By Chrysa Keenon
Grace could count the number of drips it took the old coffee machine to brew. Seventeen. She used to try to synchronize each drip with her breath, but then Cole would walk out behind the counter and force her to stop because she’d be hyperventilating. The uneven number used to make her hands itch because it couldn’t be split perfectly in half in her head, but she had long since graduated from worrying about the brewer. She had come to this coffee shop so many times the noise morphed seamlessly into the background buzzing in her thoughts.
Grace and her brother had been coming to Ground Central every other morning for three months. It started when she and Cole took the train into the city from their home in suburbs. They often didn’t go out together, simply because Cole was always hanging out with his friends and Grace was always locked in her room. It was the threat of facing their mother’s wrath that actually forced them to “forge a sibling bond,” or whatever she wanted to call it.
Getting on the train had been a fiasco. There was a layer of dirt on the floor, something sticky on her seat, and a stench of pot that hung in the air. Cole had been chatting her ear off about having to piss, which didn’t help Grace’s rapid thought process about germs and how fast they could grow in warm environments.
“Cole,” Grace snapped, “I’m going to punch you in the bladder unless you shut the fuck up about peeing.” She clenched her fists as tight as she could and shifted her weight again, trying to find the position where the least amount of her body was touching the surface of the worn leather seat.
Promptly, Cole shut the fuck up, but he noticed the bloody cracks in Grace’s hands had reopened. Making an executive decision, Cole had ushered Grace off the train at the next stop and hurried her into the closest clean looking establishment he could find.
Both Grace and Cole hurried into their own respective bathrooms. Grace instantly landed in front of the sink and turned the faucet on with her sleeve. She frantically scrubbed at her hands and the water tinged pink from the blood. It swirled down the drain with all the other dirt and grime she felt crawling on her skin.
Grace took a generous handful of soap, lathered under her fingernails, and rinsed. Lathered palms, rinsed. Lathered backs of hands, rinsed. Lathered wrists, rinsed. She scrubbed and scrubbed and felt more triumphant with each new stab of burning pain from her cuts, feeling as if the germs inside of her finally met their sudzy demise.
She had been halfway lathering up to her elbows when a girl walked out of one of the stalls, shirtless.
Grace stopped dead. The girl’s painted lips smacked together as she chomped on a piece of gum. Strolling out of the stall holding a shirt, she came up next to Grace at the sink, locking eyes with her in the mirror.
“Hey,” the girl said gruffly, glancing Grace’s hands. “You okay?”
It took Grace a minute to realize this girl with boob overflowing out of the black lace bra had asked her a question. Blinking and swallowing against rising bile—because not wearing a shirt left you so exposed to the world, what was she thinking—Grace replied.
“Eczema.” She didn’t have to look at her own hands to know they were still raw and bloody and ugly. She could see it in the girl’s face.
“That sucks,” the girl said apologetically, putting one of her hands on Grace’s shoulder. Grace stiffened. The girl must have realized then that she was shirtless and hadn’t washed her hands since coming out of the stall.
“Oh, right.” She removed her hand from Grace’s shoulder and made work of putting her shirt on. “I spilled coffee on myself. Had to wash it off.”
Grace only swallowed and nodded, wanting to ask had she washed it off in the toilet? Because that defeated the purpose of washing at all and the toilet seat was just as contaminated as the water within and nothing was clean here, she needed to wash her hands again—
“Hey,” the girl spoke again, now wearing the maroon uniform shirt of the shop. There was a little nametag on the right of her chest—her chest, her huge tits, Christ—and it read Miranda.
She turned off the faucet, not bothering to roll up her sleeve before doing so.
“C’mon,” Miranda urged, tugging at the back of Grace’s cardigan. “You’ve got to put some kind of Band-Aid on those. If you keep washing them, you’ll get hurt.”
While Grace allowed herself to be lead out the bathroom, she thought to herself how she would have to wash the cardigan later because not only had it touched the sticky seat of the train, it was touched by a girl who was beautiful but dirty.
