2020 is the year of the Novella. If in 2019 I challenged myself to write 10 Short Stories; this new one, just starting, will bring – as a side project to The Whispers of the Graces – a novella, called Take Back Friday, which will be delivered regularly in your email and/or here on the website, for those who are not subscribed (yet) to the news.
A few words about this year’s challenge:
As last year I delved in essay writing and short stories, this year’s writing challenge will be to write a novella. I planned Take Back Friday as a puzzle, delivered in installments, one each month on the 15th.
It will appear here on the site, or in your email, if you subscribe, together with other lovely gifts. You can also join our Monthly Blurb!
Hope you will enjoy it and keep looking for it on the 15th of each month!
Take Back Friday, a Novella
Piece of the puzzle 1: Her
Questioning her sanity was one thing, but completely doubting it was another.
Thea unbuttons her coat and hands it to the young woman, taking a number in return. Stuffs the scarf in her bag and shivers when the café door open to let another batch of customers in.
The café – Mark’s Fourth Cup – is on a corner of an old street surrounded by independent, quaint shops, offering to the tired traveller a true oasis for the mind and soul. His coffee is exquisite, Marie’s baking – legendary, and their assortments of books in the back rooms – worth, alone, a visit.
Thea feels at home there. And she missed it terribly in the past year.
Zigzagging through the hordes of customers or just loiters taking cover from the storm, Thea makes her way back to the so-called “concert hall”. She knows she shouldn’t have come, but it is her only day in New York and she could have not passed the opportunity to say hello to her friends.
A poster is just put on display, announcing that evening’s Open-Mic event, and her heart skips a beat, making her wish she were somewhere else entirely. Especially that day.
“Loooove, you’re here!!”
A loud cheer erupts the moment she opens the doors, letting herself in, in the dim-lit room that passed for a “hall”. Comfy chairs and big couches were spread all around, pillows on the carpets and stained-coloured lamps were hanging from the ceiling. Pots of plants, artistically arranged everywhere, make Thea smile. Marie was good at many things, including baking, but her one true love – not including Mark there – were plants. As if summoned, Marie comes from the back room, wearing a “Plant Lady at work” apron and balancing two fern pots, so big and heavy, her eyebrows wiggle in concentration.
Up, on a ladder, changing a lightbulb, Mark – the owner of the earlier cheer, is eyeing her carefully.
“Need help, M.?”
“Um, nope. I’m all – Thea?? Thea, love, is that you? Oh my sweet Lord, Mark, look at her! Look at our sweet baby!! Mark, get down from there!”
Marie puts the plants on a table, without any ceremony and jumps Thea, entrapping her in her arms, jumping around, making Thea giggle and Mark laugh out loud.
“Baby? This ain’t no baby, my love…” says Mark getting down and hugging them both. “She is a best-selling author, whose works have been published in 40 plus languages, currently negotiating her series to become a TV show, and already writing her second best-selling series. Am I right? Tell me I am right!” he smiles at Thea, who nods, bowing her head.
“Oh, nothing of that humility of yours!” says Marie. “You have accomplished all that you have set up to and in half the time you planned for it. You, my friend, should be proud!”
“We are,” laughs Mark.
Hearing Thea making a non-committal noise, Marie says:
“Yes, we are. And we are so seriously proud, we will name our daughter after you. When that time will come,” she laughs, seeing her friend’s glance.
“You ladies sit down, I’ll go for coffee and croissants; and a towel for you, Missy, and then we’ll catch up. We have some time, so make yourselves comfortable. Oh, and please do not start without me!”
Just the thought of coffee makes Thea smile and blesses his idea. They sit on a couch, in the stage’s vicinity, under a canopy of ferns, ivy and wildflowers dangling from the shelves, holding hands and looking at one another, trying to see the differences an entire year can draw on people’s faces.
“Love what you did with the place,” says Thea, hugging her friend again. “I might use it again as a set for my next works…”
Marie laughs and hugs her back.
“Yes, do that, please! We had an influx of customers just based on your book release and his…”
Marie stops and looks at her.
Thea sees her friend’s face getting red, and she feels sorry for causing this distress to her. Even if they did not know what had happened the year before, they were so supportive, her heart is aching due to this unconditional love.
“I am happy to hear you’re getting business out of all that mess. Anyhow, tell me, what inspired this redecoration? Not that I miss the old furniture, to be honest…”
Marie smiles and looks around, her eyes filled with love.
