I WILL NEVER be a superhero
I glared at the book I was re-shelving in Paranormal Romance, trying to stop my negative train of thought in its tracks. Unfortunately, my negative trains of thought tend to power themselves into full-blown locomotives of motherfuckin' doom.
I'm talented like that.
The current shelf situation wasn't helping. My sworn nemesis, Nicole Yamamoto, had just hurricaned through It's Lit, the adorable San Francisco bookshop/café where I work as a re-shelving/coffee-slinging lackey, and messed up the entirety of Paranormal Romance, committing an array of heinous crimes against the basic concept of the alphabet. I had at least another forty-five minutes of organizing before things were set right, and the tedium of moving book after book from Point A to Point B had me down the all too familiar mental rabbit hole of I will never be a superhero
I heaved a mighty sigh and shoved another book into place. The shelf shook a little, and I instantly felt bad. I gave the book a soothing pat. After all, it wasn't the book's fault I was in such a shitty mood—no, that honor rested one hundred percent with my big sister Evie.
I should be taking down demons as Bea Tanaka, Superheroine Extraordinaire. Instead I was rearranging books and cleaning up after pretentious slobs. All because Evie kept giving me that one little word I'd come to hate more than anything in the whole entire world: No
My phone vibrated in my pocket and I yanked it free, glowering at the screen. Evie again. Begging me to call her. She had a constant need to make sure you weren't mad at her, to be cleared of all wrongdoing, to get you to see things her way. But I was pretty set on my
way of seeing things, and my way said she was totally frakballs wrong
That hadn't stopped her from texting me no fewer than seven times in the last hour. One of her classic "don't be mad at me" tactics.
I shoved my phone back in my pocket, gritted my teeth, and surveyed the section, trying to lull myself into a sense of calm by running my fingers along the colorful rainbow of book spines. We shelved new and used together, so some of the spines were cracked and worn, and I paused on a hot pink vampire tome that was one of my favorites. This particular copy had been read so many times its spine was creased with a series of jagged lines, giving it the appearance of aged wood. Well . . . aged, hot pink wood.Hmm. I wonder if it would piss Evie off if I painted my room this color?
"Bebe!" A sharp voice pierced my thoughts, and I nearly jammed my finger against the book I'd been stroking. "We've got a Code Green in the café, and I need you to—wait, what's wrong?"
I turned to see my best friend and fellow bookstore lackey, Leah Kim, cocking her head at me. Her mane of curly dark hair listed to the side, and her eyebrows were raised over the clunky frames of her nerdy-cool glasses.
"How can you tell something's wrong from my back
?" I said, shaking my head.
"I'm empathetic and shit," Leah said with a shrug. "Plus, you're fondling that book in a way that borders on inappropriate, sooo . . ." She crossed her arms over her chest, rumpling her shapeless linen jumpsuit—a garment that would have appeared vaguely cult-member-appropriate on most people, but Leah made it look downright artsy.
I let out the longest, gustiest sigh ever. "I pitched Evie again last night about me joining the official superteam. As an official superheroine. Fighting demons and stuff alongside her. Officially."
"And she said no?"
"And she said no."
My big sister was San Francisco's coolest superhero ever—I mean, she could shoot fire out of her hands, it doesn't get more badass than that. She and her superheroing partner, Aveda Jupiter (aka Annie Chang), battled demon threats large and small and kept the Bay Area safe from supernatural harm. In the past, I'd been a glorified assistant on the team, helping with research and paperwork and Team Tanaka/Jupiter's social media presence, but now I was ready for more. So much more.
"And then you had the same fight you guys always have, the fight you are destined to have forever, the one that always ends with you rage-stomping up the stairs and slamming your bedroom door, like the pouty teen she seems to think you still are?" Leah continued.
I couldn't help but crack a small smile. "Are you psychic or something?"
"Thoroughly mundane," Leah said. "Y'all are just super predictable. Do you need a pep talk?" She rolled her eyes to the ceiling, as if calling up the words. "Listen. You are a strong woman of color, your brain is gigantic and full of science, and your rainbow-dyed hair looks particularly fetching and anime-heroine-esque today. You are a beautiful, empowered, uniquely skilled flower, and you can be anything you set your mind to."
