“Um… Jingledeep?” said the barista. She was a tawny-skinned woman, scrunching a beautifully bejeweled nose as she scrutinized the name on the cup. She looked at the man next in line at the counter. He was middle-aged with a hairline that was losing both ground and color. He wore a perfectly pressed gray suit and black leather loafers that he probably paid someone to polish. He was looking up at her from his phone with a whole-body frown.
“I have a coffee for…Jingledeep?” she read, half an invitation, half a question.
“Here!” said a tiny voice on the counter. The voice sounded like a tin whistle: made for laughing in tee-hees and crying in boo-hoos. It belonged to a pixie. The pixie stood on the counter next to the cup of stirring sticks. From the wrong angle, he disappeared behind them, except for the four green, dragonfly wings at his back. He had bright, golden hair and tiny, elfish features.
“Okay…” the barista said. She smiled at him. “I have a small, strawberry shortcake Frappuccino with extra whipped cream?”
Jingledeep’s tiny face looked bashful. “Um… actually… I ordered a single shot espresso?”
The barista did a double take at the order screen and the coffee in her hand. The zit-faced college boy behind the counter was grinning and refusing to make eye contact. Behind him, the espresso machine was giving off an extra-shrill whistle. She frowned.
“That’s right, I’m so sorry, let me—”
“Can we hurry this up a little?” said the man in the suit with the barely-restrained impatience of a man for whom time was money but whose parents had only given him the latter. With two fingers, he hovered a five-dollar bill over the tip jar like it might change its mind at any moment.
The barista looked back at Jingledeep. “I’m so sorry, sir. I’m going to need to clean out the espresso machine before I fix that order. It’s going to be…” she hesitated, looking at the busy café, the line already out the front door. “Ten minutes?”
Jingledeep nodded. “I’ll wait outside,” he said. He fluttered his wings and started sailing towards the door, giving the man in the suit a wide berth and ignoring his unrepeatable mutterings.
“Thank you for your patience!” the barista called after him.
It was a brisk morning, and when the warmth of the coffee shop hit a breath of cold, January air, Jingledeep was nearly blown into a frost-slicked lamppost. He recovered and gained altitude, heading for the roof. He knew there was a good spot behind the café’s sign that made a strong windbreak. He rode an updraft, twitching his wings to dart behind the sign when he heard an enormous growl.
A dark shape at least eight feet tall towered above him on the roof. It was covered in fur the color of iron shavings, and had long, gangling limbs. It raised a hand that could have swallowed five pixies in the blink of an eye. Enormous red, insectoid eyes held him in a long stare. As Jingledeep hesitated in the creature’s gaze, the shape unfolded itself, seeming to double, then triple in size.
“I’m—I’m s-sorry!” Jingledeep stammered, buzzing backwards from the creature on the roof. “J-Just waiting for c-c-coffee. I d-didn’t know anyone else came up here...”
As Jingledeep’s eyes adjusted to the shape of the creature against the gray, pre-dawn sky, he realized what he was looking at.
“Oh my god,” he whispered. “You’re… the Mothman…”
Two enormous moth wings convulsed and folded, leaving behind the shape of a tall, humanoid creature cloaked head to toe in its metallic-black fur. The figure nodded a head crowned with twin antennae.
“You’re famous!” Jingledeep squealed, his fear transmuted into awe. “Oh, Poppy is not going to believe this! I’m meeting the Mothman! The work you do, I… Gosh! What brings you here?”
The Mothman’s voice was many long octaves distant from Jingledeep’s.
“Quintuple Redeye,” the Mothman said, lifting a travel cup in his right hand.
“Oh! Me, too! Coffee, that is… is why I’m here, I mean,” Jingledeep squeaked.
Together, they sounded like thunder making small talk with a kazoo.
“Just waiting on the espresso machine,” Jingledeep continued. “Looks like you got here just in time…” He trailed off for a moment. “Did you… Can you predict little stuff like that? Or just the big disasters?”
“I foresaw the wait,” Mothman said. “And acted accordingly.”
