Thomas Broderick

Thomas Broderick is a writer and teacher born in Northern California but raised and currently living in Middle Tennessee. Both of these places are home to him, along with a few neighborhoods in Tokyo where he lived while studying abroad and interning with a passenger railway company. Writing fiction his primary hobby since the age of 14, he is happy to share his work with anyone who wishes to read it.

 

The Standard Set (January 20, 2012. Issue 34.)

Five minutes before opening, Nathan began his mental checklist. His uniform came first. The nine buttons of the dark burgundy vest were securely fastened, nothing loose. His pressed white shirt spotless, he did a closer inspection of the cuffs. No, no stains. Black pinstripe pants ran into polished shoes.

Satisfied with his own appearance, Nathan ran a damp cloth over the bar: marble lined with dark hardwood. A second later the hint of rosewater found his nostrils. It was one of the Justine's, the owner, little traditions: every evening during prep she would add five drops of some aromatic to the spray bottles.

"Must be the change in weather," Nathan said to himself, figuring Justine had picked the scent as a reaction to the winter weather. The bar one level underground, he had to wonder if it was still snowing outside.

As Nathan did his own last minute preparations, the bar's server, Natalie, dusted. "Hardly a thing to do," Natalie said, hands on her narrow hips. The girl was nineteen, a decade younger than Nathan. Her uniform was nearly identical to his, the only difference being that her pants were solid black.

Natalie was in part referring to the bar's small size. Beside the main counter with its five stools, six soft leather chairs, all dark brown, were positioned evenly throughout the remaining space. In the corner was a loveseat made from the same material. It was the least used of all the chairs, though, as most people visited the bar alone. "At my old place there was a ton of prep." Only her third week, she was still comparing everything to her last job.

"It was pretty much the same with me," Nathan added, polishing a few already spotless shot glasses just to kill the remaining seconds. His first job, junior bartender at a local hotel, felt like a lifetime ago. It was there that Justine, his future boss, was just a customer. At the time she was a recent divorcee, having taken her cheating ex-husband to the cleaners for half his money and property, part of the latter a basement apartment she wanted to turn into a business.

At seven on the dot Natalie ascended the ten steps leading to street level and unlocked the entrance. At the same time Nathan flipped a switch under the counter that illuminated the outside sign above the doorway: Carousel.

A second flipped switch and a soft light behind the bar illuminated the bottles. The twenty-four identical pieces appeared to glow softly. Three rows of eight, each bottle was embosomed with a frosted engraving: the Greek alphabet from Alpha to Omega. The liquid within each was clear, indistinguishable from that of the others. The collection was known as the standard set. Though no more than three gallons combined, the visually simple selection was worth more than everything else in the bar and quite possibly the building. Nathan mused on this fact as he retrieved a thin stack of menus from under the counter. He set them at either end of the bar for customers to retrieve on their own or for Natalie to hand to customers sitting in the leather chairs. He made sure that the covers were visible in the dim light.

Carousel
Offering the Finest Triple-Distilled Memories Since 2008
Menu

Nathan and Natalie did not have to wait long for their first customer, a businessman in late middle age. Nathan recognized the man as Gerald Klein, a regular who came two or three times a week after working as a partner at a local law firm.

"Good evening Mr. Klein," Natalie greeted as she took his dark overcoat, a cashmere wool mix. The snowflakes stuck to its surface quickly melted in the warm room. She carefully hung it in the closet as Klein made his way to the bar and took the third position, his usual seat.

"How are you tonight, Nathan?" Klein asked as he pulled the chair into a comfortable position.

"I'm fine tonight, sir. I hope it is not too cold for you outside."

"Snowing like mad out there." Klein touched his damp salt and pepper hair before rubbing his hands together.

Catching Natalie's attention without Klein noticing, he motioned her to the gas fireplace on the far wall. Within a minute a roaring fire was heating the room.

"Feels better already," Klein said as he turned his attention to the bottles.

"What can I make for you this evening?"

"A hint of Lambda in a cup of coffee," Klein said without touching a menu.

