The writers have now completed the fifth – semi final – round of writing. The specification gave them plenty of room to flex their writer muscles. Now it is time for the public to vote on the stories they feel are the best or most entertaining.
Fifth Round Assignment
The assignment for round 5
There’s a magic talisman that allows its keeper to read minds. It falls into the hands of a young barista.
- The words “talisman” and “barista” should both appear in your story at least once.
- Your story is between 1250-1500 words. No less, no more.
- Give your story a title of 2-4 words.
Nine stories were returned and will be voted on by the jury and the public. Every writer starts the round with a blank sheet, and at the end of the voting only five will proceed to the final round of the competition. Please bear this in mind when choosing your favourite stories.
Readers, what should you do now?
Read all the fifth round entries, and vote for the stories you like the best. Try to keep the assignment in mind when you make your choices. You have to choose three stories, no less, no more.
The survey is at the bottom of the page after the last story. Don’t’ forget to click the ‘Finish Survey’ button when you’ve made your choices!
Also, the writers appreciate receiving feedback. Just a few things your liked about the entries or where you feel improvements could be made. Such advice may help them with their composition during the rest of the competition. This can be done in the comments section below after completing the survey. All feedback is held in moderation until the results of the round are ready to be revealed.
- Writers are not allowed to tell anyone which entry they have written!
- You can only vote once. Votes will be monitored and double votes will be removed.
- The voting round closes on 14th September 2021 (see the countdown in the sidebar of this site).
- Results of the voting round will be published on this site on 18th September 2021 and then the author of each story will be revealed.
- Choose carefully as at the end of this round four writers will leave the competition.
Find the Fiction Marathon Rules here…
If you write about your experience in the Marathon please link up so others can find your post.
1. Tasty Treat
Content warning: violence
Kaylee trudged her way to work, her shoulders slumped as she dragged her feet along the floor. The thought of another day of being polite to ignorant customers filled the young barista with a sense of dread. She didn’t know what was wrong with people. Why couldn’t they see her as a person? Not just a dispenser of caffeinated beverages and sugary delights? Whatever the reason, Kaylee could barely get her feet to obey as she walked to the coffee shop twenty minutes away from her apartment.
There wasn’t enough caffeine in the world, let alone the cafe, to cope with some of the demented requests they got during a day. Kaylee and her colleagues had often wistfully ranted about having psychic powers. That way they could have pre-empted any dumbass requests. Before the customers even opened their mouths. Fat chance. What a lovely dream that was, but the reality was far less accommodating.
“Excuse me, miss? I think you dropped this.” A gentleman called out to Kaylee, sprinting after her with his hand extended.
“Oh, thank you. I didn’t realise I’d dropped anything.” Kaylee muttered in return, scowling as she checked her pockets.
Keys, purse, phone, work name badge. She had everything she remembered shoving into her pockets that morning, so what on earth could she have dropped?
Kaylee held out her hand and smiled politely to the man as he placed the cold, metal item into her palm with a nod, jogging back the way he’d come. Kaylee looked down at her hand and scowled.
“Sir! This isn’t… mine…” She sighed, realising that he was now long gone and that no one else was in sight.
She would have to post a lost and found about it later, but for now she would keep hold of whatever it was. Scowling, Kaylee continued her journey to work, poking at the strange item in her hand. It was a deep, burnished gold triangle, with an eye at the centre that appeared to be filled with amber. She’d never seen anything like it, but it was pretty.
Kaylee shrugged and shoved the talisman into her pocket. She greeted her colleagues as she hurried into the cafe, shoving her things into her locker in the back room and throwing on her apron before she pinned her name badge onto it.
“Right. Another day, another bunch of morons, come on Kaylee. You can do this.” She sighed, mentally preparing herself for whatever horrors the day had waiting for her.
By midday Kaylee’s head was throbbing. The cafe didn’t feel any busier than it usually did, but the noise level of the customers seemed deafening. Kaylee felt as though she’d walked into a bee hive. The constant chatter buzzed in the shop, though Kaylee couldn’t account for it. On several occasions she’d heard the customers ranting about something trivial, something extremely personal, but hadn’t been able to work out who was speaking.
“Hi, how can I help you today?” She asked through gritted teeth, forcing herself to smile despite the workshop in her brain.
“Ugh, this one again. You’d think by now she would know I want a venti skinny white mocha with a shot of low sugar toffee syrup. And of course there are no sesame bagels left, there never are when I come in.”
Kaylee blinked as she stared at the tight lipped woman in front of her. She was a regular (pain in the ass) and the staff often clashed with her. Kaylee had on multiple occasions.
“What the hell is she staring at?! God I need to find a new coffee place, the staff here are useless at the best of times and now they’re mental as well.”
Kaylee plunged her hand into her pocket, her fingers wrapped around the oddly warm talisman. She traced her thumb across the eye and smiled as she put two and two together. It was allowing her to read minds.
“Venti skinny white mocha with a shot of low sugar toffee syrup? Oh and if you want any sesame bagels I can go and get a fresh one from out back if you like? We put some in to bake about ten minutes ago so they should be ready now.” Kaylee added, beaming at the woman.
There was a moment of satisfaction when the woman’s mind had a minor meltdown at the level of efficiency from Kaylee. It was all the barista could do to stop herself giggling at the blank space where the woman’s thoughts should have been.
“Y-yes, that would be wonderful. Thank you.” The woman stammered. “Well. Maybe she’s finally screwed her head on right!”
Kaylee continued to smile as she rang up the woman’s order, thanking her as the lady left a tip (for the first time ever).
“However you did that, keep doing it.” Sarah hissed as she hurried out back to fetch the sesame bagel in question.
After that, Kaylee remained on the register. Plucking orders from the clients, or offering suggestions based on their wayward thoughts. The tip jar had never been so full, and not one of the staff could remember having a day as argument free as this.
“Kaylee. That name tastes sweet to say. Kay-lee. It slips over my tongue like honey. I wonder how she actually tastes. I bet she’s delicious.”
Kaylee blinked and hastily looked around the cafe for the source of the voice. Her eyes met the enchanting blue pools of an extremely handsome man, and she blushed as he smiled at her. Did he know she could read his thoughts? Were they his? Or was she just being hopeful?
“I bet the coffee would pale in comparison to even a small lick of her. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. Those lips look divine.”
Kaylee’s cheeks flushed and she felt self-conscious as he stepped up to the counter. She hoped to pluck his order from his thoughts, but they all centred around her.
“W-what can I get you?” She stammered, looking up at him through her eyelashes.
“Just a large black coffee please. No sugar.” He said softly, his deep bass tone quiet as he spoke. “There’s something far sweeter I want to taste, and sugar would only dull the pleasure.”
“That will be £3 please.” Kaylee smiled, taking his money, shuddering as his fingers brushed against her palm. “I’ll do this one Sarah.” Kaylee interjected as her colleague picked up the takeout cup.
Sarah grinned as Kaylee all but snatched the cup from her hand. Hastily writing her name and mobile number on the side. She filled it with coffee, stuck on a lid and handed it back to the man.
“Thank you, we hope to see you again soon.” She smiled.
The man smiled back, his eyes flickered to the side of the cup before he looked back at Kaylee. “Oh, you’ll see me very soon.”
The rest of the day was fairly uneventful. Kaylee was left buzzing from her encounter with the good looking man, and the cafe had it’s best day in a long time. All thanks to her accidental lucky talisman.
Kaylee closed up for the day. Smiling constantly. She headed back toward her apartment when her phone buzzed in her pocket. She pulled it out and flicked the screen open, grinning at the unknown number that had sent her a text. Who else but her mystery man?
‘You have a lovely smile. You look good enough to eat. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind letting me have a taste?’ It read, and Kaylee giggled.
‘You can have a bite anytime ;)’ She replied.
“I hoped you would say that.” His voice vibrated deep in Kaylee’s bones as she gasped, turning to face him.
Before she could react, his large hands reached out and grabbed her. One placed firmly over her mouth, the other pinning her arms to her sides so she could not resist. He dragged her down the dark alley and sat on top of her, restricting her lungs.
