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At the Everywhere Café

A.C. Wise

Hilo threads cream into the coffee and watches it swirl widdershins, a skein of smoke turning the brew milky-dark. Bottles—thick blue-and-green glass, flattened into rounds—chime softly over the door as it closes. When she turns, they will be gone.

The café shifts, a motion only Hilo feels. The next time the door opens, the world beyond it will not be the one her last client—the tattooed woman—stepped out into, her breath heady with dark roast spiked with rum and flavored with orange peel, her eyes bright with the future. Whoever enters through the door will be a stranger, coming from a world Hilo has never seen.

It has always been this way. She sits at her table in the café and worlds reveal themselves in grinds brewed, poured hot or cold, laced with syrup or milk or cream, a different combination for every scrying. Yet sometimes, when the café’s air grows torpid with summer heat, in the space between one blink and the next, Hilo sees sand under an indigo-bruise sky and the wind smells of cinnamon.

She lifts the tattooed woman’s cup and sets it aside, ignoring the rings of coffee left on the tabletop like scars. When she looks again, they will be gone, too. Everything vanishes here eventually—sepia lines of spilled coffee, and the shards of dropped cups, men, women, and everything in between. Almost everything. Once they step out her door, she never sees those who seek her wisdom again. Only their cups remain, with cooling liquid and bitter dregs, a memory of the time their lives crossed hers; a reminder that they moved on and Hilo remains.

And for all the lingering cups that surround her, coffee has never touched her lips, only passed through her hands. She knows it by its smell, rich, heady—a hint of hazelnut here, vanilla there. What would it taste like, if she could brew a cup for herself? Anytime she’s tried, some compulsion stops her, a flare of pain, the cup slipping from her hand to shatter and vanish.

Hilo pushes the thought away. She focuses on the newly poured drink, and the world coming into line with the café’s door.

In the swirl of cream, she sees a smoke and ivory world. A weary world. The door opens, admitting a woman as worn as the world she comes from. Instead of blue-and-green glass, the chimes above the door clatter hollow—reed, pale wood, or bone. Hilo looks up. Dust lines the crevices in the woman’s skin, dulls her hair, and gathers in black half-moons under her nails.

Without asking, Hilo knows the woman has come here from a factory for recycling the dead. The scent of it clings to her. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; ghosts make up the woman’s shadow, pool under her feet like spilled ink, following her wherever she goes.

Hilo pushes the creamy coffee aside untouched, and looks up.

The woman ducks her head, lowering lashes over her eyes. Her voice is as gray and soft as the smoke from her factory. “I want…”

Hilo holds up a hand, stopping the woman before she can get any farther. Delicate lines of pain trace the veins beneath the woman’s skin. She is so full of need, and it breaks Hilo’s heart to say what she says next.

“It doesn’t work that way.” Hilo folds her hands in her lap, making no move toward the clean cups—glass and ceramic, wood and stone—piled to her left. She doesn’t touch the sleek, silvery pot of coffee, or the gleaming brass espresso machine.

The woman looks up. Her eyes are startling violet—the only thing bright about her, rimmed now with the first glimmer of tears.

Hilo sighs, hiding weariness and gentling her expression as she explains.

“You can’t call love into existence where there is none. It would be like trying to grow a tree without a seed. I could trick your eye into seeing roots, a trunk, branches, leaves, but you can’t climb an illusion into the sky.”

“But…” The woman’s hands go to her belly reflexively, before falling to her sides, fingers loose and long.

Hilo’s expression is soft, but she makes her eyes hard. The woman’s shoulders slump, and she turns. Hilo can’t stop her tongue.

“There are teas.” The words are as bitter as the leaves Hilo describes, a soapy taste, slicking her throat. “At the house down the road. They can lighten your burden, if you can’t carry it without love.”

The woman freezes between Hilo and the door. Tension straightens her shoulders into a sharp-edged line where they slumped a moment before. But she doesn’t respond.

Hilo watches her all the way out the door. She presses her hands flat against the table’s surface and releases a shaky breath.

