I was playing around with generative AI images last week and became excited about the idea of illustrating a short story for my blog. Yep, that’s how big of a geek I am. So, I scribbled up a non-AI short story (easy part) and set about creating generative AI images (hard part). I could make all sorts of incredible images with AI. However, I struggled to create ones appropriate to the story and that carried the narrative. So, in the end, I made AI generative cats in Adobe Firefly. It was the best I could do.
Here’s the short story. I’m a lousy proofreader, so simply read over any errors. And, yes, I did use AI to proofread it too.
Enjoy the cats.
The Teashop At The Corner Of Worlds
The teashop was a tiny, cramped establishment compared to its sleek neighbors, a modern furniture store and a day spa. Dusty teapots, old movie posters, and maps adorned its window, and a black cat sporting a blue collar with tiny bells often napped on a 1950s TV tray. Sometimes, I would stop momentarily and glance at the chaotic display, but then I always hurried on. Because that’s what I did until a week ago: hurried on. Hurried on to the corporate coffee chain, where I didn’t have to think about my daily coffee order, and then I hurried on to work and to meetings. I was over-stressed and over-committed, but I was living my dream, right? I had finally found the business success I had worked so hard to achieve.
I wasn’t hurrying today but wandering in my work clothes on this morning of drizzle with an eighty percent chance of storms in the evening. And, if I’m honest, I was slightly buzzed from the shot of tequila that I had added to my orange juice. Something to numb the ache.
Even though I had been down this street probably a hundred times, I felt lost. I stopped before the tea shop and studied all the old stuff. This is me now. Unwanted junk. I’m not the sleek Italian chair in the window next door. I’m this cracked teapot with some old monarch’s face on it. As I stared, the green neon welcome sign behind the glass buzzed to life. Had it always been there? It seemed like it hadn’t. But then, I’ve always been moving so fast that I rarely saw the details in the world around me, just those on a spreadsheet.
I couldn’t go to my usual coffee shop and have my regular latte. It would hurt too much. Nor could I go back to my apartment because then I would have to explain everything to my roommate. I hadn’t told her or my mom about what had happened. I continued to leave my apartment at seven every morning and returned twelve or so hours later. I guess I’m waiting for the morning alarm to go off and to wake up to find none of it really happened.
Yet it had, even if it didn’t feel real but more like a movie playing in my head. Losing my job wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I was too good. I had worked too hard. Sacrificed too much. I gave my life to my career, and now it had been ripped away. I didn’t know how to live now, deal with the avalanche of what-ifs, or shut off my brain in the wee hours from dissecting every mistake I had ever made.
Above me, the green welcome sign continued glowing through the drizzle as if to beckon me out of my head into the dry warmth inside. Why not? I had lots of hours to kill. And where else was I going to go?
I opened the door, setting off an electrical chime of Pachelbel’s Canon. A professional had not been consulted on the decor. There wasn’t one distinguishable style, but seemingly every design era smashed together, assaulting the eye. Victorian teapots beside Mid-Century Modern plates beside Art Deco crystal decanters. The tables were black lacquered with Chinese characters, but the counter was Googie Formica. I turned, trying to take it all in, which was impossible because there was so much stuff!
A woman emerged from the back through a threshold of hanging plastic beads. I couldn’t place her age somewhere between thirty and fifty. She wore Betty Page bangs, a vivid red flower kimono, and glossy black lipstick. She sported extremely long lashes that spread like fans above her eyes.
She pressed her hands to her mouth in surprise. “Oh, my goodness, you brought a real book!” She drew a printed menu from the counter and crossed to me. She wore insane high heels that clinked on the wood floor as she walked. “So many people nowadays read books on their smart thingies. Me, I prefer touching real pages.” She drew a long breath. “Smelling them. And seeing all the little smudges and scribbles in the margins.” She made a fluttery gesture with her long-nailed fingers to the room. “Sit anywhere that feels like you! You know, whatever suits your vibe.”
