It had been an incredibly cold January so far, even for a climate that regularly had cold, harsh winters. It seemed like the sun was never out, and the temperature never seemed to rise above the single digits. Every day was dark and frigid, and everybody was in a horrible mood, all of the time. Nobody wanted to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary. The Broken Heart was only busy with takeout orders, which meant they were selling lots of food, but their booze sales were lousy. Thankfully, their county had just passed a measure that allowed for bars and restaurants to deliver booze with their meals to customers, but their signature fancy cold drinks just weren’t selling. So they had the bright idea to start offering specialty hot toddies. For Valentine’s Day, they’d just announced their newest one, the Cold Heart, a smoky, spicy black tea toddy that was an instant success. They also offered it without the added booze. There was also a special variation that only the staff knew about, and that only a few people would ever get to taste.
Grace had been a waitress at the Broken Heart since just before the pandemic made the world close its doors. She was laid off for a while, and during that time, moved in with her boyfriend so she could make ends meet. Now she was getting ahead again, working more hours, finally getting to know the bar’s owners and her coworkers, and contemplating her next move. Grace was no longer in love with her boyfriend, and it was beyond time for her to leave him. She just didn’t know how. Plus, she was a people-pleaser, and doing anything against his wishes felt like a betrayal. He’d let her move in when she was down on her luck! He’d helped to support her when life got hard. And they’d only been dating for a few months at that point so doesn’t that just prove what a good guy he is and how much she was overreacting? Nobody’s perfect. Sure, he didn’t help much (really, at all) with the housework, and he’s become such a gamer that he would rather be online with his friends until early in the morning than spend time with her, but they’d been together for a long time now. It was only natural that he’d want to spend his free time with his friends and not her. And he was between jobs for … well, she’d lost count, but it was at least the sixth time since they’d been together. And, yeah, ok, their “apartment” was a one bedroom above the garage on a run-down property owned by his friend, but now that she was the main breadwinner, there was no chance they could move out any time in the near future. His attitude had been rude lately, but she blamed that on the weather and the cold that seemed to seep into the very bones of everyone, herself included. Maybe she was just being sensitive, overly picky, expecting a grand romance like she was living in some romance novel come to life. That’s not what relationships were like in the real world.
January turned into February, and the terrible weather continued. Grace and her boyfriend started fighting daily, over nothing and everything. She started working double shifts to try to save some money, but her bank account balance never seemed to climb higher. She’d come home from work exhausted and have to clean their entire apartment because he said she “had to, that’s your real job,” while he kept on playing video games and hurling insults at the likely twelve-year-olds that were playing against him from the same spot on the couch she’d left him in.
The Broken Heart got a little busier in anticipation of Valentine’s Day, the big holiday they always celebrated. They had their signature Valentine’s drink, the Bleeding Heart, though in limited quantities. Grace couldn’t figure out what made the drink so delicious, but it was clearly a customer favorite. She didn’t drink on the job, and she was expected to come home right after work, so she drank non-alcoholic Cold Hearts throughout her shift to keep her warm and alert. She knew there was a special batch of the drink kept under lock and key, and one morning there was a suspicious stain near the door to the back office, but Grace didn’t pay any mind. There were epic amounts of Bleeding Hearts available that night, and with a quick mention of that on social media, the bar was absolutely packed for the next several days. She made more in tips in under a week than she had since Christmas, but her feet were angry, and her boyfriend became increasingly agitated and convinced that she was cheating on him. She tried to explain she had no energy because she was so busy at work, not because she was stepping out on him, but nothing worked. She got permission from her bosses to sleep on the couch in the back office sometimes, and they encouraged her to spill her guts about her boyfriend and the way he treated her.
She woke up the morning before Valentine’s Day on the office couch to a barrage of texts from him, cursing her out, accusing her of horrible things. She was so tired of him, of his increasingly irrational and rude behavior, his paranoia and insensitivity. She made up her mind to not go back, to stay in the office until she could afford to move out on her own. If business stayed this busy for just a little while longer, it wouldn’t take too long at all. Grace got ready, and got to work, prepping in the kitchen, anticipating an extremely busy day, while venting to her bosses and co-workers about her stupid soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend. They listened intently and told her it was for the best, that she deserved better, and they’d do whatever they could to help her out of this situation. That day was busy from the moment they opened, and by the time dinner came around, the place was absolutely packed. She realized they were running out of Bleeding Heart mix, and warned her bosses. “Don’t worry, I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll be able to make plenty more tonight after closing, before the real rush tomorrow” she said with a wink before going to clean up a glass someone had dropped. That was something else she loved about working here: how hands-on her bosses were. They kept close attention to all of their patrons, were exceedingly kind to their regulars, and always made sure to remove any assholes from their establishment as quickly and permanently as possible.
