●▬▬▬▬๑۩ The old Schoolhouse ۩๑▬▬▬▬●
The small schoolhouse was tucked away in a little grove of willow trees next to a small lake feed by the Notte Creek. It was a wonder how the small place survived after the renovation into Willow Grove Schoolhouse Restaurant. It was off the beaten path, tucked away in a small valley at the end of a road somewhere between the mountain town of Winter Creek and Prairie Flats. Yet it always seems packed. The place was best known for their fish fry and home style cooking. It had just recently come into the stewardship of the family’s youngest daughter, Noel. Still very young for taking over the family business the twenty-one year old Colorado chipmunk energetic and enthusiastic about the venture.
She had offered to take over the business end of things when her father was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. The elder chipmunk, only in his mid-fifties decided it was time to retire. If he couldn’t trust himself to manage the restaurant properly, he couldn’t bring himself to work at all. Noel was more than willing to step up and take things over, it had been her dream to keep the restaurant in the family for as long as she could.
The young chipmunk scurried around the dining room, making sure everything was clean set and ready for the customers before they opened. The schoolhouse itself was quite simple, the first floor consisting of three rooms, which were once the classrooms, toward the font where the customers were seated, and a kitchen in the back corner with the restrooms situated between the kitchen and one of the dining rooms. The seating was quite simple, with several long tables with chairs around them in each room. Customers would often be seated at a table with other unrelated customers, filling the dining rooms to capacity as often as possible, without splitting up parties between rooms or table. It was often touted as a vary family-esk atmosphere.
The second floor was reserved as offices and living space that Noel had moved into after taking over. It basically consisted of a full bathroom, complete with an antique claw-foot tub, an office, and a spacious bedroom with a sitting area.
Being a Sunday evening, Noel could already hear the patrons gathering outside the foyer on the small porch. She smiled as she thought about how the old preacher and the polar bear pagan would sit for hours talking and exchanging stories, always after a long busy Sunday. That in itself was more than enough reason for her to keep the place running. She couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t know Stardreamer. She would sit in front of the fireplace on cold winter evenings listening to his stories. She refused to take that away from her own children. She just hoped she would have some well before the old polar bear pass.
With everything set for the customers, Noel sniffed the air savoring the familiar scent of fried catfish and cooked trout. She had a feeling that today would be a good Sunday. She quickly ran into the kitchen to check on Tyson, an older elk that had been working as the cook for what felt like forever, but Noel could still remember his first day actually working. He had started working as a cook fresh out of high school. Just like her, he had inherited his position from his father before him. It was amusing how the few critics that came through would insist that the two families harbored great secrets of fish frys and passed down family recipes that made the place what it was. Just that thought made her chuckled as she caught him flipping through a beat up copy of Better Homes and Gardens cookbook as he looked for what he was going to call the chef’s special for the day.
Neither of the pair had any formal education beyond high school. They both just grew up into their lives, as if it was only natural for them to be in the old schoolhouse together. At one time, she even had a crush on him, imagining their wedding and children. But she passed that off as teenage hormones, as he was nearly fifteen years older than she was. But then again, she had never seen him with any other girls. The thought that he might be gay had crossed her mind more than once, but even that was fleeting when she would over hear him and the other cooks talking about football and NASCAR. The only thing that made sense to her about him was the same thing that stifled her own social life, the fact that like her, he was there working every day.
“So Ty, what’s for dinner,” she asked as the kitchen door sloped back and forth behind her.
He looked up from the book and replied, “I’m just gonna go with country fried steak and gravy. How’s the hiring of a new waitress coming along?”
“I already told you, Ty, I’m not going to just sit behind a desk all day and crunch numbers. I can still take orders and deliver food.”
“That’s not my point, and you know it. This place will burn you out if you don’t do something to get some time off. Even your dad took days off, and never let you work more than a week straight. Sure, you’re doing fine now, but it’s gonna catch up to you.”
“Okay, I’ll think about it,” she said as she turned to head back to the front door.
“If you don't, I’ll get someone, and lock you in your room if I have to.” Tyson chuckled as he listed to the fwoop sound the swinging door made as she left the kitchen.
Noel trotted up to the slate chalkboard that dominated one wall of the foyer, opposite the cash register, and started writing out the day’s custom menu. It was a simple list of items that she and Tyson discussed the previous day that were served in addition the the regular menu items. About half the items were things he had concocted and wanted to test on the masses, though he usually brought in samples of his custom recipes for her to try before finalizing any daily menu. If she didn’t know better, the last few weeks, since she had taken over, his cooking almost seemed like he was trying to flirt with her. But the daily practice of wiping up a quick sample of the next day’s specials went back as far as she could remember, with both their fathers sitting at one of the tables eating, laughing and planning. Things hadn’t changed much with Tyson taking over for the elder elk, and she figure it would just keep rolling on as before, with her taking her father’s place.
