Let’s face it–life can be tough. Along with love, joy, peace, and comfort also comes discord, sadness, tragedy . . . loss. In the midst of it all, the best thing we can do is stay true to ourselves and use our God-given passions to shine a bit of light in this sometimes dark and tricky world. Check out this short story, “Shine”, and be encouraged as a young woman named Nikki faces her challenges and makes a very important decision.
“So, I just thought I’d remind you—you’re a worthless human being.” She stood, hands on her hips, with her entourage of two in tow, speaking softly enough for no one else in the kitchen to hear. “And what in the world do you do with that stupid notebook anyway?”
I met her gaze with a fixed glare, not giving Vanessa Calloway the satisfaction of a verbal response. With a tug of my black, leather jacket I strode past the callow posse and stepped outside. I sat on the stoop and stretched my legs, resting one foot atop of the other, and settled in with my plate of baked brie with berries and crackers . . . and my notebook.
The brisk evening air threatened to steal my breath as I looked out at the cobblestone alley, where summertime in coastal Maine boasted sizzling, sunny heat during the day, and crisp, cool breezes at night. I crunched my crackers dipped in warm, tangy cheese to the sound of booms and cracks looming in the distance. It was 11:00 p.m. on the 4th of July. This break would be short, as it was almost closing time. Finishing my snack, I surveyed my shriveled hands under the outdoor, iron barn light.
I liked my job. I’ve never minded scrubbing and cleaning. The soothing sensation of hot lathers of soap on my hands suits me just fine. I keep to myself, work hard, and do a good job, too. Yep, I’m what you call a “plongeur”–French for “dishwasher”. Aside from having to endure Vanessa, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be working in the kitchen at La Mirabelle; “The Yellow Plumb”. Ever since I first interviewed with Madame Sophie Lamoureux four months ago, I’ve considered it an honor to be working for her. She had owned this restaurant for nearly twenty years and word on the street was that she was meticulous about who worked for her.
“What makes you different, Nikki?” asked Sophie during my interview.
I wanted to sluff off her question, but I knew Sophie demanded the respect of a response and I didn’t want to blow it. I held her expectant gaze for a long moment before finally taking in a deep breath.
“Well,” I said, clearing my throat. “To be completely honest, I would admit I’m a bit rough around the edges, and I’m strong in character.” She didn’t need to know that my strength had been developed through a portal of tremendous struggle and grief.
Sophie’s twinkling eyes filled with a peculiar depth as her lips turned into a sly smile. In that moment, I was almost certain she could see old ghosts still shifting in my eyes. She examined my application as I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. Finally, she tossed the piece of paper on her desk and folded her hands in front of her.
“Nikki, I see you’ve had a year of French in high school—that’s helpful. I also noted you’ve had a tiny bit of pastry training at a vocational technical culinary arts program. Were you planning to go to Pastry School? What happened?”
Not wanting to fidget, I brought my hands together, locking my fingers. My eyes flickered up to meet hers.
“I thought about doing that for a while, but then, things happened in my life and . . . plans changed.”
“So, do you have other interests in your life? Something you love to do?” Sophie pressed.
“No, not really.” I lied. I wasn’t about to tell her about my notebook. That was my secret. It served no purpose to tell anyone about it.
Sophie Lamoureux met my eyes with a steady gaze, almost daring me to say something. Finally, her eyes wrinkled at the corners and a gentle smile swept across her face as she shared a quote with me—one I will never forget.
“Nikki,” Sophie began. “Henry Kissinger once said, ‘A diamond is a chunk of coal that did well under pressure.’”
She hired me.
A series of distant bangs continued rippling through the air as the stars poked holes in the dark sky. I opened my notebook and retrieved my pen. I had just enough time to write a few words before finishing my shift.
My notebook–my buoy—my lifeline. When hard knocks hit and everything seemed to fall apart, I turned to my notebooks. It was my pen I reached for when my mother left, when I lost my job, when I was robbed of my possessions, when I crawled away from being beaten by a boyfriend, when I did a homeless stint. It was my notebooks—my writing, that sustained me when my sister disowned me, when my dog died, when my dad became gravely ill, the weary nights I cared for him . . . when he died. Poems, quotes, essays, and stories upon stories became fleshed out on papers filling nearly fifty notebooks by now. My notebooks were my saving grace.
Just a few more lines to finish the thoughts I was working on. As I closed my notebook after jotting down a few sentences, my thoughts returned to Vanessa. She had been working at the restaurant for quite some time now and was, in fact, quite a talented Chef de Partie; one of the line cooks. I had no doubt Madam Lamoureux was just as “fussy” when she hired Vanessa, however, her vision of her surely must’ve become blurred over time. The Vanessa I knew and the Vanessa that Sophie surely hired seemed to be entirely different individuals.
