Of all things to survive the worldwide upheaval, the Starbucks of Bakersfield still stood proudly among its fallen neighbors: Carl’s Junior, Green Burrito, and Rusty’s Pizza Parlor had all been completely gutted by looters and later converted into makeshift housing, impacted by the sheer number of people that had fled what was almost universally known as the apocalypse.
That wasn’t to say that it had gotten through unscathed. The back counters appeared gutted—high-tech, electric-powered espresso machines with automatic grinders, refrigerators, and brand-name syrups had been replaced by muscle-powered contraptions with levers and cranks, french presses, a wood stove, bubbling saucepans, and a variety of containers bearing a plethora of coffee beans, flavored syrups, and even milk.
The front was just as patchwork, with tables, chairs, and cushions of varying styles and colors. Despite it being still relatively early, people were scattered around the room, sipping from chipped ceramic mugs and reading, writing, chatting, or staring at the wall, warming their hands while they waited for the caffeine to kick in. The lack of uniformity seemed to complement the assortment of patrons, lending the place a much homier atmosphere.
Sasha hadn’t been here before. In fact, he hadn’t gotten to explore much at all yet—mostly he’d kept himself busy with whatever work he could find while under the Templars’ watchful eyes. Of course, Sasha understood their wariness: he was neither Disciple nor Templar, something they weren’t prepared to deal with. Well, Derrick wasn’t. Alvaro and Lena both seemed to have warmed up. Johanna… well, Sasha got the impression that was a little more complicated. Mostly he was just waiting on her to be ready to bridge that gap.
The source of the cry was a cutie, a tiny young woman of Korean ancestry, with black hair that curled up at the ends and just barely reached her chin and a very broad, very pretty smile that added a flattering curve to her eyes. She wore a green apron with a white felt Starbucks patch sewn over the much older, much more worn silkscreened logo.
Quickly she turned to the red-haired fellow who was currently stirring something in one of the many saucepans. “William Wallace, cover me real quick.” Without waiting for a response, she vaulted over the counter and ran straight towards Alvaro, her exuberant bounce clearly not limited to just her stride. Even Sasha was caught a little off-guard.
In the span of half a moment she’d closed the gap between the counter and the door and wrapped Alvaro in a massive hug. Lena quietly side-stepped them, drawing a little closer to Sasha.
“Candy!” Alvaro exclaimed, an answering smile already grown on his face. After a couple moments of their half-dance, half-embrace, he pulled away, his hands on her shoulders. “Look at you!”
She smiled and lifted her chin proudly. “It’s Candace now. I’ve gone and made myself all respectable and stuff.”
“Candace,” Alvaro amended. “Wow, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Five months, as a matter of fact. And it’s been six months for poor Janey. Not even a hello! I was beginning to think you actually preferred the company of sinners over us redeemed folk.”
Though the young woman was clearly giving Alvaro a ribbing, his face tightened a little.
“I’m so sorry, I really should’ve—”
Candace held out a forestalling hand. “Slow down there, amigo. I’m just kidding.” She dropped it. “You’re a busy guy, and Janey and I don’t hang around the Dis crowd anymore. Though you really should drop by Janey’s place after you’re done here.” She grinned, then glanced at Sasha. Her smile faded a bit as her eyes traveled up… and up… lighting briefly on the badge on his chest before making the rest of the journey to his face.
Sasha offered her a smile and a “Hello!”
She brightened a little. “Hey!” After her greeting, her gaze flicked to Alvaro. “New guy, huh?” she asked, jabbing her thumb towards Sasha.
While you’re here, you are a Knight Templar, do you understand me? Derrick had said, before handing Sasha the badge emblazoned with the red cross one week ago. Sasha had understood, of course. The last thing the people of Bakersfield needed right now was someone they perceived as a wild card, so he’d agreed to wear the badge. But his thoughts were still on Radegast every time he looked at the starry night sky; on Chors every time the moon glowed gently in the darkness; on Perun when clouds cast grayness on the day; on Mokosh whenever he laid sod on freshly built roofs; on his Lord Father Svarozhich at every sunrise. And Sasha couldn’t think of anything that could change that.
Alvaro regarded Sasha briefly before nodding.
Candace turned back to him and offered an entirely new smile curled with a sort of mischief. “You got a name, new guy?”
“Sasha,” he replied, offering his hand. “Pleased to meet you. A friend of Alvaro’s, then?”
