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The Shifting Cafe

Once again, she paused before opening the door.
She'd had worse jobs, Lisa reminded herself. Much worse jobs. She'd worked fifteen years in retail, after all, and five years in fast food places before that.
Though in those jobs, she'd at least usually known where things--things like, say, the bathrooms--were.
Which could not be said for this place.
One minute, the cash register would be directly across from the entrance; the next minute, it would be on the right hand side, or the left. The coffee counter sometimes just barely held an espresso machine and an old, creaky cash register. At other times, it accommodated about twenty baristas (when they had twenty baristas, which wasn't often). The furniture came and went, sometimes when Lisa was trying to remove coffee stains, or worse, when she was sitting or leaving on something. As did the bathrooms. Lisa never knew where they might be, or what they might be, or what might be in them--or if they would even be there.
And outside? Sometimes a strip mall, sometimes skyscrapers, sometimes a park, sometimes mountains, occasionally a castle, more than once what she was almost certain had to be other planets, with skies that color.
She wanted, desperately, to ask someone about it. But not only did her throat clog up whenever she tried, but she had, it seemed, nobody to ask. Oh, she had plenty of managers, ranging from friendly cheerful managers who assured her that she was part of the family here, really, and urged copious amounts of coffee and questionable baked goods on her, to surly disgruntled types who threatened her with unpaid overtime and swore at her when they couldn't find the bathrooms, to frequently confused aliens who didn't seem to understand why anyone would need a bathroom, and spent much of their time complaining about the incomprehensibility of humans. And plenty of coworkers, from the shy and clumsy to the brilliant and artistic to the superpowered or near godlike. But, like the furniture, almost all of them seemed to come and go. The one exception, Kendra, seemed fixated on the customers.
The very people Lisa most wanted to avoid.
Because the customers?
Unquestionably, the worst.
Oh, most of them were simply flirtatious, and oblivious. Amusing at first, but watching the same oblivious flirtatiousness play out a thousand times and more got beyond tired. Watching elaborate coffee drinks knocked over in surprise, again and again and never completely cleaned up afterwards also got old, very quickly. Getting shoved aside so that an oblivious--or irritated--or both--barista could serve that particular customer, and get teased by one of the managers, or the other customers--ok. That she actually could deal with. It was frankly easier than knowing that the drink she'd just prepared was about to end up on someone's lap as part of the romance routine.
And easier than dealing with the way they suddenly shifted and vanished and were replaced. Generally just as they'd figured things out, or reached a happy ending, too. Lisa would raise her hands to applaud and--
She did think about that. It was easier than thinking about just how often the cafe changed her.
Simple things: the way her wardrobe shifted, from uniform to funky to too boring for words to severely businesslike and back to uniform again. Less simple things: the way she was sometimes straight, bisexual, sometimes asexual, sometimes sexually obsessed with aliens. The way sometimes she hated cats; sometimes she loved them. And the way she would suddenly develop an inconvenient crush on one of the other customers, or the baristas. Though never on Kendra, the only other barista who showed up on a regular basis.
She found herself tempted, more than once, to give in. Partly because she was certain that Kendra had--and Kendra seemed to have an easier time requesting vacation days. She had even seen Kendra sneak towards the back--whatever the back was at that time--followed just minutes later by the customer she'd been eyeing. She couldn't blame Kendra: a surprising number of their ever shifting customers were, not to put too fine a point on it, hot. Very hot. Including many of the aliens.
But then.
Those bathrooms.
That furniture.
The thought that the customer might, well, shift into another person, during--
Ogling was just fine.
It was all enough to make her want to find another job, or stay at home, huddled under the blankets. If not for one mitigating factor:
The checks.
Always deposited straight into her account.
Almost always with more than she had earned. Sometimes quite a bit more.
"Tips, I guess," Kendra said, shrugging. "Probably think that in a reg... a reg... a different place, we'd be racking up the tips." She snorted. "Plus, they probably want to keep some, well." She swallowed, but Lisa thought she could tell what Kendra meant. "Whatever. Makes dealing with all this worth it."
Lisa thought about the checks.
She thought about her life.
Two more or less dysfunctional parents, a couple of siblings, abandoned thoughts of law school, a moderate sized apartment with a normal roommate and two completely normal bathrooms. One somewhat abnormal cat, even given her new standards of abnormal. Laundry. Cleaning. Cooking. And then, laundry. Cleaning. Cooking. All over again.
A life where she knew, absolutely knew, who she was.
She looked at the door again.
"It's a job," she told herself. "With free coffee."
She thought she heard the door say something as she stepped inside, but then again, she hadn't had her coffee yet.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 4th, 2020
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