The smell of clove cigarettes follows Paula into the shop. Her crow’s feet wrinkle as she smiles. Her pupils are wide and happy; she calls herself an amateur mycologist. She asks you about the espresso machine: “I’ve never seen one like it.”
“It’s old,” you say.
“What about those…” Paula stops mid-sentence, the word escaping her.
“The levers? This is how they all looked a hundred years ago. That’s why it’s called ‘pulling’ a shot.”
“I love that,” Paula says. “I love the nature of language, the way it evolves. How a phrase and an action can become so marred in our collective consciousness that even as the machines change, the terminology remains the same. Like an homage to a dead art.”
“Hey, it’s not dead yet. This old thing has at least another hundred years in it, if I have my way.” You slide the thimble-sized espresso cup across the counter. Paula leaves a plastic bag of brown and white mushrooms on the counter before entering the door. You aren’t sure where Paula goes every night, but you can hear old car horns and raucous voices, and see the atomic orange glow of a sunset as the door opens. She never says, and you respect your customers’ privacy.
Carl brings you vegetable curry from the restaurant where he busses tables.
“That new?” You point to his thin forearm where there are fresh, puckered lines of dark ink. He nods.
“Cynthia. She’s a bird’s nest fern.” He lets his hand hover over the curling fronds that now reach toward his elbow. “She lives in my bathroom. She likes the humidity from the shower.”
He cups his latte with both hands and opens the door, and you hear birdsong and the hum of insects.
“Saint Helena Island,” he says. “And the Saint Helena olive. It’s not a great name, since it’s not even an olive. But it was a beautiful plant. It went extinct in 2003. I can’t wait to see it wild.”
“Maybe your next tattoo?” You ask. Carl shakes his head sadly.
“I only get tattoos of plants I keep.” You nod. The cafe had a strict don’t bring back any shit you didn’t bring in with you policy.
“Do you hate making tea in a coffee shop?” Afua asks as you whip the bright green powder with the bamboo whisk.
“Not at all.”
“I like coffee,” Afua says, toying with a coil of her hair. “But my tummy doesn’t. The acid totally wrecks my guts.”
“I like tea just fine. Just don’t ask me to make a pumpkin spice frappuccino or something.” You wink, handing her the hot mug of tea.
“Noted,” Afua laughs.
“Going anywhere special tonight?”
“I haven’t decided yet. I wish I could go further, you know? I’d like to see a dinosaur or something.”
“Sorry. I don’t want to deal with oxygen toxicity.”
“Fine. Maybe I’ll see a show, then. Yeah,” Afua says, taking a sip of the tea. “Yeah, I think I know where I’m going.”
“Have fun.” The door opens, and you hear a crowd cheering and the neon glow of stage lights. Someone begins to strum the opening chords of Zombie.
“Never got to see The Cranberries live,” Afua says. “And you know you make the best coffee in Seattle, but I got to tell you: those pumpkin spice fraps are pretty good.” Afua winks, then disappears as Dolores O’Riordan begins to sing.
The first time you saw the nameless coffee shop, you thought you’d been dreaming. How many times had you cut through this alley on your way home? There had never been a door there. You stepped inside the poorly lit shop. He was behind the counter, with a hand-painted “Help Wanted” sign next to the espresso machine. Even then, it had seemed too old.
The man was tall and ageless, with a face that was either twenty or two-hundred. You would later find out that the latter was closer to the mark. He smiled at you.
He tapped the sign on the counter as if this answered you.
“I’ve never seen this place before.”
“The door doesn’t reveal itself to just anyone.”
“‘Reveal itself?’ That’s ridiculous.”
“Sure is. You want a coffee? I just brewed a pot, and you look like a cup of drip, no cream, lots of sugar kind of person.” It was, in fact, the opposite. Creamy, unsweetened coffee was your favorite. “You can have a drink while I train you.”
“Oh. I already have a job. And I don’t know how to make coffee.”
“We’re open from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.,” the man continued, ignoring you. “You have to buy a drink to gain access to the door. No taking what you didn’t bring with you, no guests, no murder or violent crimes--”
“A coffee shop that doesn’t open ‘til 6 p.m.? That sounds like a terrible business model.
“People don’t come for the coffee,” the man said. “They come for the door.”
“Door?” Then he showed you. In the back, behind the counter, was an old, wooden door. You thought you could hear something on the other side--or inside--thrumming like a hive of bees.
“I usually start people out with something easy,” the man, the owner, the witch, said. “Have you heard of the Sutro Baths?” You shook your head, the thrumming growing louder. “San Francisco, at the end of the 19th century. Enormous salt water baths, capable of holding 10,000 people. And open to the public! They burned down in the 60’s.” He tapped the door. The thrumming stopped.
The first time you opened the door, you heard splashing and smelled the salt from the baths.
“When you’re done,” the man told you. “Come back and I’ll show you the espresso machine.”
“Sure,” you say, defeated. For what defense was there in the face of absurdity and magic? There was only acceptance and wonder.
E.E.W. Christman is a nonbinary, queer writer working in the Seattle area. Their work has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines, including The NoSleep Podcast, Uncanny Magazine, PULP Magazine, Exploits, American Gothic Horror (Flame Tree Press), and others. They are an active HWA member. Twitter: @eew_christman