"I can't go to bed," I told her, stifling a yawn. "I have to read first."
I curled up with the pint and my book, recalling again how I'd finally be meeting my favorite author at the signing tomorrow. Seth Mortensen's writing always spoke to me, awakening something inside I hadn't even known was asleep. His current book, The Glasgow Pact, couldn't ease the guilt I felt over what had happened with Martin, but it filled an aching emptiness in me nonetheless. I marveled that mortals, living so short a time, could create such wonderful things.
"I never created anything when I was a mortal," I told Aubrey when I'd finished five pages.
She rubbed against me, purring sympathetically, and I had just enough presence of mind to put the ice cream away before collapsing back into bed and falling asleep.
The phone jolted me to consciousness the next morning. Dim, murky light filtered in through my sheer curtains, signifying some freakishly early hour. Around here, however, that amount of light could have indicated anything from sunrise to high noon. After four rings, I finally deigned to answer, accidentally knocking Aubrey out of the bed. She landed with an indignant mhew and stalked off to clean herself.
" Yo, Kincaid?"
"No." My response came swift and certain. "I'm not coming in."
"You don't even know I'm going to ask that."
"Of course I know. There's no other reason you'd be calling me this early, and I'm not going to do it. It's my day off, Doug."
Doug, the other assistant manager at my day job, was a pretty nice guy, but he couldn't keep a poker face - or voice - to save his life. His cool demeanor immediately gave way to desperation. "Everyone called in sick today, and now we're strapped. You have to do it."
"Well, I'm sick too. Believe me, you don't want me there."
Okay, I wasn't exactly sick, but I was still sporting a residual afterglow from being with Martin. Mortals would not "see" it as Duane had per se, but they would sense it and be drawn to it - men and women alike - without even knowing why. My confinement today would prevent any foolish, lovesick behavior. It was very kind of me, really.
"Liar. You're never sick."
"Doug, I was already planning on coming back tonight for the signing. If I work a shift today too, I'll be there all day. That's sick and twisted."
"Welcome to my world, babe. We have no alternative, not if you really care about the fate of the store, not if you truly care about our customers and their happiness..."
"You're losing me, cowboy."
"So," he continued, "the question is, are you going to come here willingly, or do I have to walk over there and drag you out of bed myself? Frankly, I wouldn't mind the latter."
I did a mental eye roll, chiding myself for the billionth time about living two blocks from work. His rambling about the bookstore's suffering had been effective, as he'd known it would. I operated under the mistaken belief that the place couldn't survive without me.
"Well, rather than risk any more of your attempts at witty, sexual banter, I suppose I'll have to come over there. But Doug..." My voice turned hard.
"Don't put me on the registers or anything."
I heard hesitation on his end.
"Doug? I'm serious. Not the main registers. I don't want to be around a lot of customers."
"All right," he said at last. "Not the main registers."
A half hour later, I stepped outside my door to walk the two blocks to the bookstore. Long clouds hung low, darkening the sky, and a faint chill touched the air, forcing some of my fellow pedestrians to don a coat. I had opted for none, finding my khaki slacks and brown chenille sweater more than sufficient. The clothing, just like the lip gloss and eyeliner I'd carefully applied this morning, were real; I had not shape-shifted into them. I enjoyed the routine nature of applying cosmetics and matching articles of clothing, though Hugh would have claimed I was just being weird again.
Emerald City Books & Café was a sprawling establishment, occupying almost a full block in Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood. It sat two stories high, with the cafe portion dominating a second-floor corner viewing the Space Needle. A cheerful green awning hung over the main door, protecting those customers waiting for the store to open. I walked around them and entered through a side door, using my staff key.
Doug assaulted me before I'd taken two steps inside. "It's about time. We..." He paused and did a double-take, reexamining me. "Wow. You look... really nice today. Did you do something different?"
Only a thirty-four-year-old virgin, I thought.
"You're just imagining things because you're so happy I'm here to fix your staffing problem. What am I doing? Stock?"
"I, er, no." Doug struggled to snap out of his haze, still looking me up and down in a way I found disconcerting. His interest in dating me was no secret, nor was my continual rejection. "Come on, I'll show you."
"I told you - "
"It's not the main registers," he promised me.
What "it" turned out to be was the espresso counter in our upstairs cafe. Bookstore staff hardly ever subbed up here, but it wasn't unheard of.
Bruce, the cafe manager, popped up from where he'd been kneeling behind the counter. I often thought Doug and Bruce could be twins in a mixed-race, alternate-reality sort of way. Both had long, scraggly ponytails, and both wore a good deal of flannel in tribute to the grunge era neither had fully recovered from. They differed mainly in their coloring. Doug was Japanese-American, black-haired with flawless skin; Bruce was Mr. Aryan Nation, all blond hair and blue eyes.
"Hey Doug, Georgina," heralded Bruce. His eyes widened at me. "Whoa, you look great today."
"Doug! This is just as bad. I told you I didn't want any customers."
"You told me not the main registers. You didn't say anything about this one."
I opened my mouth to protest, but Bruce interrupted. "Come on, Georgina, I had Alex call in sick today, and Cindy actually quit." Seeing my stony expression, he quickly added, "Our registers are almost identical to yours. It'll be easy."
"Besides" - Doug raised his voice to a fair imitation of our manager's - " 'assistant managers are supposed to be able to fill in for anybody around here.' "
"Yeah, but the cafe - "
" - is still part of the store. Look, I've got to go open. Bruce'll show you what you need to know. Don't worry, it'll be fine." He hastily darted off before I could refuse again.
"Coward!" I yelled after him.
"It really won't be that bad," Bruce reiterated, not understanding my dismay. "You just take the money, and I'll make the espresso. Let's practice on you. You want a white chocolate mocha?"
"Yeah," I conceded. Everyone I worked with knew about that particular vice. I usually managed to take down three of them a day. Mochas that was, not coworkers.
Bruce walked me through the necessary steps, showing me how to mark up the cups and find what I needed to push on the register's touch-screen interface. He was right. It wasn't so bad.
"You're a natural," he assured me later, handing over my mocha.
I grunted in response and consumed my caffeine, thinking I could handle anything so long as the mochas kept coming.
Besides, this really couldn't be as bad as the main registers. The cafe probably did no business this time of day.
I was wrong. Minutes after opening, we had a line of five people.
"Large latte," I repeated back to my first customer, carefully punching in the information.
"Already got it," Bruce told me, starting the beverage before I even had a chance to label the cup. I happily took the woman's money and moved on to my next order.
"A large skinny mocha."
" Skinny's just another word for nonfat, Georgina."
I scrawled NF on the cup. No worries. We could do this.
The next customer wandered up and stared at me, momentarily bedazzled. Coming to her senses, she shook her head and blurted out a torrent of orders.
"I need one small drip coffee, one large nonfat vanilla latte, one small double cappuccino, and one large decaf latte."
Now I felt bedazzled. How had she remembered all those? And honestly, who ordered drip anymore?
On and on the morning went, and despite my misgivings, I soon felt myself perking up and enjoying the experience. I couldn't help it. It was how I worked, how I carried myself through life. I liked trying new things - even something as banal as ringing up espresso. People could be silly, certainly, but I enjoyed working with the public most of the time. It was how I had ended up in customer service.