The sound of the little bell hanging over the front door made Cullen look up from his crossword puzzle. It had been a rather slow day so far. After the usual rush of people around lunchtime, getting their coffees and snacks to go before heading back to work, it had slowed down considerably. Not unusual at all for a regular Tuesday, and so he had kept himself busy with the paper’s crossword section until customers arrived. In front of the counter stood a woman in baggy clothes, wearing a scarf on her head and the biggest pair of sunglasses one could imagine, mumbling a scratchy ‘morning’ at him. With a professionally blank expression, he wished her a good day as well, not pointing out that it was the middle of the afternoon already.
“What can I get for you?”
She was squinting at the menu above him for a moment. When the time grew longer and longer, she shook her head. “I am sorry, I have no idea about coffee but I think I need something really strong. Do you have something that still tastes sweet but does the job?” She had pulled off the sunglasses and looked apologetically at him.
“Sure,” he replied. “Name?”
“Huh?” She looked at him confused until he held a pen up.
“For the cup!”
It took her another couple of seconds to understand his meaning. “Oh, yes, Cassia. My name is Cassia.”
“You like cinnamon?”
She nodded only to have her hand shoot up, holding her head as she grimaced in pain. He could see her eyes were red rimmed and he winced in sympathy.
“Rough night?” he asked casually as he went onto the coffee machine.
“The worst,” came a dry reply, then a sigh. “And I thought bachelorette parties were supposed to be fun…”
Cullen couldn’t help but laugh slightly at the lamenting tone she had put on. “Maybe it was too much fun,” he said jokingly, getting a cup ready.
“Possibly,” she agreed. “I think I went home with a priest? Or a stripper? I don’t even know, my head hurts too much to figure it out.” For a moment, she seemed lost in thought as if still trying to figure it out. Cullen’s eyebrows went up at her rambling.
“You know, given the nature of the party it might have been both,” he supplied in his most helpful voice. The way her eyes widened was almost amusing.
“Crap, you’re not wrong…”
“You’ll want a double shot of espresso then, and maybe an aspirin.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Do you sell those, too?” she asked almost hopefully.
Cullen shook his head, still laughing as he filled some cinnamon syrup into her cup. “Sadly, we are not allowed to,” he explained. “But there is a pharmacy just two doors down and across the street.” He was done putting a lid on the coffee and handed it to her. “That’ll be four dollars.” She smiled thankfully, handing him a five dollar bill. “Keep the change, and thank you for the tip and the emergency coffee help.”
“No problem,” he smiled back. “Hope it helps. Have a good day!”
With a friendly ‘you too’, she put her sunglasses back on and left the coffee shop. From the large windows he could see her follow his advice, heading towards the pharmacy before he went back to his still waiting crossword.
The next day, he had almost forgotten about the encounter when the bell above the door announced another customer. Who was talking to him before he had even caught up.
“It this place always this empty? How do you make money?”
Slightly perplexed, he looked up. In front of him stood a woman that looked slightly familiar. She was wearing a bright blue dress and a curious look on her face as she glanced over the mostly empty tables. Something about her was a little off, and it took him a few seconds to realise what it was. She looked no older than him, but her long, slightly wavy hair was almost snow white. It was an odd contrast to her face and he caught himself staring for a moment before her words registered.
“Come an hour earlier and you get to wait in line outside the door for the most part,” he answered before he could think better of it. Did he know her?
“Huh,” was all she replied before shrugging. “You! You made me that cinnamon coffee yesterday!” she exclaimed suddenly, and for a moment Cullen was unsure if it was supposed to be a simple statement or an accusation. Realisation washed over him.
“The lady with the bad time at a bachelorette party,” he grinned and she cringed visibly in front of him.
“Don’t remind me, I still don’t know how bad a time it actually was. I am never drinking again!” she declared with the timeless conviction of every person that had ever had a hangover.
“Naturally,” he agreed with a chuckle. “So, welcome back then, and how can I help you?”
A bright smile lit up her entire face. “You made me like coffee somehow, so whatever you made yesterday, I need another one.” She scrunched her eyes together, reading his nametag. “Cullen.”
With a laugh, he went to make her the same drink again. “Not a big coffee fan then, I take it?”
She almost shuddered when she answered. “God no, it tastes horrible! I don’t know how anyone can stand it to be honest?”
“Yet here you are, in a coffee shop. For the second day in a row, I might add.” He felt like should be almost insulted, but somehow, despite this being the second slightly strange conversation they had, he found her oddly charming.
She shrugged as she watched him work the coffee machine.
“Yesterday was clearly an emergency. And today is entirely your fault,” she stated as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“My fault?” He tried his best to follow her. “Because I made you like coffee?”
“You did! It didn’t taste like crap at all!”
He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it or she sounded almost accusatory at that.
“It didn’t taste like crap at all,” he repeated, looking at her with a blank expression. “That is something for the customer feedback highlight reel.” It seemed like she was only now becoming aware of just how that had sounded and he had trouble not giving in to laughter when he saw her face change from realisation to shock.
“Fuck! I mean, damn! That sounded so rude…” She looked regretful almost immediately. “I am so sorry!” She took a deep breath. “Ok, trying again: Good day! I am a horribly rude person who is sorry and really likes the coffee here. It’s good!”
At this point Cullen had just given in to full out laughing. “It’s all good!” he said between laughs while closing the lid on her drink and handing it over. “One Cinnamon Sprinkled Latte to go.” She handed him another five dollar bill, putting her wallet away with a nod before he could even try to give her the change.
