The first time they walked through the front door I thought I was going to die. I thought a demon from the next dimension had come to drain the life from my mortal body and probably every other mortal body in the coffee shop. Time slowed down as they walked past the decorative coffee mug display, and I found myself mentally mapping all the exits of the building but too petrified to move an inch toward escape. The closer they got, the deeper my paralysis set in until I was standing face to face(?) across a mostly-clean counter with a demonic presence. My panicking brain switched gears from racing to a dead halt. Unable to think or make conscious choices, I fell back on my base instincts: food-service-trained dialogue. I said to this creature that screamed death into my heart, "Hi, how can I help you?"
My pulse was racing and the silence between us seemed to stretch unbearably. The shadow demon shifted, leaning on the counter with one of their four arms. In a perfectly average tenor, they said "How is your house roast?"
I felt a bead of sweat drip down the back of my neck and bared my teeth in a practiced grin. "It's really good! That's what I drink."
"I'd like a small cup, then." With another arm they reached into what I suddenly realized was a very cute shoulder bag and pulled out a credit card. I punched 'coffee' 'small' into the iPad we use for a registered and said, "That'll be two fifteen." They placed the card on the counter and I gingerly picked it up and slid it into the chip reader. I tried desperately to keep my eyes anywhere except the featureless black void of a silhouette that stood in front of me, until the machine mercifully beeped and I handed the card back.
"I'll have your drink ready in just a moment." In a haze I poured coffee into a paper cup, and something small at the back of my mind belatedly realized that I didn't ask if they wanted it for here or to go.
I turned back to the counter and stiffly set down the cup. They took it with a third pointed arm, thanked me quietly, and walked out of the coffee shop.
I watched the door swing shut and shivered. I leaned into the counter and slowly became aware of the sounds of the shop around me. The earth kept spinning. The iPad was still flipped around from when they signed for their drink. I turned it back over and saw that their signature was a perfect circle. I was alive.
The third time the shadow demon came into the coffee shop, they were wearing a Seahawks hat, a striped tanktop with the arm holes cut extra low, and sweatpants. My hand that had been wiping down the countertop froze, my breath caught in my throat, and I had the sudden stupid realization that the first two times they'd come in here, they were naked.
Body language is pretty much impossible to read when you can't differentiate a single feature on someone's face, but from the angle of their hat I could see that they were looking around the shop as they walked in. I slowly put down the cloth I'd been using as they approached the counter, and they seemed to look up at the menu on the wall behind me.
"Um, I like your hat."
Said hat leveled at my face and I tried very hard not to imagine what a shadow demon's eyes might look like. They reached up an arm and touched the brim. "Thank you. Lu said clothes make other people more comfortable."
I became aware of my hair sticking to my forehead But resisted the urge push it back. The part of my brain that still wanted to run very far away was being overpowered by the by the part that wanted desperately to know what the hell was standing in front of me, so like a genius I asked, "Are you... from around here?"
"Yes. What is a Latte?"
I was momentarily speechless, reminded abruptly that this was also a paying customer. I glanced up at the menu to orient myself and stumbled on my words anyway. "Ah, um, a latte is a shot of espresso with steamed milk. Ah, here," I leaned over the counter and grabbed a laminated infographic explaining the different types of espresso drinks. My boss brought it in a few weeks ago; she thought it was cute, I thought it was overkill. I made a mental tally of one point for Miranda and imagined telling her which customer ended up needing it. "These are the different types of espresso drinks, in case you want to take a look at the other kinds also." I handed it to the shadow demon and they took it with both of their left arms. I shivered and was reminded abruptly that this was still a being probably from another dimension. One that liked coffee and possibly the Seattle Seahawks, anyway.
As they studied the infographic I considered what they said about their hat and wondered who Lu was. Lu short for Louis? Lucille? Lucifer? I decided not to ask.
They set down the laminated page and asked for one of each.
The sixth time the shadow demon came into the coffee shop, a red haired girl followed close behind. They walked up to the counter together and I almost knocked over the stack of paper cups I was trying to restock. The girl looked at me shrewdly but didn't say anything. I nodded at her and said hello, and glanced towards the shadow demon nervously. "Good to, uh, see you again."
The girl looked at me even more pointedly and asked, "So you know each other?"
I sputtered for a moment and she grinned and *elbowed* the shadow demon. I flinched much harder than either of them did, but the girl was smiling and looking up at their yellow sun hat. "You didn't tell me you've been making friends, I'm so proud!" The shadow demon stood too still and too tall but their quiet "thank you" eased some of my nerves.
The girl turned back to me and leaned against the counter. "So, how do you know each other?" She was smiling conspiratorially and I figured she was teasing me, but I was still way too uneasy to joke back.
The shadow demon saved me from having to answer, very stoically stating, "I've come here six times now to purchase coffee. The coffee here is more interesting than the coffee at our apartment."
The girl laughed but the shadow demon had said "our" and I had to take a chance. Before she could say anything else I blurted out "Are you Lu?"
She stared at me for a moment and looked at the shadow demon. "Are you telling people about me?"
I jumped to correct myself, "No! No, they're not, it was a couple weeks ago, they just mentioned your name, um, I didn't mean... it's just..." I wasn't making it any better. I looked up desperately at her, hoping she'd understand. "Who... what...?" I almost gestured at the shadow demon but thought better of it.
She gave me an understanding smile and stood up straight. "We haven't had a proper introduction. Hi, I'm Lu, short for Louise, nice to meet you." She held out her hand and I took it. "This is Ohl, short for a sound that you can't really pronounce in comfortable conversation. But I also call them Ollie. What's your name?" She was spoon-feeding me Social Interaction 101 and was eternally grateful.
"Hi, I'm Alex, um, short for Alex." I let out a breath I didn't know I'd been holding and straightened my back. The shadow demon was still looming and depthlessly black under their sun hat and breezy scarf, but I felt immensely more comfortable being able to put a name to them, even if it was short for something sort of unpronounceable-which, honestly, I couldn't have hoped for anything more.
I looked at both of them with more confidence, and my food-service persona settled comfortably around my shoulders. "What can I get for you today?"