Once upon a long forgotten back alley of town, there lies a coffee shop. It is a very unremarkable little coffee shop with a very unremarkable old name – and that is, if you could even call ‘Leah’s Coffee’ a name. It’s even built in a way that almost entirely deprives it of sunlight on the best of days. That said, the coffee shop has never (and I do mean never) lacked for customers. What it does lack is seating space for every bereft, heartbroken and grieving fool that found their way to the place and never truly left. ‘Twas once said that Leah’s home brews could cure all the world’s sorrows, and so, her shop brought all the world’s grief to it like flies to honey. And she did not even make the best coffee in town (nor did the local pubs run out of their strongest spirits). In fact, nobody even knew what the damned woman put in her coffee. Ah, well, some secrets, as I like to put it, die with their owners, and that remains the world’s greatest comfort. 

Why do I say that, you ask? Well, let’s just say I’d never leave my kids in Leah’s company for even a few minutes in a day. While she never lied to anyone’s face, the woman’s vile concoctions could knock a horse off its feet – and people actually came back for the stuff. I’d rather not have her offer me her mugs of poison, let alone my kids (and the woman offered every damned soul that came her way some coffee – yes, even the babies). It was a wonder her shop wasn’t shut down by the authorities a long time ago – though, I have a niggling feeling this shop is where even they get their daily fix of anti-grief. And why would I, a well adjusted adult with no major trauma to talk about, know all this? I know, because I own the place. 

No, my name isn’t Leah. It’s not anywhere remotely close enough to ‘Leah’ for the shop to be named after me. I just inherited the place from her (and honestly, the name does my business far too many favours to change it). And no, I no longer sell the poisons that had made the place famous in the first place. I’d rather stick to my old-fashioned strong coffees – and a few other beverages that younger people seem to like. What keeps my shop up and running is the fact I offer better beverages for less than the local Starbucks. And that means the shop now draws the world’s cash strapped college students and young professionals to it, instead of just the poor souls burdened by the cares of the world. As for how I came to inherit the shop, I’d say it’s a good tale to listen to around a bonfire or two. 

The first time I came across the shop was when I was a daft little teen. And I do not say daft lightly. I had decided, at the ripe old age of fifteen, that dropping out of school would make a fine idea. I did not want to go home either. There was no knowing what my father would do to me if he found me in badly lit back alleys instead of school. There was never knowing what my father would do when drunk – and that was almost all the damned time. The thing was, he wasn’t half bad when sober. And he made the best brownies too. He was just too far gone to function for twenty three hours a day, and far too hung over for the rest. 

Leah found me that morning staring up at the sign above the shop. I must have made a fine sight too, with stars in my eyes and drool forming at the corners of my mouth. In my defence, I was starving – living off breadcrumbs for a whole week tends to do that to people. Oh, what I would’ve done for a biscuit and some coffee. Only, I had nothing to buy the stuff with, unless I’d borrow, beg or steal some off the first random stranger I came across. 

I was only snapped out of whatever trance I had been in when a thin, reedy voice next to me said, “Coffee?” I turned with a start, only to find a small, rather frail woman with burn scars over half her face and hands. And there she was, the legendary Leah of Leah’s Coffee. She was all the men in my neighbourhood ever talked about – a single woman who ran a coffee shop selling people their daily fix was always well lusted after, apparently.  There was something in her eyes that I could not fully place. It was the look of a wolf stalking its prey, and yet there was the look of deep loss hidden behind layers and layers of pure, unadulterated rage. I knew the look far too well for comfort – I saw it in my father every morning. Well, I’d bite the bullet and talk to her. 

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I squeaked at long last, “Ihavenomoney.”

“What was that, boy?” – the air seemed to split open at the question – “Speak more clearly will you?”

“ I have no money,” I tried again, speaking slower this time. 

“No money, eh?”  She shot back, her one remaining eyebrow raised, as if looking for something, “Ah – never mind that and get in here anyway.”

I did not have it in me to refuse her orders. The inside of the shop looked different from what its drab exteriors would suggest. Almost every inch of space was covered in bean bags, couches, armchairs and several kinds of poufs surrounding little coffee tables laden with menus, mugs of coffee and trays of cookies that looked like they would collapse from the weight of it all. Leah sat me down on the first empty bean bag she found, and quietly made off to the brewing station behind the wooden counter. 

