She was standing in front of a plain wooden door, a small paper sign bearing the words “Come On In” in a blocky font hung in its window. Above the door, a pink square of shiny plastic printed with “Chocolate Lab” stood out amongst the worn Mandarin and jumbled advertisements that lined the storefronts on the block.
The young woman wasn’t entirely sure why she was standing on this stoop, in this neighbourhood. She could not recall what had led her to this spot, three hours away from campus, in the first place. She had taken a long meandering walk, trying to enjoy the first day of summer and trying to find peace in nature, as her therapist called it. That much she remembered.
Shifting from foot to foot ever so slightly, it wasn’t until a rather brusque man with a large burlap sack cleared his throat behind her that she emerged from her jumbled musings.
“Excuse me,” he grumbled, clearly struggling with the weight of the sack.
“I’m so sorry,” she mumbled, reaching for the door. “Here you go. Sorry.”
The man pushed past her into the cool, dark shop. Looking up at the midday sun, she made a snap decision, (unusual for her) and followed him in.
The lighting was dim, but once her eyes had adjusted, she took stock of the shop. It was small, not big enough for more than four people to fit comfortably. A large display of chocolate bars took up the wall to her left, and continued to the very back of the shop. Through the shelves, she could catch glimpses into the white and sterile kitchen. She could not spot the brusque man or his package anywhere. On her right, an unwieldy glass display case rose from the counter, and her breath caught at its contents.
Hundreds of small chocolate truffles were laid out in rows, each one a work of art. Jewel tones swirled in on themselves, delicate artistic spatters of white and yellow stood out on deep brown, brass wrapped around a perfect alabaster white. Each one bore a name and flavor in front of its tray, some fairly self-explanatory, like lychee rose or vanilla matcha, others more esoteric and unusual, like Starry Night or Ocean Waves.
“Can I help you?”
She looked up to find a young man smiling at her though the case.
“Can I help you with anything?” he asked again, smile firmly and genuinely in place.
“I’m just looking, thank you though.” She paused. Hesitantly, she asked “Actually, um. What is this place?”
The young man’s eyes lit up with delight and excitement, as if he rarely got the chance to answer this question.
“This……this is the Chocolate Lab!”
His smile grew inhumanly wide, and he gestured emphatically as he spoke.
“We have a passion for chocolate, for human connection and experience. With our products, you can stand out, reach out. You can shine!”
The man’s eyes danced as he continued.
“This is a place to experiment, to take a journey. This place, this lab, is a place to experience something bigger than yourself!”
He finished his sentence in a large sweeping gesture with his arms, as if to demonstrate the scope of his proclamation.
She scoffed. “Sounds like a bit of Willy Wonka bullshit,” she said skeptically.
The light in the man’s eyes quieted. His wide, wide smile turned down to a wry twist and his hands fell at his sides.
He said wistfully, “Well, that’s what it says on our website anyways.”
“Can I help you with anything?” he repeated, enthusiasm dimmed by her reaction.
Oh no. She wasn’t one to walk in and out of shops like a loiterer, not buying anything, just looking. She was more one to walk in, wait until someone else had come in, and slip out quietly. But there was no one coming in to distract the young man, so she sighed and glanced at the price board.
“I guess…I’ll have a 6 pack of these,” she said, gesturing toward the rows of truffles.
His shoulders lifted slightly, and he stood a touch straighter.
“Do you know which ones you want?” asked the man, box at the ready.
Arriving home, she placed the small box on the dining room table.
There it sat for hours until she returned from celebrations and errands, looking for respite from the endless and empty parade of questions and congratulations. She looked the little box over, plain and nondescript as it was. She had hoped her roommates would have made off with some of her impulse purchase. But none of them had even acknowledged the box or inquired as to its contents.
Sliding the box open, she laid out the six bonbons on the table. The card enclosed within it had a list, that read as follows:
Best enjoyed in this order.
1. Vanilla Matcha
3. Chai on Life
5. Tall, Dark and Handsome
6. Starry Night
Use in a safe place at home. Do not use in groups larger than 2. This purchase releases The Chocolate Lab from any liability in the lives of the holders of this note
Odd, she thought. What an odd thing to package with chocolates. But she was not one to ignore instructions, however unusual. With a slight hesitation, she reached for the first truffle, a swirled emerald, and popped it in her mouth.