Kaylee whimpered as he pulled a metal straw out of his pocket. She felt a sharp, agonising pain in her throat as he jammed one end into her. This couldn’t be happening, it just couldn’t! Unable to fight back, frozen in fear and pinned in place, all Kaylee could do was gargle as her blood flowed out of the straw. Into the empty coffee cup with her name written on the side.
He lifted the cup to his lips and drank deeply of the contents. Blood. Her blood dribbled down his chin. “Ah. I knew you would taste good.” He sighed, grinning a bloody smile at her.
Kaylee felt his hand in her pocket as the world grew dark and cold, the talisman glinting in the lamplight as the man held it in his fingers. Her last thought, which she was sure he heard, was she could have sworn that eye was laughing at her.
2. The Barista’s Gift
She caught my eye about a year ago, as I walked into the new coffee shop around the corner from my apartment. Not my usual type, her rich curves took up space, but her personality took up more. Her laughter boomed from the corner table and when I looked over in irritation, I froze. Her smile dazzled me.
I’ve returned to that coffee shop every day since then and our eyes have never met. If they had, I might have tried to talk to her, but instead, I’ve just watched from afar. Not in a creepy or twisted way, just in the going-about-my-business-and-noticing-her kind of way.
This morning doesn’t feel any different as I walk into the shop. Kylie, the barista, knows my order on sight. We’ve been on a first name basis for months and she has my skinny half-caff caramel latte ready when I get to the counter. I put an extra few dollars in the tip jar and grab my cup.
“Thanks Joan,” she calls after me.
I lift my cup up to say thanks and see the thin leather cord is wrapped three times. Curious, I twist the cup around and see that a small silver disc is attached. I look back to Kylie but she’s gone back to the kitchen or storeroom or whatever is behind the swinging doors with the “employees-only” sign.
I fumble to my usual table, confused at this small gift. Sure, I usually tip her an extra buck or two, but she’s never given me so much as a free coffee.
When I sit down, I slide the necklace off the bottom of the cup and look closer at the medallion.
It has markings around the outer edge of one side that I don’t recognize. A star cut out of the middle. I flip it over and there are different markings on the other side. I turn it back and forth and confirm that the two sides are different.
The leather string is long, and when I look back to the coffee bar, Kylie is watching me, so I put it over my head and give her a thumbs up. She smiles and then goes back to wiping down the counter.
“Why do you do this to yourself?”
The voice comes out of nowhere and I swing my head around looking for the source. No one is standing near me or talking to me.
“Delete the Tinder account. Now!”
I realize that the voice is in my head. And it’s not my own. I look around and sure enough, there is a woman two tables over, sitting with her back to me. I can see the screen of her computer and Tinder is up. Handsome men stare back at her as she debates, in her head and in mine, whether or not to delete her account.
“Oh! This one is cute, maybe I should message him. If he doesn’t respond or turns out to be a jackass, then I’ll delete it.”
A tinkling of bells above the doors pulls my attention away from the woman.
She walks in. I glance down at the medallion, over at the woman on Tinder, and up at her. I will Tinder woman’s voice out of my head and focus on her.
Her eyes lock with mine and she smiles and waves. Without thinking, I smile back and pick my hand up to wave, but freeze. Her teeth glisten behind her perfect lips and when her dimples emerge, my brain melts. As she walks closer, I catch her thoughts.
“Little twat. She looks so prim and proper. Wonder what she’d look like if she found out I’ve been banging her husband. Wipe that little grin right off her face, I bet.”
My eyes bulge and I realize my mouth is opening and closing like a fish. I’m not married! And I don’t look prim and proper, at least that’s not exactly the description most people would use for a dumpy middle aged woman.
She’s still thinking horrible things when her eyes pass over my head, to someone directly behind me. She slides past my table and greets the person in a high, very fake-friendly voice.
“Sylvia! You’re looking lovely today! Where did you get that adorable shirt.”
I can hear the condescension in her voice, but maybe that’s only because I just heard what was really going through her head.
“Oh Joanie, isn’t it great! Brayden brought it home for me last night.”
I snort and have to pretend to start coughing to cover it up.
Joanie? Her name is basically the same as mine?! What the fuck?
I don’t know what to think or feel. Deflated, I pack up my stuff and practically run out the door. As other people’s thoughts start to filter in, I rip off the necklace and shove it in my pocket.
Damnit, I should’ve just given it right back to Kylie, but I’m already out the door and don’t want to go back in there. I decide to return it tomorrow and head to work a little early.
So much for the last year of my life.
The rest of the day goes by in a blur of meetings and phone calls. I put my hand in my pocket and rub the medallion a few times, but don’t put it back on. After hearing inside my crush’s head, I’m done with listening to people’s thoughts.
I really don’t want to go back to the coffee shop at all, but I feel bad not giving the necklace back or saying goodbye to Kylie. She deserves an explanation.
Then it hits me. She knows. That’s why she gave it to me! She must’ve worn the necklace and heard me thinking about that god-awful woman and wanted to warn me!
Then I start to fret about what I was thinking that she might’ve heard. Did I seem desperate? Creepy? It must not have been too bad if she wanted to help me, right?
Then I wonder how often Kylie wore the necklace and why? Is she a creeper? Is she stalking me?
I have a hard time focusing on anything at work and when I get home, I throw on the TV for background noise. Eventually, I slip off into la-la land much later than normal.
The next morning, I stand outside the coffee shop for an exceptionally long time. I’m here earlier than usual, wanting to avoid that horrible woman (I won’t even think her name, even though I know it now).
I take a deep breath and open the door. As usual, Kylie is behind the counter, ready with my drink.
“I was wondering if you’d come in. What were you doing out there?” She smiles at me and then looks at my chest and frowns. “You’re not wearing it.”
I take the necklace out of my pocket and place it on the counter. Then take my wallet out to pay.
“I think it served its purpose.” My voice catches as I slide it across to her.
Her frown deepens and she slides it back. “I don’t think it did. Please, put it back on.”
Her tone is just shy of pleading, so I untangle it and slip it back over my head.
I am bombarded with images of myself in the cafe and one thought:
“Please ask me out.”
My eyes focus on her and she’s blushing.
“Oh!” I exclaim. “Ummm…” I haven’t thought about her like that before, but she’s cute and nice.
“I never wore the talisman, at least not here,” she explains, seeing my indecision. “My aunt gave it to me for my birthday and we tested it on each other, but I’ve never worn it out.”
“How did you know-” Realization hits that she didn’t give me the necklace to listen to Joanie at all! She gave it to me to listen to her!
“Oh!” I say again.
“Oh no, what did I do?” The thought breaks through my own and disappointment pulls at her eyes.
“I’m sorry, I just thought…” her voice trails off and I can still hear what she’s thinking.
“What did you think? That this woman would magically fall in love with you because you gave her a stupid necklace that let her into your thoughts?” Then she looks at the necklace, still around my neck, turns purple and starts to sputter.
“Oh god,” she says and pushes my card back across the counter. “It’s on me.”
I pull off the necklace, embarrassed I kept on, as I hand it back to her, our hands touch. A shock travels between our fingers and we both pull our hands back.
My eyes travel from our hands to her face. Tears well in her eyes, which I never noticed are the color of dark chocolate.
Why not? What do I have to lose?
“Want to get a drink tonight?”
3. “Okay, Doomer.”
Marthy didn’t think much about the tall, lumpy customer who came in wearing a trench coat despite the 80-degree weather outside. She didn’t bat an eye when the person ordered a “Nor-mall cove-fee” or when they dumped a bunch of coins on the counter to pay. And she definitely did not notice that they sat motionless at the corner table for 35 minutes before getting up to leave. Today, Marthy was covering the opening barista’s shift after pulling a closer last night and couldn’t be bothered. Her hair was up in a tight ponytail, and her expression barely fluctuated from the “buzz off” stare she was giving the world. All she could think about was the time remaining until her shift manager, Rob, would get in to take over.
