Another sucker would be here soon to look at the cup and things had to be perfect. Stephen held the cup to the single bulb in the back room of the book shop, checking for scratches and wiping away fingerprints and spots with a damp rag. The yellow light glinted off his light hair, turning it green. It was a decent cup, bought for three dollars at a yard sale in Detroit. It was a silver goblet (really plated but he kept that to himself), set with a single ruby in the cup (really quartz), and a crosshatch of fine gold thread around the stem (pyrite, unsurprisingly). This was the cup that paid his bills. No one had ever visited The Quick Ink Used Book Shop until he'd brought the cup here. For the umpteenth time he cursed his location, squinting as he gave the cup a final once-over. His shop had never been able to tap into The Brattle Bookshop's hipster, collegiate fanbase – the only demographic in Boston that bought used books –on pure merit alone. Reputation was everything to those overprivileged bastards, and Quick Ink had none. The cup had changed that; believers came in reverence and donated money to support the cause while skeptics visited for ironic reasons – and often left with books anyway.
Another one was coming soon, some sort of journalist for a high school paper. This was good; high schoolers were always hopping on the next trend, desperate to imitate their peers in higher learning. If he could reach the high schoolers, the shop would be set for at least the upcoming year.
He had just set the cup down on its table in the back of the shop when the bell above the door tinkled. Stephen turned to see a small, shortish girl step through, dark brown hair braided down to her waist and dark almond eyes. She looked about fourteen or fifteen, cute and innocent-looking if one ignored her sharp and impatient eyes, and she wore a short sundress suitable for the afternoon heat of July. Her boots made brisk clacking sounds on the worn floorboards as she wandered between the full shelves of books, taking in everything from the dusty corners of the ceiling to the peeling paint on the walls. Stephen strode to meet her. She shook his hand firmly, though she had to crane her head to look up at him; he was more than a full head taller though he slouched.
"Welcome to Quick Ink," he said cheerily. "I hope you're a book fan."
She didn't smile, though her eyes crinkled at the corners – in amusement or distaste, he couldn't be sure. "I am, yes. Historicals especially."
This was a good sign. History-minded people (though not historians of course) tended to find the cup in good favor. It was like getting a dose of the romantic fables in reality. "Would you like to look around more or –"
"I'd prefer looking at the cup," she interrupted. "I've got a place to be soon and I'd like to get this over with."
Stephen blinked, taken aback, before he pasted his humble face back on. So much for the sale. He turned to lead her to the back, making sure to take a meandering route, winding in an out of the stacks and through the historical fiction section. "I found this cup through pure luck," he began. "At a yard sale in Denver. Something about it called to me. I can't say what that would be, I'm no scientist" (he gave a well-practiced, self-deprecating chuckle) "but right away odd things started happening. I poured water into it and it turned into wine. Any surface I put it on would break or vibrate uncontrollably. I thought I was going mad until I realized what was going on."
The cup was in view at last, at the end of the aisle, as it always was at this point in the speech. He stopped walking; she almost crashed into his backside, grunting in annoyance. He turned slowly, seriously, with aplomb. "When I held it I heard voices. It was the cup speaking to me."
This caught her attention at last, as he knew it would. She stiffened, her mouth thinning as she considered his words. Her eyes flicked to the cup behind him. He kept his face sheepish, almost penitent. If she laughed she was a skeptic here for kicks. If she nodded, she was a believer here to give a donation.
She craned her head back to meet his gaze, solemn. "Was the voice outside yourself or a part of it?"
He stepped back, wary. "What do you mean?"
"If you hear a voice outside of your head, near your ear like an outside person is speaking to you," she explained, "you might be schizophrenic. If you hear a voice that sounds like you inside yourself, you're an average person. If you hear a voice that is neither yourself nor outside you," and her eyes darkened at this, "then you might be hearing something else entirely."
Stephen puffed out his chest and brought himself to his full height. "I don't appreciate being mocked by a high schooler."
The girl smiled suddenly, her solemnity gone in an instant. "Of course. I'll be going now. Thanks for letting me see it." She turned to leave.
"But you haven't!" Stephen refrained from pulling her back. "You don't want a closer look?"
"No." She was bored now. She lifted a book from the shelf and turned through the pages. "It's not made of any real metals. The table is rigged to shake when we come closer. The stem is likely hollow and filled with wine. And the only voice you've ever heard is your own. How much is this book?"
Stephen's throat closed; his knees shook. Distantly, as if he were somewhere else looking on, he knew his teeth were clenched. He stared at the short girl in wonder, in fear. "You're mistaken," he croaked.
"No, I'm not." Her voice was authoritative; she closed the book, a history of Mesopotamian architecture, with a snap. She pulled a five dollar bill out of a pocket hidden in her dress and offered it to him. "I'll take this book, thank you."
"Don't tell people," he begged. His fists clenched in terror. "We'll be ruined, this shop will be ruined if you write about this."
She bit her lip, the hard look on her face replaced by surprise, then sympathy. She took his clenched hand, opened it and put the bill inside. "I'm not a part of any school paper. I just wanted a look at it." She closed his hand. "It's none of my business, how you run yours."
"Why?" he asked.
"You should drop the voices idea," she said, more kindly. "It was a dead giveaway. Keep the wine bit though, I like that one." She waved the book at him in goodbye, a blur of braided hair and a green dress, and left.
It was long after she was gone that he realized he was still sweating, his palms chilled and clammy. He hadn't asked her name. A pity, that. She would've made a great partner, had some really swell ideas.