Her days are spent shape-shifting, trying on new faces and bodies like hats, switching out arms and limbs like a sweater. No one knows she’s been here always.
She knows the place so well she can describe the pattern woven into every wooden tabletop. She can point out original footprints on the stone floor, the ones that have darkened over time. She’s read the books on the shelves, each one a million times. Her mind is rich with their words—science, fiction, philosophy, business, horror. Her favorites are the ones about magic.
She’s never been outside that she can remember. She’s never felt the sunshine on her face beyond what streams down through the rectangular windows set high up on the wall, level with the sidewalk above. She’s never felt the white snow beyond the flattened and muddied chunks carried in on the boots of strangers. They melt in the entryway before she can grasp their frozen wetness on her fingertips or taste their bitter cold on her tongue.
Her world is inside this basement café, dark, warm, cozy, safe. She wakes up each day to the sharp smell of roasted coffee beans. She doesn’t even like coffee, but she likes the atmosphere it creates. People gather around it, settle in their seats, sipping the dark liquid as their minds slow down. Their voices quiet and they lose themselves in a book, their computers, or each other. That is the power of coffee. Magic, like in one of her books.
She talks to them sometimes, assuming the presence of a girl she saw the day before, sitting at a table and working furiously at her computer. Wearing the girl’s face, she pauses in her typing, the delicate and slender fingers arrested above the keys, and catches the eye of a boy sitting at the table across from her.
“Nice day, huh?” The girl’s thin lips—her lips—curve into a smile and she turns her borrowed blue eyes towards the sunlight streaming through the windows.
“Yes, beautiful. Makes me feel guilty about being inside.” His response is shy, but she can tell he wants to talk. He smiles and reveals a row of bright, perfect teeth. He has a beautiful face.
“Oh, no,” she says, “don’t feel guilty. This is a beautiful place, worthy competition for the sunshine.”
His brow creases in amusement. He’s never heard a coffee shop described in the way she has described this one. “Yes, I suppose it is. I’ve never thought of it that way.”
And they’ll go on like that for 20 minutes, an hour, however long the stranger can spend in conversation. She’s always been good at conversation. “Outgoing,” people would call her, but she thinks that’s a ridiculous term to describe someone who never goes outside.
But she doesn’t need to, not really. It all comes to her, if only in small bits. The sunshine, the snow and rain, the people and their conversations. She knows all of it, from right here in her coffee shop.
She doesn’t pay attention to the time, other than to note the passing of each day. First comes the morning, the café bustling with quick, busy people. Then mid-day, the smells of coffee mingling with the sweet scent of ham and cheese sandwiches and balsamic-dressed salads. Then it is night, the café dark but for the warm cast of the streetlights above. The room is hers alone then.
This is the time she chooses to read. She walks the room, running her fingers over the paper and leather bindings lining the shelves. She loves the books more than anything else about the café. Were there no furniture and only books to adorn the room, she would be content.
They are the reason she has never left, never “passed on.” She might miss the people and their lovely conversations, but she couldn’t bear to part with the books. What if there are no books on the other side? What if it’s all darkness, with no light to read by? What if there is only nothingness?
She wouldn’t risk it. Oh, sure, she’d thought about it. But there was no way to guarantee she could return if things weren’t any good over there. Then she’d be stuck, a shell of her former self, reduced to the stories in her head. Better to stay put.
And so the days go by, and she tries on the faces and bodies of strangers. She sits in every seat, tries out every table, and lounges on every couch. She’s come to think of this café as her own personal sanctuary, her special “other side.”
But she does get lonely. She knows the friendly strangers will always be that: strangers. She can never go anywhere with them, can never step into their world beyond the wooden door with turquoise paint that separates the inside of the café from the outside world. She must always remain here, without real companionship or love.
These are the days she thinks about taking the risk. She decides that maybe she’ll do it today.
She spends the day collecting books, stuffing as many as she can into the pockets of her dress and sweater. Maybe she can take them with her. Surely she’ll be allowed this small concession? Then, if there are no books, she’ll at least have these.
She makes a point to speak to every person who comes into the café, if only to say hello. She may never see their like again, and she wants to know their stories.
As the last patron leaves and the owner closes up, she sits at a table and looks up at the yellow streetlights. She wishes she could take this light with her too, but she can’t. She’ll just have to risk it.
She closes her eyes, clutches the books close to her body, and quietly passes on.