“It’s not much,” Emma says, trying to dampen her pride at the place, “but it’ll do.”
Storybrooke, Maine, had to be the only place left in America without a Starbucks. Emma’s mother, Mary Margaret, had explained it once, something to do with town charters dating back decades. Emma hadn’t been especially interested at the time – she’d been seventeen, three months pregnant and miserable because Neal had fucked off and left her – and then she hadn’t been around Storybrooke and her parents that much longer.
“I think it’s beautiful,” Mary Margaret says. Her brown eyes beam as she looks up at the sign reading ‘The Hub’ in bold, curled lettering. This is Emma’s baby, the results of several years at business school and a timely inheritance from a distant relative of David’s. “I’m so proud of you.” She reaches out to hug Emma but draws back when Emma flinches.
“Thanks,” Emma says, hoping her mother recognises the unspoken apology for the flinch.
Her father, David, returns from checking out the kitchens. “It looks wonderful, kid. It’ll be a real treat for Storybrooke to have a decent coffee shop.”
“Don’t let Granny hear you say that,” Mary Margaret warns but she laughs, linking an arm with David’s. “Do you want to come back home for dinner?”
Emma shakes her head. One of the best parts of owning The Hub is that upstairs there’s a small apartment. Being 28 and living at home for the first time since she was 17 has been claustrophobic in the months leading up to today. “I’d like a night to settle into my new space. Dinner at Granny’s tomorrow? My shout.”
“Of course,” Mary Margaret replies. “We’ll be by bright and early to get coffee on our way to work.”
“Not too early,” Emma warns. “I’m anticipating disaster.” She’s been training staff the past couple of weeks, Ruby and Belle are coming along nicely as baristas, though Belle’s coffee tends to be too weak and Ruby can get snappy if given too many instructions. She’s also hired a baker, Graham, who makes the best cinnamon buns Emma’s ever tasted and would be turning up at four the next morning. She figures she’ll hire more people when (if, her mind traitorously whispers) she needs them. Although Storybrooke has a pretty static population, University of Maine holds its Writing programme there (the lure that the name of the town poses is obviously too strong) and so there are a few students, mostly boarding at Granny’s. Belle’s one of them and she’d hinted the other day at friends who were looking for work should anything come up.
She waves her parents off and then walks into the coffee shop, breathing in the scent of pine and varnish, which by the end of tomorrow will have vanished beneath the aroma of coffee. The walls are different shades of blue and she’s hung photographs along the walls, city scenes, in black and white. Tables are dotted about haphazardly, painted a variety of vivid shades, and an eclectic assortment of chairs, stools and pouffes surround them.
She’d wanted the place to seem like a home.
Upstairs she still has things to put away. The apartment is really just one big space – a new double bed at one end, a sofa facing a television she doubts she’ll have much time to watch and the kitchen down the other end, with a small table that would double as a desk for accounts. She doesn’t have much stuff; she’s never been one for accruing possessions. Her mother has thousands of knick knacks, pieces of art, memorabilia from Emma’s childhood… Emma finds the sentimentality daunting. She calls for Chinese food, far more than she could ever possibly eat, and celebrates her own space with food, beer and ‘Parks and Recreation’, lying on her bed and balancing her food on her stomach.
Her alarm blares and she realises she fell asleep in her clothes, jeans digging into her stomach. Patchy grey light filters in through the curtain-less windows. 3.30. She has just enough time to shower and change before Graham gets there.
She struggles downstairs just after four to find Graham in the kitchen, kneading dough. “Boss,” he says, nodding in her direction.
She yawns and cradles her mug of coffee, black, no sugar, made upstairs. “Coffee?” she asks.
He shakes his head. “Strictly a green tea sort of guy.” She notices he’d helped himself to a mug of the wretched stuff.
“Fair enough,” she nods. “Anything I can do to help?”
Graham continues to knead. “I’ll be doing this before I leave ordinarily. Buns might be a little late this morning. Think you could put the muffin mix in pans and the oven? It’s at the right temperature already.” He points his elbow at several large red mixing bowls.
She grabs muffin pans and liners and starts spooning. “Three-quarters full?”
They work in silence for a while, Emma letting herself wake up. She steals a couple of looks at Graham, totally immersed in his work. He chops dried fruit for muesli slice, hands quick and steady with a blade. He’s pretty good looking, all stubble and broad shoulders, if you’re into that kind of thing.
The muffins are out of the oven, cooling on the bench, and Graham has put the muesli slice in when Ruby knocks at the front door.
