The Sunlight Cafe bustled with people, each one of the eclectic tables and chairs occupied, even the creepy one, the statue of a hand with its palm upraised. Clarissa hadn’t always been unnerved by it. When local artist Mara had gifted it to them, she’d said it symbolized a helping hand lifting a person up. But Lou insisted it looked more like someone grabbing you and pulling you under, and now that was all Clarissa could see.
Lou had wanted to throw it out, but Mara was a regular customer of theirs, and besides, it wasn’t exactly out of place. All of their seating had been donated or scavenged: they had old rocking chairs with red checkerboard cushions, a park bench, and a stadium seat. Mara’s hand-chair fit right in.
Clarissa pushed past her uneasiness and brought a water pitcher over to the patron in the hand-chair. Wendy was another regular and a friend of Clarissa’s since college. The plate in front of her held the remains of an everything bagel slathered in soy butter, which Clarissa had brought over earlier without having to be asked.
“Today’s the day, isn’t it?” said Wendy.
Clarissa leaned over so she could top up Wendy’s water glass. “Yes, it is,” she said. Then her cell phone buzzed.
Usually, she’d never check her phone in front of a customer, but this was Wendy, and the news she was waiting on was important. She checked the text and breathed in sharply. “Looks like it’s the hour and the minute, too.”
Wendy’s eyes were wide with curiosity, but she sat back as Clarissa clicked on the link in the text, like she was trying not to pry.
The link went to a government website, which Clarissa logged into by pressing her thumbprint onto her screen. She navigated to the page for the Business Impact Council, and then the tab for Pending Procedures. Finally, she opened up the decision.
Please be informed, the notification read, that your business, the Sunlight Cafe, has been designated a Moderately Impactful Business. This replaces your current designation as a Negligibly Impactful Business. The Moderately Impactful Business designation comes with increased governance requirements which are listed below. Note that our decision may be appealed and is considered probationary until the appeals process is complete.
Clarissa looked up at Wendy. “They did it,” she said. “They classified us as impactful.”
Wendy watched her for a moment. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah! I’m fine,” Clarissa said. “It’s exciting, right? To have an impact on others.” But her hand, still holding the water pitcher, was shaking. She lowered her voice. “I have no idea how Lou’s going to react.”
Lou — Louisa — was Clarissa’s wife and business partner. She was the chef and the paperwork person; Clarissa was in charge of actually talking to people. It was a division of labor that worked well for them, at least until recently. Until the Impact Council got involved.
Wendy grabbed Clarissa’s hand and squeezed it. “Let me take the kids tonight,” she said. “Give you and Lou a chance to talk this out.”
Clarissa nodded gratefully. Wendy was on the pick-up list at the kids’ school, so there weren’t any arrangements to be made. Todd was going to be thrilled — he was the same age as Wendy’s only child — and Perry was happy anywhere so long as they were left alone to read.
Clarissa took Wendy’s empty plate and the water pitcher back behind the counter. Colin, the barista on shift, watched her closely.
“Did you get the decision?” he asked, finally. His lower lip was a little swollen, like he’d been worrying at it.
“I did,” said Clarissa. “They gave us the designation.”
She closed her eyes and breathed in slowly. The scent of coffee was strongest back here; it calmed her and made her feel awake at the same time.
“I’m sorry,” Colin burst out, interrupting her reverie. Clarissa looked over at him, confused. He was definitely biting his lip too much, he was going to make himself sore. “You have to believe me.”
“I do believe you,” said Clarissa, “but what are you sorry for?”
“For my testimony.” Colin and all their other workers had been interviewed by the Council. That was standard; for the rest of the community, such interviews were optional, although over a dozen additional people had testified in their case. “I know Lou doesn’t want the designation, but I couldn’t lie.”
“Hey,” Clarissa said, and she took Colin’s hand just like Wendy had taken hers. “You did the right thing. I’m glad that this job has been so important to you, okay?”
But Colin wasn’t comforted. “Yesterday I heard Lou muttering to herself that she’d shut this place down if the Council ruled against her.”
And oh, that hurt to hear. It was like a fist around Clarissa’s heart. But she knew Lou much better than Colin did, knew her better than anyone since a month into their relationship, when they’d gone camping together and emerged from the wilderness bruised and battered and practically engaged.