'Grapefruit juice in the summer, coffee in the winter', Nathan thought to himself, remembering Klein's particular tastes. The only thing that never changed was the Lambda, the third bottle in the second row. As the Arabica coffee steeped in a chrome plated press, Nathan donned a pair of white gloves before retrieving Lambda from the shelf.

A 'hint' was roughly two drops of fluid suspended in an amount of any other liquid. Having prepared the coffee with a sugar cube and a half tablespoon of French cream, Nathan dipped a thin glass rod into the Lambda before stirring it into the coffee. The drink was ready.

"Here you are, sir." Nathan gently set the coffee in front of Klein as a smile appeared on the older man's face.

"Delicious," Klein said after taking his first sip.

Nathan nodded in reply before cleaning the coffee press in a sink underneath the counter. Finished washing, Nathan observed that Klein had finished his drink. He dared not take away the man's cup, though. The look on Klein's face, his eyes slightly glazed and staring off into space, indicated that he was somewhere else, the experience he had ordered. Disturbing him now would be a disservice worthy of an apology and refund.

"Nathan," Klein began, his voice soft, "did I ever tell you about my first wife?"

"No, sir. You've never mentioned it."

"Her name was Katherine. We were young, probably just a little younger than you are now. College sweethearts, you know?"

Nathan nodded knowingly.

"She was beautiful, gorgeous really. Long black hair. We moved in together during our junior year in this tiny apartment just off campus. It was heaven. It really was." Klein rubbed the stubble on his face before continuing.

"She didn't seem sick at first, just a little more tired than usual. God damn cancer took her from me. Tomorrow would have been our thirtieth anniversary."

"I'm sure she knows that you still love her," Nathan said, his eyes meeting Klein's.

Seconds later it was over. A few quick blinks, a deep breath, and Klein was back to his normal self. He silently paid his bill, $90.57 including a $20 tip, before leaving.

"Have a good evening, Mr. Klein," Natalie said as she helped him with his coat.

"You too," Klein replied, sounding refreshed. He hurried up the steps and into the cold.

With no other customers to tend to, Natalie walked behind the bar where Nathan was rinsing out Klein's coffee cup.

"Doesn't it ever annoy you?" She asked.

"What?"

"How he tells the same story every time."

"For some customers, the movie starts to play inside their heads, and that's it. They're satisfied. But for others, like Klein, they need to focus in. That's where I help."

"Who taught you to do that?"

"No one. I did work at a normal bar for six years. It's just like talking to people about their real memories. You just need to take them…to the place they need to go."

"Hmm…why someone would pick such a sad memory every time, though?"

"Like the coffee, it's bittersweet. It makes him feel that he was once loved, that someone depended on him for a time. A lot of men his age like it."

Their conversation abruptly ended as the front door opened. Natalie rushed back to her post just in time to greet a young, fair skinned couple still talking about their dinner. Her amber colored hair, done up in a ponytail, was still swinging as she greeted them.

"We have a reservation for seven thirty," the young man began, dusting a few flakes of snow from his brown sport coat. "It's under Weston."

The name prompted Nathan to push a small buzzer under the counter that sounded in back office. Justine would want to meet these customers.

Justine appeared just as Natalie had put up the Westons' coats. Dressed in a form fitting black dress and three inch heels, she briefly checked herself in a mirror near the bar. Hair tied up in bun, red lipstick and a simple gold necklace, she had an appearance and confidence that would make a woman half her age jealous.

"Good evening," Justine said as she crossed the room towards the Westons. "Welcome to Carousel."

As Justine led the couple to two leather chairs near the fire, Nathan began to mix the drinks the newly married couple had requested over the phone. Into a shaker filled with ice he squeezed fresh mango, orange and guava.

"What's it going to be like?" Nathan overheard the man ask Justine. There was hesitation in his voice. "This was a wedding gift. It's our first time coming to a place like this."

"You don't need to worry about a thing," Justine replied just as Nathan began to shake the different juices together. "Though you're experiencing someone else's memory, just think of one another as you drink. Theta isn't as strong as some of the others. It will adapt itself to you. Honestly, I wish I could have had my honeymoon this way." She finished with a broad smile as if reassuring a child.