“Well, you know I took your advice and made something out of my passion for plants and interior design. We’re getting more and more requests to do it, so Mark will have to take another person to help him here at the café, as I am my own woman with my own business.”
“Marie, that is great! I am so happy for you two!”
“How can you be happy,” asks Mark, coming with a tray filled with goodies, “she will leave me all alone and she will have more money than I do, so she will just buy that Hollywood mansion and move out!”
Marie giggles and elbows him, while Thea looks at them, trying to ignore how their love hurts her.
“I will never leave you, even when I become a multi-millionaire, darling!” Marie assures him.
Mark pours coffee in the cups, offers them to the ladies, and then starts to brag about his wife’s success, pride written all over his face.
On the comfy couch, surrounded by her friends’ palpable love, seeing their adoring faces, Thea starts to relax a bit. They wave all her worries away with each moment passing and she chastises herself for not coming back sooner. The coffee is strong and hot, and the splash of homemade oats milk – Mark’s signature – adds creaminess to it, making it almost silky. The croissants smell delicious, and she has two, before she is full, both in heart and body.
“This place is magical,” she whispers.
Mark nods, eyeing Marie talking to one of their helpers.
“And tonight is an Open-mic night?”
Mark nods again.
“Yeah, it was long due, to be honest. I kept receiving angry emails from people, both artists and customers, asking when the next one will be… so, here it is. Today of all days! Hope that is no inconvenience and you will stay.”
It is Thea’s turn to nod.
“I would not miss it.”
“We must move upstairs,” Marie says, returning to them, “they want to set-up the stage, so… there will be noise.”
“Awesome, I will check on my treats for tonight and you can use my office, I know you are itching to check your email…”
Thea laughs, feeling guilty. Her phone had incessantly beeping until she put it on silent.
“You go up, I’ll go also put the last plants and I’ll come to you shortly. Tonight will be great, I know it!”
Thea goes up, giggling when the stairs squeak, remembering the times she would sneak up to write when her inspiration hit and needed a safe space. And Mark’s café had been a safe space for all those years when she was an aspiring author. To her surprise, the upstairs did not change at all. Same old doors, same floors, even the same plants, a bit bigger than the year before. Mark’s office is lit only by a lamp, the same one, with a corner chipped, but turning the small room into an enchanted and magical place. Thea takes the office in, the smell of old leather, books, and coffee is there, engraved in her soul, and she has missed it. She has missed it terribly. During her self-imposed exile, she used to dream of being back in NY, and this was one of her places. Where she dreamed, where she hoped, where she planned and loved. Where she lost it all.
Sipping her coffee, Thea leans on the window. The lights are just lighting up in Central Park, and her heart sinks even more. The phone rings again, and Elaine’s number pops up on the screen. Probably asking for the pages she promised last week. Thea growls and turns the phone off, tossing it in the bag, unable to face the wrath of her Raphaelite-looking editor.
“Not today, Elaine, dear, please. Give me today.”
The door opens and Mark appears in its frame, a sheepish grin on his face.
“What d’you do?”
As her friend stiffs a giggle, Thea sighs. Mark and his ideas would be the death of her, one fine day.
“So, don’t be mad, okay? Remember, you love me. And remember you love Marie more…”
“Fine. I’ll do it.”
“You’ll do it? You don’t even know what I’m asking of you…”
“Yeah, I remember I love you, you twat! So, say it. What did that wicked mind of yours plan this time?”
Mark’s face lights up, and he drags her to the couch, laughing.
“So, remember when you promised you’ll do a reading here when published?”
“Aha,” says Thea, starting to see where he is getting to.
“Well, now, you’re published. You had readings all over the world, but never here. So, today is the day.”
Thea shakes her head. She is not prepared. She does not have the book with her, the one she used for all her reading, the first one printed, her good-luck charm. But most of all, she does not want to remember that promise. Her only broken promise. If she would not count…
“Come on, I’m losing hard right now!”
“What do you mean you’re losing hard, the downstairs looked packed! Oh, no… Mark, you didn’t!”
Her friend bursts into laughter and nods.
“Yep. I had Marie bet her anything on that I won’t convince you to do it.”
“Oh, an anything… well, that changes things.” Thea laughs. The anything in their bets could mean literally anything, and owing one to somebody, meant you never knew when it will come down and what will bring with. She remembers late-night snacks, baked while on a TC with editors; she remembers wearing a suit, a tie, and a hat, to pick Mark up at the airport; she remembers Marie only wearing short skirts for a whole month, and Mark shaving his chest while growing a moustache. Oh, the good old days… The laughs and the mischief… “Okay, I’ll do it!”