I glanced about. I had made a mistake coming here. My vibe was despondent, and this place required too much energy. But I couldn’t leave now. I was trapped by her expectant eyes. So, I sank into the closest seat.
“Now, what are you reading?” She didn’t wait for an answer but picked up my book and read aloud, “How Not to Marry a Marquess.”
I should be embarrassed. It was a badly torn paperback historical romance with a bare-chested, long-haired male model holding a bouquet of roses. I had bought it from a used bookstore in my high school years. To be honest, my reading tastes—best described as guilty-pleasure or escapist—haven’t changed since then. I’m not the hardback, book club sort. And besides, I was beyond the sting of embarrassment now. True humiliation is crying while shoving the contents of your office desk into a cardboard box as a security officer stands beside you, ensuring you don’t steal a stapler or graffiti “cronyism” on the manager’s office walls. All the while, your colleagues keep their heads below the tops of their cubes. Not wanting to see the fate that they had escaped. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I exceeded my benchmarks and expanded the market. But, in the end, it was a popularity contest when the company’s numbers fell.
The waitress flipped through the pages. I resisted the urge to rip the book from her fingers and scream, Give it back! It’s my special book.
“Ahhhhh.” She nodded. “I have just the thing for this!”
She clinked across the room to shelves precariously stacked with teacups. She hummed as she moved her nail tip along the disordered ware. “Here it is!” She withdrew a cup, careful not to cause an avalanche of porcelain, and crossed back to my table. “I’d say it’s from the early 1800s. When your story is set.” She turned the white cup painted with delicate blue flowers. “Can’t you imagine someone like Jane Austen sipping from it?”
“Thank you, it’s lovely. But I really shouldn’t drink out of something so nice.” I would be more comfortable with a cheap, unbreakable disposable paper cup today.
She gave a dismissive wave. “I have plenty of old cups. Now, what would you like to drink?” She pointed to the menu, where each tea blend was described in a different font. The menu was as chaotic as the shop. Again she didn’t wait for me to answer. “You need the Dream Finder. It’s this sublime blend of black tea and lavender with hints of chocolate and … ” she winked and shimmied her shoulders, “something special. I already have some steeping, as though I knew you were coming.”
“That sounds great,” I said weakly. I wasn’t in the best mental state to make decisions.
“You read your book, sweetie. I’ll be back with a pot.” She clinked away.
I picked up the teacup. It was so small and exquisite, not like the oversized mugs of today. I could indeed imagine Jane Austen holding it. Or gossipy ladies at a Regency tea party. Or, perhaps, Emily Brontë sipping warmed milk and honey from it to soothe her aching throat.
I heard the jingle of tiny bells, and something soft brushed my leg. I looked down to find the black cat had moved from the window and was now looking up at me with golden eyes.
“Hey, you.” I scratched him under his neck as he made a noisy motoring pur. But after several minutes, he grew tired of my adoration, leaped onto the neighboring chair, and curled up to nap again.
I wish cat was a viable career choice.
I picked up my book. I don’t know why I had grabbed it off the shelf this morning. Maybe I needed some literary comfort food. I opened to the beginning page and quickly sank into the story I hadn’t read in twelve or more years. I had reread it so often in high school that it had dulled, but now the words were fresh again.
Sophia struggled to rein in her hot temper as she surveyed the ballroom. The nerve of Lord Collinswood to call her impertinent. For what? Speaking her mind. No, she wasn’t the simpering type. Nor was she like most of the other young ladies here, so wildly enamored with the lord as to overlook his appalling arrogance and cold manner.
“I fear we are the only ladies in London who clearly see Lord Collinswood’s heartless character,” she remarked to her friends Constance and Imogen.
“I only know of Lord Collinswood’s heartless character because you harp on it a dozen times a day. Are you sure you don’t feel the slightest affection for him? You are rather flushed.” Imogen waved her fan before Sophia’s face.
“Now, isn’t this lovely.”
I looked up. The woman was back and pouring tea into my cup. How did I not hear her approach?
She set down her pot. “I’ll leave this here. You go back to reading. I’m Thalia if you need anything.” She walked away in her impossible heels.