“You don’t start for half an hour,” Emma says, frowning.
“Don’t expect this every day,” Ruby says, grinning and tying her red-streaked hair back into a scruffy bun. Emma’s opposed to uniforms as a general rule, but her and Ruby have ended up dressed similarly, skinny jeans, boots and a wife-beater, though Ruby’s has a screen print of a wolf on it, as opposed to Emma’s plain white, and her jeans are several shades tighter. “I just thought, first day and all.”
Emma smiles, touched. “Well, you can switch the coffee machine on, start prepping for the day. Belle’s starting at nine, so you’ll get your first break then.”
“It’ll be busy today,” Ruby says. “Town’s been buzzing about it.”
“We’d best not disappoint them,” Emma says, stocking the cabinet with the muffins – bran and blueberry, earl grey and poppy-seed, and chocolate. They’d prepped a variety of muesli and yoghurt containers and fruit salads the day before and those go out too.
Five forty-five. She looks around. Water filter full, clean glasses stacked beside, napkins and utensil containers full, the wi-fi router appears to be working and Ruby’s putting freshly baked cookies in the jars by the till, a tray of muesli slice due to go into the cabinet.
“Put some music on, boss,” Ruby says, gesturing at the speakers. Ruby and Belle had made the shop a playlist, insisted that they had to have music for ambiance and promised Emma they wouldn’t put anything with misogynistic lyrics on it – Belle looking horrified at the very thought.
She looks out the window, the streets of Storybrooke virtually empty. Her hands shake. What if this fails? Someone raps at the window, David and Mary Margaret, grinning. Emma takes a deep, calming breath and flips the sign to open.
Her parents bustle in. “Told you we’d be your first customers,” Mary Margaret says.
“Hopefully not our last,” Ruby says. “Hey Mrs Blanchard, Mr Nolan.”
“Lovely to see you, Ruby,” Mary Margaret says, smiling at Ruby who’d been in her sixth grade class at the elementary school ten years ago. “How’s your Gran?”
“Granny’s good. What can I get you guys?”
“I’ll have a hot chocolate,” Mary Margaret says. “David?”
“Cappuccino,” David says, “with chocolate.”
Emma moves behind the bar to make the coffees, working with ease. This, at least, she’s comfortable with. She’d subsidised her studies working at a variety of cafes and coffee shops in Boston and had built something of a reputation as a barista. “Whipped cream, Ma?” she asks.
“Please,” she says. “And cinnamon.”
“Coming right up. It’s on the house, guys.”
David rolls his eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous. How much?”
“$7.80,” Ruby says, ignoring Emma’s glare.
David hands Ruby ten dollars and places his change in the tip jar. Mary Margaret peers at the photographs. “You could have a gallery,” she says. “Storybrooke’s a bit of a haven for artists and you’d make commission money from it.”
“It’s an idea,” Emma says. “I need to focus on the basics first.”
“Of course,” her mother murmurs and Emma feels that stab of guilt again.
“Ma, here’s yours. And Dad.” Her father grabs both drinks.
“Thanks for coming! Tell your friends,” Ruby says and again Emma feels a wave of sentimentality, unexpectedly touched at Ruby’s loyalty to The Hub so early in the piece. She smiles at her parents, willing her mother to understand how happy she is they’d come.
Business is slow until about seven, when the trickle of customers increases to a rush. Emma moves back behind the counter, serving at the till for a time and letting Ruby make the coffees. Archie, the town psychiatrist, has tied his Dalmatian up outside and asks for a bowl of water for Pongo, as well as his black coffee and muffin. “Thought I’d take in the morning from the table outside,” he says. “My first appointment’s not until ten.”
“The wi-fi username is happily, password’s everafter,” Emma says, because Belle had thought it would be cute and Emma didn’t care enough to object. Besides, Belle was their resident tech genius, had been the one to set up the wi-fi as well as wiring the speakers and setting up Emma’s cable and Ti-vo upstairs so she didn’t miss an episode of ‘Game of Thrones’.
Archie grins. “Cute.”
“Oh, shut up,” Emma says, smiling and rolling her eyes.
At nine, Belle arrives, the rush dims to a steady flow and Ruby takes her break, going out back for a smoke. Emma sets Belle cleaning tables during free moments and chats to Graham as he makes sandwiches for the lunch rush and she wipes down the surfaces behind the counter. “Why Storybrooke?” she asks him.
