Most of the grandeur of campus came down to its architecture. The planners had worked very hard to transform a normal collection of boring office buildings, from the original 1970s college campus, into something more closely resembling some 200 year old Ivy League university. Almost every building had been systematically demolished and rebuilt with Doric collumns and a great copper dome. The only structure left alone was the library and that’s because it was actually built in the 1770s and they had transported it brick by brick to the campus right after getting national accreditation from the Council. Most of the books were originals, black leather covers protected by plastic sheeting and anti-dust spells. According to a gold placard by the door, the library had belonged to a prominent Boston witch who had been the ancestor of one of the founding Councilors.
Francis hated the place. It was dark and smelled of old books and rats. She always felt watched when she sat at the cheap formica tables, scribbling notes in a notebook because the magic always tampered with her laptop.
“Nice gloves,” Simon whispered over her shoulder, gently setting a stack of books next to her. He was hoping to startle her but she had obviously seen him come in.
“I can’t afford to keep buying pens,” she replied distractedly, squinting at a line from handwritten census charts (Ellis Island, 1860-1880). She really wanted 3 more examples for her paper (Talent Nomenclature: Before and After the Great Potato Famine), but sources were proving scarce. When she looked up, Simon was staring at her, his eyebrow cocked in inquiry. “Research stresses me out and I channel stress into the metal things I touch. I don’t need bad luck written into my essays. Usually, pens just dry up, but sometimes they vomit ink all over the paper. Or they’ll find their way into my laundry.”
“And pencils?” He pulled his own notebook out of his bag and settled in the seat across from her.
“Graphite. They start breaking after a few words.” She made a few careful notes, wrote out a quote 3 paragraphs long on a 4×6 note card, then carefully closed the book and reached for the next on her stack (Notable Heroes of the Antebellum Era).
“And your laptop?”
She sighed heavily, and looked him full in the face since he seemed intent on disrupting her studying. “Most of the hardware is coated in gold. Gold only takes good luck.”
“Yes,” she snapped. “Do you mind maybe letting me study? Kind of came in here to work, not to socialize.” She watched the bright curiosity scatter from his face. He lowered his eyes and mumbled an apology, but she saw the dull flush creeping up his neck and into his cheeks. They worked in dense, hurt silence for several minutes. After reading the same paragraph 3 times without taking in a word, she slammed her book shut with an audible growl.
“Look, I’m sorry. This place creeps me out. Wants some coffee?”
“Uh, yeah. Let me just put these on hold.” They gathered their things and took their books to the Reserve desk, where they were set in lockers for sfe keeping. They each got a card with their locker number on it and a date/time stamp. These were not the type of books one could check out.
Once outside, Francis took in a great breath of crisp air, pulling her cowl away from her face so the early winter breeze could get the last vestiges of library musk from her nose. The breeze accommodated by whipping her hair into her eyes along with some icy flakes from the of snow piled up on either side of the entry. She quickly wrapped up her lower face in the cowl and pulled up the hood of her jacket. Simon zipped up his own heavy coat and pulled on a ridiculous, lumpy knit cap. It was striped in to school colors and looked ineptly made, with a bobble perched lopsidedly on top. Simon saw her looking and shrugged.
The coffee shop on campus was adjacent to the library and the best she could say about it was that it was always open. It was always crowded, the tables were never completely clean, and the coffee was one step up from break room coffee, which she’d had plenty of during her time in retail. When Simon turned toward its convenient glow she grabbed his arm and dragged him to her car.
“You listen to public radio?” he asked, buckling his seatbelt. In the confines of her little hatchback, she could smell his deodorant, which was not Axe but something clean and bland. She was grateful for that. She was beginning to think the school was sponsored by the overpowering hygiene company with the stink of it on every male on campus.
“Yeah, only when I don’t have an audiobook to listen to. The radio stations around here are all pop and country music. Not really a fan.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I dunno, you just don’t seem the type to jam out to Katy Perry or Lady Gaga.”
“I was, uh, out of the country for a while. Still feel out of the loop, you know?” The heat finally came in through the vents and she gratefully put her gloved hand up to thaw, switching hands on the steering wheel as she drove through the late afternoon traffic. “It’s all the dead words in there.”
“What?” Simon turned down the news report.
“Dead words, crammed together, imprisoned in leather and stone. It just, it feels like, I don’t know. Just wrong.” She pulled up to a stoplight and risked a glance at her passenger. He looked thoughtful, but not in a bad way. She never tried to explain stuff like that before, her weird reactions to things like libraries and museums. Nobody had ever understood when she had tried as a child. It wasn’t until she’d confided in her grandmother’s people that anyone could explain. You have an affinity for the spirits, daughter. Not the dead, but the imprints of their lives.
