She opened the door to the coffee shop and walked inside. A sensor detected her movement and triggered the recessed lights in the ceiling to turn on. The darkness of the early morning was now driven out by the incandescence of a dozen bulbs. She made her way to the bar area and set her backpack on the ground. A book lay on the counter, placed in such a way that she was sure to see it when she entered the building.

The title was clearly printed in a large bright white sans-serif font:

ON BREWING COFFEE WELL

by Stephen Brockmann

Under the title, and obscuring the artistically arranged coffee brewing paraphernalia depicted on the cover, was a yellow sticky note. “This is for you,” it read, “check out the Chemex recipe on page 11.”

She didn’t recognize the handwriting, and felt no urgency to obey its orders, but the author’s name was familiar. Stephen Brockmann. Was he famous? She felt a familiarity for him just beyond her recognition. It was probably nothing.

She moved her backpack onto a hook in the back-of-house area, and started through the usual processes of opening the cafe. As she put her apron on—a black bar apron that only covered her below the waist—she looked down and silently scolded herself for wearing a white shirt. If she escaped the day without a coffee stain on it, she’d be lucky. She loosely tied the apron strings in a knot around herself, and walked out to the front counter.

A clear tub with a red lid sat near the cash register, loaded with a stack of filters of pre-measured coffee. She pulled off the lid and took a deep breath. Waking up before sunrise and dragging herself to work was almost worth it for this moment. She smelled caramel, chocolate, and something nutty that she couldn’t quite place. Probably House Blend, if she had to guess. She looked down at the label: House Blend. Nice.

She removed the top filter, and carried it over to the drip coffee grinder. As she dumped the beans into the hopper, her eyes fell on the book, still sitting on the counter. She checked her watch. There was probably time to make a Chemex for herself. She could brew the iced tea later—as long as no one ordered any right at opening. Who wanted iced tea at 6:00 AM anyway?

The sound and fragrances of grinding coffee filled the coffee shop, and she turned the book to face her. She began to turn the pages—each one was filled with gorgeous photography, and each brew method seemed to have their instructions explicitly described. Each step to make coffee had an accompanying photo showing exactly what to do.

She arrived at the Chemex recipe on page 11 and gasped. The location was unmistakably her cafe. It even seemed that they did this shoot the same time of day it was right now—dark outside, the shop lit only by the ceiling lights and pendants above the bar.

“That is wild,” she said aloud.

She hadn’t heard about any photoshoots happening in the last few months—especially not for a book by Stephen Brockmann. It could have been longer ago than that, though, right? Book publishing is a slow business. This may have been before her time.

She reached under the counter and grabbed a Chemex, a scale, a kettle, and a filter, and read the instructions to start brewing.

“This is so weird,” she whispered, “this is exactly what I always do—like, to the gram.” As instructed, she put 31 grams of coffee into the filter.

Indeed, as she followed the recipe, every step seemed as though it had recorded her usual method, from the dose to the style of pour. It even called for a dry filter, as if it knew she always forgot to wet the filter before she poured the ground coffee in.

As instructed, she poured 53 grams of water into the Chemex.

As the water began to seep slowly through the grounds and dripped into the bottom of the Chemex, she looked more closely at the barista in the pictures. It only showed them from the shoulders down, and only their hands and the Chemex were in focus in most of the shots, but… it looked like her, didn’t it? A white shirt, a black apron, even their skin was the same color as hers.

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“That’s impossible,” she thought, and as instructed, she poured 144 grams of water over the bed of coffee.

A tinkling sound came from the bottom of the carafe as the liquid began dripping faster and the Chemex started to fill. On the facing page from the current step was a photo taken from behind the barista. They were unmistakably wearing the same shirt she was. Their hair was the same dark brown, pulled back in the same messy ponytail. In the background, the dawn light was beginning to creep in through the window, just as it was in the cafe, here, now.

As instructed, she poured 200 grams of water into the coffee in a slow, clockwise, circular motion. As she pulled up on the kettle to stop the flow, she bumped the Chemex. A single droplet of coffee splashed into the crook of her left arm, leaving a perfectly circular brown stain on the sleeve of her shirt.