“Hey, remember last weekend, when Lou burnt the raspberry napoleons, and swore she’d never bake anything again?”
Colin nodded, and smiled a little.
“I’m going to go find her and talk to her,” Clarissa said. “Can you close up if I’m not back by seven?”
“Sure,” said Colin, and his shoulders settled now that he had some way to help.
“And can you enter today’s receipts, if you have the chance?” It was the kind of thing Lou or Clarissa usually did, but Colin could probably use the distraction.
She left Colin eagerly tackling the receipts and headed into the back of house. It wasn’t much — a small kitchen and an even smaller office — and it was usually Lou’s domain. But Lou was nowhere to be found.
And it wasn’t like Clarissa tried to keep tabs on her wife. Lou could go where she wanted. Only six months ago, she never would have left without telling Clarissa so, without a kiss on her cheek — or her neck, if they were somewhere private.
The Council’s investigation had left Lou defensive and surly, even with the kids. Yesterday Clarissa broke up a fight between the kids over a video game. Perry had amassed something like a hundred lives, while Todd kept losing all of his and having to start over. “Maybe you could give Todd a few of yours?” Clarissa asked Perry, and Lou called from across the room, her voice raised: “They don’t have to if they don’t want to.”
“But I keep losing!” Todd whined.
“Well, that’s on you to get better,” snapped Lou. “Not on Perry to compensate.”
There was real anger in her voice, enough to make Todd shrink down, wide-eyed and hurt, enough to make Perry drop their console and reach for a book instead. Lou stood up suddenly and left the room; when Clarissa followed her and found her, she already looked sorry. “I know, I’m projecting,” she’d said. “I just can’t get this stupid Council out of my head.”
Now the Council wasn’t just in Lou and Clarissa’s heads, it was in their business.
Clarissa grabbed her jacket off the hook in the hall and headed out the back door. There were a few different places Lou could be, but she had a good idea of where to start.
A thirty-minute bike ride away, on the other side of town, was a building that used to be a bank, one of the big chains with thousands of locations. When the Impact Councils broke it up, it became Windmoor Bank, but it had been outcompeted by the neighborhood credit union. It was the credit union that had given Clarissa and Lou a loan to buy the old bank and turn it into a restaurant.
They’d closed on it six months ago. That night they sat together in the middle of the cavernous main room on a picnic blanket that did little to soften the hard marble floor. Two glasses of champagne and a little almond “good luck” cake Lou had made sat between them. “To growth,” Lou said and kissed Clarissa, her lips tasting of almonds.
Lou was sitting in the center of the room again. No picnic blanket, no glasses or plates. Just her, head down. Clarissa’s footsteps echoed, but Lou didn’t look up.
“I’m sorry,” said Clarissa.
Lou still didn’t lift her head. “You aren’t.”
“I am,” said Clarissa, getting down onto the floor with her wife. She winced a little at how the marble felt against her knees. They weren’t young anymore. “Of course I am.”
Lou finally looked up, and her eyes weren’t sad, but angry. Her brows were narrowed. “You wanted this,” she said.
“I know I’m not as opposed to it as you are —”
“Bullshit.” Lou pulled away a little, though she didn’t get up off the floor. “The Impact Councils and the — the community governance. You weren’t just rooting for it, you think it’s right.”
“I think it’s good for society,” Clarissa said carefully. “When people are impacted by things, they should have a say in how they’re run. But I wasn’t rooting for us to get this designation. I know how much you hate the idea, and I’m on your side.”
Lou peered at her as if deciding whether to believe her. Eventually, she got to her feet, and Clarissa scrambled up after her, grateful to no longer be on the hard floor.
Lou wandered into the back, the bank offices that had been partially converted into a kitchen. Lou had spent hours overseeing the contractors. Of course, they hadn’t really needed the supervision — the group they’d used had a sterling reputation and a warranty to fix any mistakes — but the kitchen was Lou’s baby, her third child, the setup she’d started dreaming of when she was six years old and experimenting in her parents’ kitchen.
“I wonder how much we can get for it,” Lou said.
Clarissa stepped forward, as if that would help her understand, although she’d heard just fine. Lou’s voice was loud and clear, worrying only in how little emotion touched it. “Why would we — we’re not selling it?”
