by HJ Taylor
The coffee lady was very pretty, although she wasn’t quite a lady… not yet. The waitress probably couldn’t be much older then Beans’ big brother at college, maybe even the same age. But Beans couldn’t look away from her eyes. No matter her position or angle, those eyes looked black. Only the glare from the window reflected off them. The shine followed Beans like those eyes on the eerie museum paintings.
Beans watched her flow from one countertop to the other, more like a dancer then a waitress, not just working some dumb old job. Beans admired her precision and agility. First, she shot brown stuff into a narrow paper cup, then white stuff, next a little bit of powder, some syrup, and finally the steaming water. By the smile on every customer’s face, perfect every time.
Barista, her mother had corrected her so often that whenever she heard the fancy word it almost made her puke. Beans knew that barista was just a fancy term people used to make themselves sound more important than they really were. Once when Beans’ mother was lecturing her on the difference, the girl had overheard. After her mother had finished making her point and gone over to a shelf to examine some ceramic coffee cups, accompanying the most amazing smile, the girl had put her finger to her lips.
“You’re right, hon,” she whispered. “I’m just a waitress. Our secret.” She shushed Beans again with a polite blow of breath against that same finger, and busily got back to work.
On that day, Beans knew the girl had noticed her. More importantly, Beans had taken further notice of the girl’s eye color, too. An electricity ran between them in that instant, and with it, a lifelong familiarity. From that day on, they were both somehow connected.
The waitress was short, and very thin. Her long dark hair, as usual, was in a pony—loosely tied with a black hair band—two symmetric strands framed her little round face that was always full of life, as if she knew something that no one else did. But Beans was drawn to those eyes. They lived somewhere else with an aura all their own, blacker than a moonless night! They seemed to make holes that bore through to somewhere else.
Today Beans had decided to play a game called, “Don’t look at the coffee girl’s eyes.” But every time she came here, the game got harder and harder, as if some kind of magnetism kept her hooked. Yes, the lady smiled a lot, but it wasn’t her mouth that made her always look happy. The sensation came from some secret hidden in those deep black eyes. “Ahh!” she muttered and lightly stamped the shiny tile floor with her glittery silver sandals. She only lasted thirteen seconds today.
No customers ever complained when the black-eyed girl served them, which was quite odd because they always yelled at the other ones. No matter how long the line or how tense everyone was, as soon as they had their turn with the coffee girl, the customers seemed to relax. Not just most, but all of them, one after the other. Her tip jar was always full. Beans shook her head wondering if she was some sort of a witch. A good one for sure, she thought and giggled.
Like any other time, today the coffee girl wore black tights and a tight black sleeveless shirt with a turtleneck. A white and green checkered apron hung on her, awkwardly out of place with the emblem of the Main and Cox Java is Life coffee shop slapped directly in the upper center of it—a kangaroo forever smiling while holding a cup of steaming coffee in front of his own green and white checkered apron. Below the waitress’s neck hung a silver chain, and hanging from that chain was a round, shiny, black stone with silver metallic rays like the sun spraying out from the center. The silver chain jingled and the pendant jumped as she bent forward to greet the next customer. Why was she here, Beans wondered?
Then Beans tensed. Next in line was the dreaded, apple man. He was a nasty, skinny, frail looking old fart who always wore a Sherlock Holmes hat. Beans’ face wrinkled. His head jerked about like a snake ready to defend himself. Beans didn’t like this slouchy old guy. He was rude and grumpy, and always pushed his way in front of everyone else. How could anyone be so frustrated all the time was what she wanted to know? Sometimes he was absent minded, other times the bully, and if he didn’t get his way, he mumbled and moaned until the manager came out and did whatever he wanted. One day he even got a guy fired!
