Josh breathed in the heady scent of roast coffee beans.
He had taken the two weeks of Christmas and New Years off. The manager had been less than pleased. It was a busy time of year and near impossible to find a replacement. Nobody wanted the graveyard shift on a normal night and when the promise of parties and wild revelry were afoot, they wanted it even less. Josh hadn’t wanted to go to the parties. Josh was never driven by want. He responded only to need and in that moment he had needed to escape the noise and the bodies and the confusion. He didn’t do well around people. He didn’t do well around anything. If Josh could have gotten away with it, he would not have had a job at all, but he had rent to pay and he preferred not to starve. The 24hr coffee shop and its twilight hours were an elegant solution to a complicated problem.
Except over the Christmas rush, but New Years had come and gone. The populace had returned to their beds (mostly) and the coffee shop had returned to relative peace.
Josh drowned in rich aroma.
The doors wushed open. Josh looked up. He expected noise. A cacophony of drunken camaraderie in search of caffeine and day old carbs, but the man and woman who entered the coffee shop were silent and alert. The man strode up to the counter. His stride confident; haunting. It was at once breathtakingly beautiful and terrifying. The woman remained just inside the door. Her eyes slowly swept across the shop, like she was taking every last detail in and then she turned and joined the man at the counter. She stopped with her body half facing Josh and half facing the small arrangement of tables and chairs that made up the sit-down portion of 24hr Java. The woman rested an elbow against the counter and arched her back. A languid jungle cat drinking in sunlight. Josh felt his skin prickle. He could almost hear her purring, could almost imagine the man giving off a low, throaty growl. Josh’s ears filled with static. His heart thumped and sweat began to bead across his brow.
Dimly, Josh registered the sound of someone talking. It took a moment for him to realise that the man was trying to place an order. Josh startled himself out of his stupor, blinked his eyes back into focus and turned toward the man. He tried, he really tried to look the man in the eyes, but something dangerous lurked within those chestnut pools and he shied away. Josh spoke to the counter.
“S…orry. I didn’t get that?”
“No,” said the man. “You didn’t.” The man’s voice was light. Charming almost and yet, there was heat in the words. Josh felt them slowly ignite across his arms.
“I said I would like a Green tea for myself, large. Black for the Lady, also large. Don’t get fancy with it. It makes her grumpy.”
The woman shifted to stomp on the man’s foot. He side-stepped casually and gave Josh a wink. Josh stared where the man had been. His ears were doing that thing again. That thing where the world felt muffled. Where it felt like someone had pressed the mute button. Except, each sound was suddenly heard in isolation. An amplified focus surrounded by a void. Josh twitched. His heart charged down an 800m sprint. He closed his eyes and half spoke, half whispered. “Green tea. Large, black. Got it.”
He turned his back on the customers. He stared at gleaming steel.
How could two people make this much noise?
Josh shook his head. It didn’t matter. He didn’t need to understand this. He just needed to survive it. Make the drinks. Take the money. Watch them go.
Josh reached for a takeaway cup. His fingers touched smooth cardboard and a shriek raked up his spine. Josh jerked away. Cups tumbled. A slow motion arc and then thud.
Each cup landing louder than it should. Each impact a jerk of limbs. A breath hitched in Josh’s throat. He reached for another cup. A slow breath out as he made contact. The cardboard sent another tremor through him, but Josh was expecting it this time. He held. The cup did not fall.
He fumbled the teabag into the cup and then turned to the urn. Drops of scalding water scattered onto his shaking hand. Josh ignored the bites of pain, smacked a lid onto the cup and turned to the coffee. Somehow, he managed to get that cup filled too. Somehow, he managed to turn and slide them across to the man and woman.
“Cash or card?”
The man held up his credit card. Josh punched the numbers and then slid the card reader toward the man. It was only a moment, a brief second in which the man held his card to the reader, but Josh felt the proximity like a storm. Every nerve lit up. Every hair on his body peaked. And then the machine beeped, the man pocketed his card and Josh pushed himself as far from the counter as he could get. A few more seconds and Josh could sink to the floor. He could curl into himself. He could curse and cry and come out on the other side again. Exhausted, but functional.
The man and the woman chose a table and sat down.
Josh whimpered. He didn’t know how much more of this he could take. Why hadn’t they left? Why get take-away coffee if you’re not planning to take-it-away?
A low pulse throbbed in his temples. The stark white of fluorescent bulbs became arrows and his eyes targets. Josh turned his head away, but still the light burned. He clenched his eyes shut. Heart thumping. Nerves burning. Josh flung his hands to his temples. His fists found hair and dug in. Josh folded, spine curved, chest sunk to stomach. Static rushed his ears.
Customers in the shop. Don’t loose it. Snap out of it. You can do this. You can do this.
Josh couldn’t do this.
A cry broke through. A sound of abject acceptance. Josh was an antelope caught within a lion’s maw.
He sank to the floor. The mess of paper cups welcomed his broken body. A mess of a man surrounded by the mess he had made. His body heaved. Cries rose and fell in the stutter between half swallowed breathes. There was nothing but this moment. This panic. This world with too much noise and Josh with too many nerves turned on. Feeling too much, hearing too much. It wouldn’t stop. Josh couldn’t make it stop.
Fingers wrapped around Josh’s hand. They were ice against his scalding skin. Another thing to feel. Too much. Josh jerked away, but the hand held steady.
Josh did not have the strength to fight the grip, but then he stopped needing too. Someone had turned the volume down. Josh sank into the silence. His breathing eased. The tension in his head melted. Slowly, Josh eased his fingers out of his tangled hair. Nerve endings went back to sleep and somehow, Josh’s body settled into equilibrium. It was a state unlike any he had ever know. Josh inhaled and was filled with joy.
He opened his eyes. The woman knelt before him, her fingers still clasped around his hand. Josh felt her intent gaze, but it did not bother him. The man was there too, standing above them. He watched while he sipped his tea.
Josh looked at the woman.
“What… what did you do?”
“Nothing complicated,” she replied. Her gaze remained fixed on his eyes. She stared at him like he was a curiosity. Like some puzzle that needed solving.
“What’s a boy like you, doing in a place like this?”
Josh looked from the lady to the man and then back again. Her voice had the same curious inflection as her eyes, but that particular line was, well… “Is this… some kind of creepy… pickup? Are you…”
The man chuckled. “Jana is a straight to the point kind of lady. If she wanted to proposition you, you would know.”
Jana, the woman, did not acknowledge the question or the answer that followed. She continued her inspection, fingers never leaving Josh’s hand. What would happen if she let go? What was doing? How was she doing it?
“Then what is this?” Josh’s gaze flitted between them. Two strangers who had been too loud. Much too loud for just two people and then with a touch, they had taken it all away again. Who were they? What were they? The man waited. He sipped his tea. The woman inspected. It was as if they were waiting for Josh to share a secret, only no one had let him in on it.
Jana tilted her head.
“Would you look at that,” she said. “He doesn’t know what he is.”