Natalie waited patiently as Nathan poured the drinks, each spiked with an ounce of Theta. She carefully balanced each on a silver serving tray before delivering the order. The couple toasted one another before finishing in three long sips. Finishing quickly was always necessary with a large dose from any of the bottles; only seconds after Natalie took their glasses, Mr. and Mrs. Weston fell into what seemed to be a sound sleep.

"Natalie," Justine said softly as Natalie returned the glasses. "Put a throw over each of them. They're in the islands right now. They should be warm." Justine returned to her office.

Natalie retrieved two blankets from the coat closet and tucked in the Westons.

"Have you ever had Theta?" Natalie asked as she returned to the bar.

"Just a hint when I started working here," Nathan replied. Over a two week period when he had begun work Justine had made him sample each of the bottles. Like Theta, some were wonderful. Others, Lambda in particular, were melancholy. Though he had never personally experienced it, mixing the bottles' contents melded memories into more complex forms.

"So you've never…"

"No," Natalie cut Nathan off before he could finish. "Do you honestly think I could afford to spend money in a place like this?" There was a distinct uneasiness in her tone. New customers ended Nathan's chance to ask if anything was wrong.

The rest of the evening was filled with a regular stream of customers. Most were businessmen and women stopping by after dinner or work. As Nathan had predicted, Theta was a popular order due to the bad weather.

The shift progressed uneventfully. Ten minutes to closing, Natalie gently roused the Westons. Dazed as if slightly tipsy, they had wide smiles on their faces as they left.

"And have a wonderful evening," Justine called out from the bottom of the stairs. Her smile faded as they were out the door. "Hopefully they'll recommend us to friends," she said out loud now that Carousel was empty of customers. She checked the wall clock behind the bar. "Well, it's five till. Natalie, let's lock up early."

"Yes, ma'am." Natalie was already halfway up the stairs with the key.

"Nathan, when you get done with the glasses, come into the office. I want to talk to you about expanding our selection."

"Of course."

Justine returned to her office as Nathan hand washed the remaining glasses. Natalie began vacuuming.

Done with cleaning behind the counter, Nathan went back into Justine's office. It was small and cramped, her workstation taking up half the room. Justine's eyes, shaded by reading glasses she never wore in front of customers, were focused on a computer monitor.

"Another good night?"

Justine nodded. "For now. I've been hearing rumors that our monopoly in this town is about to end. I can't be for sure, but I want to close the bar for two days next week so we can visit a wholesaler in New York. We need better experiences if we're going to stay competitive. The standard set isn't going to cut it much…" Justine trailed off, her eyes shifting to the security monitor next to her computer. There, clear as day, was Natalie standing behind the bar, her hands clutching the first bottle from the third row: Rho.

"What the hell…" Justine didn't have time to finish before Natalie raised the bottle to her lips and began to drink.

Nathan ran out of the office and back into the bar. Jumping over the counter, he slapped the bottle out of Natalie's hand. The crystal shattered against the sink. The remaining few ounces of Rho splashed at their feet.

The two locked eyes. Natalie's crystal blue orbs held an intensity that frightened Nathan. This was not the demure girl he had come to know over the past week.

Very quickly, though, Natalie's eyes began to glaze heavily, turning the irises almost white. Nathan reached out just in time to catch her from falling. Stunned, he sank to the floor with Natalie in his arms. Only then did he notice Justine standing over them.

"She drank past the threshold," Nathan said, still trying to catch his breath. "What's the memory duration for Rho?"

"Nine and a half months," Justine replied, her eyes still wide from shock. "It's the conception, pregnancy and childbirth memory."

"Well, she'll experience it all now, every last second." Nathan shook his head before checking Natalie's pulse. "She's all right. Go call the ambulance."

Justine nodded before going back into her office. With Natalie emitting shallow breaths, Nathan reached for a clean towel on the counter. With it he slowly wiped away the thin stream of Rho dribbling from the corner of her mouth.