That is until she went to clear the table. Though the person hadn’t even touched their coffee, they had managed to dirty several napkins now left in a heap. As Marthy cleared the mess, her fingers encountered something heavy hidden beneath. Before she could question it, her mind was suddenly full of voices. Clenching the carved stone in her hand, she realized the customer hadn’t been any ordinary coffee shopgoer.
“-think he ghosted-” “-the cat’s not feeling-” “-maybe he’s checking-“
“-she probably doesn’t-” “-but what if I’m-“
A dozen inner voices droned on as Marthy stared at the talisman in her hand. Breathe, she told herself. Remember to breathe. Center yourself, find your voice. Tune out all others.
“Hey, Martha, thanks for coming in early today. Silvia wasn’t feeling well and-” Marthy’s manager had come up behind her unnoticed while the chorus of voices roared.
“I’M TAKING MY LUNCH BREAK! I’LL BE BACK WHEN I’M BACK!” Marthy hadn’t meant to shout, but regardless she didn’t wait for Rob to recover from his stunned silence.
Tossing him the keys to the store, she rushed out into the late morning sun. Then, she turned down the alley next to the shop and checked for any witnesses. She fingered the crystal on her necklace a moment before determining the only one who would see anything back here was the stray cat that frequented the dumpsters.
“By the power of the fucking moon and stars and shit, I awaken my inner light to shine in the darkness and stuff!” as Marthy shouted into the sky, the crystal glowed first, followed by her entire body sparkling before illuminating the alleyway like a spotlight.
The whole transformation took thirty-five seconds. When it finished, Marthy was still standing in the dirty alley, only now wearing a frilly outfit of white and primary colors. It looked like someone had described a sailor uniform to a fashion designer who had never seen a sailor before, much less a woman, and was bored with life. Stepping out of the elaborate circle now burnt onto the asphalt, she pulled the dumpster away from the wall to reveal a stashed backpack. Wasting no time, Marthy pulled out a pair of athletic shorts and a baggy hoodie with the words “all bitches Die” across the chest. She hiked the former under the short skirt before pulling the latter over her head.
Throwing the talisman into the backpack, she turned to the gray cat staring lazily at her from across the alley. “Not, a single, god damn, word!” though the cat’s expression did not change.
Taking the crystal from her neck, she held it in front of herself. “Crystal, activate!” The small stone expanded into a staff, now topped with a decorative crystal display of the solar system. Magical staff in hand, she bowed her head and closed her eyes, focusing on her mysterious customer’s trail, “Now, where are you hiding, you little shit…”
Trench coat billowing in the wind, the strange figure would have attracted a lot of attention leaping across rooftops if it weren’t for the spell protecting it. It could come and go as it pleased without any mortal eyes giving it a second thought. Unless, of course, someone had magic and caffeine coursing through their veins.
Leaping onto the water tower to block the path of her target, Marthy took a stance and pointed her crystal staff at the figure. “Lobotomy or sodomy, your choice, asshat! Either way, I’m rearranging your guts with this crystal unless you tell me who sent you!”
“Tails-man.” croaked the lumpy trench coat as it perched on a derelict chimney across from her.
“Yeah, I know you left that for me to find! You’re lucky I’m running on four hours of sleep, or your ass would never have made it in the front door! I’ll ask again! Who sent you?” Marthy shouted, managing to glare through her bedazzled white domino mask.
“Mow-on, Got-esss.” The broken voice hissed, bowing its hat slightly as a clawed hand clutched the trench coat. “Ye-ewe why-el bee ow-oar save-eeyore.”
“I thought you might say that.” And with a flash, Marthy was behind the figure, already swinging her crystal staff in an attack. In the very next instance, the stranger tore its trench coat off to reveal three distinct figures. Each one was more misshapen and distorted than the last, having varying bird and reptile-like features across them. The staff caught the discarded cloak, barely missing the strange beings. Marthy was pissed.
Taking her time getting back to the shop, Marthy had grabbed a pita from a neighborhood food truck. As she stood before the shop, still eating, her attention stopped on an older woman in a tracksuit seated at a table. With her short white hair and oversized fanny pack, the woman wouldn’t stand out except that she was currently talking with the stray cat from the alley. With a sigh, Marthy walked over to join them.
“-still doesn’t let me help her. Well, speak of the devil, and she shall appear!” the cat spoke aloud as Marthy pulled up a chair. “Took you long enough to deal with that! Who was it this time? Moon Minions? Shadow Guards? No, wait, don’t tell me! It’s not like you’d listen to my advice anyway.”
“Nevermind the sourpuss, deary. Are you alright? Yuna reached out to me that something was wrong, and I came as soon as I could.” The woman said as she patted Marthy’s arm with a tanned and scarred hand.
“Yuna is right, Eda,” Marthy explained as she rummaged through her backpack. “It was three minions in a trench coat. They came while I was in the middle of my shift and tricked me into coming in contact with this.”
“The Talisman of the Inner Ear!” the talking cat exclaimed, though Eda seemed less impressed as Marthy produced the artifact.
“You know they are only trying to help. Awkward little things as they are.” Eda studied Marthy’s expression as she set the carved stone on the table. “You didn’t hurt any of them, did you?”
“No, I didn’t. They were too fast, and I guess I wasn’t really trying to hurt them. I was just so fucking angry!” as Marthy shouted, Yuna’s eyes darted to Eda, though the woman maintained a stoic face.
“They still hold it’s your destiny to change the world, but they don’t accept that the world has changed. Unfortunately, magic girls today just can’t fight the forces of evil as directly as my generation did. It’s all uncaring corporations and greedy lawmakers now. I’m sorry the Moon folk are stuck in their ways.” Eda shook her head as she stared off into the sky.
“It’s okay. And, sorry, I raised my voice. At least you understand things are different.” Marthy gave a weak smile as she looked up into her mentor’s caring face. “I did manage to silence the talisman with the technique you taught me.”
“Very good. Now, enough about those fools on the moon! Yuna tells me you’ve organized a rally this weekend about the eviction moratorium ending? How can we help?” And with a clap of her hands, Eda’s words cut through the gloom threatening to settle over the table. Lighting up at the mention of the rally, Marthy pulled a flyer out from her backpack.
The truth was, in the battle against evil, magical transformations and crystal weapons weren’t as helpful as they once were. But having a mentor and friend like Eda, who had fought against her fair share of corrupt forces and wicked men, was invaluable. So, though still destined to change the world, Marthy would do so on her own terms and wouldn’t do it alone.
4. Fair Trade
I like my job. It’s strange to say that three hours into a double shift, while I’m picking up trash, but it’s true. I enjoy customer service. I’ll be exhausted by the time we close up, but I’ll still be smiling.
Not everything we pick up when we clean is trash. How do you stare at your phone while drinking coffee, then leave without your phone? I don’t know, but people manage it. We find phones, laptops, wallets; all sorts. Everything goes in the lost property box, and most get claimed the same day.
What I’ve found today will probably be returned to its owner tomorrow, at 9:30 precisely. It’s a polished black stone on a cheap, broken chain. The stone is beautiful: tiny swirls of white in its depths look like galaxies, as though someone froze a piece of the universe. It belongs on Mr Jennings’ wrist.
I like Mr Jennings. When I work the early shift I make a point of being on the till at 9:30 so I can serve him. I know the names of our regular customers, but only as ‘Vincent Chai Latte’, or ‘Megan Americano’, or whatever. Mr Jennings, though, has always been Mr Jennings, and that’s what I write on his cup. He comes in after the morning rush and has a small English breakfast tea. He seems lonely—many old people are, I guess—but if we have other customers he’ll sit as far away from them as he can. He stares into space, drinks his tea, then leaves with a nod and a quiet, “Thank you, miss.”
I ought to put his bracelet in lost property, but I’m working again tomorrow morning, and if I hang on to it I can return it when I serve him, along with a cup of tea and a smile. Sometimes I think mine might be the only smile he sees all day.
* * *
I wrote the name of my next customer on her cup without asking what it was.
She said, “Wow! I’ve only been in once but you not only remembered me, you spelled my name right. Thank you.”
