Chocolate, Love, and Wishes

The houses piled on the hills, all perched among the trees in red-and-white blocks. They nestled among the furry cascade of trees until they lost themselves in the forest, and the mountain rose above them dark and green. Emma sipped her lemonade without tasting it, feeling the sting of the lemon on her tongue from far away. She stared at the colors of the mountain where they faded in a wash of fog.

“You’re tired? Coffee, very good.” Emma jerked to attention at the sound of the waiter’s voice. It was deep and warm, marked with an accent. He grinned at her, his teeth white against a short beard. She smiled faintly back before her mouth dragged down again.

“No,” she said. “Thanks. I’m just distracted.”

“Ah,” he said. “Then no coffee for you. We don’t give coffee to distracted Americans, is a very bad habit.” Emma glanced up at him, her mouth falling open, but he was still grinning at her. Reluctantly, she let her lips curve into another smile, more genuine this time.

“Too distracted for dessert?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Oh, no, I couldn’t. Dinner was so good – ” She gestured helplessly at the pile of food left on her plate. “I’m stuffed. I can never eat a whole dessert by myself anyway.”

The waiter looked around the cafe, his eyes searching the people littered around tables and the half-empty bottles of wine. “I do not know this word stuffed. But I have plan for you. What kind of dessert you like?”

She craned her neck around to look at the chalkboard, tempted. There were desserts scribbled onto the bottom. She said, “I guess there’s chocolate mousse, I love chocolate. But it’s so rich, I really could never eat the whole thing.”

“I will be back. One moment!” the waiter announced. He disappeared with her plate, leaving her to wish she had eaten more of the carrots. She waited, leaning on the table. Her eyes wandered over the mountain, climbing up past the clusters of houses into the depths of forest above. Close up, she thought, it was probably all twigs and leaves brushing your face and funny smells. From far away, though, it looked like a deep mysterious forest. It looked like the trees would rise up around you and reach into the sky, and the shadows would stretch long and black. It was the kind of forest you could get lost in and stumble upon a witch’s cottage.

“Here.” The waiter’s low voice pushed into her thoughts, and she turned back to the table. He was pushing a goblet in front of her, full to the brim with chocolate mouse and topped with a tuft of whipped cream. She opened her mouth to protest, and he held up a hand. “No, wait. Here is my plans.” He stretched out a hand toward her, and the spoon between his fingers became two, splayed apart. He flipped one onto the table in front of her, and then sank into the empty chair.

Emma paused. She thought about germs, and strange men, and accepting food from people she didn’t know. Then she laughed at herself a little bit and took a scoop of mousse. It was smooth and intense, and melted into cream in her mouth. She closed her eyes to taste it better, and thought the waiter must be watching her. She wondered if he would think she was silly or cute. When she opened her eyes though, he was scooping his own spoonful of mousse out of the glass. She watched him close his eyes and let it melt in his mouth.

They finished the whole goblet between the two of them. The waiter stole the last bite, flashing his mischievous grin at Emma. She smiled back now. Then he got up and left, without a word. She wondered, suddenly upset, and then he returned. He laid a slip of white paper before her and walked away again. Emma leaned to see it, curious, and realized with a flush that it was the bill.

She dug out her wallet, tucked a few bills under her half-finished lemonade, and stood to leave. There over her shoulder was the waiter again, and he smiled at her as she gathered her things. She smiled back, and then she began to walk away. She heard his “goodbye” from behind her, and she wished she weren’t leaving. She wished she could stay where the whole world was beautiful, and learn the waiter’s name, and maybe have more desserts. She kept walking, back to her empty hotel room and her messy suitcase, with the taste of chocolate lingering on her tongue.

