Muhammed's hands shook violently, threatening to spill the contents of his coffee mug. He wasn't even sure that he liked Mochas anymore, but here he was, ordering from habit. A frothy, foamy sip told him the truth. Caramel Macchiatos had displaced Mochas in his coffee hierarchy, but it was too late now. The light flickered, and the man looked up to catch a face peering through the window. He forced a smile and beckoned with the hand not cradling the oversized mug to his visitor to join him. At the same time, he caught his reflection in the glass. Dark brown eyes stared back at him beneath thick eyebrows and permanent concentration wrinkles across his forehead.
The coffee shop was small and sparsely populated for the inner city, meaning that customers occupied every seat except the one that he had had the foresight to save by placing his laptop bag upon it. He exhaled slowly, blowing a floating cloud of steam away with his breath. Then, because beggars can't be choosers, he pulled the drink to his lips and took a scalding sip, getting just enough fluid to cool off in his mouth and remembering the first time he'd tried the drink.
Night had fallen early in the quiet Texas college town, but he and his school friends had been hesitant to give up the lingering evening and so had migrated from band practice over to a nearby coffee shop. Like he always did, Baxter sat on the table with a group of apostles gathered around, listening to the stories he effortlessly wove. None of them minded his frequent meanderings from the truth because those little sprinkles always made the stories better. Muhammed could see in his mind the traces of the cherry of Baxter's cigarette as it flowed through the air, mesmerizing them all.
Then the door to the coffee shop opened, and the pressure changed in the room. At least half of the occupants stopped whatever they were engaged in to witness Baxter Toole pouncing through the door like a new puppy. The man laughed his way across the gathered people as he approached. Even after what had happened, the man seemed nonchalant, as though the entire world existed outside of him.
"Moe, how are you? It's good to see you, man!" Baxter meant it, and Muhammed knew he did. That was another trait that Baxter had, but Muhammed only stared at him at first, looking for something he didn't recognize - a sign that the brief conversation Baxter's mother had had with Muhammed the day before held some modicum of truth. Muhammed took a deep breath and forced a smile.
"Bax. It has been a very long time."
"Too long, friend."
The barista, undoubtedly attracted to Baxter's glowing smile (as most people were), made her way to their table. She'd ignored Muhammed when he walked in, and he'd had to buy his coffee at the counter like everyone else. But, there had been a line then, and now with the tables all occupied and the lunch rush nearly over, the line had evaporated.
"Coffee. Black," Baxter told the woman, shining all of his pearly whites at her. Muhammed stifled a chuckle as the Bax-shine took did its work, and she smiled right back. Such was his way. "It's good to see you," Baxter repeated his words to Muhammed as the woman went away. Muhammed couldn't see the man from the video, face screwed up in anger while hammerfisting a man who'd been trapped in a half-open door. In that face, he didn't see the man who had left a person crippled and nearly dying on the ground.
When he saw the video the first time, he had thought the man looked kind of like Baxter. But Baxter lived here, on the west coast. They'd both flown out to the west coast for job interviews in big tech, and both had landed their respective jobs. When they'd first arrived, he and Baxter had even been roommates. Muhammed tilted his head to try a different angle, but the man before him still looked like his lifelong friend. He tapped the side of his coffee mug with the tip of his index finger.
"Thanks for coming, Bax. Your mother asked me to talk to you."
Those words came out of his mouth too fast; Muhammed could tell by the rapidity with which Baxter's grin evaporated.
"Sure. What about?"
As though he didn't know, and so convincing.
Muhammed got a flash then of a time that they'd rolled wiring spokes across a grassy field. He'd struggled to stay upright on top of it, trying to keep up with Baxter, who was a natural at almost everything. Baxter had stayed up, but Muhammed had gone down in front. He remembered that second before the wooden structure knocked him flat and crushed his left leg in the process. The feeling of what he was about to do seemed to match that moment, only this time, he pushed, and Baxter had already fallen but refused to admit it.
"This Q thing that you're involved in. She's worried."
"Oh, man, have you been paying attention to that? The insights that guy has are unreal."
Baxter's tone implied a familiarity that Muhammed wanted to believe. The reality was that the more he spoke, the less Muhammed could convince himself that he ever knew Baxter.
"She wants you to call her, Bax. She wants to know the truth."
"Seriously. What about?"