“Awesome,” he snickers. “I took the liberty to advertise it on Twitter before coming up. As a safety measure, in case the anything did not work.”
She lightly punches him in the arm and he hugs her. It is good to be able to laugh with her friends. Almost feels like home again.
“How much time do I have to prepare? And I suppose you stock my books, right? I do not have it with me…”
Mark nods and pulls out a copy, the one she sent them with a handwritten dedication. The third out of print.
“You have an hour to prepare, right before it starts. Well, consider this your own Open-mic.”
She smiles and takes the book. Mark leaves her, and she stays there, looking at the hard-covered edition, silky pages and full-colour inserts, her deluxe version, the only one that way, prepared for her friends; where she did not know how big the thing will be in only half a year, and how many reprints will be required or in how many languages. She opens the book to her favourite chapter, one that welcomed the reader into the magical world she created, without giving away any of the plots. She loves that scene in particular, and she had read it everywhere they asked her to, almost as a particularity of her readings, even after the other volumes came out.
“Oh, you….” Marie barges in carrying a ficus in her arms, all flustered and belligerent. “Your betrayal hurts!”
“Of course it does,” Thea laughs. “I remember how bad yours hurt. Do you?”
Marie bits her lips as if not to laugh and puts the plant on Mark’s desk.
“Yeah, I do. Well, they do say revenge is better served cold, so I guess after an entire year, this is freezing.”
Thea smiles as Marie sits down next to her. They both stay quiet for a moment before Marie says:
“You will read that scene, right? Ooh, how I love the atmosphere it conjures. You’re like magic!”
“Look who’s talking,” Thea says. “You, Miss Green Thumbs, are literally magical. It’s like woodland fairy blood runs through your veins. And don’t say I am not right.”
Marie raises her shoulders. Maybe she is a bit magical herself.
“So, when you’re ready, come downstairs. There might be a bit of a crowd, Mark has advertised it like crazy. I guess, he dreamt of this day for a long time now..”
Marie turns on her heels fast.
“For all that – this mess…”
Thea sighs and covers her face with her hands. For a moment it felt good to be back. Now she isn’t so sure.
“You have nothing to be sorry for. Listen to me, Thea… I mean it. Life happens even to the best of us. And that was an impossible choice. Quite a predicament, as Mark would put it. And sometimes we have to choose what is right for us.”
“Yes, but to that extent? All be damned?”
To her surprise, the peaceful and mellow Marie, nods with fury.
“When it comes to dreams, yes. You made the right choice. Look at where you are right now. If you would have stayed… you would be now a bitter old lady – yes, you are older than me with three months, so yeah, old… And the world would miss your magic. I would. Mark would, we all would!”
“Don’t sweat too much about the past, dear. It is meant to stay there. Learn from it all and move further. There is much more to life than to spend your days weighing on the what-ifs.”
“You’re a smart one, you know that, right?”
“Yeah, yeah… and still got played by you and that… buffoon downstairs.”
Marie leaves her laughing out loud, her spirits restored a bit. Her dreams mattered to her friends, and she is beyond grateful she has them in her life. And, in twenty minutes, she will make do on a promise of ancient times, even if only partial. And that is a gift to Mark and Marie, but also a gift for herself. Her dream involved giving a reading in that café.
She gathers her bearings and goes downstairs. Marie was not wrong, the entire café is packed, the “concert hall” unable to accommodate all the people. She smiles and waves at some, as she makes her way to the corner where her friends are.
“No room left for a needle. Hope you don’t have stage-fright.”
“Mark, that is the most insensitive thing to say,” Marie chastises him, while coming to greet her. “Wow, sure to put a foot in your mouth…”
“Well deserved,” Mark laughs. “She almost cost me that anything. Better start preparing, woman! It will be epic!”
Thea cannot help but smile. She missed them, their bickering, their challenges, their support, and the love that exuded through all their pores. If things would have been different, she would love to spend some time there, resting, clearing her head, putting the past where it belonged, before flying back home, to London.
The room starts to vibrate; they are impatient. Thea knows this feeling, she revells in it. She knows if she plays her cards well, they will subdue to her words, bend under them and get transposed into the magical realm of the Ancient Order. Her fantasy novel was meant to be published for young adults, but the older market was who responded better to the book. The market pols did not lie, and she is , to the day, still astonished.
