Tapping her left foot onto the cobblestones, J’s nervous tick is heading into full overdrive. She takes a sip of hot coffee to attempt to calm her nerves. The sip is just a bit pre-mature, and the heat makes J’s tongue painfully tingle and grows into a hot, stinging feeling. J lurches slightly forward and shifts the coffee to the front of her mouth, in between her lips and her teeth to prevent any more burning from occurring. Her effort is mostly unsuccessful, but at least only her tongue will feel overly dry tomorrow, and not the top of her mouth.

The coffee is just a bit cooler than the scorching temperature that it currently is outside, yet J continues to drink the coffee.

That will always be her downfall won’t it? Sticking with things that she likes, even when they are no longer sustainable. Her relationship with Dee is drinking hot coffee in baking 95-degree weather.

“Hey, sorry I’m late, just got caught up at work.” Speak of the devil.

J shrugs. “No problem,” she nearly whispers. Her usual extroverted self has evaporated, evacuated by the hurricane of a conversation that needs to take place.

Dee is oblivious to J’s demeanor shift and heads inside of the coffee shop. Dee swirls inside, holding the door for a cute, little, normal family before entering, off to order a sugary iced latte.

J had met Dee when she first came to this town to fulfill a contract. When Dee had introduced herself as an “amateur expert of the town”, J decided to learn from Dee. After all it would be easier for J to complete her contracts if she looked like she knew what she was doing in the tight-knit community. Hanging out with a local expert would help her blend in. Besides, it helped that Dee’s coffee-colored eyes sparkled in the sun and that her smile always caused a twin smile to creep up on J’s own face. It helped that fluttering crept up into J’s stomach when Dee looked at her and laughed. Yet, it was a purely transactional relationship, one that would make completing her contracts, easier, not harder. At least that was what J attempted to convince herself. Dee would be J’s guide to the ins and the outs of the town and J would buy Dee food or whatever else she needed. J was not going to come over to Dee’s for social calls—brunch or book club or whatever normal people do—they were professionals. Or at least in the beginning.

J looks around the market, gazing around at the various groups of happy people. The nuclear family that Dee held the door for, an elderly couple making their way down the street, a group of teenagers gossiping loudly and laughing, two women walking hand in hand—

— Why?

“Why?” was what J had asked when she was first told about the transaction.

“I thought the why never mattered,” retorted The Man.

It usually didn’t—not in J’s line of work at least. Knowing “why” makes completing the transaction harder, it humanizes them. Humanization was something that those like J avoided at all costs.

“It doesn’t. Never mind.” J took the contract from his hands.

The contract is the one thing that ensures J’s safety and well-being, even if it endangers others. She has no choice.

— “Helloooo! Earth to Jay!” Dee’s cheerfulness startles J out of her memories and into the present.

“Sorry about that,” says J, but she is sorry for so much more.

“It’s fine! What you should really be apologizing for is choosing this coffee shop to meet up at. I think that this is the most expensive medium coffee that I have ever bought, so it better be good,” chuckles Dee.

“It’s just business,” J replies. “It is nothing personal.”

Dee shoots J an inquisitive look. She has never heard her friend—although she’s sure that they are a bit more than that — sound so disconnected before. Dee is about to speak up, but J continues to speak of business.

“You know? Like the business owner might have people who depend on them for their well-being. Or the owner might have a very large debt that they need to pay back, like a loan on a house or something. Or sometimes you just must charge insane prices–prices that you don’t want to charge, do things that you don’t want to do–just to get by in this world.”

Dee doesn’t respond right away, and J’s mind immediately goes into overdrive. Sometimes, J thinks so much that her head starts to hurt, and her ears start ringing. She thinks about those around her: what do they think of this girl, sitting alone outside of a coffeeshop, starting out into space? She thinks of the ones in her past, those that she used to know and the ones that she left in her wake. Do they ever think about her, wherever they are? Do they miss her, hate her, or does she ever even cross their minds? Probably not. J rarely thinks of them intrinsically either, just what they think about her. If she thinks about them for too long, and the consequences of ever knowing and interacting with them, J is sure that she will fall into insanity. Usually, J would skew her eyes together, scrunch up her nose, and plug her pointer fingers in her ears. This time, she counts down to ten in her head, and finally the ringing stops.

She usually puts on music to make the thoughts stop, plug up her brain with the blaring thoughts and emotions of others to prevent her own thoughts from blowing her brain to bits. Or she distracts herself, becoming task-orientated, only thinking about the mission ahead, starving off loneliness from ever coming. Or she makes a detailed story in her head of someone’s life outside of hers, not a great life, but still enjoyable. The characters endure the angst that we all endure but at least they are never alone. And sometimes the characters get to be happy. J looks at others, through a specific lens, one that doesn’t really see people as people, but rather as a potential money-maker. That way, J will never be lonely, never be betrayed, because she never sought out that kinship in the first place that gives betrayal a foothold. That’s why J moves around all the time, to avoid closeness. She had slipped up this one time, and it would cost her everything—

– “Goodmorning sleepy-head!” Dee’s joyful chirp startled J out of dreamless sleep.

“Ugh Dee, why so early?” J’s stay at the local motel had expired for the weekend, so she was slumming it at Dee’s house. Dee’s couch was very comfortable and so was Dee’s presence. Yet, J still internally jumped at very noise she heard, afraid that she would slip-up.

“This town-expert has a very strict schedule. Plus, I’m making pancakes!”

Dee’s bubbly demeanor and the smell of pancakes popped J quickly out from her covers. Beneath the crust in her eyes, she watched Dee brightly make pancakes for the two of them while humming the cover of some Disney song. Just like that, the butterflies returned to the now familiar place in J’s stomach.

“I could get used to this—the stability,” J thought—

— “No, I get it.” Dee interrupts J’s downwards spiral. “It’s a cruel, cruel world,” Dee agrees, and J’s shoulders drop in relief—storm averted. That was the affirmation that J was professionally looking for. They change the topic, and the two women hold a variety of conversations within the next hour. They speak of sites around town that J has yet to see, and gossip about people that J has yet to meet. Only one of them is aware that it will be the second to last time the pair will ever see each other.

The last time will have one woman in front of the barrel of a gun, the other behind it.