Muhammed turned his own forming words over in his head. How could he tell this man, lover of life who celebrated everything that the earth had to offer, that his mother knew he'd been in Washington D.C. on January 6th? Muhammed stared into Baxter's expectant gaze, searching for the boy he'd known who had stayed by his side, screaming for nearly an hour until adults showed up to help unpin Muhammed from beneath the wire spool. The eyes were the same color, the sandy-brown hair still not made, easy smiles. All of these were present, and then suddenly, he saw it—a tiny shimmer behind Baxter's eyes.
"She found your ticket stub."
The barista returned and placed the coffee gently on the table in front of Baxter. She smiled at Baxter, and Muhammed noticed that she stood there a moment until Baxter dismissed her with a smile of his own. Strange how he had that effect on people. Muhammed lowered his voice to a whisper.
"Round-trip, January 5th through 7th. Remember? You told her you were going on a business trip to San Francisco. Were you in that mob? The FBI showed up at her house asking. She says that you don't return her phone calls anymore."
A long string of accusations was not likely to get Baxter to open up, but those were the words that came out of his mouth.
"This is me, Muhammed. What do you think?"
Muhammed's instinct said of course not. Then again, he hadn't expected the call from Baxter's mother either.
"It's all over the news still, Bax. Some people call it the QAnon Insurrection. Were you there?"
"Listen, Moe. The election was stolen from us. It's the deep state. I don't get why more people - smart people, don't see this for what it is. The insurrection has been underway for years, and nobody seems to care. It's like people are zombies. Look around."
Humoring him, Muhammed spot-checked multiple people in the coffee shop, and he could see why someone might call them zombies. They were on phones or drinking coffee absently, even staring blankly out into the street, careful to not-see the homeless veteran directly in their line of vision. But he knew that each one had a life, and there were actual people on the other end of their social media feeds and text messages. He knew that some people, like him, had already given money to the veteran outside. To him and so many others, this coffee shop was a temporary oasis out of a frantic life.
He shook his head as he turned back to Baxter, about to report what he felt when he saw the shimmer again. That far-off look was in Baxter's eyes now like he'd been in an armed conflict, and shell-shock had just set in.
And despite Muhammed's conviction not to react, he felt hostility rise hissing out of his mouth like steam.
"Stop with the QAnon stuff, Baxter. This is serious - not one of those bullshit conspiracy theories. The FBI came to your house. Your mother is scared for you."
"It's not bullshit, Moe. Listen to Q - you'll learn some things."
Baxter's smile was gone. In its place was a contorted grimace with eyes furrowed and hostility oozing out, all directed at Muhammed. Then, as quickly as it came, the look faded, and Baxter continued as though nothing happened.
"When did you all stop trusting me? I'm not an idiot. Would it hurt to listen to Q and try to understand?"
"I have heard his rantings. Global child trafficking rings? Eating babies? Seems reasonable to you?"
"Ever heard of Agent Orange? The Manhattan Project? The government gets up to no good all the time."
The government. Muhammed thought on that a bit. The way Baxter said it suggested that some foreign country had invaded and supplanted their leaders with someone other than whom they had all (Baxter included) elected. That, or pod people.
"Call your mother."
"No. And you don't either. I don't need you meddling in my life, Moe. Not if you can't at least try to see it my way."
"But your way is wrong!"
Baxter stood up so quickly that his thighs hit the table shook their drinks, sending ripples through them. The rapidity of the motion sparked another memory in Muhammed. This time it was Baxter between him and a large, vicious dog. Fearless and resolute, the pair squared off, neither giving an inch until the animal, at least part American Bulldog, turned and made its way back into a back alley. Sauntering, as if to say it hadn't been beaten but had grown bored with the game.
Muhammed slowly stood, keeping eye contact with Baxter the entire time.
"Bax, we want you back."
"Stay out of my business, Moe."
Two police officers in dark blue uniforms chimed their way into the store and made their way directly to where Muhammed sat. Each stood to either side of Baxter, poised slightly behind him. The look on his face turned from unbridled fury into helplessness as his shoulders slumped and his eyes turned down.
"So this is why you asked me here?"
"Your mother is worried for you. She wants her son back."
Baxter turned, and as the officer reached for his arm, he yanked it away, but he still went, sloughing his way toward the exit. Muhammed lifted his coffee to his lips, using its warm scent to try to steady his nerves before he remembered that it was still Mocha. Disgusted with himself for even ordering the nostalgic beverage, he set it back down. Muhammed watched someone he no longer recognized being escorted out into the police vehicle. He then shot off a quick text message to Baxter's mother.