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A Little Bit of an Oddity

The first time Zadie visited the coffee shop, Rahni was in the midst of explaining for the fourteenth time that no, they did not sell alcohol, no, not even an Irish coffee, to an old woman with glossy curls as springy as a vintage movie star's. Rahni never got snappy, exactly. In a place like Bean Days, with its London mix of tourists, do-gooders, grouches, and absolute weirdos (all of whom could overlap) anyone with a short temper would not have lasted long.
But Rahni was tired. Because really? Alcohol in a coffee shop?
And yet she still noticed Zadie. She wasn't sure why. A lot of cute girls passed through the shop. And yeah, maybe Rahni had nursed a couple of customer crushes to make her shifts pass faster, but this was different. Zadie was different. She just couldn't put a finger on why.
Cute coffee shop girl was definitely a grad student, Rahni surmised wryly about a week after Zadie started coming in. She had been in every day that week, forever scribbling down notes into a thick legal pad. At least, when she wasn't casting her eyes around at the other customers.
A people watcher, Rahni thought. And a total nerd, all dedicated to her dissertation or whatever. And really into hot chocolate.
Just at that moment, Zadie took a sip of her drink and ended up with a dot of whipped cream on her nose. She didn't seem to notice. Rahni cast her eyes around. It was a slow period. No queue, nothing too urgent to do.
She lounged across the counter, leaning on her elbows. Zadie's seat was only a couple meters away. "Hey." Rahni said.
Zadie looked up quizzically. Rahni tapped her own nose and winked. The other woman looked utterly confused for a moment before lifting a finger to wipe away the dot of cream. She stared at it on her finger and a slow smile bloomed.
"Thank you," Zadie said. The two looked at each other for a moment.
"Zadie, right?" Rahni asked, as if she hadn't been writing her name on paper cups all week.
"Yes," came the reply. Zadie pointed a finger at Rahni's nametag. "And Rahni?"
"Yeah."
"A beautiful name." Zadie said, and then went back to her writing.
Rahni didn't swoon. Not even a little.
After that, it sort of happened all at once.
Rahni liked to listen to Zadie's observations. There was something fresh in her. Everything seemed to touch her more deeply. Once, she teared up talking about a woman she had struck up conversation with on the tube (who did that, except Zadie?) who had not been able to visit her family abroad in over a year.
Zadie liked to listen to Rahni's stories about weird customers. The teen girls who requested personalized drawings on their cups instead of names. The old guy who insisted on saluting every time she gave him his change. Zadie especially liked that for all Rahni's exasperation, the barista loved her job.
"This place just attracts oddities." Rahni said, then flushed. "I didn't mean y--"
"Oh, it's all right," Zadie said lightly, with her easy smile and her bright brown eyes. "I am a little bit of an oddity."
Yes, there was a strangeness about Zadie.
One evening, she came into Bean Days uncharacteristically shaken. Rahni had just finished hanging up strings of little paper pumpkins and setting up flickering candles in preparation for the Halloween season. She hurried over to Zadie as soon as the queue cleared.
"Are you all right?" Rahni asked. Zadie's eyes were red from crying and her brows had an angry, unfamiliar set to them.
"Not particularly, dear Rahni." Zadie frowned at her own trembling hands, folded across her legal pad. For a split second, Zadie's eyes were yellow and reptilian.
Rahni blinked. Her heart stuttered in her chest. But when Zadie looked up at her properly her eyes were brown again.
"I'm just...." The woman sighed. "Feeling homesick."
And so Rahni ran her over a behemoth of a hot chocolate, on the house, and didn't let up until Zadie was smiling. The image lingered, though. Lizard eyes in a pretty girl's face.
You need more sleep, Rahni scolded herself. And shivered.
The next day, Zadie spilled a coffee. Rahni was over with a cloth in seconds, no harm done, most of it on the floor. But as she was finishing, she glanced up at the table and paused. Zadie's legal pad was covered in writing, but the few lines she skimmed were odd:
Humans, like us, are flawed and inconsistent creatures. They are capable of great kindness and incredible cruelty, often within the same minute. Some are kinder than others, however. Subject 94, Rahni Carter displayed great sentimentality yesterday, when--
"Uh." Rahni said. "Are you. Writing about me. Also. Was the comma after humans accidental or did my life just get very weird?"
"Yesterday a customer asked you if you could cast a spell on her latte," Zadie said mildly. "I think your life is already quite weird."
"I mean, there's hippies and then there's...."
Zadie smiled. "Aliens?"
"My name isn't actually Zadie," not-Zadie said. Rahni's shift had ended, and they were sitting in the peaceful evening quiet of Bramham Gardens.
"Um." Rahni said.
"It's Zet'l. Or at least, that is a close approximation with the human tongue."
"You're crazy, right? Like, completely crazy."
"Do you really believe that?"
Rahni was silent a long while. "No."
"Why here?" Rahni asked, many hours later. "You want to know about us. You could have wormed your way into the White House or Downing Street or the Kremlin or... wherever. Why some coffee shop off Earl's Court Road?"
Zet'l smiled. "I could have," she said. "But.. your planet is a patch of dirt, my dear."
"Thanks."
"Not like that. It is beautiful, but when held against the entirety of the universe, why would we cover our hands in blood just to possess it? We do not love death. We crave more than some new fruits and a little extra space."
"And what is that?" Rahni asked. It was odd hearing Zet'l talk. She spoke English with such fluency, and yet she had grown up under the light of a different sun. "What do you crave?"
"Understanding." Zet'l said. "Connection. The universe is lonely, Rahni. Seeing the ways others have found purpose is a gift."
Rahni mused on that. She settled back to lie on the grass. The stars were out, high above.
"Connection." Rahni murmured into the night air. "Do you think you've found it?"
Zet'l smiled. Light as a butterfly, she let her hand settle over the other woman's. "I think so."
And they both fell silent, watching the sky, the stars. They did not feel the emptiness of the air in front of them. They did not feel the autumn chill.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 9th, 2019
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