Simon remained silent for a few more blocks. “My sister could smell ghosts.” Francis laughed. “No, seriously! No one believed her, but then she recognized Grandma’s perfume. I mean, Grandma had died before most of us were born and some perfume lady in a store spritzed some at us and she goes THAT’S GRANDMA and Mo just started crying. I get having weird talents.”
“It’s not weird! It’s just inconvenient. I hate research and it’s so much worse in a place like that.” They laughed, finally letting the awkwardness evaporate.
“Where are you taking me?” He studied the little shopping center she’d pulled into. “Are we getting liquor, pawning jewelry, or getting a tattoo?”
“Ha, I have all the tattoos I need, thank you. No, this is my coffee shop.” And crammed between the neon signs of a pawn shop and a loan office was a tiny cafe called Ruby’s Coffee, Wine, and Yarn Emporium. There was a French cafe-style table out front, thoughtfully attached to the building with an industrial bike chain. In the bright display window was a lifesize cartoon sheep reclining in a lawn chair and sipping from a large mug. On closer inspection, Simon saw that the entire thing was actually knitted.
They had to walk past a group of chattering middle-aged women, needles clicking furiously, rows of multicolored yarns hung on poles in twisted hanks, and a set of bookshelves crammed with novels surrounded by austere leather armchairs. The coffee bar was clear in the back and was manned by a purple-haired teenage girl.
“Oh, hey Francis. Usual?” Francis nodded and the girl bustled away, stopping in front of a monstrous espresso machine the looked straight out of a Medieval torture chamber.
“Is that Ruby?” Simon asked, raising his voice over the sound of beans grinding.
“There is no Ruby. It’s just a name.” The girl busily stirred together syrups and foamy milk, yelled incoherently to someone beyond a black saloon-style door, then brought over a mug roughly the size of her head filled. In the foam, she had spurned traditional pretty fern patterns for a sigil to keep the late warm.
“Your soup’ll be right up. And you?”
Simon had been so distracted by the spectacle of the place he hadn’t even looked at the menu, which was chalked neatly on the wall behind the register. Like many people faced with too many choices in an unfamiliar setting, he started to panic.
“Gimme your hand,” the girl said impatiently. He obeyed and she studied his hand, tracing the creases of his palm and noting the length of his nails. “Ok, you’ll have the Ruby Roast and a bowl of chili,” she concluded and set about filling a mug from a cistern next to the espresso machine. She yelled something about chili through the door and returned with the coffee.
“Wow. Is that your talent? Knowing what people want to order?”
“No,” she snorted. “Everyone likes the house blend. And we made too much chili.” Francis laughed with her while she paid (“I’ll take some chili to go, too”).
After they sat, she admitted that Gemma had pulled the same joke on her on her first visit, and on pretty much every new customer she could. The coffee, once doctored with a lot of sugar and a touch of cream, was indeed delicious and stayed just the right temperature for drinking thanks to the “keep warm” sigil he spotted baked into the glaze at the bottom of the cup. The chili was also satisfying, though he was surprised by the heavy cinnamon flavor and the mushrooms. Francis let him try her lobster bisque, a creamy, buttery concoction that he vowed to get on his next visit.
The two of them wasted the rest of the afternoon drinking coffee and complaining about research papers and essays and spending an hour to do 5 Math problems. Eventually, Francis told him about some of her travels. She didn’t explain why she’d gone to first Ireland, then eventually Nigeria, or why she had come back. But there were plenty of stories about monsters in the black forests of Europe and exactly how bad camel bites were and the time river nymph had taken to following her around half of Greece. By tge time the knitting circle was packing up, all the anxiety fromthe library had disappated naturally and she felt ready to get back to studying.
On the drive back to campus, Simon found a local pop station and started belting out the words to every song that came on while Francis giggled raucously. She made him stop when she nearly ran a red light. They parted companionably in the parking lot, Simon headed back to the library and Francis to her dorm to grab more note cards.
It didn’t immediately occur to her that something was wrong when she got to her room. She dug around in her desk for a fresh pack of note cards and some staples for her mini stapler. With those supplies transfered to her coat pockets, she was halfway out the door before her brain caught up with what her eyes had seen. Slowly, she turned back to the room and she stared at the empty jar on her bedside table. Blood drained from her head, making the floor seesaw under her feet as she rushed to the table. She snatched up the jar, twisting off the metal lid and peering disbelievingly into the cold, clear glass.
She sat down hard on the bed, feeling clammy, a tingle of sick anxiety creeping through numb limbs. The quart jar had been nearly full of cursed coins when she left for the library that morning. Hundreds of pieces of bad luck, some strong enough to be fatal in the wrong circumstances. And there, on her bedside table, scrawled across a bright pink sticky note, was Karen’s sloppy handwriting.
Had an emergency. You never spend this anyway so…