradise. He’d spend his days dancing with the barista, and drinking that wonderful coffee.
That was what he remembered best: the taste of that coffee. Hot, smooth, bitter and sweet at the same time; kind of thick on his tongue, with the tiniest layer of a sort of foam on top. Just thinking about it made his feet want to move.
Unfortunately, he was thinking so much about that coffee (and the dancing, and the barista) that he missed his stop and had to walk four blocks back to his office.
It was a sucky day. He needed coffee.
The next day was Saturday, so he didn’t have to go to work. Still, he went down the street toward his bus stop, hopeful.
The coffee shop was still obstinately refusing to be there.
He went into the art supply store. The purple-haired woman behind the counter shook her head when he asked about a coffee shop.
“Sorry, hon. Never been a coffee shop on this block – shame, huh? I could sure use some good coffee.”
When he left, he turned and stared at the place where the glass facade of the art supply store met the faux-shingled front of the hardware store. Hadn’t there been tall windows there? He’d pressed his face to the glass and seen people inside, dancing and drinking coffee. He was sure he remembered girls in swirly dresses, their feet tapping in unison. He was sure he remembered the barista smiling at him.
He walked up one side of the street, and back down the other, and the only coffee shop he saw was Dunkin’ Donuts, which, no.
Back in his apartment, he made some tea (it was Lipton, and terrible; he craved coffee) and fired up his computer. He tried a Google search:
disappearing coffee shop dancing
The first hits were coffee shops with the word ‘disappearing’ or ‘dancing’ in their names, which wasn’t helpful, especially since neither the Disappearing Dining Club or the Dancing Goats Coffee Bar were in the state, let alone in the city. He tried:
coffee shop not there next day
which led to articles about starting a successful coffee business, and
which gave him an article about an autistic teen who worked at a Toronto Starbucks. (It was actually a very heartwarming article, and it made him sniffle a little. But it wasn’t what he was looking for.)
Finally, in desperation, he tried
vanishing coffee shop doesn’t exist
and found an article in the Times-Call – the small local newspaper of a town about an hour north, which had been online-only for the past five years – about a police officer’s retirement:
His most memorable case? The mysterious disappearance of Sarah Moretti. “It’s been almost twenty-five years,” said DeOliveira, “and I still wonder what happened to her.” Moretti was twenty-two when her mother, Laura Moretti, reported that Sarah had gone into a coffee shop on Second Avenue, agreeing to meet her in half an hour at the library, two blocks away – but she was never seen again, and in fact, no such coffee shop existed at that location. The “vanishing coffee shop” case was never solved.
His mouth dropped open. He googled Laura Moretti; she was still alive, though he did the math and figured that she must be at least 70 by now, maybe a lot older. He found her phone number, cadged an interview, got her address. The next train left at 11:30.
“You’re not with the police,” said Mrs. Moretti. She was stout, with iron-gray hair and a jowly face.
“I’m writing a book,” he lied. “I wanted to know about your daughter’s disappearance.”
“What can I tell you that wasn’t in the papers? She was lovely, my Sarah. She had a terrible job, a boss she hated, but she was a good girl. She wouldn’t have run away without a word.”
He nodded. He really had no idea what to say. He was an accountant. He wasn’t good with people.
“Here, let me show you,” she said. She led him into a living room wallpapered with a pattern of yellow roses. A black-and-white cat sat curled on a worn sofa. There were ten or a dozen photographs on the wall in gilt and wood frames, various sizes, various ages, showing young and old men and women and children. “That’s Sarah,” she said, pointing at one.
It was a dark-haired young woman, smiling for the camera. He thought she looked familiar. Hadn’t she been dancing with a blonde in a striped shirt?
Except if that had been Sarah, she should have been in her late forties. The woman he remembered seeing dancing had been in her early twenties. Maybe, he thought, she had been twenty-two.
“Mrs. Moretti, can you tell me,” he said, “did Sarah like to dance?”
He walked by the spot on Second Avenue, the place where Mrs. Moretti had told him the coffee shop had been. “Between Berry Ice and the barbershop,” she’d said, but of course the ice cream shop and the barbershop were right next to each other and there was nothing at all there.
The library – where Sarah had been going to meet her mother – was still where it had been back then, two blocks from the coffee shop that wasn’t there. He figured they might have more records from back before everything was on the internet, so he went in and up to the reference librarian, who pointed him to the microfiche index and got him started.