After she finished listing out the items and prices on the blackboard, she took a step back to admire her handy work. It had been her job to put the menu up from the time she could write. She blushed a little as the sight of a backward “e” reminded her of the days she did it as a child. She swiftly stepped back to the board and fixed the error before she up the chalk down and turned to unlock the door.
The chipmunk stepped out into the cold winter air to greet her guests for the evening. The spacious old style country porch was adorned with rockers and an old wooden porch swing. All of which were occupied, along with as semi organized line the lead down the cobblestone path toward the dirt parking area. As she expected, at the front of the line was the latest in a long line of preachers from the old country church down the road as he lead his congregation in what was now a night Sunday ritual after their service. Also, as she had come to expect, hunkered down bay on of the old willow trees was Stardreamer, one of the unofficial leaders of the local pagan community. Everything was as it should be.
“Good evening, everyone. Sorry for the wait. Let’s start getting you all seated,” she shouted, hoping everyone could hear her. To her delight, she was meat with cheers from the porch and yard.
●▬▬▬▬๑۩ The New Schoolhouse ۩๑▬▬▬▬●
The year was 1862. Kansas had become a state only one year passed, and people continued to forge west into the Rockies in search of gold. Noel had, with her own paws and the help of a few settles in near by mining camps, has built the one room school house in hopes that she would bring education and enlightenment to the wild untamed lands. The clearing by the small river in the valley was the perfect place, situated between several encampments of miners. The only issue was getting the population to send their cubs.
Echoes of the war back east trickled in, having little effect on the frontier region. She had moved out west in part to get away from the hostilities, leaving behind her family. She had managed to bring with her several McGuffey's Eclectic Spelling Books and Readers. The fact that she was able to travel so far, alone with only a horse and her buggy was miracle enough. But to be accepted by those she found and their aid in building the schoolhouse was all she needed to know she was where she was meant to be.
She sat alone in the schoolhouse as she waited for the cubs to finish their chores and come for their lessons for the first time. She wondered just how many would come. After that day she would have a set time to start lessons, and set to using the large iron bell to call the students from across the valley.
“Ms. Reign?” a deep masculine voice called from the doorway. She looked up to see an elk with his young son standing in the door.
“Good morning,” She said overjoyed to see her first student, “And who do we have here?”
The older elk bumped him in the back. “I...I’m Justin, ma’am,” the young elk said in a muted shy voice, unable to make eye contact. He could not have been more than ten years old.
“Hello Justin, go ahead and take a seat while we wait for other to come in.”
“You be sure to come out to the claim after your lessons are done,” the boy’s father said as he started to turn and leave. “Be sure to to let me know if he is any trouble ma’am.”
She recognized the older elk from the general store. IF she remembered correctly his name was Tyson. A single man who was raising his son as best he could after his wife died in childbirth. Her mind drifted for a moment, but was quickly brought back to reality as she noted more cubs arriving. She smiled and welcomed them as she took note of their names. She could feel the curiosity, and confusion as the students came in, many of them for the first time in their lives, to take their lessons.
●▬▬▬▬๑۩ A Day's End ۩๑▬▬▬▬●
Noel collapsed into a chair in the now empty dining room, even her high energy level drained by the high paced, nearly frantic evening. She normally had one waitress for each of the three dining areas. She usually managed the one closest to the foyer. But today, two of the girls had called in sick. She had managed to keep up with the orders in all three rooms, and Tyson had even stepped up and delivered some of the food himself, which was far from the usual order of business.
Now she could hear him and the other two cooks cleaning the remnants of the day’s posts and pans. Tyson prided himself on his clean kitchen, having never fallen below an a plus health rating, even when someone filed an anonymous complaint about rats and cockroaches in the dining area, which was never substantiated.
She sighed as she rolled her head over to see Stardreamer still seated in the wooden rocker by the fireplace. She pulled herself up and wiped off her paws and said, “Feel free to warm yourself as much as you want, I’ve got to head up stairs and tally the tickets for the night. Just remember to lock the door on your way out.” She didn’t think she needed to remind him, but she said it out of habit. The polar bear was own of the few she would trust in unattended in the house. He had always been there, as long as she could remember. He was almost a grandfather figure to her, though she didn’t think he was old enough to really fit the bill.