“Wow. Yeah, just… wow. Sounds handy. I’m getting off a night shift, about to pick up breakfast and go see the wife and the little one. Well, the littler one. Littlest one, I guess…”
Jingledeep gave a chipped-teacup smile.
“That’s some pixie humor there. Works better when I’ve got the, you know, the spirit for it.”
“Long night?” asked the Mothman.
“Oh, gosh, yeah. I work in dew. Morning dew, you know? We paint the leaves and the grass with moisture before sun-up, you know, general condensation work. And you know, you’d think winter would be great for that, because you’ve got more nighttime hours to work, but you’d miss that guess. There’ve been lay-offs, so now every dew pixie is doing the work that would have taken four, maybe five dew pixies a few years back. And then in winter, too, you got the frost sprites coming in behind us, freezing up the dew, so we have to work even faster so that they can get their work done, and they look at us, like, ‘what’s the hold up?’ And, y’see, you don’t want to tick off management by mentioning the hiring freeze, so you… you just apologize and do the best you can…”
Jingledeep paused, wondering if he should continue.
“Do you like it?” asked the Mothman.
“Oh, you know. It’s steady work. I got into it young. Good fit for a pixie… It’s not like I was going to make it as a rock star.”
“I’ve heard of a pixie rock band.”
“True,” Jingledeep nodded. “I don’t know how they hit those low notes… But, yeah. It’s alright… There are times, though…”
Jingledeep shivered for a moment. He wrapped his wings around his slight frame. He spoke more quietly, barely audible above the breeze.
“Sometimes I just don’t feel like I’m making a difference…”
Mothman nodded his great, furry head, the million beads of his red eyes looking somehow softer.
“I know what you mean,” Mothman said, simply.
Jingledeep’s tiny jaw dropped.
“But you’re Mothman! You see the future, warn people about calamities! You’re a harbinger!” Jingledeep frowned, wrinkled his minute eyebrows. “Did I use that right? Harbinger?”
“You did. But prophecy isn’t reliable work. Things don’t always go well.”
“… I heard a story about a bridge collapse? I guess some people didn’t make it out, but… it seems like you did everything you could.”
“And yet…” said Mothman, tapping a long, fuzzy finger against the side of his cup. “If you’ll excuse me for just one moment.”
Below them, the café’s door burst open and the angry man in the gray suit shouldered his way through the crowd outside. He bustled across the street to a low sports car with some exotic name and an engine like an angry lion. As he did, Mothman’s wings opened, two eyes of an enormous owl. He swooped down on his black wings, landing atop the hood of the sports car. The owner startled, nearly spilling his coffee all over himself, then laid on the horn. Mothman snapped his fingers, and the horn died. He leaned forward, like he was saying something that Jingledeep just couldn’t hear. When he was finished, he beat his wings, drumming them against the winter air as he rose from the street. The man in the suit threw the car into gear and roared off onto whatever he did for a living.
Mothman returned to the roof, scooping his coffee cup back from the ledge and taking a sip.
“That was amazing!” Jingledeep said.
“Hm. I wish it were so,” Mothman muttered, his head following the trail of the sports car.
“And see, that’s what I mean,” Jingledeep continued. “Your kind of work is… is exciting. People depend on you. Dew is… I know it’s good for the plants. It regulates temperature, it protects against damage in winter, it can help stop forest fires… I mean, I’m not saying it’s pointless, but I’m just a drop in the bucket. Almost literally!”
“It’s not a job that usually changes people’s lives,” Mothman finished.
Jingledeep nodded. “Exactly. You get it.”
Mothman took another sip from his cup.
“Most of us don’t change lives, though, do we?”
“I mean… there’s Santa.”
“I know for a fact that Santa spends his nights wishing he could offer more than just toys.”
Jingledeep had been coping just fine with the cold, but something in the Mothman’s tone made him pull his wings a little tighter around himself.
“Well,” Jingledeep said. “People like Bigfoot…”
“Is he giving back to his community?”
“I… I don’t know.”