She dropped a tip in the jar. I smiled, and thanked her, but I didn’t remember her at all. I just knew her name was Chevonne.
I knew the name—and the order—of the man behind her as well, but I was sharp enough to ask him anyway. When he paid I knew he was worried about a performance review that afternoon. The woman behind him wanted cheesecake with her flat white but she was worried her husband would leave her if she didn’t lose weight. I hoped she’d say fuck it and order a slice anyway. She did, and it was all I could do not to congratulate her.
Somehow, I heard these people’s thoughts, inside my head.
* * *
Vincent Chai Latte—Vincent Romano, my mind told me—came in during the lunch rush, as usual. He always has the air of a sad, haunted man, but he’s sweet and he smiles at me. Today I learnt why, and it nearly broke me: I look like Teresa, the daughter he lost twenty years ago.
But when he paid, his fingers brushed mine and in that instant I saw what he did to his daughter, every day for four years. He’d like to do that to me. I saw him doing it to me.
That did break me. I abandoned my crew and fled to the bathroom.
When I’d finished throwing up, I googled his daughter’s name. I got a news story from 2001: Teresa Romano, 17, fell from the top level of Dawson Street car park.
It wasn’t like I could go to the police and tell them what he did to her. Even if they believed me, what could they do twenty years later? Nothing. So all I could do was pull myself together, freshen up, and get back to work. A smile and a cup of coffee isn’t much, but right then it was the only happiness I could put into anyone’s world.
* * *
The rest of my day was accompanied by a stream of intrusive thoughts, all the worries and complaints of my customers and co-workers. I got an hour’s blessed peace when we closed: I sent everyone else home and finished up by myself, with only my own thoughts for company.
Until Mr Jennings knocked on the door.
He asked if I’d found a black stone on a thin chain, and I said, “Yes, I can,” because what he’d been thinking was, “Can you read my mind?”
I said I’d meant to give it back in the morning, when he came in for his tea.
He asked if I’d still give it back, now I knew what it could do.
I took his hand, put the stone in it, and said, quite sincerely, “Mr Jennings, you are welcome to the fucking thing. Sorry! Excuse my language.”
I felt bad about swearing, and he looked frail and lonely standing in the doorway, so I invited him in for a cup of tea. I figured he might not have spoken to anyone since this morning, and maybe he’d welcome some conversation before I left.
He would. He only wanted tap water though, so I filled a glass for him and we sat in silence for a moment.
Then he took the stone out of his pocket and held it up. “You could have kept this. I would never have known. Why surrender the power to read minds?”
I rolled my eyes at him. “Power? Yeah, right. It’s a curse.”
“It is. I know what you saw today; that memory is, unsurprisingly, at the front of your mind. The talisman is stronger the closer its keeper is to someone, so when you touched that man’s… that monster’s hand it created a deep connection. But its curse is powerful, and that power works both ways. I can’t control minds, not exactly, but I can nudge someone’s thoughts in a direction they’re inclined to go. For example, you’re a compassionate young lady so it was simple enough to encourage you to invite me in for a chat. I’m dreadfully sorry for doing that to you, but we did need to talk.”
I ought to have been offended, but I wasn’t. I’m not sure why; maybe he ‘encouraged’ me not to be. “I would probably have asked you in anyway, Mr Jennings. I care about you; you always look so lonely. And I like you: you’re polite to me, to all of us. Whatever, I’m just grateful you took the stone back.”
He spoke hesitantly, staring at his hands. “About that… I’m an old man. My time’s drawing to a close, thank the Lord. The talisman will need a new keeper soon. It ought to be someone who won’t exploit it, someone who understands that all power is a curse. I thought… perhaps… I might leave it to you in my will.”
I scooted back, holding my hands up. “Me?! No! Why the fu— heck would you give something like that to me? I’m just a barista who smiles when I hand you tea. You don’t even know my— Oh! You do, don’t you?”
“Yes, Alison, I do. I know a great deal about you. But the only thing I need to know is that you’re the right person.”
“I don’t want it!”
“That’s why you’re the right person. When I do pass, you will of course be free to decline my bequest. The stone will go to a charity shop with the rest of my meagre estate. No doubt someone will be drawn to it, and buy it. It will find a home.”
* * *
After that night Mr Jennings started coming in later, at lunchtime. He’d sit at a table near the counter, sipping his tea, and his face would be drawn, like he was anxious, like he was bombarded by negative thoughts.
Then one day he didn’t come in at all. He became a small item on the local news pages instead.
Tragic Car Park Deaths
CCTV (above) shows local residents Roy Jennings (87) and Vincent Romano (63) walking side-by-side to the top level of Dawson Street multi-storey. Once there they stood briefly in silence, then joined hands, climbed onto the parapet, and stepped off together. A police spokesperson said no one else is being sought in connection with the incident.
I can see it: Vincent, his mind weakened by guilt, could easily be encouraged to visit the site that haunted him. He was probably scared of jumping though, afraid of what was waiting for him below, and the talisman wasn’t powerful enough to overcome that fear. Not until Roy took his hand.
* * *
A few days later I returned home to a letter I’d been expecting, from Roy’s solicitor. She wanted me to call in and collect an item he’d left to me.
* * *
I know what you’re thinking: did I accept the talisman?
5. I can’t bear lattes!
Okay, so I won Barista of the Week again. Honestly, I know I make great coffee, but I need some more excitement in my life.
I sneak another peek at the advert in my handbag.
Special Assistant required – must make fantastic coffee and be very sexually liberated. Interested applicants should email to discuss their suitability for the role!
I can’t quite believe I replied. I definitely can’t believe I am going for an interview tomorrow.
Yet at nine the next morning, I find myself buzzing the door of the stylish offices in Central London. His secretary greets me knowingly and shows me through to Mr Hartman’s office. I must admit, Mr Hartman is a very attractive man.
He welcomes me into his office and shakes my hand firmly. I feel his eyes rove over me. I am pleased with my outfit choice. The fitted pencil skirt accentuates my curves, and the white shirt looks business like but with just a hint of cleavage. I sit down, crossing one stocking clad leg over the other, hoping I look suitably seductive.
“As you know, my job advert focused on two key attributes,” Mr Hartman begins. I nod and try to ignore the butterflies in my stomach. “The first of which is the ability to make fantastic coffee.”
I nod again and feel a moment of relief that the conversation is starting with coffee. I begin to elaborate, telling Mr Hartman about my coffee shop experience and the Barista of the Week awards.
He stares at me intently as I talk and then nods thoughtfully as I finish. “You can demonstrate those skills shortly,” he continues.
“And now for the other required attributes for the role.”
I feel a wave of nervous anticipation roll through me, but also a soft ache beginning between my thighs.
“My job requires me to work hard and efficiently, but I also have a powerful sex drive and need regular stimulation and release. Do you think you will be happy assisting with this?”
I squirm in my seat at the directness of his question. “I believe so,” I reply.
“Then you can also demonstrate those skills shortly. I know we discussed safe-words and your limits by email, and these will be fully respected at all times.”
I adjust my position slightly and can feel my knickers becoming sticky and clinging to my sex.
“There is one other requirement”. I look at him attentively. “I like a Special Assistant who can read my mind. I don’t want to have to ask for either of my two favourite pleasures – coffee or sex.”
My gaze becomes more quizzical, as I wonder how exactly he expects me to read his mind.
He laughs gently at my perplexed expression and opens the drawer to his desk. “Your hand,” he requests. I stretch my arm across the desk and open my palm. He drops a small metal figurine into my hand and closes my fingers around it.
“This magic talisman will allow you to read my mind,” he whispers. “So, you will know my every desire.”
I giggle as I look back at him.
“Give it a moment,” he says. “Let it start to work its magic.”
I grip it tightly in my hand. I feel my natural scepticism kick in.
“You have to believe that he works,” he encourages. I want to laugh, but I stop myself. I try to imagine that it could work. And then I realise I do know what he wants.
I get up from my chair and make my way to the coffee machine in the corner of his office. I hesitate, wondering what style of coffee he favours. I grip the talisman more tightly and know he wants a latte. I make it with the upmost care and attention, before presenting it to him.