With not much more than a node from him, she made her way by the register and collected the receipts for the night and headed up to her office. It was the time for the only part of the job she didn’t enjoy, but the part she needed to do. It was the one thing that her dad didn’t think he could do anymore. Tallying the receipts and closing out the register for the night was really the only aspect that seemed like work to Noel.
She sat at her desk and crunched the numbers on an old desk calculator the printed out the numbers on a roll of receipt paper. This part of the night was more of a ritual to her than anything, as she had moved all the bookkeeping into an application on her laptop. But she needed to do things both ways, just for peace of mind. There were times she thought she might be suffering like her father was, only younger, as she finished inputting things into the digital ledger only to see the numbers did not add up the same as they did on the calculator. And tonight seemed to be one of those nights.
As she went through the printed tape, comparing it to the screen line by line, she heard a knock at the office door. She looked up to see Tyson with his nightly plate of whatever came out of his mind while he cooked through the evening.
“Numbers not looking right again, cheeks?” he asked stepping into the room. She hated the nickname, though it stuck with her ever since she had to prove she could fit more marshmallows in her mouth than he could. She was only eleven when it happened, and he was in his late twenties. It embarrassed her now, but the photo of her puffed out cheeks and the old kitchen staff still hung on the wall in her office.
She sighed. “No, I’m just double checking,” she lied. It was the same way they caught the start of her father’s mental degradation. The only thing she had going for her was that she knew she had dyslexia, though she didn’t want others to know. She was sure she just transposed some numbers somewhere and it would be an easy fix. She looked up at him, then asked, “So what have you got today?”
“Nothing special,” he replied with a smile. “I figure we can rotate in some of the stuff for a few years ago for the next few day.”
“You never write anything down. How are you going to fix something from a few years ago?”
The elk tapped his head as he said, “I got them all up here. I can hit the supermarket tomorrow and get all the stuff we need.” he sat a plate on top of the papers she was looking at. “You need to take a break and eat.”
She slumped back in the high back office chair. “Okay dad,” she jested with a bit of a sigh.”
“You know he’s right. Besides, if you work yourself to death, who’s going to run the place? Me?” He took a quick bite of the fried catfish on the plate before he sat the fork down, pointed at her. “I am about as useful outside the kitchen as a two and three quarter cup flour sifter.”
Noel leaned her elbow in the table, picked up the fork and took a bite herself before she said, “That’s not what I saw today? You’re pretty handy in the dining room. I think you only swap plates one or two time.”
“I do what I have to. This place is as important to me as it is to you. I don’t know anything else. But guess what cheeks, if we are going to keep this place running, you need to hire more help. It’s not like the place is hurting for money, is it?” he asked as he leaned forward and spun the laptop around.
She lunged forward, fork still in her paw as she slapped the laptop closed. The young chipmunk was more embarrassed that he might see her mistake than she was that he was right.
“Okay, I’ll put out an add tomorrow, we can pick up a few new wait staff…” she paused for a moment the added, “Do you need anyone in the kitchen?”
The elk leaned back with a smug look of pride on his face. “Nope, but I would like to get next Monday off. I have a few things I need to take care of.”
“Who’s going to manage the kitchen?”
“Phill. It’s not like this would be the first time I asked for a day off. He can handle things for a day or two.”
She thought back to when his family would take a weeklong vacation each year. That tradition had died out years ago when his father became unable to travel, but even then the restaurant kept going. Even her family used to take long weekend vacations out of the state.
“Okay, you can have next Monday off, but a little more advance notice would be nice.” She tried to slip in a little guild, but had apparently failed.
“You should take that day off too.”
“What? We can’t both take the day off”
“Why not, Jessica can handle the front. Between her and Phil things should be fine for one night, besides, Monday is our slowest night of the week, and you can cook the books after everything is over.”
Noel rolled her eye, “And what am I going to do? Sit up here and listen to all the commotion going on down stairs? I’m not going to just sit by and let everyone work while I do nothing.”
“Get out, go do something, get away from this place for a bit,. It won’t kill you to actually have a social life. And Willow School will not disappear if you’re not here.”
“Okay, FINE, I’ll take a day off,” she conceded, “BUT! Only after I get the new wait staff trained. And! One of us had to be here if the other is not. You’re the only one I trust to run the place right now.”
“Okay then,” Tyson said with a victorious smile, “I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
She sighed and laid her head , snout first, on the back of the laptop as he stood up and left the room. She knew he was right, She did need a break from the restaurant, even if it was only for a day. But what would she do? She hadn’t really done anything on a social level in the Prairie Flats area since high school, and even then it was only school sponsored function. What do adults do on their days off?