"Thank you," I said, meaning it. "Especially about the hair—I wasn't totally sure about going for the whole purple-pink-turquoise mermaid look, particularly since too much Technicolor streakage is like catnip to White Guys Who Like Asian Girls, but then I was like, I
dig it, so who cares?"
"Preach," Leah said, holding up her hand for a high-five. "And don't forget about the little project we've got going in the back—it will definitely enhance your presentation next time you pitch Evie, give it that extra bit of oomph. Now. About that Code Green—"
"Which one is Code Green again?" I said, giving her palm a half-hearted slap. "The almond milk doesn't taste like almonds? They hate the cookie they just ate, even though they ate it in two seconds flat?"
"It's the thing where they spilled coffee all over a book they haven't paid for and are now trying to get out of paying for it," she said with an eye-roll.
"Gotcha." I nodded in recognition. "I'm on it."
I abandoned Paranormal Romance and followed Leah through the bookstore and toward the café area. Our boss, Charlotte Wilcox, had three goals in mind when she designed It's Lit: she wanted it to be open and airy (tough to accomplish in the often cramped, claustrophobic environs of the city), home to popular genres dominated by women writers (not an obvious fit for sometimes snooty San Francisco), and respectful of said genres (hence the name, It's Lit, which was supposed to be both cute and defiant). Luckily, Charlotte had tons of money from her incredibly successful local-turned-national bakery franchise, Cake My Day. That money had allowed her to secure an amazing space for It's Lit, with huge windows, tons of light, and high ceilings, and to decorate it with a plush pink velvet couch, a mish-mash of colorful throw rugs and pillows, and an ever-growing army of collectible porcelain unicorns. The store felt more like an eccentric aunt's home than a retail establishment. And the café area, with its fine selection of caffeine and baked goods, added to the comfortable vibe.
"Come on, Pancake," Leah sang out, scooping up her tiny one-eyed dog from his resting place on one of the throw pillows. "Bebe's about to take down a fiendish destroyer of books. It's gonna be awesome."
Pancake snorted and gazed up at her, looking vaguely put out. Leah liked to say Pancake, who she'd rescued two Thanksgivings ago from a local shelter, was a blend of breeds and therefore "a beautiful representation of the mixed-race experience—just like us." I was pretty sure, however, that he was one-hundred percent long-haired Chihuahua with the diva temperament to match.
As we neared the café area, I heard the dreaded customer before I saw him.
"—and as I keep saying, I barely
dribbled anything on this book, so I don't understand why I should have to pay for it. I wasn't even considering purchasing it, merely perusing." The voice was pinched, nasal, and had the entitled air of someone who likes himself a whole, whole lot.
"Frustrated novelist grad student who ordered one latte and then sat here for three hours siphoning off the wi-fi?" I said to Leah.
"Four hours," she corrected. "And do not
ask him about his Saved by the Bell
tee, he doesn't even own a television. Or any devices with streaming capacity, apparently. The shirt is meant to be—"
"—ironic," I finished. "Of fucking course."
We rounded the corner and walked through the arched entrance that led into the café, a sunny space with mismatched thrift store tables and chairs. There was a handy garage door-style metal barricade that could be pulled down between the café and the bookstore area, but we hardly ever used it.
The customer in question stood over Charlotte, his long, spindly arms gesticulating expansively to make his point. Thankfully, most of the regulars had cleared out for the day. The only other people witnessing this unfortunate display were Nemesis Nicole, who was buried in a book from one of the shelves she'd ransacked, and Sam Fujikawa, my other best friend, who was sitting with a cute redhead clad in a gingham dress with a rockabilly flair. Sam and the redhead were probably on a date. Sam was always
on a date. As Leah and I walked in, Sam caught my eye and raised an eyebrow at the increasingly loud customer.Bzzzzzzz
My phone vibrated against my hip again, and I jumped a little.Goddammit, Evie, I'm
working. Don't you have someone else's dreams to crush?
When I got home, I'd just tell her my phone died. That would piss her off even more.I've told you a kazillion times to plug it in during your shift
, she'd say. What if there's an emergency?You never let me help when there's an emergency
, I retorted in my head. So what's the point?