Jingledeep paused. “The tooth fairies?”
Mothman grunted noncommittally.
“I’ve always wondered what they do with the teeth. Do you know?”
“I do,” said Mothman. He did not elaborate. Jingledeep breathed some extra warmth into the cocoon of his wings before taking another swing.
“There is me,” Mothman said. His eyes were burrowing a hole into a spot in the far distance that, as far as Jingledeep could tell, was empty. “I see things… sometimes terrible things. I try and try to warn them, but sometimes… sometimes I think they like the disasters.”
He shook his head.
“No, I get by on the little victories, just like anyone else. A nudge in the right direction here, a toy there… perhaps some pocket money under the pillow.”
He thought about the petite, leaf-print uniform back at the office that was getting a little tight around the belly and the leaky dew droppers that management had promised to replace years ago. He thought of the sparrow that carried his water tank and how ornery he was getting in his old age, not to mention the finger he had nearly lost when the bird got spooked last fall.
“You think I would know about little victories,” he said. “But… for the life of me, I can’t think of any.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
From below, a voice called, “Jingledeep! Order for Jingledeep!”
Jingledeep stretched his wings.
“That’s me, I guess. I’d almost forgot about the coffee. Say, would you mind if I…?”
“Be my guest,” said Mothman.
Jingledeep shuffled to the edge of the roof and fluttered downwards. The barista with the nose ring and the nice smile handed him his coffee. He squeaked a polite “Thank you!” over the sounds grumbling of morning traffic and handed her a dollar coin almost the size of his torso. With the coffee cup wrapped tightly in his arms, he zipped back to the roof. He sat down next to Mothman and began to sip.
Saltshaker sleet began to fall from the sky. Mothman stretched his wings and raised them. The roof beneath the wings, Jingledeep’s spot included, was dry.
They drank their coffee and listened to the rattle of sleet against concrete.
When Jingledeep finished his coffee, he gave Mothman a little wave.
“I’d best get flying. Poppy’s going to need some help with Jangle, and Jangle’s going to be wanting a blueberry for breakfast.”
“You’re flying? In this weather?” Mothman said, his enormous eyes looking somehow even wider than usual.
“I’ll catch a ride on a minivan once I get down there. Real young kids, they still like to see a pixie on the window, I think.”
Mothman nodded and rustled his wings. “Do not take I-35.”
Jingledeep hesitated. He always took I-35 home when he stopped for coffee. But he nodded.
“Nice talking to ya.”
When Jingledeep returned to the upside-down flowerpot that was his home, his wings heavy with cold and his arms loaded down with blueberries, the first thing he heard was the blare of the neighbors’ TV. The neighbors were humans, and they had their own way of doing things, of course, but Jingledeep shook his head at the screaming commercial about cola or razorblades or whatever it was today.
Poppy was in the kitchen, hovering back and forth with little Jangle in her arms. Her back was to him, but Jangle could just see him between her mother’s wing beats.
Jangle’s eyes were red and her tiny golden hair was as wild as dandelion fluff. Her head, which was no larger than a pea, still looked oddly large for her little body. Her little mouth was puckered in a frown, her cheeks strawberry red. The poor thing was on the verge of a breakdown. Jingledeep had seen it a thousand times.
He was about to fly over when the neighbors’ TV started shouting again.
“—slick conditions. There’s an eight-car pile up on I-35 this morning. Witnesses say a driver trying to pass a semi-truck hit a patch of black ice and—”
Jangle was moaning, pounding her little palms against Poppy’s shoulders.
Poppy turned, stress melting off of her like ice cream in the sun.
“Daddy’s home, Jangle! And what’s he brought there?”
Jingledeep forgot the news. He held up one of the blueberries, pretended to take an enormous bite, and made loud crunching noises with his mouth.
Jangle tried to hide her smile, but it was almost as big as she was. She giggled as her father flew over, put down breakfast, and held her in his arms.
He was safe. Poppy was here. Jangle was laughing.
No, there were no little victories here: they were triumphs.