He grins. “I was travelling for a time and I got here and it just felt right, y’know. So I stayed. I’ve been working at the elementary school as the food tech teacher but teaching’s not for me anymore.”
Emma remembers that detail from his CV. The unofficial glowing praise he’d received from Mary Margaret had made him a definite hire. “No family here?”
“Nah,” he says. “All back in Ireland. So why did you leave the big city?”
She shrugs. “Felt like a change of pace.” It wasn’t exactly the truth, though vague enough to not be a lie.
“Fair enough,” he says. “Hey, I reckon I’ll make Fridays ‘Pie Friday’. What do you think?” He grates more carrot.
“Sounds great,” Emma says. “We can do some sort of deal. Slice of pie and regular coffee for five bucks.”
Ruby returns from break and she and Belle chat behind the counter between customers, who are continuing to flow in. Emma’s pleased to see they’re taking turns on the coffee machine. They both need practice.
At eleven the rush starts again. Emma starts making the coffee again, hoping to keep the line moving, with Ruby serving and Belle alternately helping Ruby with serving food, replacing the cinnamon rolls in the cabinet which is a never ending cycle, and keeping the shop clean.
“Large mocha, no-whip,” Emma calls. “Medium earl grey tea.” She doesn’t have time to chat, beyond smiling at the patrons picking up their drinks.
At one, the shop dies down. Graham removes his apron and finishes his shift. “Tomorrow should be easier. Got the dough rising for tomorrow’s buns and everything’s prepped.”
She waves him off. Ruby and Belle take their lunch break, Belle grabbing them each a sandwich on Emma’s suggestion (“that’s not an everyday thing, mind”) and Ruby practicing her coffee skills by making two of the more complex items on the menu for them. Emma sends them out back, warning Belle that she might have to call her in if it does pick up.
The only customer is a young man in one corner with his head phones on, typing busily at a battered laptop. Emma decides she’s safe to turn up the music a notch and get the counter area tidied, putting milk away and wiping up coffee grinds. She’s singing along to Taylor Swift, dancing as she cleans.
“She wears short skirts, I wear tee-shirts,” she trills, spinning to face the counter, and drops the cleaning cloth in shock. A woman, maybe five or ten years older than Emma, stands at the counter, an amused quirk in her full, red lips and one perfectly shaped eyebrow raised.
“Jesus! How long have you been there?” Emma says.
“No, do continue, please,” the woman says, her voice crisp and deep. “I have nowhere else to be.” She’s dressed immaculately, black high heeled pumps and a grey tailored dress, which looks ridiculously expensive despite its simplicity. She’s holding a trench coat draped over one arm and a hand bag over one shoulder that is definitely not in the same vintage as Emma’s knock-off Louis Vuitton.
“Sorry,” Emma says, picking up the cloth and sticking it in the back pocket of her jeans, something she immediately regrets as the damp seeps through. “Note to self: no more dancing when the shop’s open.”
“I would lose the singing first,” the woman suggests, inspecting the French manicured nails on her left hand.
“Fair enough,” Emma replies, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. “What can I get for you?”
“A non-fat latte,” the woman says. “Take-away.” She hands over a crisp ten dollar note, and places a dollar in the tip jar.
“Coming right up!”
“This is opening day,” the woman states, as Emma puts the coffee on and pours skim milk into the metal jug.
“Yeah,” Emma says, concentrating on the steaming of milk. “It’s going well so far. Fingers crossed it continues.”
“Unusual for an employee to be left on their own on their first day,” the woman observes, raising her free hand to push a lock of dark hair out of her eyes.
Emma pours the steamed milk into the double shot of espresso, and jams a take-away lid on the cup. “Fortunately, I own this place so I can do pretty much what I want,” she says, passing the coffee over.
The woman looks her over once, taking in Emma’s ponytail beginning to fall loose from its elastic, the white wife beater, with an unfortunate coffee stain near the hem, and her doc martins. “I see.” She raises an eyebrow dubiously.
“Emma Swan,” Emma says, holding out a hand.
The woman stares at Emma’s nails, encrusted with coffee grinds, and purses her lips. “Best of luck, Ms Swan.” She takes a sip of her coffee, pink tongue darting out to catch a lick of foam. She sighs, shoulders relaxing minutely and her eyes briefly darken.
“Thanks,” Emma says. “We look forward to seeing you again.”
The woman walks out, heels clacking on the wooden floor. Emma stares after her, watching the sway of her hips, the flick of her hair.
“Wouldn’t have expected the Evil Queen to make an appearance,” Ruby says, startling Emma.