How could anyone be like that all the time? Beans could think of no such reason and she didn’t feel sorry for him at all. No one deserved to be that mean, not every second of every day, and Beans could imagine nothing to make such a person. Beans almost cringed when he waddled up to the smiling, always gracious, black-eyed waitress. “Not good,” she muttered. The girl glanced over the old man and gave Beans a reassuring wink. Beans’ eyes grew wide.
Gritting her teeth and every muscle tight in anticipation of the upcoming lopsided confrontation, Beans wrung her tiny fingers. Oh, what might happen? she wondered. The old man was looking at his shoes, those same old sandals he always wore no matter what the weather. The confrontation was about to begin and Beans was not at all sure she could bear it. Those in line had already pulled back as if an invisible barrier had sealed them both away from the rest of the world. Not having the coffee girl in her life would be horrible.
The young girl responded back to the man in a voice that nearly sang. Only the man could hear exactly what the girl had said, but despite his mutterings, the black-eyed waitress seemed not a hint flustered. She nodded, and politely waited for the man to lift his face.
Beans watched his skinny little turtle neck holding that wart-filled face jerk upwards. His expression was already filled with anger in anticipation to one upcoming problem or another. An odd flash made Beans blink and when she was able to focus again, she saw… no, more felt, a warm light connect the old man’s eyes to the barista’s black ones. His warped expression changed, first to curiosity, then to awe. For once his drawn cheeks didn’t turn red, and his shoulders didn’t shake. The apple guy wasn’t mad!
His mouth fell open in a dumbfounded circle. The tremor that determined his shaky body and wiggly hands stopped, even his breathing seemed to hesitate, as their eyes locked on to one another. The waitress said nothing, just tilted her head the slightest bit, as if doing so was the exactly proper angle to meet such a stubborn old man. There was a pause, just a short one, and then both people changed, as if the color around them had brightened. When the world started up again, the moment had passed, and life, once again, was pleasant and hurried.
Bean let go of her mother’s hand. Her jaw had dropped. “Holy cow,” she whispered, and as if the phrase was a cue, the black-eyed girl turned to Beans. Their eyes locked for a moment that seemed like hours, and not only couldn’t Beans turn away, but she wouldn’t have tried for anything in the world.
In one circular swoop, the young woman spun about the coffee shop kitchen and put the old man’s order together with not so much as a stammer or a stutter. Without changing pace or switching up direction, the waitress snapped the lid on and had a protective cardboard sleeve Beans’ knew was called a zarf on the steaming cup before the old man even spoke. With one hand the black-eyed girl put the cup on the counter, and with the other, she gingerly grasped his frail-looking slender fingers and led them to the zarf as if he were blind.
He smiled and Beans saw someone she didn’t recognize. Putting his other hand on top of the black-eyed girl’s, apple man gave her a few words of his own. She giggled and fiddled with her necklace as if smitten with his compliment. With not a sign of irritation from any of the patrons behind, the old man and the One True Barista exchanged a few more words before the old man said his farewells, and the next person stepped up.
Beans’ glanced up at his face. The guy wasn’t as old somehow, and he walked more upright. The corners of his mouth were more upturned, and his skin seemed less wrinkly. The age spots and ugly warts were still there if Beans looked close enough, but they were faded and certainly less noticeable. His jerky movements were more fluent, and his shakes and jaw clasping were gone. As he came closer to Beans, this time very close, not taking the time to veer away as he always did from anyone else, Beans could see what else had changed… his eyes! For once she didn’t back out of his way.
Beans felt dumb for gawking, but she couldn’t help it, couldn’t even blink! His eyes were a lovely, lively, sky blue, the color of a younger man’s. For a moment the world shimmered in that odd way it sometimes did just before Beans blinked out, and then she was gone. The old man changed before her very eyes. Like always when the world shimmered, Beans left.