"I'm pretty sure you have no official policy that requires people to purchase damaged books anyway," the customer continued, giving Charlotte a piercing stare over the frames of his wire-rim glasses. "And if you do, it really should be posted somewhere."
"That's true," Charlotte mumbled, her eyes wandering to the floor. Despite her status as one of the city's most successful businesswomen, Charlotte maintained an air of mopey moroseness at all times. She'd only recently started going by "Charlotte" after her business manager suggested it sounded more serious and intimidating than her nickname, Letta. I'd hoped the Charlotte upgrade would make her feel
more intimidating. But so far, it hadn't changed her demeanor. When it came to difficult customers, she still preferred the path of least resistance. Which meant she was two seconds from giving in and letting this guy get away with blatant book besmirching.
Well, no matter. That's why she had Leah and me. She'd had the good sense to promote Leah to store manager two years ago, and it was usually Leah who interfaced with people looking for book recs or cheerful conversation while Charlotte was off tending to her bakery empire. But for the difficult customers . . . well, my unique skill set tended to be more useful.
"Excuse me," I said loudly. I shot Charlotte a look, like, I got this
. She gave me a grateful head bob and shuffled to the side.
The customer turned and sized me up, his eyes narrowing. He was tall and skinny and had kind of an Ichabod Crane thing going on. I watched his expression soften into amusement as he took me in: the neon hair; the black lace slip dress, ratty cardigan, and purple ankle boots; the excessive eyeliner. My aesthetic was somewhere in the realm of "cartoon character in a state of goth rebellion," and I knew he'd decided in an instant that he didn't need to take me seriously.
That's cool. When it comes to stuff like this, being underestimated works in my favor.
"Excuse me," I repeated. "I understand we've got a damaged book situation?"
"I wouldn't exactly call it damaged." Ichabod Lite nodded at the table he was standing next to, which held an empty coffee cup and a very soggy paperback. "Just got a little coffee on it," he said with an overly casual shrug. "I'm sure it'll be fine once it dries out."
"Huh." I stepped forward and leaned down to examine the book, gently lifting the cover away from the pages, as if I were a medical examiner on a primetime crime drama. The poor paperback was definitely a lost cause. The pages were barely maintaining structural integrity.
I straightened up and looked Ichabod Lite in the eye. "Looks pretty damaged to me."
He shrugged again. "Maybe it was like that before?"
I cocked an eyebrow. "Or maybe you got a little too excited reading about . . ." I snuck another glance at the cover. "Sexy wereporcupine shifters."
As he sputtered, I reached deep into my mind, focused, and finally did what I'd come in here to do.
I decided to start with a positive feeling. The joy he'd likely felt reading such a delicious book, the joy he was ashamed to express because it conflicted with his too-cool-for-school image. I felt that joy deep in my veins, focused on it, then turned it up until it was thrumming through my entire being. Then I gave him a bright smile and sent pure joy
spinning in his direction. When I first project a feeling at someone, I usually start with a softball—like I'm an aromatherapy candle, here to gently change your mood with my delicious aura of pumpkin spice.
I saw it hit. He stopped sputtering, then frowned and shook his head, like he was trying to get free.
Oh, no, little man. You can't get free of me.
"I . . . I . . . I'm sure I would never get anywhere close to excited reading such trash
," he finally managed.
"Oh, you did not
," Leah hissed behind me. "Do not insult the wereporcupine shifters, you condescending, misogynist, genre-snob garbage can
." Pancake growled. I held up a hand to stop both of them from charging Ichabod.
"And I definitely don't want to buy
trash." Ichabod Lite paused and shook his head again. His voice was disdainful, but his face was overtaken by an ear-to-ear grin. The contrast made for a ghoulish effect. I projected joy just a little bit harder. "What the hell?" he exclaimed. "Why can't I stop smiling?"
I rolled my neck and let out a deep exhale. 'Cause I've got you in my clutches, duh
. But Ichabod Lite was clearly naturally resistant to joy and would therefore require extra wrangling. Some people need more adjusting than others. Like they have to be overwhelmed with that pumpkin spice goodness until they can't think of anything but Halloween and cozy sweaters. With extra difficult customers, I had to try projecting a few different emotions before one took strong enough hold to actually change their minds.
Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Kuhn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.