“Didn’t you read the full decision?” Lou asked, and no, Clarissa hadn’t. She’d seen the summary and immediately started looking for Lou. “The expansion was one of the main reasons for the designation. If we give it up, maybe we can win the appeal.”
“But you love it,” Clarissa said, stupidly.
“Of course I do,” said Lou. “Apparently, my feelings and desires don’t enter into the decisions of the Business Impact Council, blessed be their name.” She reached out for the induction stove and traced her fingers around the circle of the closest burner. “So I’ll have to give it up.”
Clarissa had always loved how steady Lou was and how willing she was to face the hard things. When the storm had come in the middle of their camping trip, Clarissa had panicked, but Lou hadn’t. She’d pulled Clarissa out of the tent and got them both away from the flooding river. When there was danger, she took decisive action. But where was the danger here?
“Lou,” she said softly. “What if we don’t appeal?”
“Well,” Lou said, humoring her, but it wasn’t good humor. Her tone was sharp, sour. “I guess we’d keep the expansion, but who knows what we’d do with it. We’d have to ask the new co-owners, right? Maybe they want to turn this place into a pizza parlor or, or — a bowling alley. We could run a bowling alley. Wouldn’t it be fun to run a bowling alley?”
Clarissa doubted they could fit even a single lane in here, but that wasn’t the point. “That’s not how community governance works. You know that, right? They can’t just order us to turn this place into a bowling alley.”
“No?” asked Lou. “Help me out here. Check my math. There’s one worker representative, one community representative, there’s you, and there’s me. They have just as many votes as we do.”
“Which they’ll use to make sure we’re treating our baristas right, and using local ingredients, and, I don’t know, making customers feel welcome. All things we do anyway! Even if they did want to build a bowling alley — which, to be clear, is absurd — even if they did, we could block them. You and me.”
Lou didn’t respond. She looked away, back to her stovetops, and the uneasiness that had been swirling in Clarissa for months solidified into fear.
“Lou. We’re on the same side.”
“I know you think that’s true,” Lou said. “But you’re a pushover. You couldn’t even say no to the hand-chair.”
“I can stand up for something if it’s for you,” Clarissa pleaded.
But Lou was shaking her head. “No, it’s more than that.” She paused. She was measuring her words like they were ingredients in a recipe she was afraid to mess up. “We never would have been called before the Council if it wasn’t for you. This is your fault, and you haven’t once apologized.”
Clarissa took the words like a punch, stepping back. “What are you talking about —”
“The public readings. The open mic night. The fundraisers for the school. Pay-what-you-can Fridays.” Lou listed them out like an indictment. “All the local art on the walls. Donating our extra food.”
Every one of those ideas had been Clarissa’s. And every idea had lit her up inside, like an oven sparking on, coming to life. That feeling of — this, this is what I was put on earth to do.
“Every person who testified to the Council, saying we’d impacted them, was someone you brought into our lives. Jaleel from the school board, Sofia from the food pantry. Mara. Colin. They were testifying about you, about the impact you’ve had on their lives. You think I didn’t see you smiling when they testified?”
She’d tried to hide it, for Lou’s sake. She thought she had. But she’d always been an open book — especially to Lou.
God, no wonder Lou was angry. Here she was, feeling like her life was being torn from her, and her wife couldn’t even hide how good it made her feel.
“I just wanted to make food,” Lou said. “You’re the one who made it into something more.”
Lou had told her to handle the front of the house, but Clarissa could have just picked a color palette and smiled wide and fake at the customers. She would’ve hated it, but she could have done it. “I’m sorry,” she said again, and she meant it both ways this time: I’m sorry you’re hurting, and I’m sorry I hurt you.
Lou was waiting for more. Her lips were pressed together, her gray eyes hard. Lou wasn’t a vengeful person, but Clarissa thought — her anger will destroy us if I let it. It will fall between us like a curtain.
“Okay,” Clarissa said, finally. “If the appeal is what you need to do, I’ll support you.”
Lou breathed out. “Thank you.” The anger and the fear fell away, and she straightened, looking more confident. “So we go back to how it’s supposed to be. Just a little cafe. That dream I always had.”
