9. Clandestine Photography

Bracken pushed the mug of tea toward Jaz. “What does votwort do again?”

Jaz took it automatically, staring at the street through the windows.

“Jaz?”

She blinked and refocused on him, leaning close again. “Listen. I need your help with this. Aton will be here soon and I need to keep him here until Joli gets back.”

Bracken sighed. “What do you want me to do?”

“Just take orders for me.”

The two new customers, both female, approached the register. They wore hard hats and a light coating of concrete dust. One stared down at the little chalkboard menu beside the register and the other gazed into the pastry case.

“I need espresso,” said the first one in a voice like a tired squirrel, still looking past Bracken. “A latte. Four shots. What flavors do you have?”

Bracken tried not to stare at their eyes. “You mean syrups?”

“Yes.”

“We have…” Bracken consulted the coffee manual. “Vanilla, caramel, and chocolate.”

She lowered her eyes slowly to focus on him. The white stars shrank to pinpoints. “Do you have pomegranate?”

“Uh…” Bracken looked to Jaz, who pressed her lips together and shook her head. “No. Sorry.”

“Vanilla then, I suppose.” She paid and dragged herself to a stool to wait. Jaz began steaming milk.

Customers entered in small groups, and Bracken did his best to parrot their orders to Jaz. The language was confusing. Certain words had several meanings, and most drinks had variations that didn’t make much sense to Bracken. ‘Black coffee’ meant either coffee brewed in a brewing vessel or coffee extracted as espresso from the espresso machine. Some customers said coffee when they meant espresso, and some said espresso but meant anything else. A few customers who initially ordered espresso left with herbal tea. Bracken learned by trial (the drink he thought was being ordered) and error (the drink that Jaz had to make after the first drink was returned in dissatisfaction) that cappuccinos could be made hot but not cold, and that iced coffee could not be made hot again by adding hot water.

He was relieved when the last customers walked away with their orders and he had a moment to breathe. He opened the notebook to the middle and began to read what the various combinations of espresso, water or steamed milk were named, paying attention this time.

“Jaz,” he said after a few minutes, carrying the notebook over to where she stood at the espresso machine, “Whose handwriting is this? It looks familiar.”

She looked up from watching espresso drip into a shotglass, glanced at the page held out to her, and then at him with the same forehead-crinkled expression she’d given his coat earlier. “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

Bracken didn’t believe her. “Jaz, c’mon—”

At that moment, the doors opened and Jaz looked eagerly over the espresso machine to see who it was. “Oh.” She gave a little gasp and pressed her hands to her hips. “That’s Aton. Watch the register. I need to talk to him and make sure he stays until Joli gets back.”

Bracken looked at the person who had just entered. His jaw slackened. “That’s him?”

The person weaving through the scattered tables as as effeminate as Joli, though his hair was gathered at his neck in a neat tail and he wore short pants instead of a skirt, and black leather loafers.

“Yeah,” said Jaz. “Don’t make a scene.”

“He looks like a girl!”

“That’s the kind scene I’m talking about.” She lowered her voice as Aton secured the stool recently vacated by Joli.

He waved three fingers toward Jaz, requesting four shots in a voice that could have belonged to a grandfather chipmunk.

Jaz started the grinder.

Aton met Bracken’s stare with eyes identical to Joli’s. “Who’s this?”

“Oh…” Jaz looked up from tamping grounds in a portafilter. “My cousin, Bracken. He’s helping out today.”

“Are you sure he’s not a corporate spy?”

“I interrogated him thoroughly,” Jaz assured him.

“At gunpoint,” Bracken added.

Jaz set a white cappuccino cup half-full of espresso and a small glass of sparkling water before Aton, waving aside his money.

“For the tip jar then.” He pushed it toward her and took a sip of coffee. “Interesting. Nutty, yet floral…”

Jaz nodded. “I’m working on a backwoods theme for autumn.”

Bracken scoffed quietly.

“What?” Jaz set a fist on her hip and shot him a narrow look.

“Autumn-themed coffee. It’s…you know…”

“He’s not a very good employee, Jaz,” Aton observed.

Bracken shrugged. “I’m not really an employee. I’m just visiting.”

Aton leaned toward him, squinting. “From where?”

“Ah…” Bracken turned to Jaz, who looked like he’d just poured iced coffee over her head. “…home?”