And not even in the sexy way.
(Maybe a little in the sexy way.)
Unsurprisingly, Cole had ordered a coffee at the counter and didn’t look twice to check to see if his twin had made it out of the bathroom in once piece. Miranda stepped past him to reach for a first aid kit below the counter, not even blinking when Grace asked if she would wear latex before applying any bandages.
“Hey sis,” Cole said, approaching them, then looked Miranda up and down. “Hey.”
“Keep walking, blondie,” Miranda tossed out, not remotely phased. “Not batting on your team.”
Grace felt her heart skip a beat. Shit, she was hot and gay. And Grace had already seen Miranda without her shirt on. Did that count for one half of second base? Short stop?
Cole raised his eyebrows at Grace and made that face he always made when he found out a lesbian was in the same vicinity of his sister. In another life, Cole would have made a good wingman. But it wasn’t Grace’s fault most of the girls he flirted with ended up being gay, even though he constantly whined about her getting the better picks.
“There, all done,” Miranda announced, finishing wrapping the bandages. She flashed Grace a brilliant smile. “I hope you feel better…” She trailed off, raising her eyebrows expectantly.
“Grace,” Cole supplied when Grace felt her tongue swell four times its size.
“Grace,” Miranda repeated, then smiled again. “Don’t hesitate to stop by again!” Then, her painted lips morphed into an amused smirk. “Although you should be a bit less bloody next time.”
Indeed, Grace did not hesitate. She dragged Cole out to the coffee shop for two weeks until he got fed up and applied for a job there.
“I might as well be making money while you make goo-goo eyes,” he complained. He applied more as a joke than anything, but was surprised when the manager called him back for an interview.
Now, Grace had the perfect excuse. Their mother was always wanting her to venture out into the world more. Apparently staying cooped up in her sanitized room wasn’t good for her health. And though Grace couldn’t get up in the morning without making sure her bed was made with perfect precision, she could get on the same train and to go to the same coffee shop to sit in the same booth and stare at the same beautiful girl battling the same ancient coffee machine.
That’s how Grace inadvertently became a regular at Ground Central. Though she pushed the excuse of keeping Cole in line whenever she came, her visits meant so much more.
Watching the way Miranda effortlessly jumped from brewing coffee to running the cash register to delivering patrons orders flabbergasted her. She didn’t understand how anyone could do that many jobs without washing their hands at least twice first.
Plus, it was just unfair. Miranda had such long eyelashes, did her hair in elaborate messy buns, and constantly chomped on gum, mindless of the germs she spread when she talked and little spittle rained out. She was everything Grace was not. She was everything Grace wished she could be.
She was flawed perfection.
“Sis, I am giving you an ultimatum,” Cole announced one day, sauntering to her table and delivering her order of straight black coffee. He was wearing gloves and only touched the bottom of her mug.
“Ultimatum?” repeated Grace, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes. You have to tell Miranda about your obsession with her or else I’ll take five shots and croon about your love for her during the next open mic hour.”
Grace scowled. “Don’t even pretend like you can sing. You can’t even hit a C flat on the piano, much less sing it.” At this, Cole rolled his eyes. They were each scarred from the onset of piano lessons their mother had subjected to them as children. “And I do not have an obsession. I just like visiting this little shop. It’s cute.”
It technically wasn’t a lie, because the shop was aesthetically pleasing. But people were always spilling coffee on the couches and fluffy chairs, and Grace was much more comfortable in her corner table with the hard metal seat. Each day, she wiped down the chair and table with the Purell wipes she kept a stash of in her purse. The smell of the cleanser made her feel secure.
Cole was obviously not buying it. They were siblings. They shared the same train of thought. And though Cole didn’t have her sickness, didn’t share in the itch to make everything clean or have the buzzing in his head whenever something didn’t go right, he always tried to understand, which was more than Grace could ask for.
“You could just ask for her number,” Cole said. “I asked for it.”
Grace glared at him. “If you have it, why don’t you just give it to me?”