She stared at his hand for a moment, clearly astonished. Then she put both of her hands around his wrist and pulled it forward. A little bemused, Sasha didn’t resist. She brought his hand up and lightly touched it against her face. It occurred to him that with a curling of his fingers to her forehead and a pressing of his palm to just under her chin, he could lift her up easily, if he wanted to. Then she pulled away and gave Alvaro an astonished look, her mouth open. He warmed, offered her a smile, and nodded to Sasha. Her gaze snapped back to him and she offered him a little apologetic wince and smile.
“Sorry, you must think I’m really weird.” She released his wrist. “I just couldn’t help myself. Your hands are huge!”
Sasha grinned. “No, I don’t think you’re weird.” He gently took her wrist in a similar manner, stooped a little, and placed her palm against his nose. “Just very small.”
From behind him there was a little snicker. He quickly glanced at Lena, who looked up at him briefly before looking away, chastened, clearly having composed herself in haste. Damn, he missed it!
“That a bad thing?” asked Candace, drawing her hand away and drawing his attention once more. One of her eyebrows was raised, but there was the beginning of a smirk cornering her lips. Alvaro passed a hand over his mouth and crossed his arms, shifting most of his weight to his rear foot to indicate that Sasha was on his own.
Sasha’s grin returned.
“Not at all,” he replied. “My sister’s about your size, and I can think of no one I’d want more by my side when walking through a dark alley.” After a moment’s consideration, he added, “And no one I’d want to come up against in a dark alley, either.”
Candace’s smile grew and her eyes narrowed. She lifted her brows and gave Alvaro a sidelong glance. “All right, he passes. What can I get you guys?”
“A mocha for me, and hot chocolate for the little mouse here.” Sasha turned slightly to indicate Lena.
“Whoa! Didn’t see you there, sweetie,” said Candace. “All right, a mocha and a hot chocolate. Whip or no whip?”
Sasha prompted Lena with a gentle nudge.
She nodded. “Rainbow sprinkles too, please.”
Sasha offered Lena an encouraging smile and looked back to Candace. “Extra for me. Chocolate sprinkles.”
Candace looked to Alvaro, who smiled and shook his head a little to indicate he wasn’t ordering, then handed her a small leather bag.
“For the drinks,” he said.
She shook her own head and headed back to the counter before he could insist. “This one’s on me.”
“You sure?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said, waving a dismissive hand over her shoulder. “You helped me get clean. I figure that’s worth at least a few coffees for you and your friends.” She vaulted over the counter again. “All right, William Wallace, you get the hot chocolate; I’ll get the mocha.”
Alvaro turned to Lena and smiled. Lena left her safe spot behind Sasha and together, wordlessly, they started towards a table on the far side of the room. As they passed, a few of the patrons reached out to Alvaro, who briefly but companionably gripped their hands and offered them a smile. Briefly Sasha glanced to Candace. After thinking about it for an instant, Sasha headed her way, waiting at the counter companionably. Once he caught her gaze, he leaned a little closer, tilting his chin in a clandestine manner. She obliged, setting herself up at a nearby station.
“Make him a hot chocolate too,” Sasha said in a low murmur as she poured boiling water into a dual-levered contraption and pressed down. Espresso dripped from the nozzle into the shot glass beneath it. “I’ll help clean up after closing in trade.”
“You know, he’s got that stupid good hearing or sixth sense or whatever it is all you Templars seem to have,” Candace replied, just as quiet. Sasha glanced back at Alvaro, who was smiling and shaking his head at him from across the room. “It’s a huge pain in the ass. You have to plan ahead of time if you want to surprise him with something nice.” She stooped beneath the counter and came back up, placing a mug of tea on the counter which had clearly been steeping for a couple minutes, followed in short order by a saucer and a small glass jar of honey. She pushed them towards Sasha with a wink. “But I’ll let you help clean up anyway. We close at nine.”
Sasha grinned. She was good! His grin broadened as it brought to mind the last family dinner he’d had, and it quickly grew into a low chuckle.
“Almost like a napkin on the shoulder,” he said to himself, shaking his head.
“Huh?” Candace asked.
Sasha waved his hand to dispel the question. “Nothing, just…” he trailed off. Her blitheness only seemed to drive home the fact that he’d found no trace of his divine family in the past ten years. “Ah, it’s hard to explain.”