In the Magic Place

Joe was staring, his mouth hanging open, his heart beating a rhythm of staccato awe. The woman in front of him was juggling colors. She flung one hand up, the fingers outstretched toward the sky, and a spinning clump of blue whirled in a neat round arc. The red sank into her other hand, which clasped it comfortably, and the yellow and purple flew in between. That all happened in the space of a second, and then she did it again. Her hands, moving up and down, framed a spinning circle of color that smeared pink and green and turquoise between the pieces of color she was throwing and catching.

Arielle tugged on Joe’s hand, and he started. “Come on,” she said, “We don’t have that much time left here, and before I bring you home I want to show you some other stuff.” She was pulling him toward the corner of the block. There was a living statue there. A man was standing next to it, motionless until Arielle plucked a coin from Joe’s shirt pocket and tossed it to him. Then his hand snapped up to catch the coin and he twirled, bowing to them and touching a gentle hand to the lump of silver towering over him. It was softly rounded and droopy, like a piece of metal that was interrupted halfway through melting.

When he touched it, though, it began to come to life. The shapes gathered themselves and their edges shrank into being, lines carving themselves on its surface. Suddenly the lump of silver had lengthened and was a gleaming tiger, tail flicking and head swinging from side to side to watch them with cold metal eyes. The man clicked a finger against it again, and it began to shift once more. It drew itself up and then folded, and then it was a rather old man, shining wrinkles wobbling on his chin and a dapper cap drawn low over his head. He was sitting and reading a silver newspaper on a bench that wasn’t there. One more tap, and the man melted to re-form as a statue, a lovely young woman with blank eyes and perfect proportions, her mouth a round O and her hands clutching a silver sheet around her. Joe and Arielle looked at the statue in its lovely still splendor for a moment, and then the statue smoothed and dropped into nothingness again. They thanked the man, who gave an almost imperceptible nod from his resumed position next to his magic treasure.

There was a candy stall on the next block, just across the street. Joe began to walk toward it, but Arielle caught him by the shoulder. He protested, “No, wait, I just want – ” She shook her head at him, and pulled the other way. He craned his neck to look as he stepped toward her. The second person had just bought a candy and popped it into his mouth. After a moment, he began to float – at first, just a few inches about the sidewalk, but he circled higher and higher until he was several heights above everyone in the street, at the same level as the first floater-eater. The table was piled high with jars and boxes  – Joe read “Fireballs – very hot!” and “Jawbreakers CAUTION” on one corner, while “Rescue Candy” and “Bubbly gum” were stacked on the other. He said, “Listen, Arielle, can’t we just – ”

“No,” she interrupted him. “We can’t. I’m sorry, but I have another tour coming up, and you know you can’t do magics here, not even borrowed or bought-for-a-quarter.”

Joe slumped and followed her, forlorn. The tours were expensive, and he couldn’t afford another for a while. “Chin up,” said Arielle, smiling at him. “We had to get you back to the real world eventually, after all.”

A Kid on the Plane

Tom liked airplanes. He liked the dry taste of the air and the faint ding as the lights went on or the seatbelt sign blinked away. Most of all he liked the television fixed in the seat back in front of him, and the channels waiting for him to scroll through them. “Friends” was on, and he smiled faintly when the laughter scrolled over the characters’ voices.

After several minutes, he tapped on the seat in front of him. “Mom,” he said, “can I use your iPad?” The tablet was duly handed back and he set about playing on it, clicking buttons until cartoon characters shifted and moved. There was a grown-up lady in the seat next to him, and he showed her his cartoon. She smiled, clearly not all that interested, so he showed her another one.

The flight all the way to New York was a long one. Tom watched six more episodes of “Friends” and then two of a sitcom he didn’t know. Then he played with the iPad again. The lady next to him asked if he’d ever read a book called – oh, he’d forgotten the title. He told her he didn’t read much.

When the plane landed and everyone got off, Tom shuffled down the aisle and out along with his mother. She hefted his backpack onto her shoulder and they walked toward the baggage claim. The lady who sat next to him was going in the other direction. She waved at him, but he didn’t see her.