9. Crystal clear and present danger

“I couldn’t be any clearer.” The tavern’s day manager slapped her hand on the table in front of Donna. “The salt goes into the white bowls. The pepper goes into the black ones.”

Donna’s hands shook and she spilled a few grains of salt on the table. The manager glared at her and Donna put the paper sack down before she spilled any more.

“I thought that the white salt looked better in the black bowl,” she said. “Because of the contrast.”

The manager lifted her hand and peered at the table surface, then touched it with her fingers. “The table is still sticky. Did you even wash it?”

“I thought I washed it, I swear.” Donna clutched her hands to her bosom and bit her lip.

“Stop biting your lip. Just redo the shakers. When you’re done, wash the tables again and try to get it done before dinner starts.” The manager glanced out the window. The King’s Arms was located across the street from the central square, kitty corner from the city hall with its giant mechanical clock. “We’ve got a couple of hours.”

Donna wiped a tear. “Should I pour the salt back into the bag, then pour the pepper back in the bag, then pour it back out again into new bowls? Or should I pour the poured pepper into the empty white bowls, then I’ll have more empty black bowls, and can pour the pepper into those and…”

“I don’t care.” The manager straightened up and walked past the bar, where she barked an order at the bartender, then into the kitchen, where she began yelling at the cooks. Then the kitchen door closed and Donna couldn’t hear the yelling any more.

She sighed. Should she pour the salt back? Maybe she should pour the pepper, first. She put the bag of salt down and picked up the open bag of pepper and started emptying the white bowls back into it. The black pepper looked much better showcased against the white stoneware. The manager was wrong. It threw off all the energy.

When she had her own shop, she would be sure to balance the yin and yang of different elements.

She poured the pepper back into the bag and a cloud of it rose into the air. She sneezed and spilled some on the floor.

The kitchen door was still closed. The manager didn’t see her. She brushed the spilled pepper onto the floor and went back to pouring.

“Hello?” A customer opened the door, poked his head in, and looked around. A little early for dinner but people arrived at Krim at all hours of day and night. He looked familiar.

“Oh, my God, I finally found you!”

And Donna remembered where she’d seen him before.

“You look more handsome than last time.” She stood up and wiped her hands on the front of her apron.

“Right. I’m Mitchell.” Mitchell stood in the doorway. “I paid extra for an avatar upgrade. But I don’t want to come in. I have the plague and I think I might be contagious. I just wanted to stop by and thank you for being nice the other night.”

“Did Einstein get you back to the gate safely?”

“Kind of.”

“Oh, no, what happened? Were you hurt?”

“No, no, nothing like that.” Mitchell waved his hand. “Just took a more direct way off the grid than I expected. But you know me, nothing phases me.”

“That’s good.”

“Yes.”

“So.”

“So.”

“Well.”

Mitchell leaned against the doorframe and put his hands in his pockets. “I didn’t realize that you worked here.”

“I wanted to work somewhere that didn’t profit from the murder of animals.” Donna pointed at the menu. “The King’s Arms only sells alcoholic beverages and bar snacks.”

Mitchell followed her gaze. “Fried skirrets. Pickled skirrets. Pickled beets. Chicken wings?”

Donna leaned in and lowered her voice. “They’re vegan wings. But I’m not supposed to tell the customers because it would be bad for business. They’re actually made of tofu.”

“Tofu? Really? That’s so clever. I didn’t know they had tofu in England in the 1500s.”

“The owner says they did. He said he might also be adding ribs to the menu. And they’ll be made of tofu as well.”

“Wow!”

“I know! I feel like I’m making a real difference here.”

Donna looked back at the salt and pepper. Maybe if arranged all the bowls nicely, the managers would see.

“Anyway, I brought you a present.” Mitchell dug into his shirt. “I remember you said you liked crystals.” He took out a black velvet cloth and unwrapped it. “I got one for you.”

Donna took the quartz and held it up to the light. “I love it. I can feel the positive energy exuding from it.” She turned it in her hand. “And it feels much more harmonious than the other one I got.”

She dug around in her apron pocket and pulled out her stones. “This is jasper, it’s for power. The citrine is for optimism.” She held up a purple stone. “This is an amethyst. It’s for sincerity. And this is a moonstone. It’s for inner growth.” She picked up another stone. “This one is clear quartz, like yours.”

The other stone was at least twice the size of Mitchell’s, shaped like a pyramid.

Mitchell frowned.

“I know,” Donna said. “I see it too.” She held up the larger stone to the light. “There’s a nasty crack running through the middle of it. It totally ruins the crystal’s balance. It’s useless for healing. I like your stone much better.”

Mitchell peered at the stone.

She traced out the fault line. Well, two lines, actually, in the shape of an “x.” Or maybe the letter “k” or a slightly uneven “h.”

It was so hard to find people who really understood the value of healing crystals. Mitchell must be a truly sensitive soul.

Except for his clothes, of course.

“Did you know you’re wearing leather?”

“What?” Mitchell looked down at himself. “Oh, yes. I was really cold last time. I wanted to dress more appropriately for the weather.”

“Do you know how many animals were killed for your coat and boots?”

“What? They’re default avatar clothes. Doesn’t the computer just generate them?”

She reached out and touched his coat. “It feels like real leather, not imitation.”

“Yes, but…”

“Can’t you feel the dark energy? You’re wearing the skin of a dead animal. Probably a poor, helpless cow. Cows have souls too, you know.”

“Even here, on Krim?”

“Of course.”

“I didn’t know that.” Mitchell looked down. “Uhh, listen, I wanted to ask you.” He looked up at her. “Would you like to have dinner with me sometime? A real dinner, back home? I mean, not real, I mean, you know…”

“You mean, in the physical world?”

“You could… I don’t know, you could rent a body, maybe? Or maybe we could go to a restaurant that has an online menu. Like McMeaty’s.” He stopped and flushed. “I mean, not McMeaty’s. Anything but McMeaty’s.”

“I’m sorry, but Krim is my home now. I think I’m making a real difference here.” Donna pointed at the menu, then at the table with the salt and pepper. “They need me.”

Mitchell shifted from foot to foot, not saying anything. Then he nodded and turned away.

Donna stood in the doorway as he walked, shoulder slumped, across the street. He didn’t even look for traffic. A donkey bit in the air next to his ear and he didn’t even flinch.

Mitchell was right about himself. He clearly didn’t let anything bother him. Maybe she was wrong to turn down dinner. He was thoughtful and kind, and maybe if he stopped wearing leather…

Mitchell stepped on the opposite sidewalk and looked back at her. She raised her hand to wave when a horse-drawn coach blocked her view. It rolled a little way down the street and stopped. Mitchell was still there.

Donna waved at him and he waved back when a large woman in armor came up to him and grabbed him by the back of the neck. Her voice was loud and carried easily during the mid-afternoon lull.

“Are you the guy who’s been going around asking everyone about a crystal?”

Donna didn’t hear what Mitchell said in response before the woman dragged him away.

But it was nice to know that other people cared about crystals on Krim. If Mitchell ever came back, she’d asking him to introduce her to his friend. Maybe she could be a customer when Donna opened her crystal shop.

Donna closed the door, turned around, and jumped.

“Am I going to have to fire you?” the manager yelled in her face. “Salt. Pepper. Tables.” She pushed Donna towards the tables. “And do it the right way.”

Donna glanced out the window as she sat down. The carriage was gone and so was Mitchell. She reached into her apron pocket and touched the crystals. She could feel them calling out to others of their kind. The universe would provide. She would have her own shop. She was sure of it.

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