“Okay, now I think you’re weird,” she stated, before turning to the stove, shot of espresso in tow. She paused and look back at Sasha over her shoulder with her small, mischievous smile. “But that’s okay, I like weird.” After a couple moments, she returned with a second and third steaming mug, stooped beneath the counter once more, and rose with a canister of whipped cream and two metal shakers. “Maybe I could show you around Bakersfield sometime. If you need a guide, that is.”
Sasha rubbed the back of his neck and smiled sheepishly. “Thanks.”
Candace pushed the multicolored whipped cream-capped mugs towards him. “All set,” she said, with another smile. Sasha took them with a nod of appreciation.
As Sasha returned, he presented the tea and honey to Alvaro. “Courtesy of our hostess, who’s clearly much better at this than I am.” Lena watched him, her expression inscrutable.
Alvaro accepted the mug, smiling and shaking his head once more. After pouring some honey into his tea, he looked at Sasha and said, “I appreciate what you were trying to do. But I’m already blessed with more gifts than I know what to do with.” He gently stirred the contents of his cup. “I’d much rather them go to people who need them far more than I do.”
“I wish you’d told me sooner,” Sasha said, seating himself with a sigh. “I’m almost out of friendly gestures.” He gave the quiet little mouse a stern look. “Sorry, Lena, I’ll have to steal your hot chocolate to make up the difference, now.” Her mouth twitched again and she drew her mug closer. She was a tough nut to crack! Sasha thumped his palm against his brow. “Damn! I said ‘sorry.’ That means there’s no point to stealing from you now.” He peeked at her, only to catch the tail end of her fleeting smile. “Ah, well.”
This, however, elicited a bit of a grin from Alvaro. “All right, all right. Point taken.” He placed the spoon carefully on the saucer and took a sip of tea.
“Is your sister younger or older than you?” Lena asked. Judging by the short pause, the question had been on her tongue for some time.
“Older,” Sasha replied. “And much, much wiser.”
Alvaro tilted his head and wrinkled his brow a little in curiosity. “Your sister chose not to join you in Bakersfield?”
Sasha shrugged. “The last time I saw her was more than ten years ago.”
Lena’s mouth flattened thoughtfully. “So you don’t know where she lives?”
Sasha stopped midway to bringing his drink to his mouth. “No. I wish I did.” He knew where she didn’t live, though, and it had brought him great relief to find that one out after gods know how long of painstaking search for that familiar, small handprint in Nav. Just to be sure, though, he’d topped off Dovile’s lantern with a little bit of the oil Morena had gifted him. “But we have a way of running into each other every so often.”
Alvaro scooted his chair in a little. “If you don’t mind me asking, Sasha, what brought you here of all places?”
Sasha took a sip from his mug as he considered the response. “A, um… dream, I guess you could say.” Though Lena quickly hid herself behind a drink of hot chocolate, he saw the initial light interest had sparked in her eyes. “Would you like to hear it?” Without setting her mug down, she nodded slightly. He paused, calling forth his vision to his mind’s eye. “It was dark. Night time, I think, but I couldn’t see the stars. A cold wind was at my back, almost as if it was pushing me, towards a city where the light of the full moon shone upon it. The closer I got to the city, the lighter the night became, as if the sun were about to rise. When I got close enough, I saw the yellow arch that said ‘Bakersfield’ on it.” He shrugged. “It may not have been more than just a dream, but I thought ‘Hey, why not?’”
Lena’s eyes dropped thoughtfully to the table.
“I’m grateful, then,” Alvaro said. “This stroke of providence saved a lot of lives.”
“What about Devin?” Lena asked quietly.
The grim silence that fell suddenly spoke volumes to Sasha. This wasn’t the time for him to interrupt the silence either, or change the subject, so he took the opportunity to properly indulge in his mocha.
Alvaro reached over and gently rubbed Lena’s hand. “Is that what your nightmare was about?” he asked, just as quietly.
She shook her head, but didn’t look at him. “No, it was different this time.” She paused. “Why did the Hellspawn… If they’d just waited a little…” She looked up at Alvaro. “Why did God have to take him away from us?”
A soft, thoughtful sigh escaped Alvaro. “Well… I don’t know, Lena. Part of me wishes I did, so I could tell you. But I don’t think knowing will help all that much.”
“Why not?” Though she was still quiet, her tone had the edge of a demand to it.
Alvaro fell silent, his eyes searching for the words that skirted the edge of this thoughts.