I left the tea to cool and resumed reading.
“I assure you it is not affection that causes my face to heat,” Sophia protested, “but vexation that such a man walks the earth with an unwarranted good opinion of himself.”
“I believe you are referring to his appalling character,” Imogen said. “For a good opinion of his face and body aren’t unwarranted.”
“It is not one’s appearance that matters but the contents of one’s mind,” Constance admonished. “Beauty is in one’s character.”
“Is that why you wore your hair in papers all day,” Imogen remarked. “To improve your character?”
I chuckled. Dear, say-it-like-it-is Imogen. These fictional young women composed my friend group in school, which says a great deal about my high school experience. I would take my lunch outside to the picnic tables where no one ate, open the book, and drop into their vivid world and away from mine.
I reached for the tea and took a sip. Dear God! Why had I never come here but suffered that dreck at the coffee shop? This place may look like every Smithsonian exhibit ever, all crammed into a tiny space, but the tea is liquid manna. I drew another sip and another. I shamelessly raised the cup to slurp the rest when something caught my eye. Below the last drops of tea, I could see a tiny painting. It wasn’t there before. The bottom of the cup had been a tea-stained white. I looked closer to make out three women in Regency gowns talking beneath their fans. They were moving as if a tiny film were playing in my teacup!
A bright flash of light burst across my vision, blinding me. I began to feel like I was spinning, as though in the center of a carousel that went so fast everything became a blur of color and sound. Then all the lights went out. I was still turning but in the darkness. I closed my eyes, feeling as though I may vomit.
At that moment, everything turned still.
I opened my eyes. People were dancing in Regency-era clothing beneath a massive candle-lit chandelier. In fact, everyone in the ballroom was in cosplay, including myself. Gone were my gray wool coat, black pumps, silk ivory blouse, and gray skirt. I wore a long cotton blue dress that was considerably plainer than everyone else’s elaborate getups.
Am I in a dream?
Or maybe the something “special” in the tea is psychedelics or mushrooms.
“It is not one’s appearance that matters but the contents of one’s mind,” said the lady beside me. She wore a tiara-like headpiece in her riot of wild curls. “Beauty is in one’s character.”
Wait? Wasn’t that a line from the book?
“Is that why you wore your hair in papers all day,” remarked a petite, shiny brunette. “To improve your character?” Imogen?
Was I tripping in my favorite book?
“Well, I find his character so appalling it overshadows any good qualities he might possess,” said a woman with honey hair and cat-like eyes. Smart, outspoken Sophia? The character I loved the most in high school. “He has as much heart as he has charm. None. I loathe him.”
Her words, which had set off a delicious rom-com of the enemy-to-lover sort, somehow cut into my heart. I felt that Collinswood wasn’t fictional and that I intimately knew him. Like, really intimately. “You don’t really know him!” I burst.
The three ladies turned. “Pardon me, have we been introduced?” Imogen asked.
“I don’t …” Had we? No, of course not! They are fictional, and this is a f-ed up hallucination.
“What is your name?” Sophia pointedly asked.
“I -I don’t know,” I stammered. How could I not know my own name? Didn’t it begin with an A? No, a G? This is not good at all. That teashop owner is begging for a lawsuit.
Sophia raked me up and down. The edge of her mouth snaked into a smirk. “How quaint of you to wear a dirty plain gown to a ball. Did you accidentally walk through a gutter on the way here?” She flashed her friends a look, and they broke into snickers.
Was Sophia—my literary bestie—mean-girling me? I was clearly upset, and she was behaving like a nasty troll. Uncool.
I had remained mute to my manager’s empty, corporate speak of redundancy and how I would be an asset to any future team I was on. I didn’t respond because I was reeling in a state of disbelief. But as the new reality began to set in, so did the anger. I wasn’t going to be silent anymore. “The only person here with an unwarranted good opinion of themselves is you.”
Sophia’s mouth dropped. “W-what did you just say?”
