7. Welcome to Pucheon (Please Wear Pants)

“What happened?” Bracken emerged from the basement into the cafe, backpack hurriedly slung over one bare shoulder, blinking sleepy eyes at the grit swirling against the windows. He was used to seeing Main street stretching to the edge of town, lined by two-story buildings. Instead, there was a brick plaza surrounded by the bases of much taller buildings, one of them recently collapsed into rubble.

“Anarchist attack,” Jaz reported, settling casually against the wall and lifting the half-empty box of cobbler with her non-mug hand. “Aton Vidersnak just blew up a bank.”

“Oh. And…where are we?” He felt sluggish and disoriented, like someone jolted awake on a train to find they’d arrived earlier than expected. Questions about Sadie evacuated his mind, replaced with new questions about the world he was now in.

“Tuesday. Pucheon,” Jaz answered, eying him with a smirk. “Nice outfit.”

Bracken glanced down at himself. In his hometown it was common to ‘block,’ with large areas of the body covered in contrasting colors and textures. Bracken’s version of blocking was to divide his upper and lower hemispheres into dark and light earth tones, sometimes throwing in aqua if he felt festive. Currently, his arms and torso were his natural, gray-blue skin tone while his hips and legs were dark brown. He looked like a boy wearing only his pajama bottoms, which he more or less was.

Bracken shrugged and made his way to the nearest stool. “Get a lot of bombings in Pucheon?”

Jaz shrugged. She hopped off the counter and dropped the box of cobbler on the counter in front of him. “I have to open the shop in a minute. You should go back downstairs.”

“Why?”

“Things are going to get weird.”

“Weird? How?”

Jaz sighed impatiently. “They just will. I don’t have time to explain.”

“Is there going to be another attack?”

“That’s the only one, as far as I know.”

Bracken raised his eyebrows. “As far as you know?”

Jaz became irritated. “I said I don’t have time to explain. Just, go downstairs for now. It’ll be…better.”

Bracken reached over the counter and picked up a fork from a basket of spare cutlery. “Is that what you tell everyone who gets trapped here?”

“No, I put them to work,” she snapped.

Bracken helped himself to some cobbler from the box. “I can work.”

Jaz glanced at the clock above the doors, shaking her head.

“By the way,” Bracken said after swallowing, “who stayed in that room last? I found some clothes and drawings…”

Jaz froze for a moment, a strange muddle of emotions crossing her face. Bracken took another bite and smiled innocently, his cheeks bunching.

Jaz spun on her heels and went to the register. Reaching beneath the counter, she retrieved a stained, battered notebook and tossed it at him. Bracken caught it just before it slid into his lap and thumbed it open, adding a smear of peach to the coffee stains on the first page.

“S-this?” He asked around a mouthful of cobbler.

“It’s notes on how to make coffee. You’ll want to keep it on you while you’re working.” Jaz opened the cash drawer as she talked, needlessly counting the bills.

Bracken skimmed the notebook while he ate. The first several pages were handwritten in black, sketchy cursive and made no sense to him (24 oz, 48 g. Add 720 g water. 96 C. #7 gr? Spro dissolved solids 1:2 ratio?), while the pages toward the middle were neatly written in pink and blue: instructions and notes surrounding diagrams of brewing vessels and other coffee implements.

Some pages seemed to be collections of miscellaneous notes. The first few were written in neat, loopy cursive:

Even though a certain coffee contains the same flavors, your palate will interpret them differently at varying strengths.

——

If Pucheon’s citizens do one thing well, it’s commenting on current events. With the exception of emergency workers and bank shareholders, Pucheon’s citizens love individuals like Aton Vidersnak who, every time a building goes up, will knock a few down in the name of chaos. Without these destructive types, life would perpetually be Business as Usual, and there are only so many topics to cover when nothing goes wrong. Train schedules, childbearing, expense reports, the boss’s incompetence and the overpricedness of coffee can only carry a conversation along so far before it expires into silence, forcing one to return to the work they had hoped to postpone.

The style and penmanship varied from page to page, sometimes a page long, others just an abrupt sentence or two:

The concept of alternates isn’t relevant to Jaz except to note that they exist and she happens to not have one.

——

The deck outside is a landing pad. You get hourly rushes and everything must happen fast.

These ones didn’t make much sense. Further back in the notebook, the notes gained headings that seemed to have nothing to do with coffee, like ‘Ninjas’ and ‘Tigers’. Some were written in a different language. Bracken flipped back to the middle pages, which at least had friendly illustrations. He lingered over a page titled ‘Brewing Methods’. A small headache quickly formed between his eyes.

Jaz took his sudden quiet as nervous shock. “Just do your best. I don’t expect you to learn everything in a week.”

“Okay.” Bracken closed the notebook, deciding to come back to it later.

“And while we’re at it, come learn the register,” said Jaz. “You’ll take orders and I’ll make the drinks.”

Bracken carried the notebook to the cash register. It was an old machine with wood sides and rows of gold buttons standing across its wide face. Jaz tapped a button at the bottom of the right corner and a drawer sprang open under the counter. Bracken picked up a stack of bills from the tray. “What kind of money is this?”

“Jingian currency. It’s not complicated. The bills on the right are highest, lowest on the left. Coins are in dimensions of marks and half marks. They mostly use paper here. I keep the prices as simple as possible because counting change wastes time. And we don’t take any denominations larger than 25.”