She knows she shouldn’t, but she pulls the milky coffee close, studying the cooling surface. In a factory made of dust, a young woman and man work side by side. There is a glance, and maybe one or the other of them mistakes it for love; perhaps they are simply both very lonely, hungry for something other than the feel of dust against their skin. Their fingers touch, their lips touch, their bodies touch, a flurry of stolen moments over the course of a month or two. Then, finding herself suddenly full, the woman is frightened of how hollow she feels.

If Hilo had let her make her request, would she have asked for a potion to make the man fall in love with her, or the other way around? Or would she have asked for a brew that would let them love their child?

Hilo’s hand hovers over a slender glass cup, narrow but deep. She could pour again and see whether the woman walked on down the road to the tea house, or whether she walked home. She could follow the woman’s story all the way to the end with a glass that deep—children of her children gathered around her knee, an old woman in a house full of love, or an old woman alone, bent with years of work in the dust factory, the ghosts filling her shadow, her constant and only companions.

Hilo pushes the cup aside roughly. Too rough, and it hits the floor—a constellation of shattered glass. She closes her eyes. What other answer could she give? What else would the coffee permit?

With her eyes closed, she does not think of sand and cinnamon. She does not think of the world beyond the café door. There is nothing for her there. There is no map to lead her out of here.


Behind her closed lids, she imagines the tracery of veins shuttered over her eyes as lines sketched on a creased and re-creased paper. All the coffee she pours must come from somewhere. If the coffee can find its way here, its scent redolent of the secrets of a thousand worlds, then why can’t she follow the lines backward? Find a path leading out?

Hope is a dangerous thing.

Hilo opens her eyes. The glass shards under her feet are gone. She sighs, reaching for a plain, ceramic mug—dark-blue, the logo long since faded, the rim chipped sharp enough to cut a careless mouth. She smells smoke underlying the roasting beans, worked as deep as the dust in the woman’s skin, gathered over years into patterns in the café’s ceiling, which is now pressed tin. Without looking, she knows the world outside the café’s door is all neon and darkness, smeared with rain.

Before she even pours she knows this cup will be bitter, black, and gritty with dregs. When the door opens, there is no chime—only the sound of heels stamping the floor and a coat flapping to scatter drops of rain. The man removes a battered fedora and approaches her table. For just a moment, there is a shock of recognition, but…no; she is mistaken. Everyone here is a stranger.

“You the brew witch?” he asks, pulling a battered pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, and putting one in the corner of his mouth. It’s that kind of café now. His eyes are narrowed, but Hilo doesn’t miss the tremor in his hand. It takes three tries for the man to spark his lighter.

“Who wants to know?” She tries to be cool and fails just as hard.

“Look, lady, I don’t have time for bullshit. Is this you?” He produces a card from the same pocket as the cigarettes.

It smells faintly of tobacco and sweat, but it bears her name. When did she get cards? Hilo looks away to hide her frown, gestures to a chair to buy time.

He perches on the chair’s edge, restlessly jiggling his leg. “I’m looking for…something.”

“Something, or someone?” Like the tremor in his hands, Hilo doesn’t miss the catch in his voice, either.

“Maybe both.” He toys with the ashtray, which has appeared among the scatter of her cups—thick, warped glass, fired clay, bone—coffee cooling in every one. “Can you help me or not?”

“It’s much harder to find something when you don’t know what you’re looking for.”

“You’re telling me, sister.” He reaches into his pocket again; it must contain dimensions, to hold so much and still lie flat against his chest. He produces a folded piece of paper and hands it to her.

The note is written in smudgy blue ink on hotel stationary; she almost recognizes the hand.

“It came with a wad of cash in an envelope slipped under my door. And your card.” He takes the paper and folds it back into his pocket. “So I guess I’m on a case, but damned if I know what it is.”

He shrugs, crushes out his cigarette and lights another. His leg still jitters, rattling her cups. Even seated, the man is full of running.

