The way I see the world is different from everyone else.
Unfortunately, that’s a bad thing. Usually a really bad thing.
When I was about four or five years old, I asked my mom why our neighbor looked like a cat and why our mailman had a long lizard tail and scales for skin. It wasn’t the first time I’d asked her stuff like that. I was constantly asking her questions like “why do babies come from flowers?” and “why do some people have wings? Do they fly?” Mom finally got fed up, I guess, told me to stop living in my imaginary world and grow up. Behave like a normal person, she said. She yelled at me and threatened to lock me in the closet until I “quit being a brat” and only agreed not to when I got scared from all the yelling, broke down crying, and begged her to forgive me.
When I was eight years old, I forgot myself for a moment and asked Mom why everyone was still dressed up after Halloween. When she wondered what I meant, there, in the middle of the supermarket, I pointed at another shopper and said that she was wearing wings and pointed at another and said he looked like a troll.
My mom immediately took me home without purchasing our groceries, slapped me until my ears rang, and locked me in my room without food for two days.
Upside to that whole episode was I finally learned not to ever ask my mom why people were dressed or looked strange. Instead I watched them, trying to make sense of what was going on and why no one else seemed to notice that people looked…different. Not everyone. I mean, a lot of them just looked like normal humans going about their normal, safe, boring human business. But mixed in with all the others might be someone with a wolf’s head, fairy wings, scales for skin, bat wings, glowing red eyes, goat feet instead of human feet, or any number of other things. I watched, I observed, I tried to understand.
I made my next big mistake when I was 15. I had a friend in school who distinctly resembled a bear. Not that anyone around me seemed to notice or care. But he was one of the few people who made an effort to talk to the kid who always sat in the back, quietly observing the world. It had taken most of the last school year before he’d won me over, and this year we had been hanging out from day one.
That was, until we walked past a mirror in the locker room and I blurted out a question I had been pondering over before I had a chance to think about what I was saying. I asked him why he looked human in the mirror and not like a bear.
I don’t remember his answer. To be honest, I don’t remember anything after that question until I woke up in the hospital several days later. My mom was there, furious – not that I’d been injured, of course, but that I was in the hospital racking up bills. She seemed to take it as a personal affront that I’d been injured in what the doctors told me was a wild animal attack that I’d been lucky to survive. Sure, I came away with massive scars and some permanent nerve damage which meant I’d probably be in pain for the rest of my life and unable to ever fully use my left arm again, but hey, I must have planned this just to annoy her, right?
After that I stopped talking about it. Well, I actually stopped talking in general. It wasn’t that I couldn’t talk or that I refused to if it was needed. I just…rarely had a reason to. I didn’t really interact with hardly anyone. I was a background character, almost invisible to most eyes, and for the most part, that was how I preferred it. I felt safer being invisible than in trying to navigate through a world I didn’t understand. Plus, avoiding talking meant I wouldn’t blurt out stupid questions as they popped into my head – questions about why I could see things apparently no one else could. I was never sure if I was crazy and imagining everything or if there was something going on that I didn’t know about, but one thing was for sure – talking about it only ended in pain. It was best to be quiet. It was safest to be invisible.
I couldn’t technically be invisible. That was a thing, I had figured out somewhere along the way – it took me a while to distinguish between whether a person was a ghost or just invisible, but yeah, invisibility was a thing. Sometimes I wished I could be literally invisible. But social invisibility worked almost as well. It got a bit harder the day I turned 18 and my mom locked me out of the house, telling me I was on my own and she didn’t have to deal with me anymore.
Not having any belongings or money after she did that kind of was a pain, but I struggled through it. I survived to find a job and now I was supporting myself on my earnings while I took night classes or correspondence courses to try to work towards a degree. It was nice, actually. Not being dependent on someone who had hated me for as long as I could remember. Not having to deal with her harsh words, not having to wonder if I was going to be allowed to eat, not having to worry about being struck if I said the wrong thing. Instead, I worked quietly, went home to my tiny apartment, ate my food in silence, and worked on coursework. If I didn’t eat, it was because I couldn’t afford it when I’d had to spend too much money on class fees or textbooks or something like that – it wasn’t because I’d accidentally angered my mother with some question she didn’t like or some glimpse of an imagination she thought I shouldn’t have. A quiet, invisible existence that I was happy with.
But of course, life was never that kind to me.
I had just started a new night course at a local college and was still thinking about my coursework when I got to the café. I wanted to get a degree in a field where I wouldn’t need to interact with other people, but that I’d still enjoy. Thankfully, I enjoyed programming, software, website design, that sort of thing – so I knew with an IT degree eventually I’d be able to work quietly, maybe even at home freelancing, and wouldn’t have to interact with a world which I found so intimidating. But in the meantime, I was working as many hours as I could handle at the coffee shop/bakery that had taken me on when I was 18 and desperate to find work so I could get out of the shelter. I’d been here for five, almost six years now, and knew the café workings better than anyone else there other than the owners. I couldn’t entirely avoid people, but now that I was an assistant manager I could choose my shifts as I pleased – generally either making beverages or baking, and never, if I could help it, dealing directly with customers. Honestly, I didn’t even like interacting with my coworkers much if I could help it. That was why I wasn’t the manager. One of the owners, a kind but exasperated lady named Molly, had told me so herself – if I was better at handling coworkers, they’d probably let me run the place. She didn’t get that I didn’t want to run the place. I just wanted to work quietly, undisturbed, virtually invisible, with as little contact with everyone else as I could get away with.
It wasn’t that most of them would hurt me. I knew that. But seeing things that no one else seemed to see was unnerving. I had to pretend constantly that I didn’t notice that someone had cat eyes instead of normal eyes, had fox ears and tail, had – well, there were any number of things that customers and coworkers might have. Or have in my imagination, if that’s what it was. But one thing I did know was that I had to be careful never to let on that I thought I saw anything other than humans. If my expression even hesitated, just for a second, they might notice. It had happened before.
