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art by Ron Sanders

Surprise Me

Andrew is a freelance writer based in Stockport, England, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. When not writing he battles the slugs threatening to overrun his garden and the monsters lurking in the woods. He's had over forty stories published in places such as Wily Writers, Redstone SF and Ann VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthologies. You can find out more about his writing at andrewknighton.wordpress.com.

Yan patted down the coffee and slotted it into the machine. He put his hand on the emotional filter plate and tried to think gentle thoughts through the hiss of steam. The customer had asked for soothing, normally one of Yan's specialties, but it was hard to keep calm with the air conditioning broken and the orders rushing in.
He wrinkled his face as sweat beaded at the tip of his nose.
"Don't worry, she'll be here soon enough." Bobbi nudged him aside, mug in one hand, hazelnut syrup in the other.
"Don't know what you mean." Yan tried to keep his heart steady, to keep with the calm.
"Course you do." Bobbi winked. "It's half past one. Nearly time for Surprise Me."
Big eyes and blonde hair flashed across Yan's mind, and excitement filled the last dribble of coffee. He stared down at the cup, knowing he should remake it, but the customers were getting restless. What a day for Maurice to take off.
He turned around with a smile.
"Here you go, sir."
The customer had a programmer's pale complexion. He'd never notice a little excitement.
"Are you being served?" he asked the woman in red lipstick.
"Espresso," she said. "Bitter. Black."
"Of course." Yan turned back to the machine and thought of a science teacher who'd kept marking him down. Bitter was no problem.
"Would you like any muffins or pastries with that?" He turned to glance back at the woman, but his attention was drawn away. There she was in all her glory, smiling contentedly at the back of the queue. The woman whose order was always "surprise me".
He looked down at the fresh espresso. Just by the smell he knew it was sweet. He poured it away and started another.
"Is there a problem?" lipstick woman asked.
"Not at all." Yan forced a smile.
Down the counter another customer was complaining.
"I asked for vanilla and joy," he snarled, "not hazelnut and barely coping."
"I'm sorry," Bobbi said as the queue stretched out of the door. "Just give me a moment. It's hard to concentrate in this heat."
"Then fix your air con." The man glared at Bobbi, and Yan could see that familiar, dangerous spark in her eyes as she replied.
"I'll fix your bloody-"
"Drink," Yan interjected, shoving her aside. "Just give me a moment."
Down the line, Surprise Me was watching them, head tilted cutely to one side. Was she tapping her foot to the music, or was it impatience?
Yan grabbed a jug of iced water. He thought of exam days, Christmas mornings and the front row of that Pearl Jam concert. All the times when he'd felt most alert and attentive. It was harder to focus emotions without a machine, but he'd had thousands of cups of practice. The jug shimmered with alertness.
He poured two glasses, passed one to Bobbi.
"Oy!" the angry customer snapped. "What about me?"
"And me," yelled another.
"And me!"
Somewhere near the back, Surprise Me was glancing at her watch. Yan blinked in alarm. She couldn't go. He was going to talk to her today. Properly talk to her. Ask for her name, maybe even her number. He'd been saving up courage for months and drunk it all in his breakfast smoothie. Today of all days, things had to go well.
Yan downed his water, nudged Bobbi to do the same. His nerves tingled, his brain buzzed, his fingers snapped into action.
"Here we go," he said.
He poured joy into the angry man's drink, along with vanilla syrup and a slug of contentment.
"If you don't like it, it's on the house." He slid the cup across the counter.
The man took a sip and his frown vanished.
"Who wouldn't like that?" he said, emptying his change into the tip jar.
Full of focus, they set to tackling the queue. Cups clattered, steam hissed, beans roared in the grinder. Yan poured out amused and jolly and relaxed. He did cynical for managers with meetings to attend, and confident for a woman on the way to an interview.
At last the queue died down. He wiped off the sweat and turned to his last customer.
"Hi," he managed.
"Hello," Surprise Me said.
Yan looked at her and his heart fell. He'd been planning this moment for so long. He'd ask what she wanted, and she'd say, "surprise me," just like always. He'd make her the most perfect cappuccino, laced through with tenderness and the thrill of young love, topped with chocolate sprinkles in the shape of her smile. Then he'd ask her if she was free this weekend, and if she wanted to go to a gig.
But he'd used up his courage, along with his excitement and joy. He was spent, every ounce of emotion gone into the cups. She would ask him to surprise her, and he wouldn't even be able to pick a drink.
"You look exhausted," she said, compassion in those big eyes. "I'll just have a black coffee."
Yan nodded, turned to the machine. When he turned back round with the cup, shoulders slumped, she was sliding a loyalty card across the counter.
"Thank you," she said. "The full card means it's free, right?"
He nodded, picked it up between numb fingers. He was going to put it in the till when he noticed the writing on the back.
"My name is Daisy," it said, and beneath that a phone number.
He looked up, and a feeling came back.
The tables were littered with dirty cups. The air conditioning still wasn't working. Yan was soaked with sweat and worked off his feet. But that afternoon's specialty was happiness.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Author Comments

Emotions are the place where our everyday lives can feel touched by magic. They therefore seemed like the natural way to introduce magic into Yan's life. And of course it was love, the most magical of emotions, that would drive him. The characters and the story naturally flowed from that, from thinking about what sort of person would be willing to share their emotions with strangers, and what sort of people would go looking for that.

Most of us have had jobs like Yan's at some point in our lives--the ones where the only excitement is the excitement we make, where people demand much of us for little in return, where even a small smile can brighten up the day. This story is for the people doing those jobs, who the rest of us rely on even if we seldom say it. Thank you very much.

- Andrew Knighton
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