by Lily Peavey
The customers had become regulars because of Haley. Haley was smiles and sunshine and the singular light in the dull, snow-covered town. Winter and spring meant Haley’s town was interlocked in the dredges of white snow, frostbitten noses, and icy gales. Hopeful families from sunny communities came to give little ones their first look at snow and the first chance to see delicate snowflakes dancing in the wind. Fluttering, fluttering, and landing on outstretched palms and rosy cheeks and dusting unruly curls.
But when the inevitable snowstorms blew in, sending carefully constructed snowmen and stacks of snowballs and snow angels into ruin under its icy wrath, the scattered tourists and locals that dared to risk the throng of outsiders would scurry in search of shelter. Too far away were the bed and breakfasts and tiny hotels. Their only source of refuge was the tiny cafe on the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Violet Boulevard, where Haley worked.
Entering the cafe, one would see that it was not different- if not a bit more homely- than a chain coffee shop. Slightly more hunkered down, slightly more comfortable, slightly more caring. Nothing remarkable about it. Carefully wrapped and powdered sugar-dusted pastries sat behind the glass on lacy frills, resting on shining white platters. Fluffed pillows with bright red tassels casually rested on worn armchairs and the single sofa around a small table.
Looking closer, there was more. Crayon drawings from little kids tacked up on a board in the corner and board games hung on the walls of popular names among the town’s kids. Tiny, hand-painted mugs with light pastel lines forming flowers and leaves were set out in preparation for the ones who would stay a whole lot longer than the tourists cowering from the rough weather. There was one person who would make sure that everything was set out with the gentlest of care. Haley.
Haley was an unassuming figure- tall with fluffy brown hair and dull green eyes. A ponytail tied always with a green velvet scrunchie, a work-issued black apron over a light blue fleece jacket and black pants. But her glittering smile made the people stop and notice. Made the people say hello. Made the people stay a little while longer. Dimples and smile lines appeared as she grinned at each and every one of her customers, promising them her best service.
She made everything special. She made the tourists think about coming back to the town to meet the nice folks, and she made the residents tolerate the awful weather if it meant that they got to see the vibrant youth that had grown up amongst the snow.
Haley was sun peeking through the clouds on a dark day. She was a blazing fireplace and fuzzy socks and kisses from puppies. She was careful with her handiwork, drawing little designs and faces on foamy white mugs of coffee and dusted cinnamon carefully on frothy mountains of whipped cream on tall, steaming hot chocolates. She gave the kids free refills and slipped them slightly burnt cookies from the baking rooms.
Powdered sugar that was shaken on croissants made speckles like stars on her apron, flour from the baking rooms on her boots. Textbooks and notebooks filled a canvas bag from the library, the bag nearly breaking with the heavy weight of her schoolwork. Stuffed to the brim with crumpled college-ruled paper and mechanical pencils and too many hair ties to count.
The kids would see a slightly bigger version of themselves within her, with the goofy expressions she made, and the way she would always sit down to play Uno with them and freak out when they won. The people her age saw a tired student who was still gleeful and playful. They saw her as more mature. The adults saw her as a fine young woman who would make a lovely mother one day. They saw her as an admirable role model for their children and as a suitable playmate so they could sip their scalding hot coffee in peace and never have a care as to who their bundle of joy was terrorizing with their never ending questions.
If Haley’s story was told solely from the eyes of the outsiders and the ones who thought they truly knew her, there would be no story. Tragedy would be the only rhyme- unexpected, unprecedented tragedy. A freak accident, a mistake. Something that had gone wrong; maybe it had been the snow, maybe she had been sick, maybe it wasn’t her fault.
But there’s a flaw to that. Haley’s story was hers alone. Only she knew the truth as to why what happened, happened. Her story meant tragedy mixed with mourning all stirred together like dry ingredients in a cake. Off to the side rested confusion, denial, and shock all mixed together but away from the tragedy. And then, as cakes do, are stirred together into a bundle of emotions of sadness and heartbreak before being baked in the oven of time to solidify those feelings. Finally, once the storms of sugar and vanilla and flour and eggs had stopped, then the final product was a cake made of tragedy iced with shock and sprinkled with regret.
No one realized anyone was wrong. Didn’t see that her smiles were a facade, that she never truly meant them. Haley was not the cheerful playmate and caring worker as she appeared to be. Haley was not sunshine and rainbows and puffy marshmallow clouds. Haley was constantly cloudy skies with unrelenting rainfall that didn’t stop for a moment. Pretty smiles, brutal tears.
She was neither a teenager bubbling with excitement for the future, nor a mature young woman who had a refined and kind poise and a graceful respect for her elders. She was something else entirely. She was a drowning babe, crying out underneath the waves of blue that got heavier and heavier with each passing day. Trying to swim up before the layers got heavier and heavier, kicking and fighting in an ocean of her own tears, saltiness stinging her eyes.
And yet, she continued the charade, going along with each miserable day in a dutiful manner. Smile after smile, coffee after coffee. Shining flashes of snow-white teeth, the dark liquid mixed with milk, wisps of cream making delicate designs across the caffeine canvas.
Kids jittery from sips of the drink, parents tired from dealing with them, leaving them with a person just as exhausted in her own right. Tired from life, tired from a life she had barely lived. Tired from simply existing. Sick of climbing an unrelenting mountain, growing steeper and more ragged with every passing hour. So fed up with everything.
When the tourists returned a year later, they hunted for the coffee shop that had given them shelter in a mild blizzard. They looked for the girl that their children had adored, looked for the schoolgirl bright with youth. But they were greeted by a different teenage girl waiting for them. Tousled brown hair, shiny blue eyes, slightly shorter than Haley. A name tag marked her name. Leona. When they asked where the girl who had been there the year before was, the girl’s eyes would dim.
Sadly, she would explain the tragic reality. How broken Haley had been. How she had perished in a car crash during the summer months. How silver wreckage had been scattered across the rural area, how it was clear the second anyone saw the destroyed car that no one could ever survive that crash. But what Leona never told them was how it wasn’t an accident. How Haley had told her what she was about to do.
How that car had been turned aggressively off the road and into a downward spiral. How quickly death had come to Haley. But for the children, for the parents, for the tourists and the people in the small snow-covered town, there was nothing to ease the pain. Nothing to comfort them for the loss of a girl they thought they knew. Well, there was one thing. For them, Leona did one thing to help, to ease the pain.
For them, there could only be a cup of coffee and a smile.