“And home is?” Aton’s squint deepened.

“Bracken.” Jaz thrust the tip money at him. “Put this over there.”

She didn’t specify where ‘there’ was and Bracken didn’t ask. He took the money and slunk away, taking self and backpack to a table by the windows.

As he sat, his vision flickered.

The shop became a living room with a red armchair beside an open window. The scene through the window was half blue sky, half blooming flowers. It was the garden in his backyard at home—

Bracken blinked hard and rubbed his eyes. Customers sat at the tables nearby, sipping from coffee cups, talking, or staring out the windows. All of them were petite, blue Jingians…except for a tall human with gray-streaked black hair, who sat alone at a table, gazing out the windows.

Bracken nodded to himself. He was definitely in The Defiant—

The room flickered again and was replaced with another memory.

Two slippered feet rested on the coarse red and brown rug in front of the same red armchair. He lay on his stomach near those feet, his cheek pressed against the rug. A smaller, younger Kajaani lay on her back beside him. Her dark eyes reflected two spots of yellow lamplight, her hair spread in flat waves around her head, listening to the story being told to them.

“Once, there was a brown bird who loved to fly. She decided to leave home and fly to a new land she had never seen, beyond the great Snowy Mountains…”

He lifted his cheek, imprinted by the frayed rug fibers, and turned his head to look at his younger sister, Riva, who sat cross-legged against the couch with a potted purple plant corralled in her lap, brushing the umbrella-like leaves with her fingertips…

…Then a brief snapshot of a lazy, bright summer morning; sitting around the dining table; a knock at the front door; a scraping, scrambling race to be the first to answer it…

…He was sitting on his aunt’s warm lap, resting against her shoulder and watching her face as she looked out the window. She was telling him more about the king of tricksters, her voice and eyes unusually serious.

“Fae hides behind many masks. That’s why the bird didn’t recognize him at first. Once she did, of course, it was too late. She was already caught.”

“But she escapes in the end, right?” He asked in his high child’s voice.

Sadie stared thoughtfully out the window. But instead of answering, she looked down at him with a grin and said, “I almost forgot your presents. Go get your sisters…”

…He was looking at Kajaani’s forehead and ears sticking out around the boxy black camera as she pressed the viewfinder to her eye; she snapped the shutter as fast as she could at Bracken and Riva while they chased each other in circles around the rosemary bushes…

..He was lifted by Sadie into the umbrella-shaped leaves of a tall purple plant; pulling white pods loose with his own small hands, then standing in the shade munching the sugary pods with Kajaani; crunching granules between their molars and showing each other their purple-stained tongues…

…He was standing at the end of the driveway in a cold downpour, waiting and watching for Sadie to arrive; Kajaani’s arm settling around his shoulders, muttering angrily about Sadie’s unreliability; shadows obscuring the empty road; stars glimmering in a cool night sky and her arm still around him…

After that the memories seemed to lose power, fading back into their usual place in his mind’s eye and letting him become aware of where he was at present. A few more recent memories resurfaced, but a line had been drawn between the colorful memories before the driveway and the dull, ordinary ones after, when childhood ended and life ceased to be interesting.

Bracken blinked and looked around the cafe.

Effeminate Jingians were still scattered around the spacious cafe, seated at tables with cups, books or newspapers. The tall human was gone. A few patrons stared blankly out the windows: the dust outside had thinned, diminishing into a dirty haze through which policemen, firemen and other concerned citizens could be seen hurrying around, inspecting the damage.

A smile slowly grew on Bracken’s face. Unzipping his backpack, he retrieved the camera and snapped a few pictures of the demolished bank across the plaza, some of the other customers, and then a couple of Jaz and Aton talking across the counter. Aton glanced Bracken’s way as the shutter clicked.

In another moment, as Bracken lowered the camera, Aton was off his stool and halfway to the doors. Jaz followed after, delayed by having to come around the counter. “He’s no one, Aton, I promise.”

“He’s most likely been bribed. I know when I’m being stalled.”

“Jolie is going to be here any minute, she’s just running late.”

“If she still wants to make a deal she can meet me here at a time of my choosing. And please tell her to abandon any attempt at clandestine photography in the future. If my picture ends up in the paper it’ll be impossible to get anything done.”

And then Aton was gone, his head bobbing just above table height outside the windows as he walked quickly to the corner and out of sight.

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