It seemed like a few eternities before she came back with a mug of muddy brown liquid swimming in more of some translucent stuff I had never seen before, and plunked it down in front of me. With that, she pulled up another bean bag from seemingly nowhere and sat herself down upon it with a sharp look and said, “Trademark brew. Drink.” I drank. “You have a story,” she continued (how she knew that, I would rather not know), “Why don’t you tell me all about it, kid?” 

I told her everything – the bullying at school, my father at home, the neighbours, everything. It took me some time to get my story out, and Leah listened to it all without moving from her seat in front of me – or batting an eye for the matter. Sometimes, I wonder how she even ran her shop, for I often saw her sit down with a customer every so often, and listen to them talk for the next hour or so. But it got a noticeable weight off their shoulders, and I did not think much of it. And so, in the time it took me to wake up properly from whatever in the world I had just downed, I had landed a job at the coffee shop and a flat above it. On Leah’s insistence, I’d only need to pay rent starting next month, when I actually had some of my wages saved up. 

It took me a small while to acquaint myself with the only other employee in the store who wasn’t Leah. Well, Jen was more Leah’s daughter than an employee, who helped around the store for a few hours after school. But she made great company when she was around, and I’d be the last to complain about it. And I was lucky she had a good head for money, or I’d bankrupt the place in a week. With Jen’s help, I manned the counter, worked the machinery that brewed up the tamer coffees Leah offered, and how to carry several mugs and trays around all the bean bags and poufs without dropping anything. The one thing I wasn’t privy to, was the recipe to the stuff Leah had offered me on my first day here – or what she had called her ‘trademark brew’, and if it was any comfort, neither was Jen. But that did nothing to stop either of us from asking for some whenever we needed a break from the world – and before long, I had a good idea why people kept coming back for the stuff even though it tasted like what I assumed was dog sh-. 

I also learnt the shop had burned down once – but Jen couldn’t give me a lot of details, for she hadn’t been around yet when it had happened. And I sure as he- wasn’t going to up and ask Leah. Apparently, there had been a time when Leah had a business partner called Sophie, and if Jen had deduced right, Sophie had set fire to the machinery and run while Leah was working with them in a fit of jealousy. That was also probably how Leah got all those scars. Between us, I and Jen would probably have punched Sophie if she showed up at the store again, for in the time I had worked there, I had grown to care for the small woman with a reedy voice and scars down half her face. 

For all her intimidating manners and mugs of swamp water she called coffee, Leah wasn’t half bad to work for. I had decent wages, a flat all to myself, and a brilliant coworker. That alone was more than anyone my age could ask for. And watching Leah have a go at all the poor disrespectful customers who thought it was a good idea to yell at me or Jen was pure poetry. We pooled our groceries, prepped and ate almost all our meals together, and the women slept at my flat whenever we needed to keep the store open till the wee hours of morning (which was nearly every other day of the week). And God, this woman could ensure Jen and I ate well and slept seven hours a night – even if it meant she’d open the shop an hour later than usual. “You two are growing children,” she would say, though the said ‘growing children’ would love to respectfully disagree, “You will eat, and you will sleep, no questions.” And so, before I even knew it, I had spent my seventeenth birthday at the shop without any major event in the meantime. 

I never regretted leaving school in the eighteen months I had worked at the coffee shop. Well, the thought of what I should do next did bother me from time to time, and as Jen liked to say, I couldn’t live on my current wages forever. But if there was anything I absolutely loved doing, it was brewing coffee and baking cookies. And, as I later found out, I had inherited my dad’s knack for baking. I missed my dad too, though I hadn’t gone back to my old neighbourhood in a long time. I used to wonder if he missed me or had tried to find me after I disappeared from his house. But, knowing him, he was probably far too deep inside his bottles to even realize I was gone (if he was reminded of my existence when no one was around to buy him his next batch of booze, I’d never know). It wasn’t like my current neighbourhood was much better than the old place – as the occasional shouting and police cars wailing in and out of the back alley every so often liked to prove. And I sure had very little savings to speak of, but I actually liked it here. At least I had a family in these parts – and no one to fling a bottle at my head for ‘breathing too loud’ or other such nonsense. 