The dinner rush never stopped, and as Grace ran around, barely able to think, she didn’t notice her boyfriend come in and take the last available seat at the bar. That is, until she walked by him with a full tray of food and drink, and he roughly grabbed her arm and caused her to spill everything in the middle of the restaurant, causing the whole place to come to a standstill. “Hey! You need to pay attention to ALL your customers, not just the men you find attractive,” he said loudly, his words slurring slightly. Grace swore and wriggled out of his grasp, bending down on the floor to start cleaning up the mess. He knelt down next to her, tried to pull her up. “Get up here! Stop that cleaning nonsense; I’m taking you home and you’re going to clean up after me, you dumb bi-” Before he could finish, both of her bosses yanked him upright and shoved him down into his seat with surprising strength and quickness. “Here you go honey, some spicy hot black tea to warm your cold heart,” one of them said, handing him a rather large Cold Heart to drink. “Let your lady do her work while she’s on the clock with us … which she is, for at least four more hours. You started early today, huh?” Her bosses stood there, and other servers came to join them, and most of the restaurant was still staring at them, so he dutifully took a sip, and then another, larger sip. By the time Grace and her coworkers had cleaned up the mess and put in a fresh food order, the restaurant had calmed down, and she saw him drinking his second Cold Heart. This one looked even larger than the first, like the mug had expanded and he was really drinking two or three at once. Grace decided to just ignore him, and the next time she slyly looked in his direction, he had passed out snoring on the bar. She stifled a laugh, made a mental note to profusely apologize to her bosses when everything died down, and went back to work.
Slowly, the patrons began to trickle out, tipping her heavily if she waited on them, and her fellow servers gave her a cut from their tips as a gesture of kindness. There were still some customers, and normally she would at least stay until they all left, but one of her bosses came and spoke to her. She told Grace to go home and pack all her things up as quickly as possible and bring them back to the Broken Heart. They knew someone renting a room nearby, and they’d help her get her things over there in the morning. “But what if he wakes up?” Grace asked, innocently. “Oh, we know how to handle people like him,” she responded with a smile that looked menacing for the briefest of moments. But the moment passed just as quickly, and Grace ran out the door, back to her apartment, to get her things together. Thankfully, she was pretty minimalist (and, really, she’d sold most of her things before she had moved into their apartment) and anything she left behind she was fine with replacing.
By the time she parked her packed up car behind the Broken Heart, about four hours had passed. It was closed, but naturally, she had a key. Grace unlocked the back door, and found one of her bosses coming out of the office with a huge jug of what looked like Broken Heart drink mix. “Oh, great! You got more ready?” Her boss smiled. “Yeah! We got some fresh ingredients so we were able to make a huge batch. We’re all set for tomorrow.” Grace looked over at the bar and realized her boyfriend wasn’t there. She was about to say something when her boss interrupted. “We put him in the back office to, uh, sleep it off some more. He’s not going to bother you ever again, though, you can be sure of that.” Grace looked confused. “Boy, those drinks did a number on him, but he’s not much of a drinker. It’d be great to give him a piece of my mind. I’m honestly shocked he even showed up tonight; he normally doesn’t leave our apartment.” Her boss smiled, that hint of malice showing through again. “Well, we gave him some extra special Cold Hearts so you can be sure he won’t be visiting you again, here or anywhere else. And since the office is … occupied, why don’t I take you to your new place? It’s technically morning now, so let’s go.” Her boss started to usher her out of the bar, and that’s when Grace finally noticed that her boss was wearing different clothing, and that there were slight smears and smudges of red on her arms and neck. “What’s that on your arms?” Grace asked, starting to reach out to touch them, when her boss stepped back. “Oh, making that mix is a dirty business, I’m fine. Let me just grab my coat … Actually, on second thought, I’ll just blast the heater in my car. Let’s get you in your new place!” Her boss hurried over and started pushing Grace out the door. “This feels really strange,” Grace said, walking over to her car. Her boss reached out and touched her shoulder, forcing Grace to turn around. “I’m sure it does feel strange, but we’re freeing you from an abusive relationship. That man was no good, and now you’re safe. We’re protecting you. Get it?” Her boss had that strange glint in her eye; her smile was more manic than reassuring, but Grace decided she was just exhausted, so she nodded and got in her car. Her boss was right: she was free now. She started her car, letting it warm up, waiting for her boss to get in her car so she could follow to this new destination, when she saw her boss run back into the Broken Heart. She was carrying a to-go mug, and ran up to Grace’s car. “Here, honey, a Cold Heart for the road. It’s super hot, so drink it right before you go to sleep. It’ll help you calm down, ok?” She handed the drink over then ran to her car. Grace noticed she had put her jacket on. Why wouldn’t she go get it when Grace was in the bar? Something was weird, and she felt her stomach turning over. But she had nowhere else to go, so she followed her boss down the road a few miles to a cute little house. Her boss got out of her car and went up to her window again. “The front door’s unlocked, and your room is down the hall, last door on the right. The bed is ready for you. Don’t worry about unloading your car tonight, just get inside and rest. See you tomorrow; be ready, we’re going to be super busy!” And her boss hurried back into her car and drove off.
Her stomach was now in knots, but she got out of the car and brought her drink with her. The door, indeed, was unlocked, and the house looked perfectly quaint and lovely inside. Grace breathed out a sigh of relief, and walked quietly down the hall to her new room. She opened the door and found a small but well-appointed room, complete with an attached bathroom, and a comfortable-looking bed, which she immediately climbed into. She checked her phone for the first time in hours, and took a big swig of her Cold Heart. It was just as delicious as she knew it would be, but this time, there was a strange aftertaste in her mouth, like it was extra smoky, somehow bitter. She took another sip and opened her messages to see if her boyfriend had said anything. No message from him, but she was surprised to find one from herself to him, saying he needed to come visit her at work urgently. She hadn’t written that, she was sure of it. Who broke into her phone and told him to come see her? She took another swig and started to feel dizzy. She put her phone down, her head swimming. What was going on? Her mind flashed to her boss’s face, that glint of malice, and then she passed out into a dark, dreamless sleep.
Scent Notes: Hot, spicy black tea, warm amber, woodsmoke.