She closed her eyes and pinched her nose. There had to be an explanation for this. Maybe someone in the cafe had managed to take these pictures without her knowing? Maybe she was suffering from some sort of weirdly specific amnesia? Or maybe this was just a coincidence? Lots of baristas wear white shirts and black aprons, and her hair was not exactly unique in color or style. In fact, it was probably the coincidental resemblance that caused whomever it was to put the sticky note on the cover for her.

As instructed, she poured the last 130 grams of water over the coffee and waited for it to finish brewing. She thought about how she was going to get the stain out of her sleeve. As the final drops of coffee fell from the filter, she removed it, discarded it, and swirled the Chemex. She reached below the counter once more, and produced a cream-colored diner mug. She took another deep breath. More caramel now, less chocolate. The aroma stirred her spirit.

She looked down at the book, and turned the page. There was a gorgeous, in-focus photo of the barista, staring straight into the camera, a finished Chemex and a cream-colored diner mug in front of her. On her left sleeve was a tiny, circular coffee stain.

It was her.

She stared into her own eyes staring back at her from a book she’d never seen before this morning. Below the photo was an inscription:

In Memory of My Beloved Elayna Brockmann, 1985-2020:
This is for you.

Her head was spinning. This couldn’t be real. Is this a joke? She looked around the shop as if expecting someone to jump out, to reveal the farce. Elayna Brockmann. Was that her name? Why couldn’t she remember her name? Why couldn’t she remember?

Her vision blurred, and she fainted.

***************

He felt a slap on his face and woke up.

“Stephen! Stephen! Are you alright? You’re scaring us.”

His eyes took a moment to focus. “Maribel? What happened? Who is that?”

“We got to the end of the Chemex recipe,” she replied, “and you passed out when you saw the picture of your wife. Honestly, Stephen, I don’t know why you’re doing this. We have an editorial team for exactly this reason. You don’t have to torture yourself. It’s too soon.”

A man standing behind her cleared his throat.

“Oh, this is Danny, from the printer,” she added.

“Maybe you’re right,” Stephen said, pulling himself to his feet with Maribel’s help, “maybe it is too soon. I just… I just want to see this through to the end. For her.”

“I get that, I do,” Maribel replied, her voice softening, “but please let us help. No one should have to look at photos of their—” she paused here, trying to find the words.

“I know,” Stephen cut in, “I’ll go. But you’ll call me if you have any questions, right? I want every recipe to be perfect. It has to—it has to capture her, okay? I want her spirit to live on in these pages, so that everyone can experience her passion for coffee.”

He turned to the man at the table. “Danny, was it? I’m terribly sorry for the scene. It’s all a bit much, you understand.”

Maribel led Stephen to the door, then closed it after he walked out.

“What on earth was that?” Danny asked, incredulous.

“It’s… well, it’s too much for a person to bear, that’s what. Stephen’s wife, Elayna, wrote every recipe in this book. They’re her recipes. This was their special project together. Shoot, she was even the model for all the photography. But then…” she trailed off for a moment to choose her words carefully.

“But then she was murdered,” she finished.

“What?!?” Danny sat down hard, almost involuntarily, in the chair behind him.

“Yes, after this very picture was taken,” she said, motioning to the open book on the conference table. “Some crazed fan of Stephen’s—a follower of his on YouTube, they figured out—burst into the cafe after the photoshoot, and shouted at Elayna, ‘Do you watch Stephen Brockmann?!?’ and then he killed her, right there in broad daylight. It was all over the news.”

***********

She opened the door to the coffee shop and walked inside. A sensor detected her movement and triggered the recessed lights in the ceiling to turn on. The darkness of the early morning was now driven out by the incandescence of a dozen bulbs. She made her way to the bar area, and set her backpack on the ground. A book lay on the counter, placed in such a way that she was sure to see it when she entered the building.

The title was clearly printed in a large bright white sans-serif font:

ON BREWING COFFEE WELL

by Stephen Brockmann

Under the title, and obscuring the artistically arranged coffee brewing paraphernalia depicted on the cover, was a yellow sticky note. “This is for you,” it read, “check out the AeroPress recipe on page 42.”

“No, not again,” she whispered.

Nathanael May is a coffee professional based in the American Pacific Northwest, and a regular guest host of Seed To Cup on the Sprudge Podcast Network. 

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