A/N: I promised myself I wouldn't write another cheesy Christmas oneshot this year, but of course that plan backfired. And I'm glad it did. Merry Christmas to you and to one of the most awesome people alive in particular. ;)
The first thing Carl noticed when he walked into the room was that it smelled like nectarines.
Normally, one didn't go about memorizing the scent of out-of-the-ordinary fruits – not that nectarines were out-of-the-ordinary, but they weren't exactly the first thing that came to mind at the mention of a juicy harvest. No, Carl was certain that it smelled like nectarines and not strawberries or apples or oranges, for he had been striving to perfect his nectarine pie recipe for the vast majority of the winter season. He would've instantly remembered his pie, which was currently baking in the Cafe Callaway oven, had he not fallen asleep with a hardcover book laid open on his nose.
The dim yellow light on the oven would have been a good hint of the near-burning pie had it not been dying, blinking meekly instead brightly flashing. The alarm that began to sound moments after was a good indicator, however, that Carl's pie was ready, its screeching distinct as a banshee.
Carl hurriedly shrugged off his jacket and let it fall onto the counter as he passed. He'd attended culinary school and been used to the kitchen scenery his entire life, and yet he would never get used to the incessant, bedevilling screech of a timer.
With the light click of a green button, the kitchen was instantly silenced. Carl slipped his oven-mitted hands under the oven handle and pulled it open, a satisfied smile plastering onto his face at the sight of his piping hot pie. Its crust was golden and crisp to perfection, the sweet scent in the air prominent as a cherry on a sundae.
He was halfway to setting the pie on the counter, next to his jacket, when a bright flash of blue appeared in front of him without warning. Punctuated by two syncopated screams, the pie made a mad dash to the floor, accompanied by the devilish hands of gravity. After an ill-sounding splat, all that was left of Carl's creation were flakes of perfectly golden crust and the overwhelming aroma of honeyed heaven.
He was too devastated to make eye contact, or even move his stiff jaw. He saw Katie shrink back in the corner of his vision. "I am so sorry," she managed to squeak after a moment's deliberation. She knelt down, empty-handed save a pink purse that nearly landed in a puddle of mushy nectarine pie, as if she intended to scoop everything up with her bare hands. "I didn't mean to scare you. I just smelled peaches so I came out. I, uh, totally don't know why I forgot to say something, I..."
Her mouth opened and shut mid-sentence. "What?"
Carl relaxed his neck and turned to look at her, his brown gaze meshing with hers. "They're nectarines, not peaches. This is a common misconception, seeing as the only difference between nectarines and peaches is that nectarines lack the fuzz found on peach skin. Also, nectarines tend to be smaller and more aromatic than peaches and have more red colour on the fruit surface."
Katie blinked, dumb-founded. "I'm sorry to have forgotten to consult the fruit dictionary," she quipped at long last.
If it had been anyone but Katie, and if Carl hadn't been around long enough to be familiar with her innocuously sarcastic comments, he would have been offended. Instead, he concealed a grin and turned on the faucet, running a cloth under hot water. "You. You ruined my pie. Clean," he instructed in a faux-angry voice.
He heard Katie chuckle weakly. Evident from the movement heard behind him, she crouched down and had begun clumping the remains of the pie together with wet paper towel. "Do I put it in the garbage or the toilet or what?"
"Put it in the –," Carl turned slightly to make eye contact with her from his standing position. An awful blush spread across his face when he caught sight of Katie looking up at him inquiringly from the ground, the collar of her shirt drooping to reveal...something not-so PG.
"Earth to Carl?"
"Uh, the, I don't know, uh, garbage." He cleared his throat and crouched down to help clean up the delicious mess.
"Say, Carl," Katie spoke in an upbeat as they shovelled the last of the pie into the garbage. "You know what day it is this Saturday, right?"
"Of course I do. It's Christmas," Carl replied, not missing a beat. He knelt down and opened one of the lower drawers to take inventory so that they wouldn't be standing around awkwardly talking. At least, the prospect of standing and talking would only be awkward to someone like Carl.
"Well, I dunno. You forgot your birthday on the sixteenth last month, remember?" the waitress reminded him, a tease in her voice. "Anyway, what're you doing that day?"
"Well...working, I guess." Carl took in her suddenly contorted face with confusion. "What?"
"On Christmas day?" Katie reconfirmed, as if this was blasphemous.
