30. Dating for Immortals

Jaz sat on the counter, watching Sean and his gang carry tables inside, while supervising Bracken. “No, the tea goes on the left-side counter, third shelf down. Teapots on the shelf above. Careful! They won’t respawn if you break them.”

Bracken steadied the armload of teapots and placed them, more or less carefully, on the proper shelf. “Why not?”

“They’re not original. I got them because the elves were complaining. They drink it by the pot, or not at all. Start on the mugs next.”

Bracken sighed deeply, rubbing at an ache in his neck that had sprung up in the last hour, beneath the abrasions from being tossed around the basement by Fatson. He wasn’t enthusiastic over his role in the clean-up efforts, but since he couldn’t help Sean and company bring in chairs and tables from outside, he was relegated to indoor organizing, with Jaz supervising. Sean had insisted she rest after being nearly strangled to death. Bracken knew this was fair, but all this work was so exhausting.

“First we carry everything out, now we have to put it all back.” Bracken began collecting mugs arrayed on the countertop. “I’ve basically spent an entire day carrying stuff.”

“Welcome to Friday.” Jaz stretched her legs out on the counter, crossing her ankles. Beside her, J.P.’s hi-fi was playing sultry piano jazz. The small window on the side read ‘Easy Does It’.

She rested her head back on the wall, watching Sean drag a chair from under a pile of colorful sweaters out on the sidewalk.

“By the way,” Bracken asked, “why did you pretend not to know him?”

“Sean? I don’t know him.”

“Yeah, you do. There are pictures of you two in one of the old binders.”

Jaz sat up, looking genuinely surprised. “What?”

Bracken shrugged awkwardly, clutching a cluster of mugs by their handles in each hand. “You looked like you were pretty close in them, so I figured…”

Jaz hopped off the counter and went to the storage room. Bracken put the mugs away and moved on to stacks of napkins. He couldn’t remember where they were usually kept, and there was no room on the shelves under the counters, so he hunted along the cupboards beneath the back counter along the wall. He opened one of these cupboards and a landslide of paper cups in long plastic sleeves spilled out onto the floor. He was busily trying to nudge and kick them back into place with his foot while cradling the napkins when Jaz returned, holding the photographs. She looked relieved. “That wasn’t Sean. It was someone else. His father, I think.”

Bracken ceased kicking at the cups. They slithered out again. “His father?”

“Yeah,” Jaz scrutinized the top photo, “I’d have to check the records, but I wrote his name down on the back of the picture. Finn…something. We saw each other for a while, then he moved on, and then at some point I saw him again and I think he said he had a kid…”

Bracken gaped at her. “You dated Sean’s father?

“Shh—” Jaz shoved the photos in her back pocket and moved to the espresso machine. “He’s coming.”

“You don’t know the potential gold mine you have here,” Sean said as he approached the counter. “You have enough stuff in the basement to fill a museum. Probably make a nice profit from something like that, too.”

Jaz found a rag and rubbed it across the espresso machine. “I already have to run one business. I’m not interested in starting another. Besides, I don’t want more people running around in here.”

“You don’t?”

“No. I want to be left alone.”

Sean watched her over the top of espresso machine. “I don’t believe that.”

Jaz glanced up at him, then away. “What do you know?”

Sean shrugged. “I know I want to see that coffee roaster before I go. It’s vintage.”

Jaz hesitated, then nodded. “Come on.”

They went downstairs and Jaz turned on a hanging lightbulb above the roaster. It was a large machine, wider than it was tall, with a rectangular furnace attached to a wide round drum where the beans were roasted. Burlap sacks of unroasted beans were piled on shelves nearby. The roasted beans were kept on shelves closer to the basement stairs where they were more easily accessible.

Sean passed a hand over the side of the roaster. “I’ve never seen one like this before.”

“It’s an old model.”

“You keep it in good condition.”

Jaz tipped her head to one side, watching him. “You know something about roasters?”

“My dad was a mechanic. He would take apart old machines and restore them. Mostly washing machines and toaster ovens. He had a few coffee-related machines come through his workshop. He built a roaster out of a steel drum and a heat gun.”

Jaz smiled. “He sounds like a smart guy.”

“He was. He passed away a few years ago.”

“I’m sorry.” Jaz touched the photo in her back pocket, trying to think of something to say. “Did he teach you about roasting?”

“Yeah. He loved good coffee, and now so do I. An unfortunate side effect of course is most other coffee tastes like dirt to me. I can’t go anywhere and just enjoy a cup of coffee because it’s coffee. I have to have the best coffee.” He looked at her and smiled, more with his eyes than his mouth this time.

Jaz smirked. “I don’t see the problem.”

He smirked back, then after a moment said, “So…Bracken tells me you’re related.”

“Yeah. He ran into some trouble and I’m helping him out.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Just…family stuff.”

Sean made a dismissive gesture. “It’s alright. Not my business.”

“I can’t talk about it.” She shrugged apologetically.

Sean sighed, looking down at the empty drum of the roaster. “Thing is, I’d like to see you again.”

“You will when you stop by after the next heist.”

“I meant, maybe for lunch sometime.”

“I…”

“I’ll need a couple days to get the gang squared away and the spoils divvied up, and then we can…” He took a short breath. “You’re going to say no though.”

Jaz had stopped breathing, her eyes avoiding him. “I can’t leave the shop. I’m the only one running it.”

“What about Bracken?”

“He’s been here three days. He doesn’t know anything. I’m sorry. I just can’t leave.”