When all she tasted was soft hints of vanilla and the bitter tang of matcha, she let out a breath that eased tension she didn’t realize was there. It was very good, there was that. What had she been expecting; they were just chocolates. A chime sounded in the distance and a faint earthy smell enveloped her as she finished the bonbon and reached for the second.
This bonbon had the sharp spice of ginger woven through delicate milk chocolate, and she laughed at herself for bracing for something amazing. She reached for the third, and closed her eyes as she closed her mouth around the swirling brass and white.
A cacophony of noise filled her ears and the heavy scent of spices, crowds and heat overwhelmed her. Her skin buzzed with the electric heat in the air and a smooth, spiced milk hit her tongue.
She opened her eyes, startled, gasping.
She sat, in her bathrobe, at her dining room table. Faint traffic from the highway filtered in through the chilly air and open window. There was no crowded street, no heat. How odd, she thought. Perhaps she had overextended herself; she considered the cursed heat stroke that had affected the city that day.
Despite her misgivings, she reached for the fourth bonbon.
The red dome seemed to pulse and crackle in the dim light of the dining room. She looked at it closely, trying to ascertain that it was indeed just a chocolate. Satisfied and scoffing at her overactive imagination, she closed her eyes and popped it in her eager mouth.
This one was different. A high pitched squeal filled the room, accelerating to a loud Pop! Pop! Pop! Lights and colours cascaded before her closed eyes, the sound of generations of people celebrating and arguing mixed with the squeals and pops of fireworks. A gentle burning of pepper warmed her mouth and a light wave of cranberry cooled it. She smelled baking bread and marigolds, and the scent of an old, old home, filled with merriment.
The sensations faded as the last notes of the chocolate did. Without an ounce of hesitation this time, she reached for the penultimate chocolate.
She tasted a rich, royal purple, and a deep, sweet embrace. She felt whispering silks and strong arms on her back. Her head swam, dipping and twirling in the rich darkness. Fruit and candles wafted around her, and the arms around her pulled her to a soft chest that felt like home and adventure. She wasn’t safe, but she felt the contours and strength of the person she lay against and felt comforted.
She wanted to stay in those arms, in that world, forever. But the taste was fading, those phantom arms retreating into the ether. Melancholy filled her as she opened her eyes. Her face was wet, and she was startled to find tears creeping down her cheeks. A lingering scent of perfume, familiar yet exotic, hung on the air.
She reached up and brushed the tears away. There was one chocolate left on the table, somehow capturing the early light between midnight and dawn. The Starry Night chocolate. Flecked with white and gold, the deep blue seemed to encapsulate the universe. The cosmos sat in her hand, waiting to be consumed. So she did.
As soon as the chocolate melted on her tongue, the world around her vanished. Instead of passion or fire, there were ocean breezes. Instead of merriment or love, she tasted something beyond quantification, something that had become a stranger to her. Peace had a flavor, and it had found her.
The stillness of that perfect moment was broken by a warm breeze, layered with the heavy scent of fresh salt. When she opened her eyes, she realized she had been transported far from home.The wide expanse of a hilltop enveloped her, the largeness of it taking her breath away. She could hear the waves in the distance, feel grass under her bare feet.
The sky lay open above her, telling her the secrets of the world. A million bright distant lights shone, each telling a story, their story, to her. She lay back in her bathrobe, propped up on her elbows, listening to the breeze and the stars until her eyes gently fell shut.
Panicked, she wrenched them open again, desperate not to miss a single whisper, frantic that this perfect moment never leave her. But she was home, sitting at the dining room table in her bathrobe. The hillside had vanished. There were no waves, no fields, no expanse of stars, just her own star rising in the east to begin another day.
Instead of sadness, she felt…content. She had a distinct hunch that returning to that alley in Chinatown would yield confusion and empty storefronts. But that was okay. For the first time in a long time, she was satisfied.
What odd dreams, she pondered.
Well, I guess that’s what you get for eating chocolate at midnight.
With a yawn, she gathered the remnants of the box and put them in the bin. Heading upstairs, she didn’t even notice the blooms of green at the elbows of her bathrobe, nor the blades of grass caught in the dining room rug.