“Hello, everybody, and thank you for coming on such short notice! I would love to welcome you all to tonight’s treat, the cherry on top of our Open-mic night, the reading we’ve all been waiting for…” Mark starts and the room erupts into cheers and applause, making Thea shiver with excitement. “With no further ado, I give you Miss Thea Hazel Marlow, author of – ”
“The Ancient Order!” yells a guy from the second row, clenching a book to his chest, as the whole room erupts in cheers once more.
“Yes, buddy,” laughs Mark. “The Ancient Order. So here it is, the treat of treats, with compliments from Mark’s Fourth Cup at the beginning of the New Year!”
Thea smiles and waves at them, trying to find her breath. It has been a long time since she last did this and every time she had time to prepare. Going in blind is not her idea of fun, and she hopes it does not show. She knows her emotions are written in caps all over her face, which is what got her into the whole mess those years ago. Swatting at the dark cloud looming over her head, she takes a deep, centring breath and opens her book. The room goes quiet. So quiet, Thea can hear her heartbeat in the ears and the pulse rushing under the skin. Her mouth feels dry and her cheeks are red for sure. She feels dizzy and her knuckles are bone white from that grabbing at the book. Maybe that is karma paying her back for all those times.
Marie shifts in the front row, distracting her, and she snaps out of her stupor. Smiling, she closes her eyes, gathering her courage, then, without another look in the room, starts reading. Soon, the magical world of Charlotte takes over her, and the heroine lives once again though her.
The applause last longer than before; the people gather around her, asking for autographs, for pictures, each telling a story, each sharing a feeling until Thea feels at peace and happier than ever. Mark and Marie are smiling, their faces lit up, holding hands nearby, and she waves at them.
As soon as the people settled down, the time for the Open-mic comes and they find themselves on a couch, sipping rum cocktails and laughing loud. The night is a success, and they are celebrating.
The first three bands are so good, the hall is filled, and the other rooms as well, even a long line is going outside, all around the block. Mark’s night is a success indeed.
During a break, Thea comes back to the room after helping Marie stack another pile of her books on display, carrying a bunch of them to the “concert hall”. She carefully avoids the leg of a tall guy who smiles at her, and turning fast to get away from him, she bumps into another, dropping the books on the ground with a thud. Giggling, she apologises and drops to her knees to collect them before they are trampled by the crowds.
The man in the collision gets to his knees as well and starts piling the books. When she lifts her head, she swears hard. Her breath gets raspy and her heart starts beating fast. She has the satisfaction to see his jaw clench and his shoulder become rigid when he realises who she is. Inside, she is exhilarated to see she still has an effect on him. The great Hayden Acker Hastings. The great as in the great bane of her existence.
They both get up at the same time, both with arms filled with books. He drops his load into her arms, his eyes hypnotising her, and she feels the need to say everything that is crossing her mind, seeing that ironic smile flourishing on his face.
Mark comes out of thin air at her side, and Hayden, taking another look at her, disappears in the crowd. Mark takes her by the elbow, manoeuvring her to the couch, not before taking the books from her hands and putting them, unceremoniously, on an empty chair.
“I’m sorry, kid! I had no freaking idea! I swear to you on whatever holy I have in this world. My message must have gotten to him as well. I am sorry.”
Thea smiles, a reassuring smile she has perfected ever since, and sits down next to Marie.
“What happens… ooh, no, he wouldn’t!”
Both Thea and Mark watch astonished as Hayden gets up on stage, the people exploding the moment they see him.
“Happy New Year, friends!!”
“Happy New Year, Hayden!!” the room shouts back.
Thea feels the surge of electricity sparkling around the room, and her heart stops beating. She needs to get out of there, but the room is compact, both exits blocked, and people keep coming in from all directions. She is trapped in the last place she ever wanted to be. In a room with him.
“Mark, get on that stage and ask him to leave at once!” Marie demands, more out of loyalty to Thea than anything else. She is as certain as them both that would be an impossible task. Hayden is there, the band is setting up the equipment, and they are all in the lowest level of hell imaginable. “How did we not see this?”
Mark raises his shoulders and stays gape-mouthed next to them.
“Come on, friend, we need you!” Hayden says from the stage and Mark, dumbfounded, goes up in the room’s applause. “Good, good, now that we’re all here,” Hayden says, as the room grew even louder, “under the same roof, as many, many moons ago, how about we sing a bit for you? Would you like that?”