It was never a particularly fun experience to have someone catch me at night, in the alley after work and ram me against the wall, demanding to know what I knew and who I was working for and what I had told them. At least they usually just let me go after a beating when they figured out I was just socially awkward and might actually not have “seen” anything, just happened to make a weird face because that’s what weird, awkward people might do. Sometimes I would feel like someone was watching me after that, like they still didn’t trust me and were trying to make sure I wasn’t doing anything, but I just went about my usual routine. Work, home, and, when I had non-virtual classes, school. Once a week, the supermarket for groceries. That was it. No one could accuse me of being even mildly interesting. It might take a couple weeks, but the feeling of being watched always dwindled and then disappeared once they confirmed I was just introverted and weird.
So anyway that was why I didn’t like to interact with others, even coworkers if I could help it. I tried to always keep that mask up no matter what I saw, but sometimes I slipped up. And usually came home with bruises or worse to show for it. It was easier not to make mistakes if I just didn’t talk to anyone. Didn’t look at them. Didn’t interact in any way if I could help it.
Which is why I wasn’t pleased to see Jenny rushing over to me the moment I walked into the café. “Riven, Charlie called and he and Monica are sick, they can’t make it in.”
My name is probably the only interesting thing about me and naturally, it didn’t come from my mom. My dad gave me my name, but that’s the only thing I know about him. Well that and that he left my mom, which made her hate being stuck with me. Oh, and that my thick, dark dark brown hair came from him. Mom used to yank it while saying she hated it because it reminded her of him and maybe she should just shave it off. She did, once. I looked awful until it grew out again.
Jenny continued before I had a chance to respond. “And Honey’s running late, some kind of family emergency. I already called the list and Ivan’s coming in to help cover for Charlie and Monica. The bakery’s ahead of schedule so it should be fine without a second person.”
Well, that was good. With him here – and me not having to call to find people – that meant the problem was basically resolved before I even got there and we had at least the minimum number of people to cover the shift. The problem was, Ivan had only been trained on drinks and cleaning so far. Not the registers. Which meant I’d have to be on register today rather than being in the kitchen as planned.
I almost groaned but this was part of being an assistant manager. I had to fill in if needed. Just because I hated to work with customers didn’t mean I couldn’t do it. It was part of my job. And I’d agreed to the promotion so I could have a little extra income, which I desperately needed. Yeah. I could do this. Maybe.
I nodded shortly. “Thanks.” For calling Ivan, explaining things, all that. “I’ll take register two.”
Relief immediately flooded her face. Jenny knew I wasn’t a fan of the register, she probably was afraid I’d try to shuffle people around so I could stay behind the scenes where I preferred, but that wouldn’t be fair to everyone else if I did that. I could handle it. For one day. Hopefully.
I clocked in, quickly checked to make sure everyone was doing okay and everything was stocked, then went to unlock my register. It was going to be rush hour soon, which some people hated but I actually preferred. People were in such a hurry they’d just tell me their order and move on, not even noticing I didn’t talk to them. It was the quieter hours that were harder for me, when people would expect a greeting and small talk with their order. Small talk wasn’t on the menu but people seemed to expect it for free anyway.
Honey came in 35 minutes into the rush hour, apologizing profusely before clocking in, taking her register, and smoothly joining Jenny and me in the effort to get through the crowd of people in the café. She looked stressed, in the brief moment I glanced at her. Stressed and worried. If I’d been braver, I might have asked her if she was okay and if she needed to talk whenever we had a lull in customers. But I wasn’t. In large part because she was one of them.
Humans – the ones with no weirdness around them – were safer to me. Less likely to get mad at me if I looked at them because I wouldn’t accidently give them a strange expression. Well, usually. I’m still socially awkward and human bullies exist, too, so it’s not impossible. Just less likely.
And then there were them, as I called them in my head. All the others. The ones who looked strange. Whether it was animal heads, wings, horns, strange eyes, strange skin, strange ears, aura-ish smoky hazes around them, or things following them that no one else could see. All of them were what I feared the most. Having them around made me anxious, afraid I would say the wrong thing, look at them wrong, do something wrong – and then have to pay the consequences. I was never quite sure why I hadn’t died from the consequences, but apparently I was really “lucky” that way. If living this life was considered lucky.
That wasn’t to say I didn’t care about people, even if they were them. Some of them seemed nice. Sure, I knew from experience that would change if they knew I could see them, but ones like Honey were easy to like. Honey almost always had such a sunny disposition, always making everyone in the café – workers and customers – feel better just from being in her presence. Her name seemed appropriate, although I wasn’t sure if that was a nickname. She was sunshine and kindness – and wings. The kind I called fairy wings, versus bird or bat wings. They looked almost like they were made of gossamer or glass or something light and shiny that sparkled even in dark rooms, with hints of gold all around the edges and in swirling patterns through the center. They were beautiful, but still scary to me. Because they represented something different, something which if I acknowledged, might turn even sunny Honey into another of my nightmares.
Coworkers who were them scared me more than customers since I saw them more regularly. I couldn’t afford to slip up. I couldn’t afford to make a mistake like that, one that didn’t involve just a customer who I might never see again. I couldn’t make that kind of mistake. I’d done it in the past, once, and it wasn’t an enjoyable experience, oddly enough. So even if I was concerned about Honey today, I didn’t dare ask. I couldn’t take that risk. Couldn’t afford to. No.
Breathe, I reminded myself. It’s okay, I’m here in the café. I’m serving customers. Don’t look at them. Just breathe. Ask for their order, thank them. Don’t look at them. Don’t say anything else. Breathe.