"I've opened on Christmas every year so far." He shrugged, rising to check the higher drawers. "Some people have made it a habit to come and chat, order some pie or something. I'm just helping them uphold their annual routines." He stopped shuffling and turned when Katie took too long to respond.
He anticipated a mini-scolding – 'you're wasting your Christmas just to uphold their annual routines?' or something along those lines. Instead, she asked him in a quiet, thoughtful voice, "Is that why you were baking nectarine pie? To get ready for Christmas?"
"Actually...I don't usually make nectarine pie for the cafe. I've baked it a couple times, for the store, but it never really sold, so I stopped bothering." Carl looked skyward, reminiscent of the times people had passed his beloved pie without so much as a glance. "People always prefer the pumpkin pie, or the apple pie. I guess they just like to go with old favourites. Comfort food – it's understandable." He paused when he realized he had just launched into the beginning of a novel about pie, and gave Katie a questioning glance.
"Then..." Her eyebrows pulled together lightly. "Why were you making nectarine pie?"
Carl blinked. He'd never been asked that question before – usually his answers to people's inquiries were rehearsed, repeated time and time again until they was practically memorized. When do you close? Are there any nuts in this? How long did it take you to make this chocolate cake? To which he'd respond, 5PM, no, and about forty minutes, give or take.
"That's simple," he said in answer to Katie's question. "It's my favourite."
"Oh." Katie nodded, absorbing this new tidbit of information. She cast a glance at the door, where the 'sorry, we're closed' sign was perched. "Oh, Carl, I forgot to tell you..."
"Uh, my sister is in town for a couple days. To celebrate the holidays and stuff. I haven't seen her in a while." Katie hooked a thumb over her shoulder. "She's staying at the inn until the holidays are over, so I was wondering if..." She trailed off to let Carl finish her sentence for her, a tactic she had used on several occasions: when asking for a raise, for example.
"Oh." Carl scratched the back of his neck. A piece of mashed up nectarine that had been stuck under his nail came loose and landed at the bottom of his inner shirt. "Visit her? Of course, if it's your sister. Yeah. Don't worry about it, I'll look after the place." A sudden coldness seeped inside of him as his mouth shut. He couldn't explain the source.
"Great. Thanks so much." Genuine relief flooded onto her face. "You can cut this out of my pay. I'm just going to grab my stuff and...I'll be back ASAP, don't worry."
Carl watched as she edged towards the door. "Aren't you going to get your things?" he asked. He tried inconspicuously removing the piece of pie from his shirt, but it was impossible with the shirt hem tucked into his pants.
"Well, it's getting late, so I just figured I'd come by and get my things tomorrow afternoon." Katie opened the door, hesitant. "I promise I'll be back as soon as possible. No later than Christmas Eve, or you can fire me."
"Don't be silly. I mean, I wouldn't fire you. Unless you burned the restaurant down and killed my family or something. Er..." Carl leaned back in an attempt to look casual, resulting in a smushed piece of pie against his best shirt. "Bye."
"Bye." With a small wave and a light jingling of bells from the door, Katie was gone. The tiny cold pinch Carl had felt had bloomed into a disappointing knot in his stomach.
She'll be back by Christmas Eve. Don't worry, he told himself before untucking his shirt and removing the annoying piece of mush.
The next few days were quiet. Not many customers came around, most likely due to last-minute shopping trips to the city, but the few that did stuck around to make conversation with Carl. Katie stopped by to get her things, as promised, but her visit was brief; she seemed to be in a hurry. That, or Carl was just being over-observant
Indeed, the Callaway Cafe was spotless this holiday season, as Carl had spent more time wandering around and cleaning than actually working at the cashier or baking. But alas, Christmas Eve came after what felt like an eternity. Like a hesitant runaway peeking over the fence of her old house, the 24th of December had arrived at last, welcomed by a flurry of snow – something Flower Bud hadn't seen for nearly two whole weeks.
Carl sat at one of the round tables of the cafe, a book propped up on his crossed lap. He was deeply engrossed in one of the paragraphs when a bell chimed, announcing the arrival of the first customer of the day. Carl sat up straight, anticipating Katie's flushed cheeks and apologetic grin. He put the book down and stood up, only to see a hideous pair of orange mittens reaching up to fix a high blonde ponytail.