“I’ll see what I can do.” Hilo reaches for the silver pot, pours bitter black into the chipped ceramic. Her hand doesn’t even hesitate over cream or sugar. Once, long ago, she might have dissolved rough crystals of raw, brown sugar into the brew, but those days are long behind for the man. His coffee is like the lines around his eyes and the slump of his shoulders, the restless motion of his leg. Once again, Hilo is taken by the feeling that she knows him. He is familiar, not just from the dark, almost-burnt scent of his coffee. He reminds her of someone.

He reminds her of a parched throat, cracked skin, lips bleeding, eyes grit-blind, crawling and reaching and…

The vision shocks her, a slap. Her hands twitch on the table.

“You okay, lady?” The man peers at her. Hilo takes a deep breath, pinches the bridge of her nose, and already the feel of sand coating her throat and tongue is gone.

She forces her concentration back to the coffee. Concentric rings spread across its surface, overlapping, intertwining. The man is here in front of her, but he’s elsewhere, too. Elsewhen. He’s unmoored. Lost. He needs a map to find his way. All lost travelers do.

She had a map once upon a time, too. Or she thinks she had one. Crawling in the sand, lost, but following a route, following traced lines that promised her she’d be safe. And it led her here.

Hilo pushes the cup across the table, spilling droplets that almost form a sensible pattern. Her words come out harsher than she intends, “Taste this and tell me the first thing that comes to mind.”

The man raises an eyebrow, but obliges, hissing slightly at the scalding sip. “The desert.” The answer seems to surprise him.

“How can that be?”

“You’re the brew witch, you tell me.” He grins, but it fades fast. Hilo realizes he’s looking up at her. She’s on her feet, but she doesn’t remember standing. Unease settles behind her sternum. The cups stacked behind her rattle softly, a secret song, as a train rumbles past deep underground.

“You need to leave.”

“What did I…?”

“Go!” A sharp pain behind her eyes, like lightning, searing them.

Hurt and confusion meet her gaze in the man’s brown eyes. They remind her of coffee. They remind her of herself. He is also lost and trying to find his way.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“Just go.” It’s almost a whisper this time. Hilo points to the door.

“Okay. Okay.” He holds up his hands, a defensive gesture. “But if you think of anything that might help, here’s my card.”

He holds it out. Hilo doesn’t take it. He sets it on the table beside her cups where it soaks up spilled moisture from his cup of coffee.

She watches him step out into neon dark. She listens to rain hush soft, counts to ten, and feels the light beyond the café shift to apricot and gold, the walls around her turn to sandstone. The air is fragrant, sweet spices ground into the beans, underlying the burn. She breathes out and lifts his card. It didn’t vanish. Why didn’t it vanish? Her fingers tremble as she reads: Arthur Quin.

She tucks the card away. She won’t need it; she’ll never see him again. It doesn’t work that way. The café turns and turns, the door spinning through worlds, and Hilo with it. She is constant, a stone in a stream—scrying, healing, breaking, mending. She never asks for names or the details of lives beyond what the coffee shows her. What happens past the café’s door isn’t her concern, except as it intersects the requests the penitents make of her when they come to her table.


Hilo retrieves the dark blue mug. Droplets of coffee cling to the rim where Arthur Quin’s lips rested as he sipped. She collects one and rubs it between her fingers, working it into her skin. All in a flash, she sees the death that broke him—the case he couldn’t solve, the life he couldn’t save. No wonder he’s running.

But where is he running to, and where is he running from? How did he find his way to her? Arthur Quin, who came to her with only a letter written in an almost familiar hand…

She pushes the cup away as long grasses whisper together outside the door. There’s work to do.

A shy boy with eyes the color of ink approaches her table. Mute, he hands her discs of pressed clay to speak for him. A gold collar circles his throat. The discs ask how to make a certain kind of dye required by his master. Hilo brews the boy a light honey roast and gives him his answer.

She should brew him something fast—espresso over ice, syrup-laced, to teach him how to run. But she doesn’t.