Bracken set the stack of bills back in its slot. “So does every day…place…have its own currency?”

“Yeah.” Jaz shut the drawer and ripped away the receipt that rose up from a thin slot near the top of the register, crumpled it and tossed it into a small trash can at their feet. “I keep a cash tray for each day and stick it in after midnight.”

“Why after midnight?”

“That’s when the shop resets.” Jaz glanced again at the clock above the front doors. “You don’t need to think about that right now. The important thing is that you learn the menu so you can seem like you know something when you’re taking orders. Customers are canny. They can sense ignorance and they’ll get squirrely if you don’t know what you’re about.”

Bracken smirked. “Squirrely?”

Jaz leaned against the counter and looked past him to the worn notebook he’d already forgotten about. “Keep that handy as well. It has just about everything you need to know. Most questions can be answered with it. If you get something that’s over your head, refer it to me.”

“Reference notebook and refer hard questions to you. Right. And what do we do about that building that just exploded?”

Jaz shrugged. “Pour the coffee. That’s all we do.”

“You don’t think the city will shut down or anything?”

“No city shuts down completely. The emergency workers running around out there now will need a caffeine break eventually. They’ll want somewhere to rest and recharge. The spectators will want to come inside and gawk more comfortably. Trust me, we’ll stay busy enough.”

“You sound like you’ve been through this before.”

“Wait until you see what’s coming on Friday. This is small beans compared to some of the stunts they pull in Langston.” Jaz crossed the room to the doors, unlocked them and flipped a laminate sign hanging on the right-hand door to ‘open.’ “Now, grow some pants. You look like an advertisement for spandex.”

“Spandex?” Bracken smirked, watching her.

“It’s something humans wear as clothing.”

“I know what clothing is…” Bracken’s voice thinned as two short, blue-skinned females wearing wool skirts and blazers materialized from the fog and entered the shop. Both had straight black hair to their shoulders, combed smartly back from their blue foreheads and powdered with gray dust.

“…they should have known he’d do it while the committees argued about fumigation bids,” one was saying.

The second coughed lightly. “The trains will be delayed. I’ll have to reschedule my lunch meeting.”

“Forming a committee about the cheapest way to get rid of slugs. I mean, really. They were just asking for it.”

Their voices were unusually high, like a record played at double speed. They clipped up to the counter, which was level with their foreheads.

Bracken giggled, and they both looked sharply up at him. Glowing stars shone in the center of their black irises. Bracken’s giggle snagged in his throat, changing to a surprised gurgle. The Jingians likewise took Bracken in, mouths limp and eyes staring.

Biting the inside of her cheek, Jaz snagged Bracken’s elbow and hurried to the basement door, dragging him along. “I’ll be with you in a moment,” she told the Jingians over her shoulder, opening the door and pulling Bracken through. She held it open a few inches to let light fall in across their faces.

“It’s like Blue Day out there,” Bracken said as they faced each other on the top step. “Did you see their eyes?” His own dark eyes stared glassily above his smirking mouth.

“It’s not Blue Day, it’s Tuesday and you have to wear clothes,” she said in a low, steely voice.

“They have stars in their eyes! Glowing stars!” Bracken’s smirk stretched into a grin. “With six points! I don’t think I could even do that!” He started to try.

Jaz gripped his shoulders. “Focus, kid. Pants. Shirt. Shoes. Don’t scare my customers away. There’s a lot happening today, if you didn’t notice.”

The white stars forming in Bracken’s eyes faded and he straightened his smirk. “Did you help blow up the bank?”

“No. Well. Only a little.”

“Why are you blowing up banks? Your shop could have been demolished if something went wrong.”

“No it wouldn’t. Now listen—”

“How could you help blow up a building if you can’t leave this one?”

“Well…there are these slugs in Langston—Friday. They thrive in dark quiet places like air ducts and they smell really bad. I got some to Aton and he used them to clear the building, then he just went in and did his stuff while the bank managers formed committees to haggle with pest control companies about fumigation. This city and its committees. Anyway—”

“You’re a smuggler. An inter-dimensional slug smuggler.” Bracken looked at Jaz with new respect. “That’s kind of amazing.”

“It’s not a side business or anything. I sometimes get people things they need by unusual means. It’s necessary to my own plans. Now—”

“You have plans?” Bracken folded his arms, narrowing his eyes shrewdly. “Are you plotting to rule the universe?”

Jaz shook her head. “No, just escape this purgatory at some point. Now listen. You need to make yourself look human so you don’t cause a panic.”

“Why do I have to look like a human? I want to try looking like the blue people.”

“After they just saw me drag you in here looking like you do? They’d never buy it. And you couldn’t behave like them anyway. You know nothing about their ways. Now—I’m going back out there. If you come out looking like anything other than a human wearing anything less than pants, shirt and shoes I’ll lock you in your room until closing time.”

“Fine,” Bracken conceded, figuring he could try out the star-eyed look later. “I can texturize.”

“Do linen or something. Right now you look like you’re wearing spandex pajamas. It’s disturbing.”

“Spandex is clothing,” Bracken quipped as Jaz stepped out.

“Only on Fridays,” she said over her shoulder.

 

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