The soft glow of early morning sunlight filters through my parted curtains to highlight the dust motes that gently drift to the floor, gracing the carpet fibers like fresh snow. I can’t help but shiver beneath my thick purple comforter at the thought of stepping outside into the chilly December wind. Contemplating the weather reminds me of the wonderful things I get to enjoy during the colder seasons. I melt at the prospect of wrapping my fingers around a hot mug, steam rising from the savory liquid within, breathing in the warmth and fragrance of the delicious roasted blend.
I reluctantly crawl out of bed, wrapping myself tighter in my comforter and dragging the excess behind me as I head to the kitchen. Thankfully, the timer on the coffee maker has already triggered the appliance to brew a full pot, and I pour myself a beautiful, aromatic mug full. I have just enough of my hands poking out of my comforter to grasp the ceramic handle, and I focus all my concentration on balancing the brimming mug until I can reach the breakfast table and set it down. I bare my teeth in a wide grimace as my hand tips a bit too far to the right and a few drops tumble to the floor. I’m grateful to have tile in the kitchen; it means an easier clean up before work. Sitting at the table, I sigh contentedly. The comforter, the coffee, the cozy chair—this is what winter is all about. All it’s missing is a good book and half a dozen cake donuts.
I raise the mug to my lips, stopping just an inch away to breathe in the heart-warming heat that I know is about to burn my throat in the most enjoyable pain imaginable. Just before I can take that first tantalizing sip, my phone rings. Setting my mug down carefully, I glance at the caller ID before answering.
“Morning, Steph,” I say warmly, greeting my friend on the other end of the line.
“Jackie! I’m so glad you’re alive!” A strange sound emanated through the speaker. Is Stephanie crying? Or laughing? My mind isn’t functional enough this early in the morning to distinguish the difference.
“Of course I’m alive,” I respond, unsure if I should be laughing or worried. “Is there a reason I shouldn’t be?” Every second that passes is one more second I’m not drinking my delicious coffee, and I feel an unfamiliar impatience, accompanied by an ill-intended irritation that I normally don’t harbor toward Stephanie. I absentmindedly run a finger along the edge of my mug as the steam from my morning caffeine boost swirls hypnotically, beckoning me to partake of the hot beverage. I consider giving in, until a knock at the door interrupts my preoccupation.
“It’s just me. Unlock the door, please,” Stephanie begs through the phone. An echo of her words permeates the door, and now I can hear for sure the panic in her voice. I quickly dismiss her frantic behavior and sigh for the second time in five minutes, the trigger now being disappointment and longing for my lonely mug of coffee. There it sits, neglected—abandoned on the table. It’s slowly cooling off; I can tell by the steadily decreasing output of steam. Probably feeling unwanted. Surely poor Joe, alone in my mug, needs me more than Stephanie?
My door opens and my friend jumps on me, throwing her arms around my neck and soaking my comforter in salty tears. The smell of chocolate milk on her breath is more frustrating than her wet cheeks, because it only serves to remind me that she has already enjoyed her morning beverage; do I not deserve the same chance? Not wanting to physically hurt the woman who has been my best friend for over ten years, I gently but firmly remove her arms from my shoulders and lower them to her sides as I take a step back. I catch my comforter before it slips beyond my waist and pull it back up over my shoulders and wrap it around my chest.
“Look, I can tell something is wrong. It’s obvious. Just give me five minutes with my coffee, and I’ll be ready to listen to whatever it is that’s upsetting you.”
“You didn’t drink any yet, did you?” She looks past me to the table, her eyes narrowing on my mug. Without another word, she sidles around my bulky, comforter-encased figure and in one swift motion, catches her hand on the edge of the mug and swipes it off the table. The glazed ceramic flies across the room, smashes into the wall, and shatters, saturating the white paint in a watery brown and raining shards of mug across the living room carpet.
