Frankie has never been to the bookshop.
She'd asked about it, once, and her mom had just said they didn't sell any books there. Frankie had been seven, and so she wanted to ask a million questions, but they'd had to do things right then and her mom had shushed her.
Now, though, she was twelve. And Mr. Fell's bookshop was a cool place for kids to hang out and say they're doing homework and then get absolutely no homework done, and all her friends wanna go there.
"Are they open?" Brayden asked, trying to peer over Kiersten's shoulder.
"Don't you guys come here all the time?" Frankie asked. "Look, the lights are on, there's people in there, let's just go in."
She walked around her friends and pushed on the door. It refused to budge. She frowned. She tried again.
"It won't open unless you read the sign," Reuben said. "It's been math problems for like, a month and a half now. Changes every day."
"Look," Neveah said. "You solve the problem, you learn the opening hours. But the door doesn't unlock until you solve it. That's just how it works."
"It's super stupid," Brayden muttered.
Frankie pushed her way through to see the sign, and sure enough, it had math problems in place of actual opening hours, and listed the store as closed on Mondays through Wednesdays. Around it were other, equally strange signs. 'We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.' 'NO PARANORMAL INVESTIGATORS-- STRICT ENFORCEMENT.' Old book quotes that looked like they had been printed out off a typewriter and taped there. An eclectic mix of newspaper clippings that went back centuries. Random old photos. An info sheet about proper duck diets. Several different pride flag stickers, in addition to the big one flying up above the door.
She kept coming back to the math problems. They looked hard. Or at the very least, time-consuming.
"That's so stupid," she repeated.
Reuben huffed and got out his phone and started typing. "Yeah, especially 'cuz it's at my grade level. They don't teach this stuff in year seven; you guys are lucky that I'm here."
"What?" Kiersten said. "Yeah, they do. We literally did problems exactly like this today."
"Oh yeah?" he asked. "So you'd be able to simply that expression? All on your own?"
"It's literally an equation, dumbass," Brayden said.
"It doesn't have an equal sign."
"Yes it does."
"No it doesn't."
"What the frick are you guys talking about? It's a long division problem," Frankie said.
"Guys..." Kiersten said, eyes wide. "What if we're all seeing different problems? And it's changing for each of us, but like, in our minds?"
Neveah huffed a word that Frankie didn't quite get.
"This is dumb," Reuben said, and he pulled up his phone's camera and took a photo of the sign. Kiersten did the same, and the kids all crowded around to examine the two phones.
They were silent for a long time.
Then came the outraged yelling.
"We've been standing outside for literally three hours and every problem just says 'math'?!"
All in all, it took the children another four minutes of anger before they could calm down enough to focus. Then Neveah solved the problem, and she was able to open the door.
Mr. Fell barely looked up from his book as five grumbling middle schoolers stalked in from the cold, slamming down backpacks and textbooks.
If a couple of them shot glares his way, he didn't notice.
And, well. Mr. Fell had hot cocoa and cookies laid out, and stupid math riddle entry or no, it was still better than going to the local library, or-- Heaven forbid-- one of their houses.
Despite the inherent horribleness of having to do math that wasn't even for school or homework, Frankie and her friends became regulars at the bookshop, for a few hours in the afternoon, on school days when it was open (those changed sometimes). It was nice. It was pleasant.
Mr. Fell was also nice.
Sometimes an old man dressed like a goth would show up and hang out with him. Mr. Fell said that was Mr. Crowley, 'an old business associate,' whatever that meant.
Frankie had told her family all about the weird bookstore with its terrible math door. Her mom had pursed her lips and said she shouldn't get mixed up with things she didn't understand, that the fae were dangerous. But her nan had just laughed and said she didn't know where her mother had gotten that.
"Don't you listen to her," she'd said. "Mr. Fell is good people. There are good fae and there are bad fae, Frankie, just like people. You be kind to him, and he'll be kind to you."
"Mum, if she gets abducted into the faerie realm, I'm holding you personally responsible," Frankie's mum had said.
"Oh, nonsense," her nan had waved that off. "It's perfectly safe. That man has been protecting this community for longer than you or I have been alive, Julia, I won't have you slandering his good name."
Her mother had frowned. "Don't eat the food there," she said. "Or drink anything, or-- so help me God-- take something. You might not be able to leave again."
So now Frankie brought her own snacks. Mr. Fell didn't seem to mind, as long as she didn't try to touch the books, which were off limits. But her other friends drank the cocoa and ate whatever pastry was there that day, and they seemed fine.
None of them had ever made the mistake of touching a book, though, and Frankie had a sneaking suspicion that that was a much more important rule than not eating the food.
Right now, the kids were doing homework, mostly of the social studies variety, and Mr. Fell was reading at his desk, while Mr. Crowley sat in an obnoxious sprawl in the comfiest armchair, frowning at an old smartphone.
"Hey, Mr. Fell, do you know what caused the Great Depression?" Brayden asked.
Last week, they had discovered that mentioning which book they were reading in class caused Mr. Fell to light up. Almost literally, Kiersten swore. Since then, the children had all decided he was a very good source for homework help, so long as you were willing to listen to a rant about his personal opinions on any given piece of literature.
"Hmm. It was credit cards, wasn't it?" Mr. Fell said, turning to Mr. Crowley.
"Nah, I think Mammon just got pi--"
The door to the bookshop slammed open and knocked into the wall, the bells over it jangling harshly. A woman ran through almost too fast for Frankie to see her, dodging past the stacks until she was out of sight.
Mr. Fell and Mr. Crowley were on their feet in an instant.
The woman was crying, sobbing-- the kids could hear her, clearly, pleading for something and saying sorry over and over while Mr. Fell talked softly.
Frankie felt frozen in her seat. She looked around, and her friends seemed to be in the same position, eyes wide and bodies motionless.
A man appeared outside the door and tried to shove it open. It stayed shut, and Frankie could hear him swear even through the glass, snarling and shouting threats and slamming his hand against it, over and over. He was cursing up a storm, words she had never even heard before.
Mr. Crowley stalked over to the door, looking fluid and sinister. Frankie had never even thought to be afraid of him before, but now, she thought, that man probably should be.
Frankie blinked her eyes open, raising her head off her textbook. The page stayed stuck to her cheek until she twitched it off.
She frowned. She was at home, in the kitchen. Her homework was open in front of her, pencil just off to the side, the next problem waiting to be filled in. Everything was exactly how it had been two minutes ago, except the location. But... she hadn't dreamed that. She hadn't imagined being in Mr. Fell's shop.
She pulled out her phone and started texting.