“It still hurts,” Sasha said. He rubbed the back of his neck to ease the slight twinge of memory. Knowing why Regina had cheated on him and had continued to cheat on him for years thereafter had changed nothing. He’d still missed the smell of her hair and the warmth of her, how she settled so perfectly against him when he put his arm around her, her smile, which curled the edges of her lips down a little before they curled up as if she was reserving more of it for later. She hadn’t died, but it had felt like death to leave her—unlike his mother’s and father’s spirits, there was no place for that sort of thing in Nav, and it some ways that made it hurt worse.
Alvaro nodded. “What you’re feeling,” he gently pressed his palm to her chest, “what I’m feeling,” he put his other hand to his own chest, “and what Derrick and Johanna are feeling is because he’s gone and not ever coming back to us. He’s in Heaven, and he’s not hurting anymore. So there’s no reason to worry about him. But we’re hurting because we miss him. And knowing why won’t make us miss him any less.”
Lena’s gaze dropped. “But if I just knew why, I can say ‘Okay, that’s a good reason,’ and… and…”
After taking his hands from Lena to thoughtfully spin his spoon between his fingers, he nodded and said, “You’re right. But… if you didn’t think it was a good reason or if there was no reason, you’d just get angry and hurt more and more, and then you might end up living your whole life with a wound that won’t heal.”
The way the girl’s mouth twisted was almost like a spur digging into Sasha, but he had nothing more to offer. “So I’m just supposed to do nothing but sit and cry, then?”
The same spur crossed Alvaro’s face. He opened his mouth, then closed it, choosing instead to scoot his chair closer and wrap an arm around her. Though her expression didn’t change and her gaze never broke from the table, she slid to one side of her own chair and leaned into him.
“If you want to,” Alvaro said. “If it helps. But I don’t think there’s any ‘supposed to,’ Lena.” His hand rubbed her arm. “Different things help different people. Derrick builds houses, for example, and I think Johanna’s working on a mural.”
“Derrick always builds houses,” the girl mumbled.
Alvaro smiled a bit and gave Lena a little squeeze. “It helps him solve a lot of problems.”
“What do you do?”
Alvaro was silent a moment. “Sometimes, when I’m gardening, I talk to him.”
Lena considered this for a while. “Can I do that too?” Quickly, she added, “With you?”
The smile returned to Alvaro’s face. “Of course. You want to go do that now?”
Almost imperceptibly, Lena began to shake her head. But before she could finish, someone ran into Starbucks, nearly slamming the glass door into the window as she entered. The eyes of the patrons turned to her.
Without a preamble, the runner huffed, “Alvaro, Luisa… asked for you. She’s almost… fully dilated.”
“Theresa!” Alvaro began to stand. “So soon?”
The runner nodded, still panting.
“Did something happen? Is everything all right with the midwife?”
She gulped. “Luisa wants you there to… to bless the baby… when he’s born.”
Alvaro nodded, but spared a glance to Lena. Briefly Sasha could see his reluctance cross over his face. Lena looked between him and the runner.
“Lena, what say you and I finish up our drinks and go to the park?” Sasha asked.
Slowly Lena nodded. Sasha gave Alvaro a thumbs up, and Alvaro gave him a grateful pat on the shoulder.
“I owe you one. Meet me at Dis after you finish cleaning up here,” he said before jogging out of the cafe alongside Theresa.
“You get ’em, Alvaro!” whooped Candace, with a slightly sardonic edge to her tone. She then rolled her eyes, smirked, and turned back to her work.
Sasha looked to Lena. “Happens a lot?”
Lena nodded. “Alvaro loves babies.” She paused and added, “And Luisa’s one of the girls Alvaro saved from drugs.”
“He does that a lot too, huh?” Sasha spared a brief glance to Candace.
“He just likes to help people,” Lena replied, shrugging and eyeballing her hot chocolate. “And he hangs out at Dis all the time, which is where a lot of addicts and prostitutes and stuff go.”
“What about you?” asked Sasha.
One side of Lena’s mouth pushed against her cheek. “Derrick says that I shouldn’t be in Dis because the people there will be a bad influence on me.”
Sasha leaned forward as he pressed further. “Do you want to help people like Alvaro does?”
The little mouse looked up at him, but after a moment her gaze fell thoughtfully to the table.
Lena nodded. “I want to. But a lot of the time I want to be left alone. Alvaro doesn’t ever, which means he’s always ready to help someone when they need it.”