"Hey, Carl!" Gwen called to him, her powerful vocals nearly knocking him back into his seat. "What's up? Looks mighty busy in here."
"Ha-ha," he replied good-naturedly, but he couldn't completely wipe the disappointment from his voice. He rounded the counter, stopping when he was behind the cash register. "What can I get for you?"
"I'll need two apple pies. Uncle Doug insisted on going all-out with Christmas dinner this year, you see...oh, and a slice of chocolate cake wouldn't hurt, either." Gwen noticed Carl glance at her frighteningly orange gloves and laid them on the counter with a bold blush. "Yeah, they're butt-ugly, I know. Bob sewed them for me, though, so I have to wear them. It's obvious he won't be getting a job at a tailor's anytime soon." She laughed.
"Oh, they're not so bad. It's just the colour that is a bit...out-there." Carl smiled. "Bag?"
"Yes, please." Gwen looked down at her mittens, the grin still present on her face. "So what are you doing tomorrow, Carl? Any plans? Or are you just hanging out around here?"
"The latter, unless I'm invited to that fancy dinner your uncle's hosting." Carl laughed at the sudden guilt splayed on Gwen's face. "I'm kidding, I'm kidding. How's Katie, by the way?" The question was pushed out of his throat without any restraint or even consideration. He slid the pies across the counter and eyed her imploringly.
"She's fine." Gwen tilted her head at him. "Why is she at the inn, anyway? At first I thought you were mad and kicked her out, but she doesn't seem upset or anything."
Carl gave her a conscious, unsure look. "I thought she was staying with her sister?" it came out as a question.
"Sister?" Gwen shook her head, perplexed. "What are you talking about? Katie doesn't have a sister."
"She doesn't?" The cold knot returned to Carl's stomach, dominating and uncomfortable.
"Yeah. I saw her with some guy, though, so maybe she has a brother...?" Gwen ventured. She looped her fingers through the knot Carl had tied in the bag, oblivious to the mental unrest that had released in his stomach. "How much?"
He had almost forgotten about the cost of the pies. The sickness was trapped in his gut, and he couldn't find coherent words. Finally, he waved a hand in the air. "It's on me. Merry Christmas."
"Well, isn't that nice." She flashed him a huge, teeth-showing smile. "Thanks, Carl! Merry Christmas to you, too. I'll tell Katie you said hi." The door swung shut behind her, in harmony with the bell as it musically bade her farewell.
Carl sank into the counter, left to wonder if this really would be a merry Christmas after all.
For the first time since he opened Cafe Callaway three years ago, Carl kept the 'sorry, we're closed' sign in the door on Christmas day. He also purposely didn't set his alarm and skipped his morning shower.
When he finally did wake up at a quarter to noon, he looked out the window, greeted by snowflakes and a blanket of white that covered the cobblestone and roof of every house. He turned his head away from the cinematic scene and begrudgingly got out of bed, still in a dirty shirt and boxers. There was an uncomfortable feeling in his nostril and a weight on his head – when he sniffed a stuffed-up nose and felt a cool draft from the cracked-open window, he realized he had caught a cold. With a groan, he made his way toward the medicine cabinet.
When he walked out of his bedroom and out into conjoining kitchen, he immediately let out a scream. Another scream beat him to it – it was inhuman, anticipated as a matter of fact. Amidst the billowing grey smoke, the timer screeched angrily at Carl, spiting his headache with endless BEEP BEEP BEEPs stringing out from the pandemonium. A single curse word was heard before Katie rushed into the room holding a fire extinguisher, stopping the timer and then proceeded to fling open the oven, which wheezed smoke.
By the time the small fire had been put out, the kitchen was covered with white residue from the extinguisher. It was almost hard to tell the difference between inside and outside, what with the freshly fallen snow.
"Katie..." Carl said in a slow, deep voice, halfway to a growl. "What...the hell...do you think you're doing?"
She placed her hands on her hips, acting as both the victim and the culprit. "I was putting out the fire," she responded matter-of-factly. "What, you wanted the place to burn down to the ground or something? It's not like the smoke lured you out of your bedroom or anything. Do you know what time it is?"
Her incessant chatter was almost as dogged as the screeching timer. Carl sighed and located a stool close by. He sat, wordless for a long moment.
"You're mad," Katie stated. She set the fire extinguisher down, making a loud, metallic clank against the floor.
"I wouldn't say mad," Carl objected dismally. "Just...disoriented and a tad confused."