But, as they like saying, good things seem to pass at the most convenient of times. And so, I became the sole owner of ‘Leah’s Coffee’ at the ripe old age of seventeen and eleven months. The paperwork and legal formalities were a right pain up my a- (and no, sir, I do not need a legal adult to hold the properties for me, thank you – I know how to run a coffee shop too well for that). But that’s a story for another time. First, let me tell you how I came to own the place. 

About a month after my seventeenth birthday, I bounced down the stairs, through the door, and straight up to the brewing station to get me my morning fix before I opened the store. And there she was as soon as I turned around, steaming mug in hand – the apparition of a heavily pregnant lady in an expensive looking robe of sorts and sunglasses that must’ve cost her more than what I earned in three months. Here’s the thing: rich people don’t frequent these parts of town. They drown their sorrows in their fine wine and finer champagne. For one terrible moment, I thought I had just laid my eyes upon a fairy of sorts. 

And before I could stop gawking at her, I heard a “One trademark brew, please” in a delicate, singsong little voice. I gave the pregnant lady a short bow and shot back upstairs to find Leah. 

By the time we had made our way back downstairs, the pregnant lady was arguing with a man who seemed far older than she was and dressed in clothing that probably cost more than the building we were in. He looked like he’d spit thunder any moment from how agitated he was. Leah pulled me to a corner beyond the man’s line of sight and whispered. “Get upstairs and find Jen. Have her hurry back.” I nodded and made to leave. Leah had probably realized that the man would start yelling soon when she pushed me away roughly with a “Hurry brat, and don’t come back downstairs before noon.” 

I vacated the scene and went off to do as I was told. Sweet ole’ Jen had sniffed something off in the air too, for when I found her, she was rushing out the flat in her jammies, and her hair hurriedly pulled back into a messy ponytail, with none of her usual makeup adorning her face. She gave me a nod and ran down the stairs before I could get a word in. All I could do now was barricade myself in my flat and wait. 

It wasn’t long before Jen came rushing back into the flat, her face flushed bright scarlet with rage. In an uncharacteristic Jen fashion, she had smashed a flowerpot and thrown a slipper across the flat before she even got in through the door properly. I dodged, ran and ducked behind a sofa, with my heart pounding in my ears as Jen smashed through the trinkets Leah had given me for my birthday a month ago with all the sophisticated grace of a maddened elephant. It took me a long while before I could muster the courage to peep out of my hiding place and squeak, “What’s wrong, mate?” 

Jen gave me a smouldering look and grit out, “Leah’s ex. That’s what’s wrong.” 

“Leah’s ex?” 

“Of course, her bloody ex. Can you imagine the audacity -”

“Wait, you mean that angry dude downstairs?” 

“Which angry – oh wait. That dragon-born dumbass? He’s not Leah’s ex, his wife is.”

My head spun with the information. That woman was Leah’s ex? No wonder she was already sitting there when I came in. She probably still had a key to the place – either that or I had forgotten to lock the door last night. I absolutely needed to change all the locks in the building before something bad happened.
Jen’s voice cut through my thoughts again with a curse and a “Do you want to know who she is, kid?”

“Who she is? You mean -”

“That’s Sophie.”

“The business partner who lit the place up?” 

“That’s the traitor alright. She says her husband did it.” 

“Her husband? Why are they back here then?”

“The little bi- wants to apologize.” 

“Apologize?” I scoffed, “That’s convenient. I’d say they’re trying to buy the place.”

Jen nodded in agreement. “As if that’s gonna cure the scars on Leah’s face,” she added with a scowl, “I’ll go back downstairs to check on Leah. You stay put till I come back to get you. And don’t go wandering off on your own. You hear me, tough guy?”

“Yes boss!” 