And wow, there had been a lot of missing person reports, all over the region. There were far fewer reports of mysteriously disappearing coffee shops, and most of them were buried in the “Local Weird” type news, the columns that dealt with cows on the road and apparently crazy people screaming in the produce aisle. A very few articles had both missing persons and references to coffee shops, but they were always things like, “he called me and said he’d meet me after he got some coffee, but he never showed up,” which was not really useful.
But still, it was a place to start. He wrote down all the cities, all the places and names and dates. He was really good with Excel spreadsheets. Maybe he could find the common thread, whatever it was.
On his way back to the train station, he thought he smelled coffee, just for a moment.
He had gotten off the train and taken the bus back toward his apartment, when he thought he smelled coffee again. Then he heard a voice, low and sweet and unfamiliar.
He looked around. There was nobody there. He kept walking.
“Mortal man, you look for us. Do you not wish to find us?”
He stopped. He was standing by a thick stand of flowering bushes and vines, hanging from a wall. Suddenly the flowers parted.
There was no way anything or anyone could be there – it was a wall – but somehow, inexplicably, there stood the hot barista. He wasn’t smiling. He was dressed in black and he looked somber, like a funeral director. There might have been the tiniest bit of glitter in his beard.
“Oh! It’s you! Yeah, I’ve been looking for you!”
“Most mortals do not remember well enough to look,” said the barista. “We take them into our dance, and when they go out through the door they only remember delight and joy. And perhaps the lingering taste of coffee.”
“I remember the delight and joy. And the coffee. I mean, that was really good coffee. But I also remember you. How we danced. I’m – okay, I’m not out, all right? But dancing with you?” He sighed, and smiled. “That was magic.”
“Of course it was magic, mortal man,” said the barista.
“Why do you keep calling me that?”
“Because that is what you are.”
“So what are you?”
“Why, we are fairies, of course.”
“Hey, I may not be out but there’s no need to – wait.” He frowned and peered at the man. “You mean fairies fairies? Like Tinkerbell?”
The barista laughed. He had a nice laugh. “Like the fae and the good folk, like the people of peace. Like those who come out from under the hill to dance in the moonlight in the farmer’s field.”
He looked up and down the block. “Not a lot of farmer’s fields in the city.”
“’Tis true,” said the barista. “Also not a lot of coffee in farmer’s fields. And it is the coffee that lifts us, that drives our merriment. It courses through our blood and sings in our veins. It is at the heart of our dance. It is the embodiment of our magic. We share it with those mortals we deem worthy of a moment of grace.” The barista placed a hand on his shoulder. It was soft and warm and reminded him of the way it had felt, dancing. “A fairy’s gift to warm your mortal soul, to linger in your memory and lift your heart, so that you might go through your miserable mortal life with lighter steps.”
“Yeah, well, my miserable mortal life is still miserable. It’s even worse, actually, because I can remember that coffee – I can remember you – and I can’t have more, because I can’t find that dammed coffee shop!”
“It is our rule that we do not appear in the same place twice. It is our rule that mortals may only dance with us once.”
His heart fell. Never again would he taste that smoky-sweet tang, that rich and mellow flavor. Never again would he dance with joy and abandon, with a partner who so perfectly moved with him in unison. “So I’m doomed.”
The barista nodded. “Unless.”
“Unless you wish to join us.”
“To – to join you? Are you freaking kidding me? Yes!”
The barista held up a hand. “You will not age, and you will not sicken, unless you return to the world of men. You will live as we do, on coffee and dance.”
“Coffee and dance sounds a lot better than Outlook and Excel. Do I get to dance with you?”
The barista smiled. There was definitely glitter in his beard. “You are the partner I have chosen. Will you come with me, mortal man?”
“Yes,” he said decisively, and grasped the barista’s hand. “Also, stop calling me ‘mortal man’. I have a name.”
The wall behind the barista melted away, and over his shoulder, the brick and sepia-toned walls of the coffee shop appeared. The jaunty notes of a horn section swelled in his ears. He saw the dark-haired woman that he was pretty sure was Sarah Moretti, still twenty-two and smiling, twirling the blonde in the striped blouse. The sweet, rich scent of coffee swirled in the air, beckoning him.
The barista drew him forward, and they joined the dance. Someone pressed a cup of coffee into his hand.
It was just as good as he had remembered.