“What the hell?!” I shout. All I can manage is to stare at the wall and watch as each sad drop that hits the floor recites a eulogy for Joe, who died alone and untasted.
“I take it you haven’t turned on the news this morning.” She sounds shocked and relieved. “You’re lucky. Here, look.” The TV newscaster’s tone of voice attacks me before I see his judgmental face on the screen.
[And again I urge you, if you have bought any brand of coffee from Foodway, please bring it back to the store, where the police and FDA have set up a collection tent. They will dispose of the poisonous batch safely; they will be there until the end of next week.]
“It’s on every channel.”
[Thank you, Joan. Yes, I’m here at Foodway where the epidemic seems to have started. You can already see the bustle of angry customers returning their packages, and it does appear to have affected every brand on the shelves. The officers present are refusing to comment, with the only public statement being that no other stores seem to have this issue. If you bought your coffee here, it is imperative that you do NOT brew or consume this coffee.]
My curiosity supercedes my anger, and I realize I’m standing in the center of the living room with my jaw hanging open. I glance back at the stain where the mug hit the wall and feel a wave of resentment wash over me, directed at Stephanie. Frowning, I shake my head and look back toward the TV, and the feeling passes.
“I need my morning coffee,” I say aloud. I don’t want to look at Stephanie, just in case my anger really does return.
“I know, and that’s fine. Get dressed, okay? I’ll take you up to the coffee shop on the corner of First and Maynor, but you can’t drink what you have here. It’s doing weird things to people. Making them angry. Making them…different. You don’t want to see the firsthand accounts they got live footage of.”
She stands in front of me and searches my features, presumably for signs of understanding. As if I’m too coffee-deprived to have gathered the intent behind her words. I don’t speak my thoughts, but in my mind, I scream at her. Yes, woman, you’re concerned. Yes, I’m angry. Chill; it’s just coffee.
Her close proximity forces me to make eye contact. It’s uncomfortable, and I remove the comforter to keep cool against the rising heat my blood is circulating throughout my body. The oscillation of anger and hate rises above my confusion, and I have a hard time thinking straight. I know that this need for coffee can’t possibly be logical, and yet it seems to be the only logical thought I’ve ever had. My friendship for Stephanie wages war against my malicious reverie, but it only succeeds in furthering my confusion.
“Jackie…people died. And not from drinking the coffee…from running out.”
My brow sinks down as my frown deepens. A tear strolls down her cheek, seeking liberation from the pain and heartbreak her eyes reflect. Seeing my friend hurting so badly somehow seems to clear my mind, and I detect traces of sanity returning, clearing the fog of caffeine deprivation. My body temperature returns to normal, and in my moment of lucidity, I realize what I have done.
I hadn’t even felt my hands move. I hadn’t considered their swift reaching, their firm grasping, or their immediate stabbing. Looking down, I see one of my kitchen knives protruding from Stephanie’s stomach. Blood courses down the blade, coating my hands, which still hold the handle of the long bread knife.
I take a step back, leaving the knife in place. Streams of dark blood dance down the serrated metal edge and trickle to the floor. I stare, captivated by the mesmerizing dripping and the melodic splashing as the pool of blood grows at her feet. She doesn’t say a word, just falls backwards, crashing into the coffee table and landing on her side on the carpet with a sickening thud. The sound brings me back to reality yet again, and nausea slams into me, sending me reeling for the kitchen sink. I heave and heave, but only manage to eject burning bile.
Wiping my mouth on the back of my hand, I reach over for the dish towel when I see the coffee maker, still turned on and still keeping another three mugs worth of coffee nice and hot. The last thought that crosses my sane mind is a fleeting, frantic discerning between conscious want and infectious greed. Everything after that is blurred by caffeine and sweet, sweet coffee.
This short story was inspired by a writing prompt. The prompt was:
Write a story in which something extremely un-scary is terrorizing a small town.
If this story or prompt inspired you, let me know in the comments!