“Thank you!” she beamed at him and for a moment the only thought in his head was that she had a very pleasant smile. When he finally remembered to politely answer a ‘you’re welcome’ she was already halfway out the door.
“See ya!” With a small wave that made the cup sway dangerously in her hand for a moment, she left the shop.
After that, she quickly became a regular. Coming by the coffee shop almost every day they were open and every day getting the same drink again. She always came in around the same time, when it was usually pretty quiet in the shop, so each time, they exchanged a few words and with each time, he gained a little puzzle piece about her. The more days passed, the more he learned about her, the more she started to fascinate him.
The mystery woman who hated coffee, but bought one from him every day anyways. Who tended to talk without thinking more often than not, only to become suddenly very eloquent when she had to talk herself out of whatever her sometimes downright rude sounding comments had gotten her into. Who was so easy to talk to, telling him about her sisters and brother, her childhood dog and her favourite school subject, but who’s last name he had no clue about. He quickly found himself looking forward to seeing her each day.
Just like today, when she came and started smiling widely the moment she saw him.
“Cullen, am I glad to see you!”
He shot her a curious look, already in the process of getting the ingredients for her coffee together. She was?
“You weren’t here yesterday,” she added, looking almost upset at the note.
“That was my free day, yes,” he responded while pouring some extra syrup into her cup.
She sighed. “Your colleague was nice enough, really likable girl,” she mentioned but something in her tone made it obvious that there was a ‘but’ coming.
Cullen had to think for a moment about who had been working here during the afternoon shift yesterday before he remembered. “Belinda?” He shot Cassia a curious look. “What’s wrong with Belinda?”
Cassia shook her head, holding up her hand in a gesture of denial. “Nothing is wrong with her, she is absolutely charming. Smart too, I think? But her coffee…”
Cullen blinked. Belinda had been working at the shop for months already and he had never heard someone complain about her coffee before. “It wasn’t good?”
Cassia looked conflicted. “It was still good, I really don’t want to get her into trouble. It was perfectly fine.” She shrugged. “But it was different from yours.”
Cullen was relieved that it wasn’t an actual complaint after all. “Well, every barista works slightly different, that is probably why,” he explained as he handed her her cup.
Cassia took a sip and the smile she sent him was nothing short of charming. “Ah, this one is absolutely perfect again. Thank you, Cullen.” She had put the money onto the counter already as she suddenly stilled, her eyes glued to the clock on the wall. “Shoot,” she cursed. “I am so late already, my sister is going to kill me.” And with that, she was half way out of the door already. “See you soon!”
Before he could answer, she was gone again, leaving Cullen to smile to himself at the thought that she had noticed he put the extra syrup into her drink every time, even though she probably couldn't pinpoint that it had been that.
The next day, she didn’t show up at her usual time. Cullen didn’t want to admit it, but he had been waiting for her, subtly looking towards the door for the past half hour, slowly getting used to the thought that she just might not show today.
When the little bell on the door rang he looked up again immediately, but it wasn’t her either. But another customer meant at least some distraction and with his best service amile he greeted the woman who had just entered.
“How can I help you?” he asked with a friendly smile.
“Just a moment.” The woman began rummaging around in her purse before pulling a list out of it, going over it quickly. “I need two tall cappuccinos, double shot with no sugar, one small vanilla latte and…” She narrowed her eyes at the paper, then at him, getting stuck on his name tag. “And apparently one ‘ask Cullen, he knows what I like to drink there’. ”
He could feel his eyebrows raise up. As if to explain it further the woman handed him the list.
“Cassia said you’d know what she meant,” she explained. “I thought maybe my sister is just really invested in not telling me what she likes to drink, but given this place and her absolute lack of knowledge about coffee, I am suspecting she actually has no idea what she usually drinks here.”
Something clicked at her words, letting Cullen connect the dots. Cassia had mentioned she had sisters. And that she worked closely with them. He looked the woman over quickly. This did not seem to be the twin sister she had talked about. “You must be Bethany,” he concluded as he went to work on the drinks.
“I am,” she sounded surprised. “Wow, Cassia is really here a lot, isn’t she?”
Cullen just shrugged. “Barista-customer privileges forbid me from actually divulging that information,” he answered with a hint of humor, while foaming the milk.
Across the counter Bethany had to laugh. “She said you were funny.”
Cullen perked up at that. “She talks about me?”
Bethany laughed even more at that. “I’m sorry, but sister-sister privileges also forbid me from discussing this.” She grinned at him and Cullen couldn’t help but laugh along.
“Have to respect that,” he nodded as he put the finished drinks into a tray and swiped the credit card Bethany handed him through the register.
“You know,” Bethany suddenly said with a secretive smile, “we buried Cassia in work today, but I know for a fact that she wanted to do the coffee run herself and was really mad that we wouldn’t let her leave her desk.”
Cullen couldn’t help but smile at that as he handed back her card. “What about the sister-sister privileges all of a sudden?” he asked, amusement clearly in his voice.
Bethany gave him a conspiratorial wink. “Those stand but she didn’t make me promise not to tell you this bit actually.” With a self satisfied grin, she picked up her order.
Cullen was still busy feeling unreasonably happy about this conversation when she started to leave. “Have a nice day!” he called after her, getting a ‘you too!’ in return before the door closed behind her.
Maybe, he thought, he should try to spend more than just a couple of minutes in a row with Cassia one of these days.