“Because.” Cole rolled the gloves off of his hands and stuffed them into his black apron. “I want you to take a risk.”
“I don’t like risks,” Grace said hollowly.
Cole gave her a pointed look and used the Bond-villain voice he had been using since he was seven. “You have one week.”
Grace reached for the coffee and downed a large gulp without cooling it. The liquid was like fire coursing down her throat. It pooled in her stomach, and Grace hoped it would burn away the fear in her.
Because fear dominated her existence. Fear of touching something sticky, fear of having germs in her bloodstream, fear of being rejected by her family for liking girls. It all intertwined in her head, and her thoughts getting caught in a giant spider web of insecurity.
It sounded a whole lot more poetic than it actually was.
Grace carried on for a few more visits without actually talking to Miranda, avoiding eye contact but smiling gently every time her loud voice announced an order over the counter. It wasn’t until Cole picked up an extra shift on a Wednesday and dragged Grace along did the discussion of the ultimatum come back. This was mainly because the next open mic night was that Friday.
Her time had run out. Cole debriefed her about what to say on the train ride over.
“Use a pickup line that’s classy, but not too much,” he said. “Like, ‘If you were a book, you’d be fine print.’”
Grace wrinkled her nose at the poor wording and eyed the greasy haired man who was sitting in the seat in front of them. She wanted to give him a bath in disinfectant and wash his clothes in bleach.
“Grace,” Cole said, his tone softer this time. “Don’t worry too much about it. Miranda likes you.”
She started when he placed his hand on top of hers. Grace looked down at her white knuckled hands and cursed. Her wounds had opened up again.
“I’ll be fine,” she assured him, staring at the bloom of red against her pale skin. “But no way am I using a pickup line.”
Cole smiled at her and gently removed his hand from hers. He probably had a smear of her blood on his palms. He would have to wash his hands before his shift, but he didn’t seem to care.
Once in Ground Central, Grace counted time on the drips of the rustic coffee machine. It groaned like an old man forced out of bed before daylight, but it brewed. It was a constant. It didn’t change no matter how many people ordered a specialty coffee or got too overloaded. The coffee machine was able to keep going and adapt to every situation. Like Miranda. Unlike Grace.
Toward the end of Cole’s shift, he started making eyes at her and not-so-subtly jerking his head toward Miranda. Grace glared back at him. It wasn’t long before Miranda caught on, and frowned in her direction.
“Yo, Grace,” said Miranda, walking over to her corner table. There was a pucker between her eyebrows and Grace wanted to reach and smooth it away. “Is everything alright over here?”
Grace opened her mouth, but her tongue was suddenly as dry as a desert. She could almost taste the sand in her mouth. Like cat litter.
“You and Cole have been doing that twin thing more than normal,” Miranda continued. Of course Miranda would know about the twin thing. “Are you guys fighting or—”
Suddenly, guy with a hipster haircut bumped into Miranda as he walked past, causing her to jostle the mug of coffee in her hands. The coffee fell away from Miranda’s grip and tumbled into Grace’s lap.
It was a moment of silence, then the ringing began in Grace’s ears.
Shooting up out of her seat so fast the chair fell over. Hands shaking, afraid to touch the stain of liquid growing on her body. Voices raising, high pitched moaning because the germs were on her and they were spreading into her clothes and on her skin and it would take so much sanitizing to get them all off her.
Grace started tearing at her clothes. The heat was too much, the ingredients of the coffee that she didn’t order, the brown stain setting in to ruin her clothes and her skin and her hair.
The rest of the world blurred around her, she couldn’t focus. Dimly she felt hands on her shoulders and got barreled into the back of the shop toward into the restroom. With Miranda.
Her whole body was on fire. Distantly she could feel wetness on her cheeks and a burning in her throat as Miranda’s eyes focused solely on her, widening until the shimmering blue of her eyes started to look like oceans.
“You’re okay,” Miranda kept telling her. “Breathe Grace. You have to breathe.”