“He called you impertinent, but, if I recall, you called him arrogant first. And also, is he truly arrogant? Maybe he seems cold and rude because he’s protecting himself because someone … someone….” Heavy aching pain filled my chest. I was sure that somehow I had hurt him. Very deeply. I was the reason for his coldness. This is all crazy. “Look, you will save yourself a world of misunderstanding and hurt if you are a little more understanding and compassionate from the outset. We’re all going through stuff, okay.”
“I’m quite understanding to those who deserve it,” Sophia snipped. My words made no difference. “Why should I feel compassion for a man of wealth and station who has every lady in this ballroom falling over herself for him.”
“Yeah, so, spoiler alert, not everything is how it seems,” I said.
Sophia narrowed her lovely eyes. “How exactly do you know him?”
Wow, that was complicated. Before I could think up something that sounded not insane, a female voice shouted behind me, “Simpson! Simpson! Toss her out. I shall not have an actress tainting these respectable walls.”
I spun to find a thin woman with a lined face, made more severe from rage, glaring at me. That said, she had an excellent Regency look going—a gown of numerous tucks and ruffles that matched the huge red and yellow plumes shooting out from her hair. She resembled an irate, ornate chicken.
The dancers stopped and joined the other guests in forming a semi-circle around me. Everyone kept their eyes trained on me as they discretely conversed beneath their gloved hands and fans. Even my high school ex-besties edged away, leaving me stranded alone amid the hostility.
The name Isobel Germaine rose about the roar of whispers.
I only remember that evil bitch because I’m a superfan of the book. She was mentioned once in a private letter to Sophia from Collinswood’s female cousin explaining his icy behavior. Isobel was the vile actress from Collinswood’s past who had destroyed his heart. The one who laughed when he begged her to run away with him. He had been willing to give up everything for her, but she had brutally rejected him.
I pointed to my chest. “Am-am I Isobel Germaine?”
“This is not a stage, Miss Germaine,” barked ornate chicken lady. “Your wild antics are not welcomed here.”
So, I guess I’m Isobel. But I didn’t feel like the villain. I would have only treated him with tenderness and a devout love that bordered on idolization.
Yet, I knew I had hurt him. Why? What’s wrong with me? He’s the best man I know. The ideal that no guy in my real life could ever live up to.
A somberly dressed man with a stern face that screamed, I’m a British butler, and his posse of footmen jogged towards me.
“Drag her away,” they were ordered.
Oh my God, I’m being fired again! This time in Regency land.
Can I go back to the teashop now?
What if I can never go back? What if I’ve somehow fallen into some weird Regency blackhole?
No, that can’t be true. This is simply a terrible tea-induced hallucination. Yet everything felt so painfully real.
“I just want to see Lord Collinswood,” I cried for some reason. “I must tell him something!” What? What was I going to tell him? Whatever it was, it felt like it was ripping my heart to pieces to be known. “Please.”
A large, strong hand clasped my elbow. Warmth enveloped me, like being hugged by a loved one. But the low voice that growled, “Come,” couldn’t be characterized as loving. Nonetheless, my heart got all buzzy.
“Collinswood,” I stammered.
This was Collinswood! The man I had adored since high school! He pulled me along so quickly that I struggled to see his face as I tried to keep up with his long strides. All around, I could hear shocked, disparaging whispers. It was like being escorted out of my office building again.
We passed through a magnificent foyer and then out the door into the night. I wasn’t used to this kind of dark. In the modern city, the night never achieves more than a deep gray from all the light pollution. But here, the flickering torch lights created orbs of golden light against utter blackness.
He released my arm, and I could finally turn to see his face.
So, back in elementary school, I was running on the track for a field day event when the runner behind me bumped into me, and I fell. Unfortunately, I was going so fast that I slid along the rough pavement. When I finally stopped, I felt nothing, just a dazed shock. Then I saw the blood on my palms and legs. Acute, throbbing pain rushed over my body like wildfire. That’s how my heart reacted to seeing him.