"Confused about what?"
"About why you came back. I thought you were going to be busy canoodling at the Perch Inn," Carl told her bluntly and bitterly.
Katie was eyeing him, bewildered as if he possessed three heads. "Canoodling? What are you talking about?"
"Look. You can drop the act – I know you don't have a sister." Carl gave into the cold stomach knot, which tightened with each word he spoke. He would have been able to be taken significantly more seriously had his nasal congestion not made him sound like a twelve-year old underwater.
Katie blushed and looked down at her soiled apron. "Okay. Yeah. You caught me." He was about to belligerently ask, 'So who's the guy?' when she continued, "I lied to you about having a sister. And I know you're pissed off because I was late coming back. And because I almost set your kitchen on fire. And because...yeah, a lot of reasons. But..." She took a step into the white fluff and gestured to the blackened oven. "I made you a present."
"A present?" Carl repeated. He should've been angry, that after Katie had nearly burned his precious cafe to the ground and left his heart and stomach in winding knots that her only justification, her only way of apology was "I made you a present."
Regardless, he closed the distance between his stool and the oven with short, dubious steps before bending over and peering inside. He felt like he was sticking his head into the mouth of a harrowing cave – the cost of a new oven was most certainly coming out of Katie's already reduced pay cheque, no doubt...
A single blackened mound of something indistinguishable sat in the centre of the decimated oven like a prisoner. Carl reached inside and pulled the unidentifiable object out, holding it in front of him with uncertainty.
Katie looked down at her feet, hesitating before breaking the newborn silence. "I...made you a nectarine pie. Tried, anyway. Clearly." She bit her lip. "I swear it came out fine when I was practising. I even bribed Gourmet into helping me out at one point. That's why I didn't come back yesterday – seriously, he wouldn't let me leave the kitchen until I made the perfect pie. I messed up a bunch of times."
Carl stared at her. He couldn't find the words, and he couldn't explain how very comforting a blackened slab of pie meant to him at this moment.
"I seriously did make the perfect pie," Katie continued when he remained silent. It might've been his imagination, but it sounded like her voice was thinning, turning slightly hoarse after each sentence. "I was just nervous...so I messed up this time. Yeah. I'm sorry."
"...Gourmet?" Carl managed to find his voice at length.
She nodded, her brown ringlets bouncing, each coated with a layer of white foam. "Uh-huh. That self-proclaimed gastronomist from out of town. I don't really consider hopping from restaurant to restaurant and eating every bit of food you can get your hands on something worthy of a title, though, if you ask me." Katie met eyes with Carl, who was still gawking at her. "What? I never said you had to eat that cancerous thing, you know. Just throw it out if you don't want it."
Carl gently set the burnt pie down on the counter. It seemed so reversed that Katie was the one flaring up in this situation and he was the one to calm her. "Hey, Katie... Thanks."
She narrowed her eyes at him, confused. "Um...you're welcome?"
"It's just...no one has ever made me anything like this before."
She tilted her head. "Really? Well, I'm sorry that the first person had to royally screw up."
Carl laughed. "It's okay, it's the thought that counts. But thank you. It means a lot." All of a sudden, everything fit together in his mind; the icy knot constricting him had unwound into a warm, pleasant sensation that spread throughout his entire body. All of a sudden, everything was alright.
"Maybe after all this Christmas chaos I can bake a nectarine pie for the both of us," he suggested before sneezing violently.
"Bless you." Katie giggled, pulling off her scarf and wrapping it around his neck. "That sounds like a great idea. In the meantime, though, what are we going to do about this natural disaster?" They looked around at the tumultuous kitchen that Carl had put so much effort into cleaning the days prior. "I don't really want to spend my Christmas cleaning, if you ask me..."
A sly smile spread across Carl's face. "Why don't we go to the Perch Inn? I hear Doug's hosting Christmas dinner. I gave Gwen some pies on the house yesterday, so she owes me anyway."
"As long as I get some food in my stomach, it's fine by me." Katie inclined her head toward the door, a mischievous grin on her face. "Shall we?"
"We shall." Carl held out his elbow at an angle as they stepped carefully out of the kitchen's personal winter wonderland, letting Katie loop her arm through his. Despite his stuffy nose and the traces of smoke left dawdling in the air, he thought he could smell, ever so subtly in the air, the sweet aroma of nectarines.