The café was a safe space. The gentle clink of cups and saucers, the murmur of people talking. There was always a group of older ladies playing mahjong in the big table in the corner. It was bright, regardless of the weather. The cold January light streamed in through the large windows.
As usual, Julie took a seat and hauled out her laptop and a stack of books on art theory. The vast campus library made her feel small and crushed, but she could breathe properly in the café. Mrs. Yuen brought her large mugs of drip coffee and day-old pastries on lovely china plates. She paid by hand-lettering their chalkboard menu.
Today, the smells of freshly ground coffee and warm cookies were accompanied by something sweet and floral. A jug of pussy willows and Chinese witch hazel adorned the centre table. Julie closed her books and allowed herself to spend several long minutes breathing in the scent, the closest she’d been to a garden in months.
Then a curious thing happened. The glass in the windows shattered, and cascaded in a tinkling to the floor. The delicate folds of the lantern fell in tatters. The string of lights flickered and went out. And then it was very, very quiet. All of the people in the café seemed to have frozen as they were — not frightened, or surprised, but perhaps about to take another sip of tea. Julie looked around at them, startled, almost guilty, but none of them seemed to notice.
A faint chill began to seep around the edges of the room, but very slowly. A breeze lifted some crumbs off one of the tables, and ruffled the flowers in their vase. Julie stood still, listening for sounds that would indicate some disaster or threat, but all she could hear was her own ragged breathing.
Should she leave? She couldn’t see any immediate sources of danger. She took a tentative step towards the windows and peered out, jumping at the noise of the glass crunching under her shoes. Everything was quiet; it was an ordinary winter day — but very still.
If there was some kind of attack or apocalypse going on, she would be safer indoors, she reasoned, where there was some shelter and a supply of food. And if there was some normal explanation for this, she would still have to submit her thesis.
She took one more glance around and sat back down in her chair, opened a reference book, and took out her sticky notes. As began to take notes, she heard a quiet rushing, and the glass flew back into the panes. The lights flickered to life, and the sounds of the café began again, like a volume knob being turned back up on a stereo. Heart thumping, Julie blinked her eyes several times and looked around. The click of mahjong tiles and the urgent squeal of the steamer in the kitchen seemed to indicate that everything had returned to normalcy. She began to sweat. Had it all happened inside her head? But the lantern was still damaged.
When the café closed, she packed up her books and decided to walk home instead of taking the bus. A light rain began to fall in the darkness, dampening the grey sidewalks. But the smell of blossoms lingered in the air.