He sips at it slowly and then looks up at me. “Exactly as I like it and a delicious cup of coffee. Well done.”
I smile proudly and hold his gaze. “So, do you know what else I want?” he asks rakishly.
I take a deep breath. I know exactly what he wants.
My fingers move shakily to the buttons of my shirt, and I undo them one by one, letting the material fall away from my body. I reach round and unclip my bra, dispensing with that as well. Teasingly, I keep my hands over my full breasts and step in front of him.
He raises one eyebrow at me. I let my hands fall away. “You do have fabulous breasts,” he sighs appreciatively, before cupping them in his hands.
His fingers massage at my sensitive flesh and then he brings his mouth to my nipples and starts to suck on them in turn. A decadent whimper escapes me at the delicious sensations he is causing. He sucks harder and tiny throngs of pain intertwine with the pleasure. My hips buck towards him.
He pauses. “Already so wanton?” he asks playfully. “Do you know what happens to wanton young ladies?”
“Do wanton young ladies get punished?” I ask provocatively.
“You read my mind,” he grins. “Assume the position.”
I know what he wants. I pull up my skirt and reveal my thong and barely concealed bottom. I bend over the desk.
He runs his hands over the thin fabric. I know he can see just how wet my knickers are.
“A very wanton young lady indeed!”
A firm spank lands on my left cheek, making me cry out with shock.
He rubs it gently, reassuringly, yet stimulating my needy flesh further, before delivering the second spank. A third and fourth quickly follow and my cries become wilder.
“Pull down your knickers,” he commands.
I reach behind and obey.
He pushes my legs open a little wider. “I need to inspect just how wet you are for me,” he says, bringing his face closer to my pussy.
The humiliation of his words mixed with the incredibly intimacy of his actions just flames my arousal. His fingers part my pussy lips and he caresses my sex. He starts to draw tight little circles around my clit. I moan hungrily.
“What do I want to hear you say?” he asks.
I don’t even need to pause. I know.
“Please Mr Hartman. I want your cock inside me.”
“Good girl” he breathes. I hear him pull on a condom and then the head of his cock is against my opening. I can feel just how big he is as he pushes against me, stretching me as he starts to enter. I cry out as each delicious thick inch slides into me.
I can read his mind; I know what he wants. I push back onto him, letting him impale me completely. He places a hand on my back, pinning me in place on his desk and he thrusts harder and faster into me. Everything about the scene feels so incredibly naughty and intensely erotic.
Every buck of his hips drives me closer to my impending climax. I breath out slowly in a low moan, trying to control my body, wanting to wait for him. I hear his groans becoming more animalistic, his thrusts more frantic and I know he is there.
I let myself go and the most exquisite orgasm rips through me. My back arches against his hand, my hips rise to meet him, and I clench tight around his throbbing cock as he empties himself into me.
We lay there; panting, luxuriating in the pleasure of what just happened, enjoying the feel of our bodies against one another. Eventually, he kisses the back of my head and slides his body away from mine.
He cleans up and watches as I finish dressing. “Well, I think you definitely excelled in this interview,” he smirks. “Would I be right in assuming you will be accepting the role?”
“Oh yes please.”
“Very good. I need you in promptly at 8.30 tomorrow morning. I have three important Executives in for a meeting and we need to keep them completely satisfied. I assume you know what I want you to do?”
My mind whirls for a moment, and I reach into my pocket to clasp the talisman. I feel a surge of confidence as I realise exactly what he wants.
“Four delicious coffees and then me under the table in your office, using my warm, enthusiastic mouth to pleasure yourself and your guests?” I proffer coquettishly.
“Absolutely right,” he exclaims.
I turn to leave his office. “One last thing,” he calls out. “I can’t bear lattes. I only ever drink an americano with a dash of hot milk.”
“But I knew from the talisman….” I begin.
“No powers whatsoever,” he chortles. “But thinking everything was my idea, let you be very naughty indeed. See you in the morning and keep up the good work!”
6. The Lesson
“Excuse me miss, could you…?” I gestured at the mountain of cups littering our table.
I knew she would. She was always loitering, eager for tit-bits of about her patrons lives. But it was an unattractive trait.
“I’ll see you later” I nodded to them as they pushed back their chairs. Her arm tensed, aware that perhaps she’d been caught eavesdropping?
“You’re right to pause there miss,” I caught her eye, smiled with as much warmth as I could muster.
“Excuse me?” She’d produced a cloth, began to wipe the table.
I continued as she worked, “you’ve been busy, haven’t you?” A frown etched across her brow. “Did no-one tell you it’s rude to listen uninvited?”
The creases deepened, and her cheeks flushed claret.
“Yes, very rude. I thought, perhaps, we could remedy this? After your shift ends let’s go for a walk.” She blanched at this, as any sane young lady might, but I continued. “A short one, along the high street. Plenty of people to listen in on.”
“Oh, no thank you. I have plans tonight”
“No matter. I was trying to be kind. We can always do the work here, now. It will just be that much harder on you. These faces are so familiar to you, I really do think it would be best to have unknown lives to peek in on.”
“I’m sorry? I don’t understand”. Her natural curiosity was taking over, caution ebbing slowly from her. Perhaps she trusted me, I’d been drinking here for years, since before this young barista extracted her first espresso or steamed that first jug of milk. Part of the furniture, you could say. She’d been nosing around my conversations for so long, she must have gleaned enough to realise a short walk through a crowded shopping precinct would be safe, especially if it meant more information.
“That’s the thing miss, you won’t understand until I show you, but I’m concerned it’ll be too challenging a trial while you work so I’d like to escort you on your lesson. What do you say? Ten minutes of your life, lots of people around, we don’t even need to walk, we’ll just sit and watch them all.”
That was it, she was hooked. “Ten minutes?”
“Yup, that should do it. Of course, we can observe for longer should you desire, but I appreciate you’ve had a busy day here and further plans this evening.”
“I finish at half three.” She squared her shoulders decisively. “Let’s meet outside the florist. Can’t have the boss thinking I’m hooking up with customers.”
Smiling, I rose from the chair, accepted her terms and walked to the door. I had an hour to prepare, which in reality meant I had time for a leisurely walk home to fetch my treasure, then stroll across to my favourite Oak in the park. There I’d complete the cleansing ritual, set my intention and wander back to the café.
At three forty she arrived, latte in hand. Her resolve clearly strengthened over the intervening hour, but her nerves still evidenced by the tension in her jaw. Stringing her along would be fun, but with time limited I began. Reaching into my chest pocket I pulled out a crisp, white handkerchief. “Hold your hands out” came my instruction. When she had complied I placed the little fabric parcel into her left palm. “Now, open it, and tell me what you see.”
I was not surprised to hear her snort of laughter. “You’ve wrapped up a Lord of the rings style ring. What’s that etched inside? ‘One ring to rule them all’?”
“It may look like a toy ring, ripped off from a book, but fiction is often borne from reality and I wonder… look again at the words. What do they say?”
She leaned in closer, picked up the ring, inspected it closely. As she did so the writing on the inside came alive. “I don’t know, the letters don’t look real, or they’re dancing. I’m afraid I can’t tell you what they say.”
“They are very real, miss. I’m glad they’re dancing though; it means you’re receptive. In a moment I’d like you to pop it onto your right thumb and…”
“But it’s too big, it will fall off” she interrupted.
“Will you let me finish?” Perhaps I’d been wrong, my ten minutes were slipping through my fingers.
At her mumbled apology I continued. “This is a talisman, a magic ring if you like. My job is caretaker, keeping it safe from harming people, but also sharing its power with those who need it most. It moulds itself to the wearer and will channel the thoughts of those you see right into you. In the wrong hands this is incredibly dangerous, but you are in even greater peril. Curiosity is great, nosiness is likely to land you in hot water.”
“And you want me to put it on?” Clearly unconvinced she testily dropped it over her slender thumb. A squeak escaped her as the ring gripped her flesh, the energy immediately pulsing through her.
