Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
Teen Honorable Mention

The Café of Stars

by Sydney Ling

Author Bio

Sydney lives in Palo Alto; she just graduated from The Girls' Middle School this year, and will be attending the Harker School in the fall. You'll usually find her rereading The Catcher in the Rye for the fifth time, watching an Audrey Hepburn film, making a Spotify playlist with her chaotic music taste, or badly replicating Pinterest drawings- always with jasmine milk tea boba by her side.


The Café of Stars was formed last summer when I came across a story about a café that serves emotions. At first, the story had no plot. It was just two old friends having starlight at the café. Next, I turned it into a reminiscence story, where the character remembers his past as he drinks starlight. Version after version, the story went from first person to second person the third person, from magical realism to Southern Gothic to Twilight Zone-esque. Finally, my tutor said to me, "Go back to the original style. But this time, make the café a purgatory place." The story is now an allusion to Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place", and a few elements of "The Twilight Zone", "The Good Place", David Eagleman's Afterlives short stories, and even the Bible are weaved in. The catch is: the story never directly says anything related to death.

The Café of Stars serves starlight to its guests. They serve it at room temperature, straight up in a small glass. Starlight is a luminescent liquid, clear amber gold, and is best consumed plain. You taste whatever feels like home to you from the syrup-covered waffles your father used to make on Sunday mornings, to sticky, iced lemonades on a hot July afternoon at summer camp. The Café of Stars is a cafe of the past. Your past. Your memories, your loves, your mistakes.

When you first walk in, the café is dark, but your eyes adjust to the low glow of fairy lights strung along the walls and the flickering vanilla candles in mason jars on the small dark wooden tables. A white birchwood sign in a handwritten script reads, "Turn Your Scars into Stars." The jazzy tune of "Stars Fell on Alabama" floats in the background, and the faint scent of cinnamon and caramel pervades the air. At each table sits just one guest, slowly sipping their glass of starlight. The only sound besides the music is the hushed voices of the waiters.

Two waiters in their crisp, white-collared shirts stand behind the counter. Michael, the taller one, carefully pours the glinting starlight from a glass jug while Gabriel polishes the glasses, setting them back on the rack.

"I think that gentleman is ready for his bill," Gabriel says.

"No, I think he needs another glass," replies Michael. "Look at him."

The middle-aged man sets his empty glass down, rubbing his dark eyes before staring out into space.

The waiters continue to watch the strange assortment of people, from the young girl with scars crisscrossing her pale wrists to the old woman in a white knitted shawl who leans back with her hands folded on her lap.

"That girl over there needs a refill," Michael says.

"What? I've already given her two."

"She needs a refill."

Gabriel sighs and walks over to the girl's table, replacing the empty glass with a full one.

He returns to the counter.

"How do you know someone is ready?"

"You look."

Michael points at the woman in the knitted shawl.

"See how her face glows? See her smiling? She's ready."

"But her glass is not finished. And she is very old," Gabriel says.

"Yes, but she has had enough."

Michael nods at a worn, black leather billfold resting on the countertop.

"Here, take this to her."

Gabriel takes the book and opens it and reads the faded typewriter font imprinted on the crisp receipt.

The Café of Stars
Server: Gabriel
Order #: 100825272791 Dine In
Table: 134 Guests: 1
Customer: Lois Tomelty
Arrived: March 25, 1933. Departed: May 21, 2020.
1 Glass of Starlight: $87.00
Tax 1: $8.70
TOTAL: $95.70
Thank you for Visiting The Café of Stars.
Please Come Again!

He closes the book and walks over to the woman, handing the billfold to her. She looks up, grey eyes wavering in a lined face. Gabriel returns to the counter.

He looks back at the old woman's table. She is gone, leaving behind a gentle glow.

He smiles.

The two waiters serve the remaining evening customers for an hour, until one by one, they trickle out until the café is empty. Michael sets his towel down. "Our shifts are over."

"You go. I would like to stay for the next shift."

"See you tomorrow."

"Good night." Gabriel sighs, setting his towel on the countertop.

Michael takes his coat off a silver hook, putting it on along with his hat. He glances around the café with tired grey eyes before walking outside, stepping out onto the empty street. He looks up at the sweet sky and gazes at the glittering stars embedded in the canopy of inky black. Squinting his eyes, he sees a flickering light, a ghost of a star, shining dimly before sputtering out, leaving blankness behind.