The ceiling fan disappeared, and the space where it had rotated in that lazy way, was now blue sky with puffy white clouds. Beans clearly heard seagulls, and the happy giggles of little children. Then she saw the old man; his body appearing before her the way a reflection might after the disturbed water stopped shimmering. Although he was much younger, handsome even, Beans could tell it was him. Sure, he was still small and thin, but his muscles were tight and chiseled. He was happy and confident, not nasty and hateful. At his side was a small, brown-haired woman, neither pretty nor homely, but adoring of her three children that hung about them both like monkeys. The lady’s hair was drawn back in a tight bun, and her skin milky and soft. She wore a plain dress trimmed in a dull pink, and the five of them strolled along the beach together where they casually turned into the dry sand as if they had done so a million times. They all disappeared atop the porch of a wonderful beach house, giggles and laughter fading away with the sea breeze.
Beans understood this man wasn’t exactly the old man from the coffee shop… not really. This was a different version of that man. But this wasn’t the old man’s past, or a dream either. This was him, the old man’s soul anyway, somewhere else, in the area in between, in another world and place. As always, Beans watched the vision as a ghost that was looking in, invisible to them all, just watching as an uninvited observer of their life. Then the vision disappeared, and the slowly turning fan re-appeared.
For a few seconds Beans maintained a blank stare, unable to move. Then she snapped back just in time to realize the happy old man had spotted her. With a coordination and approach Beans thought would have been impossible coming from this person, he reached down and stroked her cheek. His eyes left Beans for a moment to send a respectful look to her mother, then he spoke.
“Such a lovely little girl, you are, little Miss. Certainly you are.” Then he began to whistle a tune Beans could not place, but which was pleasant all the same.
Beans felt a tight squeeze from a proud Mom. But the pressure from her mother’s hand was far away, as if it touched someone else. The world stayed fuzzy and surreal for a while longer as it always did after Beans faded out. When focus returned, her eyes were once again locked onto the coffee girl’s as if they had been patiently waiting for her return. They lingered, then pulled away playfully.
Awkwardly, Beans turned her attention to the glass panels that lay over the cabinets under the countertop. Inside were the usual things sold at a coffee shop: several types of gourmet coffees, mugs, a set of fancy wine glasses, recipe books, gourmet popcorn, desserts. On the ends of the case was an array of stuffed toys, all of the store’s mascot kangaroo in various positions and doing funny things. As her mind cleared, Beans saw her reflection.
Beans considered herself a fairly plain six-year-old girl with long dirty-blonde hair, and a blue headband with a tiny bow to the side. She had large eyes and a slightly upturned puggish nose that looked tiny and cartoonish in a favorable kind of way. She was small and thin, but agile and quick. Beans wore leopard tights, a blue dress full of green, orange, and yellow peace signs, and a white tee-shirt with butterflies scattered about. She often wondered why adults fussed over her so much. But Beans’ reflection wasn’t clear in the shadowed glass.
At first she thought that maybe she was still dazed from the little “mind trip” she had just taken, but after a second she realized that was not the case. The cabinets were poorly lit, which made her reverse-self look dull, so she moved closer, close enough that her nose nearly touched the glass. The background behind her reflection did not match the background of the coffee shop. Past the glass, Beans couldn’t make out the backboards of the cabinet either. The wall was gone and the space went on and on to somewhere else.
Where am I? she thought.
“In between,” a whisper told her, a familiar voice that she recognized. “An amazing place that helps me see why people are the way they are. How they’re supposed to be, which explains the frustration that makes them sad and sometimes mean.”
Beans snapped upwards to the countertop when she heard the coffee girl’s voice. Normal sounds and smells returned. Her mother busily chatted with a lady from her work.
“And how are you?” the black-eyed girl politely asked. Her voice was a bit raspy, but trustworthy. “There’s more to it than that,” she added.
It was her, Beans thought as she studied the girl, hesitant to admit what the waitress might be trying to get at. Then as if all perspective had disappeared, their faces came together, and where the young lady’s features should have been, was spiraling blackness. Like magnets, her dark swirling eyes drew Beans to them, and this time the glare from the coffee shop windows was gone. From a distance the girl’s eyes looked all black, but close up she could see an astounding distinction between the black of her pupil and the darkness that made up the iris.