Looking into her eyes I thought “you see, it’s resized. And you’re hearing me even though my lips aren’t moving.” Her gaze dropped to my gently smiling mouth, another gasp.
“But how can this be?”
My reply came silently. “Try not to question it now, time is precious. Ask me anything once it’s off. For now, just watch and listen. Use these ten minutes wisely, you have the freedom to listen in on as many conversations as your heart, and watch, desire”.
She held my gaze momentarily before hungrily scouring the crowd. I knew she was searching for someone appealing, to pick their brain. But her pained expression told me she was struggling to filter through them all. That’s the thing with this ring, there is no filter. Pure, unadulterated insight into other people’s minds.
The first of many tear drops swelled within three minutes. At six minutes they’d dried and now she was raging, ready to leap up and thrash a passer-by. A firm hand and some gentle words helped her settle, briefly, but as the eighth minute over she turned so pale that I had to end the lesson.
Pulling her to me, I held her hand in mine, shielding the talisman from the strangers in the street. She could hear just me through the ring now, and I urged her to slip back to the here and now of her life.
Whatever she’d witnessed made the transition easier than I’ve ever found retreating from this bands power. And as she folded the ring safely back into it’s fabric cocoon her shoulders relaxed and the blood flowed back into her face.
Taking the parcel from her I offered my time, “I’ve no plans for a while, talk if you need to.”
“Do you wear this often?” It was almost accusatory, until she continued, “I don’t know how you can take it. The noise, the clamouring inside their heads. The chaos. The pain. The disturbing intentions.”
“Tell me, what angered you so?”
She told me that one man, in his forties, had been following a group of girls. He meant to keep with them until one slipped off on their own and he was going to… She couldn’t go on, but I knew where this thread went.
He was often in my sights, I explained, one of the reasons my ring made regular outings. To keep a watch. His thoughts were fleeting, and he’d yet to act on them. There was no way of knowing if he would or not, and no way of explaining to the authorities what I knew. Her eyes grew wide as she listened, but we weren’t here for me.
She took a breath and continued.
“There’s nothing specific, but the steady stream of people, they look so happy. Behind those smiles they carry such burdens, deep sadness, untold pain. I just had no idea how lonely the world is for so many. That’s all.”
“That’s all?” Impossible!
“No, you’re right, that’s not all. I feel guilty for lurking. Not just for listening in here, now, but for stealing snippets from the lives of my customers too. There has to be a better way, surely?” A question this time.
“You know, everything is better with consent. Perhaps you could try…”
“…asking?” She interjected.
“If I’ve got time to earwig then I’ve time to chat instead. If people know someone’s interested then they won’t feel so lonely?”
“Well, I’m impressed! You’ve figured it all out, and your coffee is still warm!” I picked it up from the bench and passed it over.
“Actually, it’s for you” she smiled, “I don’t drink coffee, but I thought you’d like your usual extra-hot latte, though it’s not-quite-hot anymore!” Her last words made us both crease up laughing.
This wise young woman and I chatted easily a while longer and I wondered if, perhaps, I’d accidentally found the next caretaker for the ring.
7. Another Word for Love
Bruno rocked back on the old chair, his head cradled by his hands interlinked behind his head. He closed his eyes, conscious of the back legs of the chair sinking slightly into the yielding earth and of the warmth of the evening sun on his face. He felt unusual. Despite the strangeness of what he had just experienced and the noise and bustle all around him, a heavy sense of tranquillity had settled over him, like the familiar weight of a well-worn coat.
It was the end of Bruno’s first shift at the Heaven on Earth Festival; the first festival of many scheduled over the summer where he would be working as a barista for Café Tiara, a coffee stall run by his mum’s old hippy mates, Helen and Took. (Like every Nigel that Bruno had ever met, Took had enthusiastically embraced his nickname, one that had been with him since his Eton schooldays.) Bruno would have preferred to not be working through the summer but he needed the money and Helen and Took were fun to be around. Besides, when off shift, he could enjoy the festival vibes.
He had found it difficult at first, communicating with the customers amid the roar coming from the main stage across the field, made all the more difficult by the facemask he was obliged to wear. Of course there were occasional interludes between songs, but even then the noise emanating from the sea of people and countless generators meant that the quiet was only relative. So when Vanity Kit’s thunderous set seemed to end abruptly at the same time as all the generators stopped and the crowd collectively fell mute (though their restless movement continued), the sudden silence was as startling to Bruno as an explosion.
Bruno turned around, expecting to find Helen and Took as perturbed as he was himself but saw that they appeared to be oblivious to the oddness of what was happening. And that’s when the girl appeared.
Bruno was dazzled by the radiance of her shimmering white lace dress and of her hair, which was not blonde, but pure white, like her dress. She was wearing a facemask that matched the fabric of her dress and even her flawless skin had an unnatural pallor. But her eyes were a piercing glacial blue.
In the silence, she placed on the counter a note which read: ‘Please lower your mask – I read lips.’
Bruno did as she had requested. He was aware that the sense of alarm he had felt just moments earlier had completely evaporated. ‘How can I help you?’ he whispered, acutely conscious of the sound of his voice breaking the hush.
The girl reached across the counter and took Bruno’s hand in her own, turning it palm uppermost. Into it she placed a cool, smooth, round object. Bruno looked at it, untroubled but with profound curiosity. It was shaped like a small discus or lens, convex on both sides, and appeared to be not metal nor glass nor stone yet, somehow, something of all of these but of a greater density. Bruno rolled it in his hand and saw that the obverse side was engraved with runic symbols. He looked up into the Arctic depths of her eyes.
‘Some might call it a talisman; I prefer to think of it just as a hearing aid.’
Bruno heard her words, in answer to the question that he had thought but not spoken, and understood their meaning, but her voice… oh, her voice! Its melody and tone – its harmony too! – poured through Bruno like the first rush of opium. It simultaneously sapped and fortified him, such that he had to grasp the counter, though he knew not whether it was to prevent himself from falling or flying.
‘But, wait’ – Bruno’s mind battled to regain its reason – ‘The note… I assumed she was deaf-mute, and yet…’
‘Bruno, I told you; it’s a hearing aid. It allows you to hear my voice. And it allows me to hear you, whether you speak aloud or not. Keep it safe.’
As she turned and walked away, Bruno noticed that her bare feet were pale and pristine, despite everyone else being shod in muddy boots. He also couldn’t help but notice that the evening sun bestowed on her dress a quality of transparency that was only a thread short of nakedness. She cast a glance back over her shoulder.
‘Bruno. You haven’t already forgotten, have you, that I hear your thoughts as clearly as you hear mine?’
Bruno blushed as she melted back into the crowd and, as she did, the noise of the festival gradually resumed.
‘What was that all about?’ bellowed Took, making Bruno jump.
‘Did… did you hear her?’ Bruno stammered.
‘Of course I didn’t fucking hear her; neither of you said a fucking word! She just walked up and then the pair of you just stood there staring at each other. What the fuck? You were both away with the fucking fairies, mate. You alright? Tell you what, why don’t you finish early – we can manage. Go and get pissed like a normal lad. Courtesy Shower Cap are on the Island Stage in ten minutes. Should be good.’
Sitting behind the stall, running through the incident again in his mind, Bruno reasoned that he should be feeling much more unsettled than he was. But maybe Took was right; maybe it had all been in his imagination or, perhaps, some kind of illusion. He reached into his pocket and felt the smoothness of the object – ‘Talisman’ was too New Age for Bruno’s scientific sensibilities; ‘Hearing Aid’, too prosaic. He took it out to study it more closely.
‘Ah, there you are, Bruno.’
At the sound of that voice, Bruno only just managed to prevent himself from falling backwards off the chair. Immediately, he heard laughter that transcended in sweetness the song of any bird.
‘Sorry. You’ll get used to it… I hope.’
‘Where are you?’ Bruno said aloud, before realising that it was unnecessary; unnecessary both because she could hear his questions without him speaking and because, somehow, he already knew that she was sat by the lakeside.
‘Come to me.’