For a moment Sasha leaned back, looking over Lena. A little shy, very quiet, but she was clearly watching, absorbing everything. A very smart girl. And too old for her years. She needed to smile more. As she took a drink, Sasha said, “That only means you can’t do it the way he does. But there are lots of ways to help people. Even just being there to listen can help.”
Silence fell once again. Lena licked spare whipped cream off of her upper lip, a thoughtful expression on her face. Though not exactly comfortable, Sasha felt this silence was necessary somehow, so he decided not to break it.
He shifted his seat a little to watch the people around the coffee shop. One man’s hand held a timeworn book open with thumb and pinky while the other idly held a steaming mug, occasionally bringing it up to the man’s lips though his eyes never broke from the page. One woman stared into her mug, tapered fingers pressed against its outsides. Another was bent over a spiral-bound notebook, pencil scritching against the page in tightly controlled patterns.
This was one of the many reasons why Sasha only considered the world upside down. It hadn’t ended—all these people were very comfortable in it, partaking in routines and leading relatively normal lives despite it being a lot more difficult and more frightening than than the right-side-up world. Only an era had ended, and this new one offered new opportunities—and new hazards, of course. And a new imbalance to set to rights.
As he scanned the room, he caught Candace looking at him from across the room. Though she clearly hadn’t expected or intended to be caught, she didn’t look away. Instead she offered him a smile.
Sasha cleared his throat and brought his mocha to bear, giving her a slightly strained smile and a thumbs up. Then he returned his attention wholly to his beverage.
“What’re your nightmares about?” Lena asked while he was mid-sip.
A little startled by the girl’s sudden broken silence and the sudden shift of topic from what had previously occupied his mind, Sasha inhaled some liquid.
“Sorry,” Lena mumbled.
After a few constrained, chocolate-flavored coughs, he shook his head. “No, no, it’s fine,” he assured her. Once he managed to clear his airways a little better, he started in on her question. “I’ve had a few different nightmares, but there’s one that always shows up.” After a pause to compose himself a little more, Sasha continued. “In my dream, I know somehow that it’s dawn, but the sun isn’t rising. It’s dark—very dark—and I grow more and more worried as time goes on. So I start towards the horizon to see where the sun could be. But I feel so heavy and slow, and it’s so dark, that I’m not sure if I’m headed in the right direction. Or if I’m even moving at all.” Even bringing the images to mind strung some tension through his shoulders, brought a heightened alertness to his senses, and nearly set his heart to a quicker beat. But he didn’t expect Lena to understand—his retelling didn’t do it justice, and there was much he’d left out. It wouldn’t do any good to upset the balance Derrick had established here.
Lena searched his face, her brow slightly furrowed with wariness. She knew he was omitting something. Smart girl. So the least he could do was try to help her understand.
“I know, I know, not very scary,” Sasha said. “But…” How to phrase this? “Daylight is very important to me.” That was a good preface, but didn’t actually explain anything. Sasha took a deep breath. “As long as light is around you can… see what is wrong. And then you can figure out how to solve the problem. You can set everything right during the day. But in the dark sometimes you can’t see the problem even if it’s right in front of your face.” Still not quite everything, but it was a lot more accurate than he was expecting.
The girl’s eyes dropped to her empty mug. Her finger idly traced circles on it for a little while. Then she spoke. “In my nightmare… it starts with the most beautiful woman ever. She’s holding me in her arms and smiling. And… and I’m happy and everything’s okay, because she’s happy.” After another brief silence, Lena continued. “But then she looks up and her smile goes away and she gets very upset. And it makes me very upset, because it’s like everything goes wrong when she doesn’t smile. She says some things I don’t understand, as if she was begging, and then I’m taken from her. And I don’t see her anymore. All I see is a man’s face. He doesn’t look very nice, and he burns so brightly it hurts my eyes and makes me cry. I can’t escape from him because he’s too big and strong and I can’t really move. He says something, and then grows brighter and brighter until I can’t see anything anymore. And then I wake up.”
It was the little gong ringing in his mind again. There was something about this nightmare that Sasha couldn’t shake.
But dwelling on it wouldn’t get him anywhere. And this coffee shop had borne the weight of many serious discussions in a very short span of time. No more smiles would be had here today—so it was time for a change of scenery.
Sasha spread his arms, taking a deep breath and stretching to ease some of the tension. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to go to that park.”
Lena looked up at him. “Which park?”
“Dunno.” Sasha smiled. “I was hoping to discover one. Any recommendations?”
Lena nodded slightly.