#

A year had passed. Nathan still wore the same uniform six days a week. His appearance was nearly identical besides slightly longer hair and one deeper line on his forehead.

In the past year Carousel had undergone changes as well. Remodelers had built lockable cabinets to house the bottles. Now customers had to admire them through oak frames and bulletproof glass. Justine had also invested in six new bottles, the experiences an eclectic mix ranging from dog sledding in the arctic to space travel. The latter bottle was engraved with the image of a crescent moon and had its own specialized display case and lighting. Nathan considered the additions gimmicky, but he could not argue with the fact that business had improved even though Justine's greatest fear had come true: another bar offering the standard set had opened the previous summer across town.

Nathan's new co-worker was Ashleigh, a recent college graduate of 22 who always seemed to have an endless reservoir of energy. She had long fiery red hair, and was always courteous towards customers. Nathan had no problem with her.

Outside the evening was cold but clear. The last of the regular customers had left along with a middle aged couple celebrating their anniversary with Mu, a quarter ounce each. Five minutes until closing, Nathan began wiping down the counter. The scent of lavender soon filled the bar.

Nathan didn't even hear the front door open. Unsure footsteps slowly descended the stairs. Nathan raised his head. Standing ten feet away was a young woman wrapped in dark brown overcoat much too big for her gaunt frame. Frayed blue jeans met soiled tennis shoes. Her hair wavy and died black, she stood still as stone across the room from Nathan.

Natalie, Nathan mouthed, his brown eyes staring into her piercing blue ones.

"Miss, I'm sorry, but the bar is closing." Natalie didn't acknowledge Ashleigh or what she said.

"Ashleigh, it's all right. I'll take care of this customer. Why don't you go on ahead? I'll do the vacuuming and lock up." Nathan didn't allow Ashleigh to protest. Natalie looked on, her eyes indifferent to the scene.

Natalie had taken a seat at the bar by the time Nathan returned from locking the front door.

"I like the changes." Natalie stared up at the cabinets. Nathan took his usual position behind the counter.

"Well, Justine didn't want to take any chances after what happened."

"Is she in tonight?"

Nathan shook his head. "No. She's in London bidding on a few different bottles."

"Too bad. I wanted to apologize." Natalie looked away. "And say thank you to her for not pressing charges."

"I'll let her know. To be honest, I think she took pity on you."

Natalie sighed as her eyes slowly returned to the standard set. "What kinds of people usually order Rho?"

Nathan thought for a moment. "Grandmothers. Infertile women or those who decide to adopt children. Once in a while a wife makes her husband try it." The last part caused Natalie to let out a small grunt of a laugh. "I've never had anyone order more than a hint at a time, though."

"Do they enjoy it?"

"It's very nice in small doses."

Natalie wiped a tear from her eye. "Nathan...that memory…was my birth mother's." With the confession came a torrent. Natalie attempted to cover her sobs with her right hand. Nathan offered a clean towel in lieu of tissues and reached across the bar to put his arm around her. It took a full five minutes for Natalie to compose herself.

"I didn't even know until six months before I came to work here. One day I get a notice from a lawyer saying that she, her name was Lilly, died and I inherited her property. There wasn't much, a thousand dollars and some documents. In them I found an old letter from the people who make," she looked up at the bottles, "all of that. It thanked her for providing the memories for Rho."

I went to the nearest place that had the standard set. I spent my entire inheritance on half an ounce of Rho. I knew it then, Nathan. It was my mother's memory."

"But after that, why did you need to come here?"

Natalie blew her nose in the towel. "I felt sick once I knew. I never blamed her for giving me up, but cutting me out of her memory entirely, selling it to be reproduced and sold like livestock?" Her hands, resting on the counter, were visibly shaking. "Did I really mean so little to her?" The last few words barely made it out of her mouth. She slammed down with her right fist.

"Nathan, the reason why I…if she didn't want that memory anymore, I figured I was the only one who deserved to have it. All of it." Nathan heard no satisfaction in her voice, only tired sobs and angry confusion. Natalie had clearly not found peace in the experience.