When the storm had passed, and they were cold and wet and lost, trying to distract each other from the shivering and the chattering teeth, the specter of hypothermia, Lou had asked, What are you going to do when we get out of here? She’d picked a direction, and they were sticking to it. It was the only way to get unlost. I want a little cafe with a kitchen in the back, and to cook every day. Clarissa, stumbling after her, confessed: I don’t know what kind of job I want. I never have. I just want a woman to love forever and two kids. And Lou had said, Yeah, that too.
“We give up the expansion. The art shows, the open mic nights, the public readings.”
“The food donations?”
All of Clarissa’s ideas, she’d shrugged at — sure, go ahead, might as well, whatever. But the food donations she’d been excited about. She’d insisted on closing food service down a half hour early so the donations could get to the shelter in time for dinner.
“The food donations, too,” Lou said finally, her face twisting awfully.
It matched the feeling in Clarissa’s stomach, a roiling mess. The thought of turning the Sunlight Cafe into just another store, with customers that came in, ate, and left, workers that were just in it for the paycheck — it felt like a dream dying, a dream she hadn’t known she’d had until it was coming alive in her hands. But better to lose that dream than her marriage.
Besides, it was Lou’s dream first. Clarissa had stumbled after her, following her lead, and found something to love too, something that lit her up inside, but she’d never have found it without Lou.
“Let’s go home,” Clarissa whispered. She needed to hold Todd and Perry, even if Perry would only suffer through it silently, and Todd would whine, Mooom. She needed to touch what she still had.
“We’ve got to close up the cafe,” Lou said.
“Colin was going to.”
Lou waved a hand. “Colin is seventeen.”
Of course, Lou didn’t trust Colin. Of course, she had to go and do it herself. Clarissa followed Lou on her bicycle, and the wind felt worse riding in this direction. Maybe it was the dusk that was falling, or a storm was coming through. Or maybe Clarissa was just angry, angry that Lou couldn’t trust a single person other than her.
It had felt amazing once, to be the exception — the one person Lou let in. Now it felt like a cage.
By the time they got back to the Sunlight, it was fully dark. The cafe was closed up, and all the patrons were gone. Clarissa leaned against the counter, arms tighter and tighter around herself, as Lou went over everything Colin had already done. He’d handled it all perfectly.
Lou reached out to straighten the pile of receipts that Colin had left clipped together, and Clarissa was about to snap.
There was a knock on the front door.
“We’re closed!” Lou shouted, not looking up, but Clarissa recognized Sofia and walked over to let her in.
“Didn’t Colin give you tonight’s donation?” Clarissa asked.
Sofia nodded. “Of course, yes. But he told me the Council made its decision today, and I just wanted to say — everything I told the Council, every word of it was true. Your donations have been such a joy for our families. Most people donate canned food, chips, and crackers, pasta. And we’re grateful, but the food you donate — it takes effort and skill. People feel special eating it. They feel cared for.”
Lou still wasn’t looking up, but she’d stopped rearranging the receipts. Her shoulders were drawn tight. “Thanks,” she said, roughly.
And Clarissa knew — she knew because Lou had confessed it, on that camping trip where they’d confessed everything — she knew that Lou had been one of those people. She’d never lived in a shelter or gone to a food pantry, but she’d eaten box after box of pasta, bag after bag of chips, in a kitchen where no one cooked for her, in a home where no one played with her, and she’d learned how to cook for herself, how to take care of herself, how to make herself feel special.
“Thanks,” Lou said again, raising her head, and her eyes were wet. “Sofia —” she began. Stopped. Tried again: “Sofia —”
She was trying to tell Sofia they wouldn’t be donating anymore, Clarissa realized. But she couldn’t get the words out.
“Louisa?” Sofia asked.
Lou was quiet for a very long time. It was a struggle Clarissa could only see the edges of, and couldn’t help her with.
At last, she breathed in. “Lou. My friends, they call me Lou.”
Sofia’s face broke open into a smile, her eyes alight. “Lou,” she repeated. “My friends call me Sofie.”
Sofia left so they could finish closing up, though all the work was done, and Lou hadn’t moved from behind the counter.
“Have you changed your mind?” Clarissa asked, unable to keep the hope out of her voice.