Like dark gray smoke, the irises exploded and imploded within themselves as if they were angry thunderheads of a great storm. Moving constantly, they never maintained the same pattern for any length of time. The haze folded and unfolded, as if they reached outwards forever, but never really got to the outer part of the circumference. In the next moment they were slate gray smoke billowing out and twisting in. Beans’ focus was drawn inwards toward the center of that storm, and there she fell into the jet black holes that were the coffee girl’s pupils.
Beans felt her insides stretch, being sucked into a whirlpool of black. First, her head elongated and was sent through, then the rest of her body followed like a rubber band that had reached its ultimate length of elasticity. When the butterflies in her stomach settled down, she was somewhere else.
But not alone.
Gently caressing her hand was the coffee girl. Splendid fragrances filled her nose. Funny insect sounds, bird tweets she had never heard before, and animal howls filled the strange forest that now surrounded them both. The air was warm and moist, with the barest taste of salt.
“Hi, Beans,” the waitress said, then closed her eyes. Flaring her pretty nostrils, she inhaled deeply. “I’m Manna.”
The pretty name brought a smile to her face. “Where are we, Manna?” Beans asked, turning about a half circle in each direction, unwilling to let go of Manna’s anchoring grip in fear she might disappear and be lost forever.
“One of my favorite spots in the entire universe, Beans.”
Although Manna had not answered her question very specifically, Beans decided she didn’t need any more information than that just yet. She loosened her fingers and pulled away to grab a peculiar purple flower off the mossy ground. Sliding her last finger along Manna’s, Beans glanced back.
“That’s okay, Beans. You did this all by yourself. You can let go.”
“What did I… we do, Manna?”
“This is called slicing,” Manna announced.
“Slicing?” Beans questioned, and the world swam before her eyes again.
“On the house, young lady!” said the coffee girl as if nothing had happened, and she laughed out loud.
Beans’ mother laughed too and patted her hand. The coffee girl laid a huge slice of coffee cake she had removed from the platter within the glass cabinet that Beans was still dumbly staring at.
“You don’t have to do that, hon,” Beans’ mother protested. Then she noticed her daughter staring blankly at the space beyond the waitress. Not another one, she thought and her own anxiety kicked in. She looked behind, embarrassed, and then gave a weak and worried smile to the barista.
Beans’ mother snapped her fingers in front of her daughter several times and stabilized her shoulders by moving behind her. She lovingly kissed her little girl’s ear and whispered into it. She looked up briefly to the people nearby including Manna. “Petit mal,” she explained. “A minor type of seizure she’s had since she was very young. It will take just a moment and she’ll be alright.” Everyone shook his or her head in understanding and backed away slightly to give them room.
Manna smiled knowingly but said nothing. “I had them, too, when I was young.”
A moment later Beans widened and closed her eyes several times. Her pupils dilated then constricted and finally adjusted appropriately. As if she was seeing something else in her mind, a wide smile of amazement grew on her blank face. Briefly she scanned her surroundings and bobbled her head about trying to find Manna.
“There she is!” the waitress announced. She locked eyes with the young girl, nodded her head slightly back and forth, and made a shushing sound with her lips. “A good slice?” she asked and handed Beans her cake.
For only a moment Beans looked confused, but being a very bright and perceptive girl, the entire situation kicked in and made sense. “Amazing,” she said between front teeth that looked too big for her head.
“It’s just the beginning,” Manna said and put her hand comfortingly over top Beans’. She moved from behind the counter, bent down to her knee and hugged Beans securely. Adding a kiss on the cheek, she whispered so no one else could hear. “My eyes didn’t always look like this, you know. They were amber like yours. We’re going to have fun together, you and me.”
Beans’ eyes grew wide and she smiled ear to ear. Her mother beamed and wished every young adult was like the black-eyed coffee girl.