I returned to the warmth of the kitchen and the arresting aroma of leftover Seafood Bouillabaisse; the sweet, peppery smell of saffron lingering in the air. I secured my notebook and black jacket in my locker around the corner in the back hallway. The Chef de Cuisine and the Sous-chef de Cuisine, as well as some of the line cooks had just left to go home. The Yellow Plumb was now closed, and all that was left to do was the final clean-up. I began scraping off the remaining large pots holding remnants of Coq au Vin, roasted asparagus, and Crème Brûlee when I heard Vanessa’s shrill voice cackling from around the corner.
“Ha! I got it!” Vanessa shouted. She entered the kitchen with her hands behind her back and addressed me from across the room in a sing-song tone.
“Oh Nikki,” Her voice was taunting. “Look what I have.”
She thrust her right arm forward revealing my notebook.
“I’m finally gonna see what the heck is in this thing!” Vanessa began flipping open the pages, scanning its contents.
“Stop. Give that back right now!” I shook my soapy, wet hands at Vanessa and began to lunge toward her, leaving water trails in my wake. When I almost reached Vanessa, I was stopped by two of the other line cooks, her little gang, as they grabbed my arms on both sides. I struggled to get free as I shouted.
“Give it back, Vanessa—put it down!”
Vanessa skimmed another page and dropped the book down to her side.
“Poetry? You write poetry?” Vanessa’s gaze wandered up to the empty ceiling as she began to laugh. “Nikki here is a wannabe writer!”
My heart raced; the blood thumped so loudly in my ears I almost couldn’t hear. An explosive rage coursed through my veins as my trapped body stood and shook.
“Vanessa, put it down or I swear I’ll kill you!”
Almost in unison, we all heard the click of heels on ceramic getting louder with each step. Sophie Lamoureux marched into the kitchen. My captors immediately released me. Sophie’s eyes narrowed as she shot assessing glances in our direction.
“What in the name of God is going on here?” Sophie’s voice was thick with anger.
I looked down, realizing the puddles of water I created on the floor. I turned and retrieved a dry dish towel and began to dry the floor as a wave of tears began to blur my vision. The two other line cooks turned away from Vanessa and started wiping down the countertops of their workspaces.
“Well?” Sophie said. “Vanessa, explain the nature of the ruckus I just heard in here.”
“Madame,” Vanessa said. “We were just horsing around and things got out of hand. We’re very sorry.”
“And what is that in your hand?”
“It’s—it’s just my dumb notebook. It’s a sort of journal I keep of thoughts I like to write down. I—I was just sharing it with Nikki and the others, right Nikki?”
I shut my eyes against hot tears and remained on my knees with a dishcloth in one hand.
“It’s my notebook.” My voice broke as I slowly rose to face Madame Lamoureux.
Sophie raised an eyebrow. Her eyes thinned with suspicion as she addressed Vanessa.
“Is this true, Vanessa? Did you take Nikki’s notebook from her?”
“No, of course not! Tell her, Nikki. Why would I take a stupid notebook away from someone? Like I said, it’s mine.”
I blinked back more tears and swiped the moisture away from my cheeks, with no intention of going along with Vanessa’s lie. My privacy had been cruelly violated, to say the least.
Sophie turned to face me. The heat of her gaze swept over my face as I dried my hands. She looked back and forth at Vanessa and me and she finally released a heavy sigh.
“Vanessa,” she said. “Give me that notebook, please.”
Vanessa handed over the notebook. Sophie thumbed through the pages at random until she found a bookmark. It marked the piece I was currently working on. Sophie read a page in silence and cleared her throat.
“Vanessa, I’d like you to recite to me a bit of what you’ve written here. It appears this is your most recent writing, so surely you should have no trouble in explaining the content.”
“Well, I don’t know.” Vanessa’s voice stammered. “I really don’t wish to share my thoughts—it’s just not appropriate.”
“No, no . . . it’s quite all right.” Sophie said. “No one will make fun of anything you’ve written, Vanessa. That wouldn’t be proper now, would it?”
Vanessa’s face broke into a mild sweat as she wrung her hands in and out. She looked up, as if she were trying to recall what she would’ve written. What I would’ve written.
Sophie began tapping her feet. “Oh, come along now. Surely you remember.” She glanced down at the notebook, tracing a phrase with her finger. “Something here about a primrose path.”
Vanessa’s eyes widened with fear as she began to stutter random words. Anger boiled up inside me as I shook my head and felt a distinctive setting of my jaw. Vanessa would have to wade through blood to win this war. Drawing a deep breath, I stood erect with my shoulders back, curling a stray strand of hair behind my ear. My eyes fixed directly on Madame Lamoureux and . . . I spoke.
“Sudden danger met my wrath along the jaded primrose path. For now, the truths I long had known would leave me sullen and alone. But would I not be true to me if what you’ve done is all I see? Now is my time to prove the myth, of me, a force to reckon with. Behind these hollow, sunken eyes are lessons learned from countless lies. I will fight, even to the death, for love to find my final breath.”