“Don’t mind Ruby,” Belle says. “It’s what some people call the mayor.”
“That was the mayor?” Emma asks.
“Yeah, Regina Mills. She’s kind of a hard-ass,” Belle says. “But she runs the town well.”
“She’s a babe but she’s also a total bitch,” Ruby says, grinning.
“Can we not call powerful women ‘bitch’?” Belle asks, frowning. Belle was doing a masters in non-fiction writing at the centre, but Emma recalls that she’d majored in women’s studies at Barnard prior to that.
“Oh, lighten up.”
“I’m taking a break,” Emma says. “I’ll be upstairs. Yell out if there’re any problems.”
She brews a new pot of coffee and grabs leftover Chinese food from the fridge, settling on eating it cold because she hasn’t yet sprung for a microwave and she doesn’t want to go downstairs. The best part of her apartment is the tiny balcony, accessible only through the window, which looks out over the main street of Storybrooke. It’s almost too cold and Emma shivers as she shovels down cold chicken and broccoli, alternating with a mug of coffee to keep her hands warm. Probably she should have put on a sweater, but she can’t be bothered clambering back through the window to get one.
It’s nearing the end of September, the leaves on the trees starting to turn golden and fall off in piles on the streets. September 25th, to be precise. Baby Boy’s birthday, wherever he is. She’s not sure how conscious the decision to open the coffee shop that day was, but it seems apt.
She finishes her coffee, leaving her mug in the sink, and heads downstairs, spending the afternoon cleaning and chatting with customers, letting the girls man the counter. Ruby finishes at three, waving good bye and heading home on her scooter.
“We should have a bookshelf,” Belle suggests and Emma finds she rather likes the idea. She’s got her old university texts she could put on it, lots of classic literature, and she knows Mary Margaret would donate some children’s books.
“Let’s see how the week goes first though,” she warns. “If we do well, I’ll send you and Ruby to find me a bookshelf at Gold’s.”
Belle sweeps up, stacking chairs and shooing out a couple of reluctant grad students who’ve been getting cheap refills for the bulk of the day. “See you tomorrow, guys,” Emma says and they grin. There’s rarely space at Granny’s to linger. Emma wants The Hub to be somewhere people can sit for hours. By next summer she hopes to have the money to expand out back, fixing up the large courtyard and putting in sturdy, waterproof furniture.
She counts the till, filling out the accounts in her precise, cramped handwriting, the till with the next day’s float in the safe in her apartment upstairs.
She contemplates a shower but that seems like too much effort so she just yanks the elastic out of her hair, pulls on her red jacket and delivers the takings to the bank down the road. Then, she wanders down the road to the sheriff’s department.
Her father’s in a meeting. She can’t hear anything and the door to his office is shut so she makes a cup of tea (no coffee at the station apparently), sits in one of the uncomfortable, grey chairs and fiddles with her phone.
Ma: I hope your day was wonderful :)
Mary Margaret will be hurt she hasn’t texted back yet. Day was good. Busy though. Waiting for Dad. See you soon.
The door opens and Regina Mills exits. “I expect the paperwork on my desk tomorrow by nine, Sheriff,” she says. Her eyebrows shoot up when she sees Emma and she touches her hair, as though patting it back into place.
David follows her from the office. “Kid,” he says, grinning at her. “Madame Mayor, this is my daughter, Emma.”
“We’ve met,” Regina says.
“She came into The Hub,” Emma says.
“Best coffee ever, right?” David says, giving Emma the thumbs up behind Regina’s back.
“It was adequate,” she says and Emma rolls her eyes because, seriously?
“High praise indeed,” David says.
“Tomorrow morning,” Regina reminds him.
“Scout’s honour,” David says, holding up what appears to in fact be an approximation of the salute from ‘The Hunger Games’ movies.
“May the odds be ever in your favour,” Emma says and Regina’s lips quirk into what might be a smile before she sweeps out.
“She’s delightful,” Emma says, deadpan.
“Her bark’s worse than her bite,” David says. “That was warm for Regina. I’ve got a few things to finish up here. Your mother will meet us here at half six.”
“I’ve got my phone,” Emma says and pulls up a game of Candy Crush.
When they get to Granny’s, it’s crowded but Emma manages to grab them a booth near the back. The waitress – a girl who looks fresh out of high school – comes over and they order, burgers for Emma and David, while Mary Margaret contents herself with a salad.
“I’m so pleased it went well,” Mary Margaret says.