He wasn’t how I pictured him in my mind’s eye, nor was he the steroid-enhanced cover model. His eyes were indeed black as “raven’s wings,” but somehow, I knew they could melt to chocolate when he laughed. And those dark slashes for eyebrows could be quite expressive when discussing something he enjoyed, such as a short story he read in a journal or a friendly dog he had passed. I hated to see the harsh, tight line of his lips. I remembered how soft they were when I kissed him.
Wait, I didn’t kiss him! As much as I would have liked to. And I had done nothing to upset him. He had no right to look at me as though I had murdered his favorite pet. I’m his biggest fan. But another part of me—the Isobel part—was growing stronger than the part whose name I could no longer remember. Sickening feelings of guilt and shame burned inside of me. What had I—she—done? “I wanted to see you so desperately,” I said.
“To make a mockery of me?”
“Now that I’m not the poor relation but the Marquess, your feelings for me have substantially changed. Well, save your sad performance for the stage. I no longer find your shabby behavior amusing, Isobel. Neither does London, I’m given to understand. I’ve heard you’ve lost your engagement at the theatre.”
I was trembling. I wanted to sob but forced myself to articulate words. “I came to tell you that my feelings haven’t changed. I have always loved you.” I held up my hand, stopping any disparaging words from him. I didn’t expect him to forgive me. “You are beginning a new life, and I want you to be happy. I want you to find the love I could not give you.”
“Why are you wasting my time telling me this?”
“Because I was scared back then and chased you away. I wanted to make sure that you never came near me again. You see, you said we could run away together and that I didn’t have to be on the stage anymore. But the stage is all I have. It’s all I am. You asked me to give up the only thing that has been stable in my life. Everyone in my life has always left, and I didn’t see how it would be different with you despite your assurances.”
He stared at me, his jaw working. Poor Isobel, I understood this woman. I knew that kneejerk need to cling to your career.
“There’s a theatre in Bristol that may take me. I’m leaving in the morning. I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry. I don’t mean this in any way to make you come back to me. I know it won’t change your feelings. I ruined everything. I’m sorry that I hurt you. Truly.”
I hugged myself, trying to console Isobel. How many relationships had I sabotaged or let drift away because they had gotten in the way of my sacred career? The one constant I had. I had control in my career that I didn’t have anywhere else in my life. And, unlike in my relationships, I had been wanted and appreciated. Until last week, that is. When I wasn’t at my job, measuring my every moment for productivity and sales, all the monsters of my fears returned. I had ignored them for so long that they had grown uncheck. They were consuming me now.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered more to myself and Isobel.
The shadows falling on his face hid his expression. At length, he said, “Thank you, but you are right. It does little to change my feelings for you.”
He remained, watching me. I wanted him to say that he forgave me. That I still mattered to him. But I knew he wouldn’t. And that I didn’t. Finally, he turned and walked to the door.
I took in what would probably be the last time I ever saw him. But then he abruptly turned.
“I hope you can be happier in Bristol,” he said quietly. “Perhaps you can find a gentleman who could love you.”
“I hope.” But I knew I would never find another man like Collinswood.
He nodded, muttered something, and then walked inside. The enormous door closed with a resounding thud.
Isobel and I were alone in the darkness. We had felt alone for so long. Over two hundred years between our shared lives. Memories began flooding my mind. Images of young Isobel struggling to keep herself safe from treacherous men while trying her best to survive on her own. Ones of my drunken father shouting as the police hauled him away from my high school graduation. How terrified we were of being dependent on someone. Instead, we had clung to false security, and now we had nothing.
I turned, walking into the mist. Where was I going? What happens to minor characters whose stories aren’t written? Was I trapped in some unformed, nebulous world forever?
I spun. “Collinswood!” I couldn’t see him. The thick mist swirled about, disorienting me.
“Where are you? I can’t see you. I’m scared.”
“Isobel.” His voice sounded as though it was echoing off distant mountains.
The fog turned opaque. Again, I had the sensation of spinning around and around in darkness. “Collinswood!”