If Thea thought the room was loud before, at this point there is a storm brewing. All set in motion by Mister Hurricane himself, the legendary soloist, pianist and guitarist of the Multi-platinum, Grammy-awarded band, called Take Back Friday. Their first album had been an overnight success, turning them all into legends, topping all their individual success by a dozen. Not that they were unsuccessful before the band. Just that after, they have been unstoppable.
“Okay, okay, we wanted to surprise you for a while now, and tonight is the night for all of us to celebrate Take Back Friday’s first album drop, three years ago, and all the wonderful things that came from that night. Many, many things have happened since, and we’d like to celebrate them all with you!”
Thea’s teeth are grinding, her eyes fixed on him. Why is it that everything he said had two meanings, and he meant the bad ones only for her? Marie is crushing her hand. She feels the blood stop flowing. She tries to breathe, only to find the claw in her chest squeezing harder than Marie. Lightheaded, she hears Hayden introducing his band members, thanking Mark for organising such an amazing event, and she wonders if he means her reading or something else, but then he takes his guitar and her mind stops thinking. Hayden closes his eyes, and she feels a surge of emotion going around the room, silencing it to the point where she can hear her heartbeat again.
The first chords bring her back years ago, in the same room, and she hears Marie gasp next to her.
He plays New York is a State of Mind, and Thea swallows hard, biting her lip, trying not to sing along with the crowd. By the time Hayden comes to the chorus, the room is loud enough that she cannot hear him anymore. Mark is glancing at them from his place at the drums, but Thea cannot look away from Hayden.
“So, how did you like that?” Hayden asks a room of claps and stomps that makes the old building shiver. “Good, good! We will play you something more mellow now, from our second album and, please, sing along. Do not be shy, I know you know the lyrics!”
Flight of the Dreamer comes along, and his voice is pure silk. Accompanied only by his guitar, Hayden is on a roll. To her dismay, so is Marie. Mark was already under the spell of the music, and Marie is following him. She loses her last ally the moment Hayden plays Marie’s favourite. This Love is Deep but it’s Hot, the song Mark wrote when he proposed, and the one they danced at their wedding.
After a couple more songs from their oldest album, Hayden asks for a break. To her disbelief, Thea sees him coming to their table, Mark on his heels.
Thea feels worse than ever. She knows she cost them their friendship; she is more heartbroken for that than for her own loss. That was the reason she stayed away all that time, hoping that her exile would make things easier for her friends. But, by the looks of it, it didn’t.
Marie looks at Hayden with such anger; Thea wants to put herself in the middle, even if she knew that would only make things worse.
“So, can I have a drink? What are you drinking? Bring them another round and put it on my account. I think I still have some credit left…”
“Thanks,” says Marie, “but I am good.”
Thea wants the earth to swallow her whole and to dissolve into nothingness. She curses herself, her ideas, her hopes for peace, for forgiveness, for it all.
“I am actually leaving.”
Hayden’s eyebrow shoot up, a smirk lifting the corners of his lips. She believes he is punishing her, and for sure he is.
“Not before the grand finale, I believe. Anyway, I don’t see how you’ll do that…”
He takes his drink and gulps it down. His eyes are shiny and full of promises. Not a good omen. Nothing that she can escape from.
In two steps, he is on the stage again. A bunch of admirers get right close to him, and he is all smiles and charms, making Thea’s stomach turn to knots.
“I’m sorry,” whispers Mark again, before going up.
Mark’s words are lost on her, as Hayden has her whole attention. From up there, all god-like, with those angelic features and jaguar-like movements, Hayden has the whole room trapped.
When he starts playing War, Thea’s heart breaks once more.
“Oh, Thea love…”
Marie’s prayer is in vain, he is playing it. The song he wrote for her, the multi-awarded song, the song of a generation as critics called it, her song.
Hayden looks her right in her eyes when he sings the chorus, making her raw wounds bleed again.
“Whose war is this? I think I know. Its anger came all deep and raw. The heart that screamed we made mistakes And from the dream, the hurt awakes This is a beautiful war Just like we were… And the tormented souls don’t sleep. Revenge is all their hearts can keep.”
Thea cannot stop herself from singing along, his eyes boring into her soul, piercing all her barriers, burning it all down, hot anger building inside her.
Yes, they were at war and, yes; he was winning.