Sophie Lamoureux held my gaze, unfathomable, as the remaining line cooks slowly turned in my direction, and Vanessa took a step back.
A thin line of perspiration formed at my forehead as a deafening silence hung in the air. Sophie gently closed the notebook and walked to me, placing it in my hands. A victorious smile crossed her face.
“Miss Nikki,” she said. “A diamond in the rough. I always knew.” She turned to face Vanessa, folding her arms firm in front of her.
“Madame, I can explain.” Vanessa held her hands up as if to plead innocence. “You see, I actually borrowed Nikki’s notebook for just a minute . . . ”
“Vanessa Calloway, what are you—five?” Sophie interrupted her in mid-sentence. “Out of everyone in this kitchen, you would know best how I loathe juvenile behavior of any sort.”
“Yes, I know, and I’m sorry.”
“I’m not just talking about the notebook. I’ve seen it all. From day one, all you’ve done is try to find ways to belittle Nikki and pit others against her. Looks to me like Nikki’s strong personality has unraveled you, and now, it has sabotaged you.”
Vanessa lowered her head, speechless, as Sophie continued.
“Everyone has equal value in my kitchen, Vanessa—you know that. I won’t tolerate insubordination of any kind. Sadly, you’ve taken advantage of our long-standing relationship.”
“I know, Madame. It won’t happen again.”
“Oh, I know it won’t. You’re fired.”
Vanessa’s jaw dropped and her face flushed a pale red. The line cooks scurried out of the kitchen, grabbed their belongings, and left. I made an abrupt turn to the sink, plunging my hands in the water, and began to scrub with a vigorous fervor. Not daring to respond to Sophie, Vanessa stomped her feet and stormed out of the building.
I felt Sophie’s presence, watching me. We were alone in the kitchen.
“Nikki, please stop. Look at me.”
I grabbed a dish towel and started drying my hands as I turned to face Sophie.
“You’re done here.” Sophie said.
“You mean, I’m fired too?”
Sophie released a robust laugh. “Of course not. No—I meant you’re done in the kitchen for tonight. I’ll finish the dishes.”
Sophie stepped closer toward me, placing her hands on the sides of my arms.
“Nikki, judging by your tattered notebook, I have a sneaky feeling you’ve been writing for some time now. Am I correct?”
“Nikki . . . how many filled notebooks do you have at home?”
I paused, as Sophie raised her eyebrows, awaiting my response.
“Nearly fifty, Ma’am.” I said.
“That’s what I thought.”
Sophie released her hands from my arms and walked to the end of the counter, grabbing a piece of note pad and a pen. She scribbled something on the pad, tore it from its binding and folded it.
“From the day I met you, Nikki, I saw tremendous value in you. You possess a quiet charisma, which is something that cannot be manufactured—you either have it or you don’t. I knew there was something more in your life, making you tick. I’m very proud to finally know what that is.”
She handed me the small, folded piece of paper and continued.
“One of my dearest friends is a successful editor. I’m having breakfast with her this coming Saturday. I’d like you to join us. Please be sure to bring a few of your notebooks.”
I swallowed hard as my hand began to tremble.
“Oh, and another thing. I think it’s time we talk about a promotion, perhaps something along the lines of a Chef Pâtissier.” Pastry chef. “We can talk about that on Saturday as well. Now go on, get out of here and have a nice evening.”
I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding as I walked to the hallway toward my locker.
“Nikki,” Sophie said as she stood in the kitchen doorway. I turned to face her once again.
“One final thought. If you do nothing else in life, you ought to at least shine.” With that, she left.
Tossing my notebook in my backpack, I mounted my bike and sped through the cloak of darkness to my five-story, red brick apartment building. Racing up the stairs, I skipped two steps at a time until I reached my third-floor apartment. Opening my door, I pulled my hair tie from my ponytail and fluffed out my long strands of hair. I slammed the door shut, putting my hands on my hips. Think, Nikki, think.
Dashing to a wooden chest of drawers in my closet, I yanked open the drawers, rummaging, until I finally found the long, skinny cardboard box.
I snatched a book of matches from my end table and stepped outside of my bedroom window onto the fire escape. Tugging at the gooseneck ladder until it dislodged, I pulled it down and began my ascent to the roof. Once I reached the top, I found my folding chair and sat for a few moments on the asphalt rooftop, catching my breath. The rumble of car engines and occasional bursts of music signaled nearby flowing traffic. The smoky smell of char-grilled burgers wafted through the air from the neighboring barbecue restaurant down below, while distant echoes of fireworks continued to ricochet through the sky.
Finally, I stood, reaching for the long, skinny, cardboard box, and matches. I removed a sparkler from the box and walked over to the ledge of the rooftop. I struck a match and ignited the sparkler. I held it high in front of me . . . and smiled.
I will choose to shine.
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