“How long have you been here?”

“A few years.”

“No one collects that much junk in just a few years unless they’re actively stealing it.”

“I’m a kleptomaniac.”

Sean raised his eyebrows at her.

Jaz looked down and shuffled her feet. “We can have lunch here, if you still want to.”

Sean nodded slowly, rubbing his jaw. He moved toward the stairs as if to pass her but stopped just before he did. His head and shoulders were a few inches above her own. He looked down at her and said quietly, “Whatever is going on with you, with this place, you don’t have to tell me. But you don’t need to lie either.”

Jaz took a slow breath. “If you want to talk coffee, tell me about yourself, fine. I can’t…I’m not ready to talk about myself just yet.”

“Fair enough. We’ll talk coffee until you’re ready. And take this, just in case you change your mind.” He handed her a slip of paper, smiled, and went upstairs.

Jaz stayed where she was for a moment, looking at the paper. Then she followed him upstairs. He was by the doors when she emerged from the basement, surrounded by his posse. He smiled at her, waved to Bracken, and went out the doors for the last time. The last strains of music from the hi-fi, carried under J.P.’s arm, lingered in the shop for a moment, then faded to silence.

Jaz crossed the room and locked the doors, then turned the sign in the window to ‘closed.’

***

As soon as the thieves had gone, Bracken dropped the napkins he was holding and waded through the mess of cups on the floor of the workspace to join Jaz. “Did you tell him? What did he say?”

Jaz made a face and turned away from the doors. “No, I didn’t tell him. That would have been weird. Especially after he gave me his number.”

“Wha—really? But, you dated his father.”

“A long time ago,” said Jaz, slipping the paper into her vest pocket. “So what?”

“It’s just, weird. What if he turned out to be…you know…”

Jaz raised an eyebrow.

“Your son, or something.”

She snorted, shouldering past him to the counter. “Don’t be an idiot. I can’t have children.”

“You can’t?”

She spun toward him, flinging her arms out. “Think about it. What happens at midnight?”

“The shop resets…oh.”

“And I’m part of the shop. I reset, too. Back to how I was on day one.”

“Right.” Bracken looked down, feeling a little silly. “I guess…you’ve outlived a lot of boyfriends.”

Jaz looked at him a moment, her face still. “Yeah. I guess I have.”

“What about Athamas?” Bracken sat down on a stool and rested his arms on the countertop. The shop was far from organized, but Bracken felt he deserved a break.

Jaz took a stool beside him. “What about him?”

“He’s Tuoni, right?”

“Tuoni?”

“The carrier of souls, to the afterlife.”

“Different worlds give him different names. I call him Athamas.” Jaz stood and went around the counter to the pastry case, ignoring sleeves of cups rocking gently in her wake, and pulled out a tin of blueberry cobbler.

“Is that his real name?”

“It’s what Corrine calls him.” Jaz returned to her stool beside Bracken and scooped some cobbler out with a spoon.

“The girl who was with him? Who is she?”

“I’m not sure.” Jaz swallowed the cobbler and grimaced, touching her bruised throat with her fingertips. “She follows him around, being sarcastic. I’ve never seen her interact with someone who is dying. Only Athamas does. His job seems to be guiding souls from life to what comes after. I think Corrine handles them after they’ve crossed over, or whatever.”

Bracken nodded, his chin now resting on his forearms. Now that he was sitting, his fatigue was almost overwhelming. Jaz set a plate and fork beside his elbow and dished out a generous helping of cobbler. Bracken eyed it tiredly. He was hungry, but not for more syrupy, sugary pastry. His middle gurgled, so he took a few bites to appease it.

Jaz was still talking about Athamas, and the day they met. “He was so angry I was still alive. Like I was cheating him out of his last meal or something. He kept pointing to this notebook he keeps with him, saying, ‘you’re supposed to be dead! Now my ledger won’t balance.’ And Corrine pesters him about keeping analog records, but he’s old school and stubborn—anyway, after he calmed down he decided he’ll figure out a way to make me die, eventually. In the meantime he stops in for coffee and cobbler when he’s not busy…”

Bracken laid the fork down and nudged the plate away. Part of him, the ever-curious part, wanted to ask if Athamas had taken Sadie when she—but the other part of him, the raw, reactive part that still couldn’t accept Sadie was actually gone, shut the question down instantly. He didn’t want to know. Not when there was a chance Sadie could still be found in another of these worlds—namely, Saturday.

Tomorrow.

Bracken excused himself and went to his room. He meant to study Saturday’s binder again, to plan as much as possible. He stared at pictures of Davin, memorizing the young man’s face. According to the binder, Davin and his friends often studied at The Defiant. There was no guarantee Davin would show up tomorrow, of course, but that didn’t matter. Even if he didn’t show up this time, it just gave Bracken more time to plan until next the next week. The great thing about this place was that it was on a loop. He had infinite opportunities to find his aunt. He would have to get Davin to help him locate Sadie, and then find a way to bring her to the shop…

His dreams that night were all about seeing her again.

—–

Just an FYI, Traveler will be released in ebook and print formats in early Spring 2018, after editing and formatting and all that fun stuff. ^_^ I plan for those versions to also include more artwork, including the character and shop illustrations you’ve already seen and some new stuff too! I’m working on the additional art now, and I plan on updating the Wattpad version to include those, and any edits the published versions have, once they’re released. 

Thanks again for your votes and comments! I love hearing your thoughts and reactions, and responding to them. Cheers! 

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