“Yeah,” says Emma. “Lots of customers, no complaints. I might have to re-look at shift rosters as we go on. Belle’s going to want time off for her thesis at some stage so it’d be good to have a couple of good casual staff members.”
“And your apartment is nice?”
“It’s getting there,” she says. “Why don’t you guys come over for lunch on Sunday?”
“Lovely,” Mary Margaret says, visibly thrilled.
“It won’t be fancy,” Emma warns. “I still can’t really cook.”
“I could teach you,” Mary Margaret says and Emma shrugs.
“I get on okay.”
Their meals arrive and for a moment the table is full of the comfortable silence of eating. Mary Margaret steals fries off David’s plate and he rolls his eyes at Emma. “Every time,” her says, between bites of his hamburger.
Emma looks around. She doesn’t recognise many people, which surprises her. There’s a girl she went to high school with (Ashley, she thinks?) eating lasagne and rocking a pram. Her grade one teacher is sitting at the bar with a glass of milk.
David orders pie to share with Mary Margaret and so Emma gets a hot chocolate. It comes with whipped cream and cinnamon. When she looks over at the bar, Granny grins. She remembered her favourite combination.
She’s just taken her first sip when the door to Granny’s swings open and Regina Mills enters, a little boy trailing behind. Emma chokes on her hot chocolate, hot liquid spilling down her chin. David passes her a napkin.
“That the mayor’s kid?” Emma asks. She can’t picture Regina in so domestic a setting as to have a child, husband, all the trappings of marriage and domesticity.
“It’s Henry,” Mary Margaret says.
“He’s in your mom’s grade five class,” David says.
“It’s his birthday today,” Mary Margaret adds and Emma almost upsets her hot chocolate entirely.
Regina’s at the counter, ordering for the two of them, and the kid is looking around the diner. He has wide, curious eyes, dark hair and a pointed chin that reminds Emma of her own chin. There’s not much of the mayor in him, except the hair, and while Emma had assumed Regina was Latina, she can’t see that in the kid.
The kid spots their table, tugs on his mother’s coat and gestures. Regina looks over, assesses the group and nods. He races over, narrowly missing the waitress with a plate of chilli.
“Hey, Mrs Blanchard,” he says, grinning.
“Happy Birthday again, Henry,” Mary Margaret replies. “This is my daughter, Emma.”
Henry turns his smile on Emma and she feels nauseous, the creamy hot chocolate sitting uncomfortably at the back of her throat.
“I like your jacket,” he says. “It’s awesome.”
“Thanks, kid. Happy Birthday.”
“Mom said we could get ice cream because it’s my birthday,” Henry says. “And I didn’t have to do any homework when I got home from school.”
“I don’t think you should be telling Mrs Blanchard that, darling,” Regina says, her voice warm and pleasant, very unlike her as far as Emma can tell.
“That’s quite alright,” Mary Margaret says. “Emma never had to do homework on her birthday either. Birthdays are sacred.”
Henry grins at Emma again (it’s a smile that will be heart-breaking in a few years’ time) and raises his hand for a high five. Emma slaps it, feeling his palm soft against hers.
“Let’s leave Mrs Blanchard to her family time,” Regina says and steers the boy away to a nearby booth. For something to do, Emma goes to pay at the counter, feeling Regina’s eyes follow her all the way. She leaves a generous tip and her parents gather their stuff, Mary Margaret waving again to Henry who nearly knocks his sundae over in his exuberance at waving back.
“He’s a lovely boy,” Mary Margaret says.
“So Mayor Mills is married?” Emma asks, attempting to sound casual.
“No,” Mary Margaret says. “Never has been so far as I know. Henry’s adopted.” Emma breathes heavily, in and out, in and out. Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck.
“She dotes on the boy,” David says.
“I do worry about him,” Mary Margaret says. “He’s a bit of a loner. Just a delight to teach though, very bright, very focused.”
They drop her off at her apartment on the walk home. “See you soon, honey,” Mary Margaret says and hugs her. This time Emma’s expecting it and lets her, sinking into the embrace. David ruffles her hair, as though she were five not 28, and then they walk down the road, arms linked, the perfect couple with their all too imperfect child.
Emma gets in her yellow bug and drives to the Storybrooke sign. She sits in her car, head against the steering wheel, fighting against every instinct screaming “run, run”. It’s easy to run when you’ve got nothing to lose.
Eventually, she does a U-turn and returns to her apartment, to her coffee shop, to her life.
Henry has Neal’s smile.