Only the sound of my rapid breath and the heavy throb of my hurting heart. I opened my eyes. I was back in the teashop. My trembling fingers clutched my teacup. It was empty. No tiny movie played at the bottom. What just happened?
“Did you enjoy the tea,” Thalia asked.
I lifted my face, tears streaming down my cheeks and dripping off my jaw. “I screwed up everything,” I whispered.
“Oh, dear!” She held up her palms. “You wait. I’ll get another tea. I promise you will love it.”
“I have to go!” I yanked up my purse and stoved the book in it. “H-how much was the tea?”
“I can’t let you pay for something you didn’t like. I’ll get another.”
“Please don’t.” I rushed to the door. Maybe there wasn’t anything in the tea? Perhaps I was having a psychotic break from all the stress, and I somehow managed to intertwine the grief in my life with the story.
Something brushed past my leg, and I saw the cat rushing into the busy street. An SUV slammed on the brakes, skidding on the wet pavement, to barely miss it.
“Stop, Shamash!” Thalia screamed.
The last thing I needed today was to have the cat run over. It would completely and finally break me. I dashed into the traffic, ignoring the honks and cursing, and chased the animal. He scampered onto the opposite sidewalk, then sprinted a few blocks to turn onto the crowded walking street leading to the university.
I could make out his little paws between the rush of oncoming people. But he had vanished by the time I reached the arched university entrance.
“Shamash!” I repeatedly called as I awkwardly ran in my work shoes along the campus paths between the old stone buildings. At last, I had to stop. I leaned down, putting my hands on my knees, and tried to catch my breath. I was drenched from perspiration and drizzle.
“Have you escaped again?” a man said. The familiar sound of his rich voice sent waves of warmth over my damp skin.
I raised my head. “Shamash!”
The cat was rubbing his side against Collinswood’s navy blue chino pants.
What! No, that’s not Collinswood. It’s someone who simply looks like his in-real-life identical twin—raven’s wing black eyes, slashes for brows, and all. Oh my God, I must go to the hospital and get checked out.
The man spied me. His eyes widened with concern and alarm. I must have looked like an extra from a horror movie.
“I was trying to catch him,” I explained between breaths. “He ran away from the teashop. I was terrified he’d get run over.”
“Shamash, you jerk,” the man admonished while gently picking up the cat, who immediately started his loud motoring purr. “Come, let’s take you back. I’m Colin, by the way.”
No. This is unreal. I’m still in my hallucination.
“I’m Iso … I mean, Aria.” I remembered my name! “Yep, I’m Aria”
“You look very familiar to me.” He arched an expressive brow. “Have we met before?”
“No. We have never, ever, ever met before,” I said, clinging to sanity.
“Hmm,” he nodded to my reply, which sounded really weird in hindsight. “Well, we’ve definitely met now.” He held out his hand while managing to hold the purring cat at the same time. I shook it. My heart got all buzzy, like when Collinswood rescued me at the ball.
“Want to help me with Shamash?” he asked. “I could use some tea on this wet day. But not the Dream Finder blend. We’re not doing that again, are we, Shamash? I think it’s laced with something.”
“What do you mean laced with something?”
“Well, when I drank it, I had this crazy idea that I was in an early nineteenth-century British novel.” He misread the expression on my face and explained, “I’m a professor of modern literature, but I had to cover for a British literature colleague that semester, so I was reading Jane Austen at the teashop. I probably dozed off. No smoking guns, aliens, or hard-boiled detectives. What are you going do, huh?” He flashed an unaffected, almost goofy smile.
I started laughing in relief. I’m not insane. Or perhaps we’re both bonkers. But, at least I’m not alone. For a moment, in this dreadful week, I felt happy, so I continued laughing, holding a little longer to the precious sensation.
“Perhaps for the sake of experimentation, I should try drinking it while reading sci-fi or fantasy,” he added. “That might be interesting.”
Isobel was right. His eyes did turn a luscious chocolate when he was amused.
“In the mean time,” he continued, “What about some uncomplicated Earl Grey or Jasmine?”
“Yes,” I said. “That would be lovely.”