Tick, clunk, and all those other sounds of a dreary afternoon where the volume on the television is turned down to a barely audible murmur and the world outside the window passes by with the hiss of upswept rain: pitter-patter, whoosh.
More rain meant less customers. Malin sighed (prettily, she hoped), adding another noise to the hazy daze. She wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to on a day like this, to have something new to occupy her mind for a moment or two… anything to save her from having to read about the grape-seed diet, another pregnant celebrity, or those awful copy-pasted horoscopes all over again.
On the television screen behind the counter, a crowd of people were laughing, which meant that somebody had said something funny or that they’d won a prize. There was an advertisement about depilatory cream. Then another that showed a cat wearing a captain’s hat. The cat was singing a song about fish and the open ocean. Then that commercial gave way to yet another: claiming NOW was the time to get the ripped abs you’ve always dreamed of.
Malin leaned against the counter and inspected her fingernails, distracted for a moment by the way the french tips caught the sheen of the hanging light above her left shoulder, burnishing half of each nail in golden light.
Tingle. That was the sound of a customer, the wind howling as the door opened and quickly hushed into obeisance as it whispered closed. Malin saw his shoes first. Black, almost featureless boots. He also wore grey-black pants and a lumpy brown jacket that bore dozens of strange patches. The patches looked like little flags, but seemed to be the wrong shape.
Rain sluiced off of him, leaving a river in his wake. He had dark-grey hair and a few scars, but it was impossible to tell his age, other than that he had to be somewhere between thirty-five and ancient. Malin smiled at him, or at least she tried. But she could tell that his was a face unaccustomed to smiling: his eyes simmered with a strange keenness.
“What can I get you?” she asked as the man came closer. Then he became distracted by the television. The commercials had ended and the screen now showed talented children with talented pets.
“Excuse me, Miss,” said the stranger. “Would you mind switching to the news?”
Malin complied. “Sure,” she said. “But only if you buy a coffee, or something to eat.
The muffins are good.”
Malin pushed a button and the picture on the screen changed to that of a deadpan face reading from a teleprompter. Diplomatic bungles, struggling families, a medical technology break through, a medical emergency. Next… sport. After that, the weather.
Malin sighed (prettily, she hoped) and turned back to the customer. She didn’t care if his was a face unaccustomed to smiles, because hers was not.
“The… muffins, you said?” the man was giving the appearance of speaking to her, but Malin could tell that he was really watching the television out of the corner of his eye.
“Blueberry are my favourite, but we also have pumpkin and spinach, wholemeal, chocolate, mixed berry, choc-chip, and…” her voice trailed off as she realised any pretence that the man was still listening had slipped away. He was staring over her shoulder at the television screen. Gradually Malin’s awareness tuned into the tinny voice playing from the televison speaker, not deadpan anymore, but sounding somehow different…
We’re not sure what to make of these reports, but… bear with me, we have a lot of reports coming in. It seems like there has been—unconfirmed—explosions and… sightings? In several places now, and…
“He found us,” said the man in the jacket, in a way that made it clear he was not talking to Malin. Talking to yourself was the first sign of madness, that’s what Malin’s old Nana used to say.
“Who?” said Malin, her own voice sounded different to normal, as though it was playing from a second television in a different corner of the room. Images played out on the screen: engine parts floating in the sky, a distance shot of a field where black plumes of smoke were rising, and tall, dark figures stalking unnaturally towards the cameras.
The man reached across the counter and grabbed Malin’s shoulder. Somewhere around here there was supposed to be one of those panic switches that you hit if you were being robbed, but Malin wasn’t sure the service was even connected anymore (and she was even less sure she was being robbed).
“Listen,” the man’s breath rasped warmly in her ear. Up close Malin found that she could smell him, an unearthly mixture of war and magic. “You have just become the single most important person in the universe. I need you to do something for me, the next time this happens.”
“Next time?” there was a noise outside now, a strange whirring chirping noise that
was becoming louder than the wind. “I don’t understand, I…”
The man kept talking, but Malin didn’t hear anything else. The front windows of the café exploded inwards, glass dicing through the air like a blizzard of deadly snowflakes. Malin was flung against the rear wall of the café. Muffins tumbled in every direction.
Malin looked out through the front windows and realised the entire building had been
lifted into the air. Now it was slowly being tipped on its side, so that the broken windows were directly below them; deadly shards glinting between them the ground below.
Malin began to slide, as did tables and chairs and even the refrigerator that stocked cold drinks. Almost everything fell out of the shop, spiralling to the ground below. Somehow, Malin realised that the television was still playing:
…act of terrorism or war, some are even suggesting…
And then even the television was dragged out of its power socket, the cord whipping past Malin as it plummeted. She clung to the front counter and found herself staring down into the eyes of the stranger below. He was trying to pull himself up, but it was useless. Malin knew that she didn’t have the strength to help him and was forced to watch as his knuckles turned white and his grip began to falter. “Remember,” he said. “Next time.”