The café turns and turns again. A battle-scarred woman, the last hope of a dying world; an old man with the head of ibis mourning the death of his only grandchild; and a blind seer come to rest weary bones.

For the scarred woman, Hilo pours a creamy-rich mocha, drizzled with caramel and hazelnut, heavy with curls of dark chocolate—a decadent drink for the end of the world. The woman will not survive the shambling horde waiting just outside the café doors, and Hilo tells her so.

Hilo whips a latte into a high froth for the old man—more milk and air than coffee—and dusts it with candied ginger to ease his sorrow.

With the blind seer, she trades recipes and news and no coffee is poured.

All the while, Arthur Quin tugs at Hilo’s mind. Though she doesn’t remember taking it from her pocket, his card finds its way into her hand. It returns, tucked under an empty saucer, stained sepia at one edge now. It is there again when, careless and weary, she knocks over the sugar. Hilo brushes crystals from the card’s surface; they stick to her fingertips.

Amidst the scatter of cups, Hilo breathes deep of the coffee-scented air, wishing the world to be otherwise. Why didn’t she pour coffee for the dust-stained woman and allow her to believe in love? Why didn’t she teach the mute boy to run?

The world turns again and the door opens. Bells toll in the distance. Pigeons clatter their wings against a sky she’s never seen. The cries of vendors selling fish, fruit, and wooden toys wash into the café before the door swallows them as it swings closed.

Hilo expects a sweaty butcher with blood stains on his apron, or a fruit merchant with thick fingers smelling of pulped mangos. Instead, Arthur Quin stands blinking in her door. She jerks, and at the same time he turns to stare at her. He twitches, a man starting awake from a dream. Then he blinks again, recognition fading, and looks warily around the room. From his expression, she’s quite certain he has no idea how he got here.

“I’m sorry, I… ” He trails off, puts a hand to his forehead. “It must be the heat.”

He seems to be having trouble focusing, as though he is seeing more than one of her.

He shouldn’t be here. He is impossible. No one ever steps through her door twice.

Arthur Quin sits, collapses really, his legs folding and dropping him into the seat across from her.

“You can’t be here,” Hilo says, but he doesn’t seem to hear.

She grips the edge of the table; half-filled cups of coffee shiver.

“You shouldn’t be here.” Her voice is as even as she can make it.

She tries to convince herself of things that aren’t true: she isn’t tired; her shoulders aren’t slumped, like Arthur Quin’s. She doesn’t wonder about the world outside.

Her hands shake, chiming the cups again. If she presses her palms flat against the table, will the shaking stop, or will the tremors bring the cups crashing down around her feet?

“I think I’m lost,” Quin says. He digs in his pockets. “I was on vacation? I have a map.”

Hilo’s pulse skips. Coins scatter, a book of matches. He lets them fall. A piece of paper drifts free and comes to rest against Hilo’s shoe. Arthur Quin pulls out a map, folded small.

In a deft movement, spilling nothing, Arthur pushes cups aside and spreads his map, smoothing its folds.

The map takes her breath away.

In the upper right hand corner, upside down from her point of view, is a logo with the words: Cross Roads Trading Company—Fine Coffee from Everywhere. The map is impossible. Worlds overlap like concentric rings in a coffee cup. Lines trace paths, going through. And scattered all across the mad tangle of intersecting ways are stamps of stylized coffee beans.

The map makes Hilo’s head hurt. The lines throb in her vision and make her breath short.

“Ah. There it is. My hotel. I got a bit turned around. These streets are so narrow, and with all the towers you can barely see enough sky to navigate.” Arthur grins, relieved.

The nervous edge is gone. No, buried. Hilo can see it, just beneath the surface of his skin. Behind his eyes, she can see his mind correcting for the impossibility, inventing a reason for him to be here.

But you can’t, she says. Or doesn’t say. Her voice is lost, swallowed by a desert wind smelling of cinnamon, parched dry by sand.

Arthur Quin picks up the map. Wait, she wants to say. She wants to snatch it from him, but her hands won’t move.

