The Smell of Cider

By: the YU Writers’ Guild  |  December 20, 2023

By the YU Writers’ Guild

Each month, the YU Writers’ Guild accepts submissions for a short story following a specific theme. This month’s theme was “Winter is Coming,” featuring stories that remind of the feelings of winter. Members of the club voted on a short story to be featured in the YU Observer. For the month of December, “The Smell of Cider” written by Aliza Billet was selected.

The Smell of Cider

Sylvie stepped carefully down the sidewalk, examining the shops that lined both sides of the street. It was a cold day in December and Grandma Naomi had said that for Sylvie’s birthday, they could go wherever she wanted. Which building should she choose? There were clothing stores, where Sylvie could pick out a special birthday outfit. She could get a toy for Jason or a new book for herself, or she could pick the candy store and get a snack for them to share. But how to decide? She hadn’t expected turning ten to be this stressful!

Sylvie let go of Grandma Naomi’s hand to push her hair back under her hat from where it had come loose. Snowflakes kissed her face as they fell, painting her cheeks and nose pink. She had to pick a shop soon, because she was worried Grandma Naomi was getting cold in the biting wind. Which one, which one…

Looking down at her unusually-silent granddaughter, Grandma Naomi noticed Sylvie’s face scrunched up in concentration. She was shivering in the cold. When Sylvie’s chattering teeth broke the silence, Grandma Naomi spoke.

“I know a place you’ll like,” she said. The girl looked up sheepishly, gap-toothed smile revealing her relief at having the decision made for her. Grandma Naomi steered her granddaughter around the corner until the pair was facing a little café peeking out from between two taller buildings.

“Your Grandpa Max used to take me here on dates,” Grandma Naomi said, squeezing Sylvie’s hand. “Your mom came here when she was working on her dissertation. And now you’re here with me. It’s a special place.”

Sylvie reached for the handle with frozen fingers. Opening the door, she was hit with a blast of pumpkin spice and cinnamon. She caught a glimpse of her pink-twinged face in the window before the heat from the store completely fogged up her glasses.

Vision restored through a careful wipe of her lenses, Sylvie took in the café. The decor was a stark contrast from the outside, where bare trees accented the painted-white sky and snow. In the café, everything was warm and colored with muted browns, oranges, and reds of the autumn variety. Small tables dotted the periphery of the café, interspersed with cozy armchairs. Even the people matched the color scheme:

A young woman sat concentratedly in a corner, alternating between typing away on a laptop and taking small sips of tea. Her ruby-red hat matched her sweater and also her laptop case. Sylvie wondered if that was on purpose.

An elderly couple held hands over matching croissants and hot chocolates. The woman’s laughter at the man’s joke wafted over with the scent of the cocoa. Sylvie couldn’t help but smile, too.

In a different corner of the café, a group of teenagers sat poring over class notes. One of them jumped up with a new nonsensical mnemonic. The others quickly caught on, repeating it back and forth until it melted into their minds like the marshmallows in their mugs. Sylvie didn’t know what they were talking about, but it looked like fun.

The place was alive with people of all ages, engaged in their own activities but united against the weather outside by the beckoning baked goods and drinks within.

“Sylvie,” Grandma Naomi tapped her arm. “Time to order.”

Sylvie shook herself out of her people-watching.

“I’ll get what she got,” she told the curly-haired barista quickly, obviating the need to make another decision. Tomorrow she would live up to her ten years, but today Sylvie trusted that Grandma Naomi knew what was good. She turned back to the people around her.

A teenage boy sat engrossed in a novel, not even noticing as his coffee got cold. He glanced at the clock and his eyes widened at the amount of time he’d sat lost in the story. Sylvie watched him shudder down his now-cold coffee and rush out of the shop, book tucked under his arm.

A woman pushing a stroller caught the door with her foot before it closed completely. Once she got the stroller through the door, she looked around until a happy greeting from across the café caught her attention. Her friend waved from an armchair, where the toddler on her lap was scrambling off. When he peeked into the stroller as the mothers hugged and marveled over the growth of each other’s child, he reminded Sylvie of Jason.

“Here you go,” Grandma Naomi said, handing Sylvie a cup of something warm.

“It smells like apples!” Sylvie exclaimed, pulled back into her own moment. She had expected cocoa or even coffee, but this was new.

“Yup,” said Grandma Naomi, taking her own drink from the counter. “Hot apple cider is my absolute favorite drink. It was a staple of winter in our house when your mom was growing up. I can’t believe she’s never given you any!” She took a sip and sighed contentedly.

Sylvie wrapped her fingers around the cup, letting the heat from the cider sink into her fingers, the last part of her body the warmth of the café had not chased out. It felt like a hug, seeing all those lives existing simultaneously. Her senses were overwhelmed by the sight of the smiling faces, the sound of the overlapping conversations she didn’t want to drown out with her own voice, the smell of the cider floating up her nose.

“Grandma Naomi,” she said. “Can we go outside?”

“Sure, baby. This is your day.”

For the second time, Sylvie was hit with a blast of air, but this time it was frozen and snowy instead of cozy and warm. Snow stung her face as they stepped onto the block, but her hands were no longer cold. She paused to wipe the new condensation from her glasses, then retrieved her cider from Grandma Naomi and took a sip. Sylvie felt the warmth of the café travel down her whole body. She felt the creativity of the woman with the laptop, the laughter of the elderly couple, the excitement of the studying teens, the wonder of the boy with the book, and the happiness of the mothers with their children coursing through her. It was as if they had been bottled up in a mixture of warmth and peace and apples and cinnamon. Sylvie had left the café behind, but it was still with her on that snowy street, in liquid form in her cup, keeping her warm despite the weather around her.



Sylvie smiled at the little girl standing beside her, who was examining the cup in her hand.

“Hot apples, Grandma Sylvie?” she said, skeptically. “In a drink?”

“I know your parents don’t have sugary drinks in the house,” Sylvie said. “But those teeth of yours are going to fall out anyway and my Grandma Naomi taught me it was important to share memories with the grandkids because memories last a lifetime.”

“That’s funny,” her granddaughter said. “I wish I could have met her.”

“I know,” Sylvie said, smiling softly. “But you have her name, so she’s with you everywhere you go.”

“That’s true,” Naomi said happily. “And you said this was her favorite drink, so… cheers!”

“Cheers,” Sylvie said, tapping her to-go cup against Naomi’s.

The two took identical sips. As the warmth of the cider traveled from Sylvie’s tongue to her toes, she knew Naomi was experiencing what she had felt, all those Decembers ago, when she was a little girl standing next to a different Naomi at a different café. Those were big shoes to fill, but Sylvie had a map laid out for her by the best. She took another sip of her cider, remembering that day in the café long ago.

“Happy birthday, baby,” she told the little Naomi beside her.

“Thanks, Grandma,” Naomi smiled back.

And Sylvie knew, wherever Grandma Naomi was, she was smiling, too.