With that, Jen left me alone in the flat as I sunk back into my own thoughts. So, this dude downstairs, or the dragon-born dumbass as Jen so kindly put it, had burnt the place down in a fit of whatever had taken him, and then married the owner’s ex while waiting for her to build her business back up from literal ash. Now that the business had finally taken wing, he wanted to buy it for his wife, the old creep. No wonder Leah came up with her trademark concoction – there are some people who need a good drowning in stuff viler than their gall. And for people with gall, they had no clue on perfect crimes – they could simply have bought the place and done with Leah as they pleased. Fools as they were, they had to be dramatic about it too. No wonder they waited so long to return – the only evidence left were Leah’s burn scars, and those could’ve come from anywhere. 

It took longer for the screaming to start than I had originally expected, and then came the smashing of plates and mugs, and the occasional ripping of what I assumed were the bean bags and couches. Till this day, I can’t even begin to guess what was said and done downstairs – and honestly, I’d rather not come across the information either. Leah and Sophie had far too many demons to sort out before that happened, and I’d rather not traumatize myself further. 

Before things could get worse in the shop, Jen had rushed back upstairs and leaped to the safety of the space between the sofa and the wall behind it, yelling, “Call the police, kid, run!” This was the first time I had seen Jen in such a state of panic – she was the calmest head in the store on most days. If she was this spooked, I had no hopes for the situation downstairs. And so, I ran for my phone. 

Over the next few weeks, several things came crashing down upon my head. First, Sophie’s husband had managed to murder Leah and injure his wife. Next, Leah’s will had been found, naming Jen and I the heirs to her coffee shop and the couple of properties she owned, including my flat. And finally, Jen left, wanting nothing more to do with this cursed shop. Honestly, I wanted to leave too. But that would mean I’d truly be alone in the world, with no high school diploma, no job or place to live, and no one to call my own. 

It took me the next ten or so months to get the shop and other properties transferred to my name and sort out the finances. On most days, I blessed good ole’ Jen in my thoughts for teaching me how to fill out a balance sheet and run a tight budget, for the number of people trying to scam me out of my newfound money was appalling, and apparently, Leah was rich enough to be of interest to that flock of vultures. And when I wasn’t running after paperwork or looking at pictures of fancy coffee, I drowned in the stash of leftover ‘Trademark Brew’ that I had found buried in the floorboards three months after Leah’s passing. Apparently, the stuff apparently grew better and stronger with time, for the worst of its effects were early oblivion and a solid hangover later. As for Sophie and her husband, one was caught in the act and the other was charged as an accomplice – and honestly, I had no pity left for the likes of them. I’d rather spend my time rebuilding Leah’s coffee shop. 

In all the mess, I often wondered who I was fooling. In the month following my discovery of Leah’s ‘Trademark Brew’ in the floorboards, I had drained more of it than I could’ve sold at the shop for a year. If Jen had been around, she’d have smacked the upside of my head for it, and Leah would probably have chased me off for turning into dad. In the end, they were the only family I had left, and I missed them more than I had ever thought I would. 

It took me another year to finally sober up from all the ‘Trademark Brew’ I had been drinking – and that was partly from a lack of the vile stuff, for I had emptied the entire stash in a month and a half. That didn’t stop me from craving more of it, though – and I’d try anything to keep the constant nausea and headaches off of me. That was until someone found me passed out on the floor of the shop and called emergency services. 

By the time I got out of rehab, I was in charge of a shop and two flats in a poorly lit back alley, and that was five decades ago. In the meantime, I have brewed coffee, baked cookies, invented more of the good stuff and sold them at my shop – though none of it has ever been able to compare with Leah’s old ‘Trademark Brew’. I have also bought several shops around town – making me the owner of a citywide coffee shop franchise called ‘Leah’s Coffee.’ 

And that, reader, brings me to the end of my tale. It’s a strange tale, but it’s mine, and that’s exactly how I like it. If you’d like to find me, I’ll be at the old coffee shop back in the nameless back alley that gets no sunlight on the best of days. 

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5 thoughts on “The Coffee Shop

    1. Tbh, I didn’t see Leah’s tragic demise coming either (I was planning on a heartwarming reunion or something – with Jen and the narrator cheering them, but then Sophie’s spouse didn’t turn out the type to leave a profit making mechanism alone – even if it was the dumbest Idea in the world).

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