Nathan nodded, unable to find any appropriate words. He glanced at her dirty clothes. "Do you need a place to stay tonight?"

Natalie chuckled and shook her head. "I'm actually in town with my parents, my adoptive ones." She picked at her coat and jeans. "Lilly used to wear things like this. This was her hair color." She lightly touched the dyed strands. "The doctors said that it's a temporary side effect or something like that. She's still inside my head. You should have seen me when I woke up. For a week I still thought I was her. She'll fade over the next few months, and it'll be just me again. For now this is what feels comfortable."

"I'm glad you're not hurt." Nathan's smile was genuine. The uncertainty he had held in his mind for a year suddenly faded.

"Nathan," Natalie's tone became as solid as the marble counter. She reached into her pocket and extracted five folded $20 bills. She laid them in front of Nathan and flattened them with her palms. They locked eyes. "I know it's late, but I was wondering if you could take me where I need to go."

"Of course," Nathan replied almost immediately. He rang up the sale. "Why don't you wash up in the restroom first? I'll have a hot chocolate waiting for you when you get back."

"That'd be great. Thank you." Leaving her overcoat on the bar chair, Natalie disappeared into the restroom.

The hot chocolate a quick mix of hot whole milk and thick syrup, Nathan turned his attention to the cabinets. With steady hands he quickly applied two hints of Rho to the steaming mug. Just a little more than usual would be necessary. He had just replaced the bottle when Natalie returned.

"Smells great." Natalie didn't hesitate. She took a large sip.

"Imported chocolate," Nathan added nonchalantly, continuing his previous job of wiping down the counter.

The effect began the moment Natalie finished her cup. Her irises became almost murky colored. Her body slowly slouched in the chair.

"So, Lilly," Nathan began, standing directly in front of her, "when's the baby due?"

A look of surprise came over Natalie's, now Lilly's face. "I didn't know I was even showing yet." Her voice was soft, meek and afraid. She reached under her green sweater to touch her stomach.

"Just a little. I'd say you have about six more months."

"That's right. I was at the doctor's office just yesterday. It's a girl."

"Congratulations." Nathan smiled warmly.

Lilly quickly shook her head. "I'm just sixteen. My parents don't even know. I can't have a kid right now." A creeping panic caused her upper body to tremor. She crossed her arms and rocked back and forth on her chair. Nathan offered her a glass of water.

"Have you considered adoption?"

Lilly nodded. "Yeah, it's probably what's best for my baby. But…"

"What?"

"The thought of her growing up without me, that I would have no idea who she would become. I don't think I can stand it." The admission was clearly painful; Lilly's face formed into a grimace.

"Well, if you could talk to her right now, what would you tell her?"

Lilly thought long and hard, taking a sip of water in the process. "I'd tell her not to make the same mistakes as me. She should go to college. I hope…that one day she can forgive me." The last part caused her eyes to water. She wiped them with the back of her sleeve.

"I'm sure she will, Lilly. I'm sure she will."

"Thanks for saying that."

Nathan took up the empty mug and glass and began to wash both. Her breathing normalized just as he turned off the tap.

Their eyes met. Natalie's were normal again.

"How do you feel?"

"Okay," Natalie replied before taking a deep breath. She momentarily looked up at the ceiling. "I would have never known, Nathan. Oh my God."

Nathan allowed Natalie a moment for her mind to settle. It was almost midnight according to the wall clock.

"It's time for you to get some rest." Nathan came around the counter and helped Natalie to her feet. She held tightly onto his arm as they walked up the stairs.

At the door Natalie took Nathan in a hard embrace. "Thank you for catching me, twice."

"Glad to do it." She kissed him on the cheek, allowing her right hand to momentarily linger on his shoulder.

Nathan held the door open for her. Hands deep in her coat pockets, Natalie stepped into the cold, still night. Nathan remained in the doorway and watched her walk along the deserted sidewalk. Tilting her face towards the sky, she stared at the stars.

The Legendary