Sitting down beside her on the log, Bruno silently took the girl’s hand. In an instant, all knowledge of each other passed between them, all their dreams, all their desires and fears, all their hopes and longings, all their grief and all their joy. But something puzzled him and she heard his confusion.
‘The reason why you don’t know my name, despite hearing my thoughts, is because I have no name. I have never been able to announce myself because I could not speak; no one has ever called for me because I could not hear; I have had no need for a name… until this day.’
She turned to look at Bruno and reached out her free hand towards him. Bruno instinctively understood her request and placed the object on her palm. Still holding his gaze, she flung the object far out into the lake, so quickly that he had no time to anticipate her intention. As it struck the surface, Bruno experienced utter silence for the second time that day. The bass heartbeat of the festival ceased; the whispering of the breeze in the pines trees could no longer be heard, though still they swayed; no birds sang.
Bruno cried aloud, ‘No! Why did you do that? What about the magic?’
For the first time, the girl took off her mask and she smiled.
‘Bruno, there’s no such thing as magic. Magic is just another word for love.’
And Bruno heard her voice, as clear and resonant as before, though her lips did not move other than to part slightly in anticipation of their first kiss.
8. Circle of Betrayal
At eight years old, Caleb’s grandfather was moved to a home. Alzheimer’s, his mother said. He’d been hearing voices and said men with sinister intentions were following him. He’d be safer this way, and well taken care of.
The new home was a gigantic building with rows of square windows and an archway sheltering the entrance. A wooden sign read, Shady Acres, in bold letters. Caleb thought it a strange name.
In his grandfather’s room, Caleb sat across from his elder at a rickety table while his mother spoke with a nurse in the hall. His grandfather turned towards the two women, then back to Caleb, and with a smile, held out his open hand. There sat a silver band, detailed with intricate carvings.
“This is my lucky ring,” his grandfather began, his voice barely a whisper. Caleb eyed the circlet. It didn’t look lucky. It was old, the metal warped and worn thin. The older man peered through its center, squinting one eye shut, then placed it in Caleb’s palm, closing the boy’s half-grown fingers around it.
“It’s filled with magic, older than knights and kings. Passed down from generation to generation, it has traveled far and wide. Legend says it will grant only the most honorable its power. To gain it, you must be loyal and trustworthy. But above all else, you must be brave. Can you do that?”
Caleb nodded his little head so hard he felt it might pop off. Yes, he could do those things. He was already brave. His mother told him so.
“Some will try to take the power, even though they don’t deserve it. Make sure to keep it safe, okay?” Caleb said he would.
“Good. How about a story?”
“Don’t fill his head with nonsense.” Caleb’s mother chided. His grandfather winked, and with an enigmatic smile, Caleb dropped the talisman into his pocket.
When he arrived home, Caleb tossed the ring into a small box containing other childhood treasures, forgetting about the silver band and his grandfather’s words, as children often do. The patriarch died a few days later. Caleb’s mother said it was sudden, and he likely didn’t suffer.
Ten years later, Caleb was packing for college. As he tore down posters and emptied drawers, he discovered the box while cleaning out his closet. Long forgotten, and layered in dust, Caleb blew off the cobwebs and reopened it with nostalgic wonder. The ring stood out among rocks and twigs; the silver hoop shinier than he remembered.
He grasped the silver band, scrutinizing it before placing it onto his finger, the corners of his mouth rising at the memory of a tale about magic and knights. It fit well, almost as if made for him. More astonishing was the brief flash of orange light from inside the engraving, gone before he could be sure it was there. Figuring it a trick of the light, he shrugged it off, closing the door behind him and went to work.
A crowd waited in line at The Bean and The Barista. Caleb tied an apron around his waist and took his place behind the cash register. His first customer was a regular, a young woman, close to his age. Her smile was radiant, and she smelled of vanilla and something spicier. Cloves, perhaps. As they chatted, he rang in her order- the usual chai latte. Their fingertips touched briefly as he took her money.
He’s cute. I wonder if he has a girlfriend. Maybe I should ask him out.
The words were inside his head, but the voice was not his.
“I’m sorry. Did you say something?” Caleb asked. The young woman shook her head, but Caleb was positive the voice was hers. Perplexed, he passed her the change, and once more, her voice echoed inside his head.
Next time. I’ll ask him out next time.
Caleb smiled as she said goodbye, but he knew it wasn’t genuine.
Not sure what was going on, or how it was possible to hear other’s thoughts, he rubbed his eyes, coming face to face with the ring. He reflected on the story his grandad told him years before. Perhaps it was more than the ramblings of a crazy old man.
The next customer was a black-clad gentleman. His shaven head and strong build seemed out of place in the café, as did his order of tea with a dollop of cream. Caleb noticed the man continued glancing at Caleb’s hands as they waited to complete his transaction.
“Nice ring. Looks old.”
Caleb looked at his finger, then buried his hands in his pockets. “Thanks, it was a gift.”
The man nodded, then wordlessly turned and left. Caleb was glad he hadn’t heard his thoughts.
The third customer filled Caleb’s head with random bits about college and not making it to the gym because of student loans not being approved. Caleb told him the macchiato was on the house and nodded humbly when the student gave him gracious praise.
Between orders for coffee and scones, Caleb contemplated the band that circled his finger. Was hearing thoughts the power his grandfather had spoke of? But how did it work? Only one way to find out.
By the end of his shift, Caleb understood he needed to be touching the person, or something they were handling simultaneously. Cash transactions gave him a hint of more than he wanted, whereas electronic purchases were safe. Somewhat.
Apparently, the floor didn’t transfer thoughts, but after hearing a few less-than-savory ponderings, he was grateful. Sadly, tables were an excellent conduit, as discovered from a rather awkward listening of one patron’s thoughts regarding his nanny.
And because of the drone of multiple voices all speaking at once, he quickly learned to wait for full tables to vacate before removing empty cups and saucers.
When his shift ended, he knew he should go home, but he wanted to test his newly found power. He bought a hot dog from a street vendor, tipping him generously when, during the monetary exchange, he heard the man think Caleb looked like a cheap bugger. The merchant raised an eyebrow at the exuberant amount but thanked Caleb -out loud- rather cheerfully.
As he became more comfortable with the intimate wishes and woes of fellow foot-travelers, Caleb accidentally brushed against a person here and there. He chose people that looked interesting. Perhaps someone wearing a colorful jacket, or having a unique physical trait, like a hair lip. Children’s thoughts – filled with delight and wonder- made him smile. Most others made him frown. Negativity was rampant among those he listened to, and he wondered if now that he could hear thoughts, if maybe he could help.
At a corner, Caleb came to a stop. While he waited for the illuminated walking man’s signal, he scanned the crowd to see who else he could read– as he’d come to call it. Across the way, he noticed a man who looked familiar. It took him a minute to realize where he’d seen him, but he was certain he was the dollop of cream guy, dressed all in black. It was possible he lived in the area, but judging from the scrutiny pointed in Caleb’s direction, not likely.
Caleb circled around, taking a shortcut through an alley. He hopped a chain fence and came back onto the street, now tailing the man in black. He dashed toward him and extended his hand, the question of why he was being followed on the tip of his tongue. But when he connected with the muscular shoulder, a frustrated, Where did he go? The boss will have my head if I return without the ring, echoed inside his head.
Caleb’s eyes went wide, and the hired man turned. Surprise walked over his face before he lunged for Caleb, but morning runs made Caleb faster than the power lifter. He ran until his lungs burned, not stopping until he was sure he’d lost his pursuer. Caleb thought about his grandfather and what his mother had said. ‘He’s sick. Says he hears voices and thinks sinister men are following him. He’ll be safer this way and well taken care of.’
With a bad feeling in his gut and a tremor in his hand, Caleb dialed his mother’s number. She answered on the first ring, like she’d been waiting. Before she said hello, Caleb blurted, “Listen, Mom. I don’t think Granddad had Alzheimer’s. He wasn’t hearing voices; he was hearing thoughts. It’s likely he was being followed too!”
“How did you get the ring, Caleb?”
“Granddad gave it to me, the day we took him to the home.” It was only then that he realized he’d never told her about that day, or the ring.