Grace thought she was breathing, but how could she when the scent of coffee beans was all over her, she would never be able to get it out now. It would be layered on her skin forever and no matter how many times she washed her body it would never come off. Grace whimpered and started to tear at the treacherous shirt again, but her hands were too clumsy and they fumbled.
Miranda must have figured out what she wanted because she pushed Grace’s hands away and started working her shirt off her. As she was pulling the shirt over Grace’s head, Cole pushed into the bathroom.
He seemed a bit surprised at the sight of his half-naked sister. “What happened?”
“Get an extra uniform out of the back,” Miranda barked. He nodded once, and his mop of hair disappeared out the door.
“Grace,” Miranda said, still using that same commanding tone of voice. “We’re going to wash you off, but I need you to breathe with me first, okay?”
Grace nodded dumbly and mirrored Miranda as she took a large breath through her nose, then slowly released it out though her mouth. Miranda got closer to her and together they calmed Grace’s breathing until it was a steady flow of inhaling and exhaling instead of a collection short, sharp gasps.
Cole nudged the door open again and slipped inside the bathroom, handing Miranda the large maroon uniform shirt. Miranda took it without taking her eyes off Grace and rolled the fabric over Grace’s head, effortlessly slipping her thin frame into the article of clothing.
“That guy apologized,” Cole said. “He said he’d be able to buy you a drink if you feel up for it.”
Grace’s breath rattled as she shook her head. Her thin hair stuck to her forehead with sweat.
“I’ll tell him no, then,” Cole replied. “I’ll be back in a minute. You got her?” He directed this last part to Miranda, who nodded once.
“I got her.”
A spike of heat went through Grace, one that had nothing to do with her anxiety. As Cole shuffled out, Miranda grabbed Grace’s forearms and gently hauled her over to the sink.
“Let’s wash,” she said, her voice softer now. “We’re gonna try not to irritate your skin, but if it hurts you need to tell me.”
“Yes,” Grace croaked, still breathless. She moved her heavy arms under the spray of the faucet, noting that the water wasn’t hot enough to burn. As the blood poured out from the cuts on her hands, Grace found herself unable to focus on rubbing her hands together. Miranda was so close to her. She smelled like chocolate. Maybe she was brewing some kind of macchiato before?
Before Grace ruined it all.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured weakly.
Miranda’s hands closed around hers under the flow of the water. Grace looked up and locked eyes with her. Miranda’s hair was falling perfectly around her face and she looked like a messy angel.
“Don’t you apologize. It’s not your fault, you need to understand that. You do, don’t you?” Miranda asked, taking her hand away. Then she raised her hand like she wanted to touch Grace’s face, but stopped and must have realized her hand was wet and covered with germs and blood.
It was like Miranda knew.
“You’re perfect,” Grace blurted out, startling herself. A smile spread across Miranda’s face and she lowered her hand.
“I…want to kiss you,” Miranda said, her voice strained as if she was trying not to laugh, “but I know that wouldn’t be a good idea right now.”
Grace flushed, and bit her lip. “No,” she agreed. “Not right now. But yes.”
Miranda’s sculpted eyebrows shot up. “I can take you out?”
Grace huffed a laugh, suddenly feeling light and woozy. “Yes!”
She nearly laughed again, for the ridiculousness of it all. It had taken an anxiety attack in order to finally get Miranda on a date, not using one of Cole’s stupid ultimatums. She looked down at her hands and looked back at Miranda, feeling flushed with happiness to know that Miranda wanted her, with all her flaws and wrongness. Miranda wanted her.
Miranda stayed close as she finished washing her hands. She let Grace dry them off and helped wrap them in the bandages found in the storage room.
“Why do you think we’ve been hanging around this coffee shop for so long?” Grace asked eventually. “Cole literally got a job here so I could ask you out.”
“Took you long enough,” Miranda teased.
Grace smiled, harder than she had in such a long time. If someone like Miranda would want to be around Grace, maybe her small ticks could be overcome.
Like getting over counting the number of drips in the coffee machine.