The Starbucks employee whose name was hard to read because he had terrible handwriting made tea in a china cup. He couldn't remember who had ordered it (there was no name written down) and he didn't bring it to the pass. He took it instead to an empty table. Anybody watching would have assumed he was practising some sort of trick for when the mug was no longer obscured by his body, it had disappeared. It wasn't in his hands. It wasn't on the table. It wasn't the first time he'd done this either although if you asked him about it, he wouldn't have remembered.
Anita studied. Her arms formed the shape of a nutcracker around her neck. Her elbows drove into the table and framed messy course work. A sentence was catching in her brain. She could see it up there, wearing a hat and smoking a cigar at the gate marked READING, refusing with a jokey toss of the head to walk through to the squishy centre of UNDERSTANDING. In her fantasy, the squishy centre of UNDERSTANDING had a doormat and she was trying to work out what might be written on it. The current frontrunner was GIVE UP.
She read it again. And again. And stared at the diagrams of mitochondria (who offered no help), and threw herself back into the paragraph, and willed it to make sense. But no matter how hard she implored one sentence to stand firm, it would pass from her mind as soon she read the next. She came up for air, and coffee. Her head hurt. The speakers played songs everybody can recognise but nobody can place; music designed to turn your brain into a workhorse, music designed to nudge your soul into buying another grande latte.
To her right, four history students were hunkered down in a both of comfy chairs. They were her enemy. Comfy chair pirates with their comfy chair faces and their comfy chair lack of love for the idea of just bloody going away and letting her bloody have the bloody arsing comfy chairs.
To her left, a linguist cried soft tears. Beyond him, a girl who didn't look old enough to be in the university Starbucks patiently copied out conjugation tables, comfortable in the knowledge that once she had passed in modern languages, she would never need to use them.
All through the cafe, variations on the theme of student tensed shoulder muscles, swore at bits of paper, and fought for the cause of wall plugs. And opposite Anita, one table was empty. Every now and then, a student would draw level with her, consider the vacant seats, and walk away.
The empty table was in a corner and although nobody sat there, it seemed to cast a shadow. It could, of course, be the student at the next table. But the lighting was wrong. The shadow too tall. The student was lying with forehead on the table, hoodie raised and tucked in. And if there was a shadow, then it sat upright. It could almost be looking at Anita.
She returned to the mitochondria, willing her own to walk upstairs and explain. She peeked through her hair. The shadow was still there. Back to the sheet and now the walls of text seemed larger and the diagrams smaller. Back through her hair. The shadow sipped a shadow of a china cup. And on the shadow of the table was the shadow of a handbag.
Anita shook her head. Shook it again. She had been there too long. A build up of impossible paragraphs was blocking her brain tubes, thought the would-be doctor, spouting coffee-house mirages on any which wall she looked. She needed a break, another grande latte, anything.
She went to stand -
- and couldn't. Her legs were rigid. Cramp. She tried to shake them. Nothing. She didn't need this. She pushed through her heels and her bones pushed back. She pushed through her palm and her lungs tightened. Her vision snapped out. She stopped pushing and the coffee shop reappeared.
She took a moment to get her breath back. On the wall opposite, the shadow sipped its drink. She ignored it.
She tried again, pushing up and pushing through her body and this time felt the chair crack as a hand pulled on her ribs from the inside of her chest.
The shadow sipped its drink.
The mitochondria had quite disappeared from the page leaving only wall after wall after wall of text. The words didn't register. They looked like English. She tried to peer through her hair but something took her eyes and held them pointed at the page.
The Starbucks employee with the bad handwriting noticed that one student stayed long after the others and when he needed to shut up shop and she wouldn't move. He left her to it, locking her in for the night.
When he went to bed, he dreamed of being congratulated on doing so well in his studies.
The next morning, an observer would have assumed he was practising some sort of trick for when the doors were unlocked, the student had disappeared.