“Mom, how did you know about it?” Caleb inquired, a shudder running up his spine.
“You didn’t believe Shady Acres was an actual home, did you?”
9. What She Doesn’t Know
The homeless man stumbled into Cassie’s coffee shop, the heel of his hand pressed to his eye.
Her employee, Jess, grunted but the barista ignored her as she said, “Hi, Andy. Are you okay?”
“My head,” he gasped. “The voices.”
“Cassie.” Jess jerked her head at a table of women who were watching Andy with alarm.
“I-I’m sorry,” Andy stammered, then wheeled and ran back outside.
Cassie hurriedly prepared a turkey provolone on rye and a large mocha, Andy’s favorites.
“Be right back,” she told Jess, who sighed heavily.
She found Andy sitting in the alley between her shop and the laundromat, his head in his hands. She was worried. He’d never mentioned voices before.
“Hey,” she said softly. “Eat this and maybe you’ll feel better.”
Andy glanced up at her with bleary eyes. “Why are you so nice to me, Cassie?”
“Everybody needs help sometime,” she said, thinking about the summer she’d lived in her car after she’d left her abusive boyfriend.
“I didn’t know that,” Andy muttered as he reached for the food. “Thank you.”
“Feel better soon.”
“Wait!” Andy cried. “I have to pay you.”
Although he never had cash, Andy always insisted on giving her something. His payments always touched Cassie. He’d give her the prettiest of his possessions, whether it be a shiny pink barrette or a dented kaleidoscope. Today, he presented her with a palm-sized rock, painted to represent a ladybug.
“Thank you! This will look great in my garden.”
Andy beamed at her.
She carried the stone back to the shop and put it in her purse.
The shop, busy all morning, emptied around two as a storm brewed outside. Lightning illuminated the shop, followed by a boom of thunder that shook the shelves.
“I bet my dogs are going apeshit,” Jess muttered.
“You can cut out early,” Cassie said.
They closed at four on Mondays anyway. Right now, the shop had one customer, her policeman friend Eric. He looked at Jess and said, “Hey, be careful. That guy is still out there.”
They didn’t have to ask what guy. A serial killer had been terrorizing the city this summer, and everyone was on edge.
Eric glanced at his phone and said, “I gotta go, too. I’ll walk you to your car. Stay safe, Cass.”
For the next half hour, Cassie busied herself cleaning. Then, the door opened, blowing in a well-dressed businessman. He gave her a sheepish smile.
“I’m glad you’re open. It’s rough out there.”
Andy barrelled in behind him.
The man shot Andy a look of distaste before sitting at the bar. Andy took a table near the door, his eyes glued on the stranger.
“What can I get for you?” Cassie asked the businessman.
“A half-caff with soy milk, please.”
She fixed his drink, then grabbed a tuna club and a coffee for Andy.
Andy thanked her, but never took his eyes off the businessman.
“Are you okay?” Cassie asked, though obviously, he wasn’t.
Andy’s eyes were wild and his face pale as he shredded a napkin.
“He’s a demon, Cassie,” he whispered. “He thinks bad things.”
Cassie frowned. She’d never seen Andy like this.
“Miss?” the businessman called. “Do you have any soup?”
“I won’t let him hurt you.” Andy held open his coat pocket to show her a steak knife.
Oh, God! Cassie thought.
Not knowing what to do, she hurried back to the counter and fixed the businessman a cup of soup.
“Is everything okay?” he asked. “I can get rid of that guy for you. I think he’s been following me.”
Cassie didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want the man to confront Andy, and she also didn’t want him to leave, because what if Andy followed him?
“It’s fine. I know him.”
Pretending she felt her phone buzz, she opened her texts and sent a SOS to Eric.
The businessman ate, but Andy’s food remained untouched while he watched.
“Man, do you have a problem?” he asked Andy suddenly.
“You’re bad,” Andy said, his voice quavering.
The door chimed and Eric walked in. Cassie had never been so relieved to see someone in her life.
“Hey, Cass,” Eric said casually, scanning the room before he approached the counter.
“Hey!” Cassie said cheerfully. “I got that address.”
On a napkin, she scribbled, Andy thinks this guy is a demon and he has a knife.
Eric’s face betrayed nothing as he said, “Cool. Thanks.”
The businessman stood and turned his back to them, talking on his phone. Andy tensed and his hand went to his pocket.
“Hey, Andy,” Eric said. “How you doing, buddy?”
“Shoot him,” Andy pleaded, jerking his head at the man. “He’s evil. I’m not crazy.”
“Why don’t you come with me?” Eric said. “We’ll run by the hospital, see if they can help us out, okay?”
“He wants to hurt her,” Andy said tearfully. “We have to stop him!”
“Nobody’s gonna hurt her.”
To Cassie’s relief, the businessman disappeared into the restroom.
Andy stood. Cassie relaxed, thinking he was going to comply, but then he bolted after the stranger.
Eric tackled him and took the knife from his pocket.
“Wait!” Andy cried. “I have to pay her.”
He struggled until Cassie said, “Eric, let him.”
“Okay,” Eric said. “But I get it.”
“In my back pocket. Left,” Andy said.
Eric fished a round object from the pocket of Andy’s worn Levis and handed it to her. It appeared to be pewter, with some weird carving on it.
It’s magic. You can hear people if you hold it.
The voice was Andy’s, but Cassie was staring right at him and his lips never moved.
I found it in a purse in the alley. You gotta believe me. You’re in danger.
Stunned, Cassie watched Eric haul Andy to his feet. Maybe she was the one he needed to be admitted to the hospital.
“Come with me, Cassie,” Andy pleaded. “I don’t want to be alone.”
“You’ll have plenty of company,” Eric said.
This city’s full of crazies. Must be a full moon.
He didn’t say that last part aloud, but Cassie heard it clearly.
“Go home,” Andy begged. “You’re not safe. That man is bad.”
“I will,” she promised. “I’ll go home.”
She wanted to tell Eric to wait for her, but he was already dragging Andy out the door. She slipped the talisman into her pocket, then went to lock the register and retrieve her purse as she waited for the businessman to come out.
Alone at last.
Cassie whipped her head to stare at him as he came out of the restroom, wiping his hands on his slacks. She wondered if she imagined the predatory gleam in his eyes.
“Our friend finally leave?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “He’s going down the station with my friend. I told them I’d follow, so I’m gonna have to close up early. Sorry. Your tab is on the house.”
The businessman’s grin widened. “Thanks.”
A cop’s girlfriend. This will be fun.
Unnerved, Cassie said, “Thanks for understanding.”
“No problem. Can’t keep that friend waiting.”
He was thinking about the taser in his pocket, and about how much time he’d have before someone came looking for her.
When he started toward the door, Cassie’s hopes surged. If he went out the front, she would run out the back and into the Walgreens across the street.
He locked the door.
“I changed my mind.” He shrugged. “Maybe I’ll stay.”
Cassie bolted toward the back.
She caught him off-guard with her quick reaction, but he was fast. He leaped over the gate, on her heels. She slammed the storeroom door in his face but it was only a momentary delay as she raced for the back door.
Her purse felt strangely heavy and she remembered the rock. She just needed to buy a few extra seconds.
Clutching her purse strap, Cassie whirled, swinging at his face.
The impact made him stumble. Cassie jerked open the back door and half-fell out into the street.
The Walgreen’s sign glowed like a beacon in the gloomy afternoon and she raced toward it.
Two weeks later, she served Andy a turkey provolone, then slid the talisman across to him.
“You saved my life,” she said. “But you can have this back.”
Although the businessman had escaped, the police sketch artist rendered a remarkably accurate image of him that was distributed across the city. Larry Jerrick was arrested the next day.
Andy smiled and shook his head. “Too much noise. Let’s compromise, because most people don’t need this kind of power.”
After making sure Jess was still in the back, Andy stood and hid the talisman inside the fake plant Cassie kept in the window.
“We know where it’s at if we need it,” he said. “But I’ve never needed that talisman to know that you are a true friend.”
She winked. “Back atcha. Let me know if you need some dessert.”