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Persephone Kipp hadn’t slept well the past two nights. She kept having strange dreams. They weren’t nightmares, exactly, although there were some nightmare elements strewn throughout the chaos. More than once she’d found herself running from some horrible, murderous thing that she couldn’t quite see. And there was a particularly frightening bit about being lost in an endless darkness. But mostly the dreams were just strange and meaningless and disturbing in a way that intruded upon her waking life. It was taking a toll on her, leaving her weary and distracted. And today was the worst possible day for her to be off her game.
“Earth to Seph. Hello? Do you copy?”
She blinked and sat up. “Huh?”
Phoenix laughed. She had an annoying laugh. It was nasally, and sort of shrill. Today it was almost painful to hear. “Better snap out of it fast,” she advised, checking her watch.
Persephone took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “I’m trying,” she said.
“She can’t help it,” said Alton. “She’s exhausted from celebrating all weekend.”
“Seph doesn’t celebrate anything that hard,” countered Kaitlyn, brushing aside her pink-streaked hair to give her an admonishing look. “No matter how hard I try to talk her into it.”
Alton chuckled and leaned back in his chair. His naturally dark hair had streaks of blond so bright they were practically yellow. It was long and unkempt in a way that required a considerable amount of work in the mornings to look just that way.
Phoenix laughed that annoying laugh again. Her hair was a more subtle purple, but shaved on one side, better to show off her many earrings and the stream of tattoos that started behind her left ear and ran down the side of her neck.
Persephone was the only one at the table who preferred her hair to remain natural. She liked it just the way she grew it, raven black and fine, cut shoulder-length and simple.
“I’d love to see Seph celebrate that hard,” said Phoenix.
Almost everyone called her “Seph.” It was much less of a mouthful than “Persephone,” which she’d hated for most of her childhood. Teachers rarely pronounced it right. Kids with normal, simple names like “Ellen” and “Julie” made fun of her. But by the time she started college, she’d made peace with it, and by the time she’d earned her bachelor’s degree, she’d learned to love it. She found that she enjoyed having a name that made her different from all the boring Ellens and Julies out there.
She checked her watch. It was almost time to leave. And two espressos hadn’t helped her to find her focus at all.
“It’s a big deal,” said Alton. “I’d be too excited to sleep, too.”
It was a big deal. It was her big opportunity. A job interview with the area’s leading graphic design company. It was what she’d worked so hard for. It was what she wanted to do with her life. And it all came down to this interview.
Well…not just this interview. It was only the first of three. She’d have to make a very good impression today just to get a second one. But you only got one first interview. And if she blew it today…
She drained the last of her espresso and forced herself to focus on the menu board.
She was so nervous.
“You’ll do great,” promised Kaitlyn. “Relax.”
Seph gave her a tired smile.
“Of course she’ll do great,” agreed Phoenix.
She met Phoenix Carasik, Kaitlyn Jernam, and Alton Ripna in the art department during her first semester of college. They’d all just kind of clicked, as they said. And they’d remained friends ever since. She didn’t see them as much now that they’d all graduated and gone their separate ways, but they managed to get together every couple of months. Mostly thanks to Kaitlyn, who seemed to have made it her personal crusade to prevent them from ever drifting completely apart.
“It’s the same thing she always does,” declared Alton as he fingered the silver ring in his left eyebrow. Both of his eyebrows were pierced, as was his nose and lip. And he was always touching them. He couldn’t seem to help himself. “She can’t just do something great and show the rest of us up. She has to do it sleep deprived and jacked up on coffee, just to rub it in that much more.”
“She does!” giggled Kaitlyn. She leaned forward and poked her tongue ring out between her teeth.
“I don’t show anyone up,” returned Seph, looking down at her cup. She hated when Kaitlyn played with that thing. It was even more annoying than Alton fiddling with the ones on his face.
All three of them had piercings. Kaitlyn’s tongue and eyebrow. Phoenix’s lip and nose. It was their thing, apparently. Seph, however, didn’t have anything pierced but her ears. She had four in each ear, two at the top and two at the bottom, but that was all. And she didn’t have any tattoos, either. She liked her body like she liked her hair: natural.
“You always show me up,” argued Alton. “Anything I can do, you can do better, and during some kind of personal crisis.”
Seph wrinkled her nose at him. “That’s not true.”
“Of course it is,” he insisted. “You could catch ebola and still give the best damn interview.”
Seph gave a snort of a laugh.
Phoenix sat back in her seat, a wicked grin on her face. “I’ll bet I know what it is,” she declared, her violet-lensed eyes widening with mischievous delight. “She says she hasn’t been sleeping well, but she hasn’t said whose bed she hasn’t been sleeping in.”
Seph shot her an unamused look over her cup, which only managed to make her break out into that annoying, nasally laugh again. Phoenix had a morbid fascination with the scandalous. Nothing pleased her more than the idea of people caught up in sordid mischief, especially sexual mischief.
