"The leeches are getting into the coffee again," Mrs. Rosa said.
Reader, from where she was elbow-deep in unclogging the espresso machine, glanced over her shoulder. She half-expected actual leeches. It wouldn't be the first time they'd had a pest problem in Café Memento, wouldn't be the first time she'd had to pour bleach down the drains or board up a mouse hole. If she was unlucky (which turned out to be the case more often than not), she might even have to grab the Winchester rifle Mrs. Rosa kept in the manager's office. Just for emergencies.
Instead of leeches, though, Reader saw three middle-aged men in suits standing in the refill line. They weren't particularly leech-looking, didn't look like anything other than middle-aged men, and she turned to Mrs. Rosa with a raised eyebrow.
"Yaneli," she said, "you can't call people leeches just because they don't tip."
Mrs. Rosa clicked her tongue and kicked a breadcrumb underneath one of the fridges. "Look at those suits. You know they can afford it."
"Of course they can." Reader's fingers closed around a piece of something in the espresso machine, and she gave it a tug. "But they won't. Rich people never tip. If they did, maybe we could afford a new espresso machine. Or a better cash register."
As if on cue, the cash register's drawer opened by itself. Mrs. Rosa cursed in furious Spanish and slammed it shut with her hip.
"What have I told you about insulting her?" She snapped as Reader finally pulled an old filter out of the espresso machine. "She doesn't like it, Reader."
"Or she doesn't like me." Reader tossed the old filter toward the trash can, missed, and almost decided to curl up in a ball on the floor. But she didn't. Instead, she grabbed a broom and started sweeping wet coffee grounds into a dust pan. "I've never met a cash register that's liked me, though."
That much, at least, was true. Prior to working at Café Memento, Reader had worked at Big Murphy's Grocery. Her manager put her on the check lanes, despite Reader frantically telling him not to, and every single register had either glitched out, frozen over, or caught on fire.
Reader absently scratched at the burn scar on her arm. The registers hadn't been easy to put out. Neither had the whole building, either, but she supposed she needed to count herself lucky no one important had been injured. Add that to the fact that nobody died, and the entire thing felt more like a bad dream than an actual memory.
"Those damn leeches!" Mrs. Rosa suddenly hissed.
Jarred back to the present, Reader looked toward the refill line. One of the containers was on its side and spilling coffee absolutely everywhere. Worst—and most telling—of all, the men in suits were nowhere to be seen.
Fuck, Reader thought, then said aloud: "Fuck."
"Language!" Mrs. Rosa swatted at her with a dishrag, then started walking toward the office. "I'm getting the Winchester."
Reader rolled her eyes, put the broom aside, and went for the mop in the storage closet. By the time she emerged, half-covered in dust, cobwebs, and chemicals that she didn't really want to think about, Mrs. Rosa was gone.
I'm not being her alibi again, she thought, dragging the mop and a bucket around the counter. The coffee had already started to seep into the cracks in the tile floor. She's on her own this time.
The mop did little to actually clean up the mess. It was the bad one, Reader remembered with a groan. The other waitress Mrs. Rosa had hired—and almost immediately fired—had made off with the good mop, the one thing of value she could take from Café Memento. Not that Reader could entirely blame her. Good mops were hard to come by in Clover, and it was a small miracle Mrs. Rosa had gotten her hands on one at all.
"I've heard that we've got a newcomer in town, Reader," an old woman's voice said from a nearby table.
Reader barely stifled a shriek and whirled around. The voice belonged to none other than Magdalena Freemont, the oldest woman in Clover.
"Please don't do that," Reader said, only just now realizing she was brandishing the mop like a wooden sword.
Old Mrs. Freemont smiled a toothless smile. "Do what?"
"You know..." Reader waved the mop in the air. "Just... appear like that. I'm not used to it anymore."
"Oh honey," Mrs. Freemont laughed her bone-chilling laugh, "you never were. Nobody in Clover ever gets used to it. Mr. Freemont certainly didn't."
She laughed again, and Reader found herself smiling a little. Creepy as she was, Old Mrs. Freemont had never hurt anyone who didn't deserve it.
"So what were you saying?" Reader asked, lowering the mop to at least pretend like she was cleaning. "About a newcomer?"
"Aye," Mrs. Freemont said. Her voice took on a vaguely Irish accent. She liked to switch, Reader knew. "Rode right into town on a motorcycle, that one. Crossed the line and everything."
Reader gaped at her. "But the barrier."
"It's still there, alright." Mrs. Freemont took a sip of tea out of a cup that hadn't been there a few seconds ago. "And I'm sure it'll stay that way. But we have a newcomer—city person, I think—in our little town."
Reader's head was spinning. Someone new. In Clover. Something like that hadn't happened, well, ever.
"What are they doing here?" She asked, wondering more to herself than Mrs. Freemont, but the toothless old woman answered anyways:
"How should I know?" Another sip of tea that hadn't been steaming just moments ago. "But it looks like they'll be here for a while. They've rented a room at the Alibi. Nearly gave Mr. Hudson a fifth heart attack."
Reader almost dropped the mop. "Mr. Hudson actually rented out one of his rooms?"
Mrs. Freemont smiled. "Well, he has a reason to, now."
Reader couldn't argue with that, so she settled for abandoning the mop and sitting in a nearby chair. A newcomer in Clover meant that people could cross the barrier. And if people could cross the barrier...
"Oh look at that," Mrs. Freemont said before that thought could really sink in, "the leeches are getting into the coffee again."
This time, there were actual leeches soaking up the spilled coffee when Reader turned back to the mess on the floor.
Not again, she thought with a groan. Yaneli's going to kill me.
Technically speaking, the town of Clover, California doesn't exist. But that doesn't stop Reader Coleman from living there. In fact, she's perfectly happy to deal with its quirks and oddities, like the forest that only appears in the winter, or the museum with infinite exhibits. But when Wren McAvoy—an outsider—somehow arrives in town, everything Reader knows is suddenly thrown into question. And yet despite the various warnings from, well, everyone, Reader finds herself drawn to this mysterious stranger. Who are they? Why are they here? And, most importantly, how in the world did they manage to find a town that doesn't exist?