Arthur’s eyes are glazed, correcting again. When he looked, Hilo is certain, he saw only a street map, showing him the location of his hotel. He both is and isn’t the man who walked into her café before. His pain is buried deep, rather than worn on the surface of his skin, but it’s still there in the jittery tension, the subtle bounce in his knees, like he’s ready to run.

“Sorry to bother you.” He slips the map back into his pocket, which contains worlds upon worlds.

He leaves, abandoning the scattered coins and matchbook, the fallen piece of paper still resting against Hilo’s toes. As the door closes, Hilo comes unfrozen. Her pulse thumps, a deafening roar. She already knows what she will see when she picks up the paper—hotel stationary, blank, awaiting the scrawl of a blue pen.

She writes quickly, before she can change her mind, her hand shaking so badly, her writing it almost unrecognizable: Someonething is lost and needs finding. Half up front, half later. Hilo slips her card from her pocket, folds it into the paper.

Her chair scrapes loudly as she stands. She doesn’t dare look at the door, doesn’t dare look for sunlight or street lights, or anything beyond the glass. She doesn’t dare allow herself to dream, because what if it doesn’t come true?

There’s an old-fashioned cash register on the counter. It makes a satisfying ding as the drawer pops open. She counts worn-soft bills and wraps them in the hotel stationary with her card. An equal amount goes in her pocket. It isn’t stealing, if there’s never been anyone in the café except her.

She finds an envelope in the cubby shelves under the register and writes Arthur Quin’s name on it. The café is everywhere and everywhen. This should work. It will work, because it already has worked. It has to.

But what if it doesn’t?

Hilo takes a deep breath, and pushes the envelope under the door. She listens to the thump of her heart, the rhythm of blood beating against her skin. The cafe smells faintly of chalk from the board behind the counter, wiped clean, leaving only ghosts behind. There’s no scent of sticky-sweet syrup, no smoky aroma of roasting beans.

A phone rings. The sound jangles her nerves, sets her pulse running. There’s a black telephone on the counter that she’s certain wasn’t there a moment before. She waits for the jarring sound to come again, hoping it will, hoping it doesn’t.

It does.

It’s impossible. But so is she.

She never questioned the coffee—how it could show her the future and the past, heal broken hearts and broken bones. If there’s a spell for everything in the right combination of water filtered through ground beans, then why not one for a map to lost things, and a man following paths he can’t quite see because, under his skin and deep between his bones, he wants to run away, too.

The phone is in her hand. “Hello?”

The voice on the other end comes from very far away. Words tumble from Arthur Quin’s mouth as though he’s been speaking for a long time, and Hilo is only now there to hear.

“… don’t know if we’ve met before, and even if we have, this is going to sound weird.” Deep breath, and in it something that sounds like a bemused smile. “Would you like to go out and get a cup of coffee sometime?”

“Yes.” Hilo sets the phone down on the counter without hanging it up. She steps towards the door before she can lose her nerve.

Outside, the light is so bright it turns the glass opaque, so she can’t see what’s on the other side. It could be anything.

“Yes, I would.”

Author Notes:

There are plenty of stories where fortunes are told using tea leaves, but despite my mother’s best efforts, I never developed a taste for tea. I am in the ’no such thing as too much coffee’ camp, and when it comes to scrying with beverages, I figured, why should tea drinkers have all the fun? Brewing coffee is like brewing a magic potion, different measures, methods, and ingredients produce different effects. My story grew out of those ideas, and the image of someone sitting in a cafe that opens on every world there is, but who has never seen any of those worlds. It’s also a variation on the idea of telling your troubles to your local bartender; tell your troubles to your local barista, or in this case, brew witch, and you’ll get the advice you need even if it isn’t the advice you were hoping to hear.

Author Bio:

A.C. Wise firmly believes coffee is an essential part of each and every day and becomes very cranky if it is withheld. Her work can be found in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Shimmer, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4. In addition to her writing, she co-edits Unlikely Story. For more information visit the author at

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