Alton rolled his eyes.
“I’m just saying,” pressed Phoenix. “The girl’s not getting any younger. She should get herself some action.”
“She’s twenty-three,” said Alton. “I think she’s still got time.”
“Seph’s a good girl,” said Kaitlyn, managing somehow to make it sound like both a defense and a reproach. “Not like someone else I know.”
Phoenix bit her lip and made an exaggerated “who me?” face.
Seph stood up. “Anyway… I’m not going to even make it to my interview if I don’t get going. I have to leave time for traffic.”
“I’ve got to go, too,” announced Alton, rising to his feet.
Phoenix shrugged. “Fine. Me, too.”
“This was fun!” said Kaitlyn. “We’ll do it again.”
Everyone agreed that it was and they would. They gathered their jackets and purses. (Alton insisted his was a satchel, but Seph knew a man purse when she saw one.)
“I’ll talk to you guys later,” said Seph as her friends headed for the door. “I have to get something to go.” She waved goodbye and then walked over to the counter and ordered an Americano.
The barista was a tall, dark-haired young man who looked a couple years younger than her. Sort of attractive, but also sort of average, with the kind of everyday face that would be hard to pick out of a crowd ten minutes from now. She barely spared him a glance as he rang up her order and took her money.
It was as he was handing her back her change that things first turned weird.
She glanced up at his face as she thanked him, actually looking at him for the first time. There, on the very top of his head, two strange, hazy shapes protruded from his thick hair.
He turned away and set about making her drink, but Seph had forgotten about the Americano. She even forgot about the interview. It took all her weary mind could manage just to try to process what it was she was seeing.
It looked like one of those stupid cat-ear headbands, like the ones you see everywhere on Halloween. But these weren’t made of plastic and fake fur. They appeared to be made of a strange, luminescent gray mist.
He caught her staring at him and stopped. “Is something wrong?”
Seph blinked. “What?”
“Are you okay?”
She glanced around the room. No one else had strange, ghostly ears sprouting from their head. And no one else seemed to have noticed the ones on the barista. No one was staring at him like she was. A few people, however, were staring at her.
“No…” she said, blushing. “I mean, yes. I’m fine. I just…” Her eyes fixed on those ears again. They looked a little bit like fox ears, tall and triangular, pointy, but not as big in proportion to the head as a real fox’s ears. As she watched, one of them twitched to the side and then back again.
And yet they weren’t really there. They couldn’t be. She could see through them. They were faint around the edges, as if made of smoke.
“Can I get you anything else?” asked the confused barista who clearly didn’t realize that he’d sprouted an extra pair of ears.
Seph had to make a conscious effort to compose herself. “No. I’m fine.” Then, lamely, she said, “I haven’t been sleeping well. I’m sorry.”
He assured her that it was no problem and went back to work, but those strange ears seemed to rotate toward her as he turned away, as if watching her. (Listening to her?)
Needing to find something to focus on besides the top of the barista’s head, she opened her purse and dug out her keys. When she looked up again, the ears hadn’t gone away and still no one else seemed to have noticed them.
She looked to see if any of her friends were still in the shop, but they’d all three left by now.
Another customer approached the counter, an older woman with a prim look about her, and Seph stepped out of the way.
This woman looked right at the barista as he assured her that he’d be right with her, and yet she completely ignored the perky, transparent ears, even though they were plainly visible and even appeared to be faintly glowing.
Was this some kind of elaborate prank? Was she on camera? Was this guy one of those street magicians or something?
Even that didn’t make sense. How would you pull off an illusion like this? The ears—or whatever they were—moved with his head, remaining in place even as he moved about behind the counter. It looked far too perfect to be any kind of holographic manipulation.
Finally, her Americano came up. She took it, thanked him and then quickly walked out of the coffee shop, somehow resisting the urge to break into a run.
She slipped behind the wheel of her full-sized Ford pickup—she might have been small at only five-foot-three, but she was formidable enough on the highway—and then sat there for a moment, her eyes closed, trying to make sense of what she’d seen.
It couldn’t have been real. It was too ridiculous to be real. Clearly she’d imagined the whole thing.
She hadn’t slept well the past two nights. She’d tossed and turned. She’d dreamed those strange dreams. Obviously, she was even more sleep-deprived than she thought. She was hallucinating.
She took off her glasses again and rubbed at her weary eyes. She might’ve laughed, if she wasn’t so worried about the interview. She still had to drive all the way to Cakwetak, which was practically Milwaukee. Once there, she’d have to find a way to not look like a total mess in front of the human resources director.
Returning the glasses to her face, she looked out across the parking lot. She could see several people walking around. None of them had spectral ears sprouting from their heads.
She’d be all right. It was the stress, she realized. She was so worried about this interview. Once it was over, maybe she’d be able to sleep again.
She pulled out of the parking lot and headed east.