“No,” said Lou. “But — I couldn’t do it.”
“I saw,” Clarissa said, gently.
She stood across the counter from Lou and thought again, as she had all evening, about that camping trip. How they’d walked through the dark together, how it was too cold to try to lay down and sleep. How her wet shoes had fallen apart, her feet narrowed down to twin points of pain, and Lou was strong, so strong, but not strong enough to carry her.
I can’t do it, Clarissa had cried, sinking down onto her knees.
Lou knelt down with her. Baby, you have to. You have to.
What’s the point? Clarissa had wept, pitiful. No one’s going to find us.
And Lou had said, We don’t need anybody else. We just have to keep going. She’d taken Clarissa’s clammy hands in hers and pulled her up, pulled her on.
“Let me say something.” Clarissa reached out to brush Lou’s hand where it was white-knuckled, gripping the counter. “I will follow you wherever you want to go, but let me say something first.”
“The profits we made, enough to buy and convert the bank — they were payment for your food, yes, but people come here for the community too. The open mic nights and the food donations, they’re not a footnote to our success. They’re the cause of it. And the Council, they see that we’ve made something special here. You and me, and Sofia, and Colin, and Wendy, even Mara and her creepy hand-chair — we’ve made something special.”
Clarissa’s voice caught, tears slipping down her cheeks. She felt, in a way, like she was pleading for her life, for the life they’d built together — she and Lou and all the others, their whole community.
“Sofia, Colin, whoever gets chosen to govern with us, they’re not going to destroy what makes this place special. They’re going to protect it. Wendy is watching our kids right now. You trust her with them, but not with the cafe?”
Lou opened her mouth as if to answer, then stopped, as if she couldn’t.
“I get that you’re afraid,” said Clarissa. “You want to make our lives small enough that we don’t touch anyone, but what kind of life is that? What kind of life has no impact? I’m afraid that I’ll resent you for it eventually. That you’ll resent yourself.”
“Okay,” Lou said.
“You need to —” Clarissa cut herself off. She breathed out. “Okay?”
Lou shrugged. It was a rigid, unnatural movement, not casual at all — she was pushing herself in a direction she didn’t want to go. “Okay. We won’t appeal.”
And Clarissa thought — she couldn’t stomach the thought of telling Sofia —
But Lou said: “I didn’t realize how much this was going to hurt you. If I was sure you were wrong — but I’m not sure.” She swallowed hard. “So maybe it’s time I followed your lead for a change.”
Lou turned her hand, which had been gripping the counter, up to catch Clarissa’s in hers. Their fingers threaded together.
At the end, in the forest, all she’d been aware of was Lou’s hand. Her feet had gone numb, her mind protecting her from the pain. The night was so dark she might as well have her eyes closed. But gradually, the night loosened its hold on them. Sunlight peeked in through the tree cover, and it saved them. In the distance, they could see a road.
“Remember that time we got lost in the forest,” Clarissa said, like there was any chance Lou might have forgotten.
“Yeah,” said Lou. “That was when I knew you were it for me.” “How?” asked Clarissa.
“How did you know?”
Clarissa wondered why she’d never asked this question before. “That was when I realized you wouldn’t give up on me. That even if things got really, really rough, you’d keep going. I’d been wanting to fall in love with you since the beginning, but I hadn’t let myself, because I didn’t know if I could trust you.”
Clarissa squeezed Lou’s hand. “Being trusted by you has been the greatest honor of my life,” she said. “But I don’t want to be the only one you trust anymore.”
Lou sighed. Clarissa tugged her in close, leaning over the counter, so that she could feel Lou’s breath warm on her face. “I’ll work on it,” she said.
Clarissa pressed her smile into Lou’s skin. “I love you.”
When they’d finally found their car, Clarissa had collapsed into the passenger’s seat. Her muddy clothes left stains on the seat, and her feet bled into the footwell, but she couldn’t stop laughing. She was giddy with relief. I love you, Lou had said, watching her. Let’s go home.
Lou’s eyes met hers. They were wary, still, but there was love in them, too, and trust, and begrudging hope, and relief at having made the decision. And, sparking to life, that familiar, practical glint that meant Lou was turning her mind to tomorrow’s menu.