Five minutes after the coffee shop opened, Lori was there, sipping her oatmilk cappuccino, allowing herself to relax a little after a very trying night. Only a minute later the door swung open, letting in a blast of cold air and Morris Walters. Lori tensed up again.
Morris was more hard work than anyone she knew. He was tense, inarticulate, unattractive. Here he was loudly ordering a salted caramel latte and a bacon sandwich. (How can anyone think those things go together, especially at ten past eight in the morning, Lori thought, keeping her eyes down, tearing a piece off her croissant and spreading apricot jam on it.)
The worst happened. Though she did not once make eye contact and radiated her most hostile body language, Morris came over to her table.
‘Hi, Lori, can I sit with you?’
(No!) She looked up at him, then slowly around the empty coffee shop and back at Morris. He smiled at her, lips trembling, panic in his eyes. Defeated, she made a brief gesture at the empty seat across from her and he sat down. A moment later he emptied a sachet of sugar into his already too-sweet latte.
He seemed more nervous than usual, his hands shaking as he stirred his drink. Lori always found his intense nervousness unbearable. Also, his nose was too big and his lips too thin. Lori’s better self put in an unwelcome appearance, telling her that he could not help his physiognomy or his emotional state, and that she might make him more nervous with her too-judgemental attitude.
He did have very neat ears, she thought. Perhaps if I only look at his ears, he will be more bearable.
He took a huge bite of his bacon sandwich and washed it down with a gulp of latte.
‘You look tired,’ he said, without actually looking at Lori.
‘I’ve been up all night,’ she said, ‘helping out a friend. I’ll have to go soon, so that I can get some sleep before I have to lead tonight’s Ghost Walk.”
‘Should you be drinking coffee then?’
‘It’s decaf,’ she said. Not that it’s any of your business, she thought, her better self in retreat.
‘You help out a lot of people.’
She shrugged, thinking that if she did not actually speak he might stop trying to have a conversation. No such luck.
‘Would you help me?’
Damn. She was so tired, but here was Better Self running to the fore again. She tried to keep her mouth shut by plugging it with a large piece of croissant, but mumbled through the crumbs, ‘What do you need help with?’
He flushed bright red.
‘You can tell me,’ she said, opening her right hand palm up in a gesture of friendly invitation. Morris swiftly reached forward and pierced something into the palm of her hand.
‘Ow! What?’ she cried.
Morris jumped up, drank off the last of his latte and grabbed his bacon sandwich.
‘Sorry sorry,’ he said, and ran out of the coffee shop.
The barista looked over at Lori, who was nursing her injured hand and cursing, then looked away again, bored.
In the centre of Lori’s palm was stuck a large thorn, her blood oozing out around it. She pulled it out. Not a thorn, but a small animal claw, maybe a cat’s, with what looked like tiny runes written on it in black. Dropping it on the table, she ran to the toilet to wash the wound.
Her hand bandaged in toilet paper, she grabbed her bag and turned to leave, then went back to pick up the claw, wrapping it in a paper napkin.
Back at home in her own bathroom, she anointed the injury with antiseptic cream and put a small plaster over it. It was only a little thing, after all, but it hurt like hell. What if it got infected, or worse, gangrenous?
Where had that come from? She laughed and turned to leave the bathroom, and was frozen rigid with fear. A spider was between her and the door, making its way across the bath mat on long spindly legs the thickness of a hair.
She had climbed up onto the side of the bath and was hyperventilating before she could think. And then she thought: Wait a minute, I’m not afraid of spiders. Still, it took an act of extreme will to get down, pull the bath mat and its spidery passenger out of the way, and get out of the bathroom.
Some hours later, the alarm went off in time for Lori to get up, have something to eat and change into costume for the evening’s Ghost Walk, all the while imagining spiders creeping up on her. (There were many spiders in her flat.)
As soon as she left, she felt anxiety twisting in her stomach. What if no-one liked her performance tonight, if they all thought the whole thing was ridiculous rubbish and demanded their money back?
She stopped in the street, breathed deeply, and thought about these new crushing fears. They were not hers, she knew that. Some were fears she had never had, others were things she had conquered years ago. She smashed them down hard and got on with the evening’s work.
The ghost walk went off well, the suppressed hysteria in her delivery adding to the drama. When it was over, she paid a visit to an old friend, who examined the claw and the tiny runes, confirming Lori’s conclusions, and giving her a little advice.
A few enquiries got her Morris’s address and by midnight she was banging on his door. He took a long time to answer. When he saw who it was, he tried to slam the door shut, but she shouldered it open, her anger making her strong.
She held up the claw between finger and thumb.
‘You gave me all your fears,’ she said.
Looking into his eyes, she could see that he had already changed. He could meet her angry stare, and all his nervy movements were gone. He could stand his ground. His nose was still too big, but the line of his lips was no longer pulled so thin.
‘What are you going to do?’ he asked.
Better Self whispered in her ear.
‘No-one lives long totally without fear, Morris,’ she said, ‘so I’m going to do you a favour, and just give you one fear to live with.’
With a quick swipe she caught him across the chin with the tiny claw. He yelped and jumped backwards.
‘Be very afraid of me,’ she said. ‘If I see you again I will probably do you severe damage.’
‘I’m leaving town,’ he said. ‘I just needed the courage to go.’
‘Good’ she said, and before she gave into the urge to give him a good kicking, Lori turned away, tucking the claw into her pocket.
‘You should have asked properly,’ she muttered.
‘I know,’ he said, ‘but I was too afraid.’
Back at home, while her better self was looking the other way, Lori used the bit of blood on the tip of the claw to send Morris back his fear of spiders.